Thursday, 19 March 2015

Superhero Retrospective

Late last year I facilitated my first superhero themed retrospective. It was an unusual situation in that I was asked to run a single retrospective session for a team that I had never met before. The team were between project phases in a waterfall development environment, but wished to use a retrospective to take the lessons learned from the first phase of the project to apply in the second. They were rumoured to be a challenging group, so I was quite nervous about getting them to interact constructively.

Given this context, I felt that the introduction was very important to lay the foundation for a positive environment. I started by introducing myself and asking the team to introduce themselves. I explained the purpose of a retrospective and shared the specific objective of the session. Then I set clear expectations that each person in the room would contribute their ideas, and that their contributions would be honest, constructive, specific, timely and impersonal.

Earlier that week I had read a slide deck on Team Driven Improvement with Retrospectives by Rachel Davies and particularly liked the idea of a superhero retrospective [Slide 40]. I decided to use this exact exercise for the first half of the session, which I wanted to focus on collection of information about previous experiences.

I asked the retrospective participants to self-organise into smaller groups of three people and reflect on the work that the entire project team had completed in the first phase.  Each group of three was given a large piece of paper, some coloured markers, and an instruction sheet that read:

Draw your own superhero

In your group, sketch your team as a superhero

What are your:
  • Super powers?
  • Weak points?
  • Who do you need as a sidekick?

I allowed 15 minutes for each group to create a poster sized display that reflected their ideas. The superhero construct was quickly understood with Superman being a good example for a super power (flying) and a weak point (kryptonite), while Batman and Robin helped to clarify the role of a sidekick.

The resulting posters reflected diversity in visualisation of ideas and the hidden creativity of the team, but had some consistent themes in the underlying information:


I asked each group to elect a spokesperson who then displayed their poster on the wall and presented the thoughts of their group back to the wider team. The audience were instructed to remain silent as the spokesperson shared their thoughts. I didn't want the presenters to feel attacked, which I thought may be a possibility given the environment as it had been explained to me. I only asked for questions in between each speaker.

Once all the posters had been explained, then I opened discussion for the team to debate and expand on the ideas. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive conversation that emerged.

For the second half of the session I wanted to switch the focus from reflection to improvement. I believe this is a common approach to retrospectives, to balance thinking about the past with looking forward to the future. I indicated this mental shift not just in verbal explanation but also by asking the team to self-organise into entirely different groups of three for the second activity.

I decided to continue the superhero theme and provided post-it notes with a second instruction sheet that read:

Creating a sidekick
Choose a poster that is not your own
Discuss how you might create the sidekick
Identify actions that the team could take to fulfil this need
As a group, choose the top 3 actions from your list
Write each of these on a post-it note

Again I allowed 15 minutes for each group to work together. This exercise was intended to get people to constructively discuss an improvement idea that they weren't emotionally invested in, to think broadly about all the actions required to achieve the desired outcome, and then focus in on the important first steps towards that goal.

I found that the sidekick construct allowed the teams to think freely about what would help them, and how they could help themselves, to let their super powers shine. It was interesting to observe two groups pick a sidekick named 'time' and generate entirely different sets of ideas.

Once the groups had settled on their top three actions, a spokesperson from each came forward and read aloud what they had identified, then stuck their post-it notes on the wall. Some clear themes emerged, and duplicate post-it notes were grouped together. Once all the ideas were on the wall, I verbally summarised each set of actions to clarify and reiterate.

Next I asked the group to dot vote on which actions were most important to them. This process identified three clear favourites for the first actions towards change. It also meant that the remaining actions could easily be converted into a prioritised improvement backlog.

The superhero theme helped create familiarity in the process for a team who were inexperienced in performing retrospectives. By adding an element of fun, while providing clear written and verbal instructions, the team were much more comfortable contributing to discussion than I had expected. Further, the change in thinking from superhero to sidekick helped to reinforce the shift from past to future, creating a clear change in thinking. The superhero retrospective is a technique that I would like to use again.


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