Here I was, full time scrum mastering! There was time to plan mindful retrospectives targeted on what the team needed, it was total bliss. I’d been learning so much and this was an obvious way to put my learnings into practice and experiment with some new things. 

Here’s a couple of case studies of retrospectives I facilitated and why I targeted them the way I did.

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How to say no:

I was reading and learning about team impediments. It was tough to bubble something up because my team works well together, there’s a high level of trust. Then something occurred to me… Were we very polite? Too polite to say anything? What if they didn’t feel safe about disagreeing with each other? Or weren’t comfortable speaking up if they didn’t like what our product owner was saying?

In my last job before I joined the tech industry, I was a librarian. I did preschool story times, primary school class visits and outreach to kindergartens. I remembered a book I loved reading to the kids: A picture book called Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems.

It’s a book where a bus driver asks the reader to look after his bus while he goes on break. You have to make sure the pigeon doesn’t drive the bus. The pigeon immediately appears and asks to drive the bus. The reader has to say no to him. There’s no response printed in the book, only the pigeon’s arguments. It’s a great book for little kids because they all get to shout ‘no!’ at the book.

I used this book as an ice breaker at a retro with my squad. I got them to gather up in front of me so they could all see the pictures. I told them that this wasn’t an ordinary picture book. They’d need to interact with it, out loud.

It went down beautifully.

After shouting no at a pigeon the team felt energised, laughing. We went into a ‘what’s holding us back, what’s powering us forward?’ exercise and lots of stickies went up on the poster. People raised issues, complaints, but positive things as well. It was a very productive session.

At the end of the retro I read the book again. This time I asked the team to think of the pigeon as some imagined higher up. Someone getting in our way or pushing us to do things we didn’t want to do. The feedback was even better that time.

It was a release, they all got practice saying no and had a laugh in the process. I never underestimate the power of laughter. It brings a team together, it releases good, bonding chemicals in your brain and lets go of tension.

Teambuilding and Trust:

Everything I’ve been learning has been telling me that having a team who delivers fast and works well together, the team has to trust each other. Everything I’ve learned about how to build trust is that people have to know each other, have common ground. With this in mind I ran a retro on getting to know each other better. Shawn Achor’s talk on the Happy Secret to Better Work is a great reference point for this.

This retro was a two squad one, so bigger than normal. It included people who don’t work with each other, day to day. So to get to know each other better we’d want to go quite deep. I went searching for an article I’d read when it first came out in the New York times. It’s about the 36 questions which make people fall in love.

The idea is if you sit down with someone and ask them all 36 questions, by the end you will love them. That was a good place to start, right? I wrote some of these questions onto index cards, although not the intimate ones. I found some other, more generic get to know you questions as well and added those to cards.

Everyone in the team paired up and took some index cards. We spent about ten minutes asking each other questions and talking about the answers. Then each of us shared something we’d learned about our partner. It was exciting to see people finding common ground, and we learnt new things about each other.

My partner is a primary school teacher. When I mentioned to her that I wanted to do something to encourage more trust in the team. She suggested Bucket Filling. This is another idea from a picture book, Have you filled a bucket today? by Carol McCloudI didn’t read the book for this one, instead I got everyone to draw a bucket on an A4 piece of paper and explained the idea. Everyone carries an invisible bucket with them, and it’s to hold their happy thoughts and good feelings. You can fill someone else’s bucket by giving them a compliment, or acting kindly, or doing a favour for them, or by thanking them. You also fill your own bucket by doing this, because making someone else happy makes you happy too. You empty a bucket by being mean, ignoring someone or generally acting unkindly. 

We filled each other’s bucket with compliments written on sticky notes. I gave the team five minutes to fill buckets and read what people had put in their own one. It was smiles all round, and my team made sure that everyone had buckets which were at least three quarters full. 

I handed out small plastic bowls and plain white stickers. They selected a bowl they liked the colour of, and labelled them with their names. This was the bucket for their desk. I set up a vase filled with pom poms (or warm fuzzies, if you’re feeling cheesy) in the middle of our squad room. If the team are feeling grateful for someone, happy with something they did, or want to express your appreciation you can pick up a pom pom and deposit it into their bowl. You don’t have to explain why, but you can. You don’t even have to do it while they’re there.

My team love their buckets.

Here’s some examples of when people have given pom poms:

  • I missed you while you were away
  • You had a hard day, I appreciate your efforts
  • I’m grateful for the talk we just had
  • You made me laugh
  • You did something really frustrating and I sympathise
  • “Let’s all fill her bowl, because she’s had a horrible week”

It’s a small thing, but seeing your bowl fill up because other people are grateful for you is a wonderful feeling.

We started it as a one week trial, and at the end of the week there was a unanimous vote to keep the pom poms and the bowls. It’s been almost two months and we’re still going. At some point the bowls need to be reset, and everyone puts their pom poms back into the central vase, but no one wants to. I even had one team member clutch their bowl and exclaim “No! I need my bucket to be full!”

I know that this whole exercise sounds very touchy feely and a little over the top. I don’t think you could do it in a team where there’d been internal conflict. But then again, maybe it’d be most valuable in a team like that, as a way to start some supportive behaviours. I’d love to try it out with a brand new team and see how it goes.

I did have someone outside of work question if ‘the men’ were putting up with this bucket filling exercise. After rolling my eyes I related how the guys in my team are just as into it as the women. The fact that you don’t have to explain why is possibly a factor, but honestly? Shouldn’t we be giving everyone in the team a place to express gratitude and appreciation regardless of gender? I think so. We all need reassurance, and appreciation in the workplace is a wonderful thing.

Little exercises our team has enjoyed:

  • Collaborative portraits 
  • Write postcards of appreciation to each other, deliver them to the person’s desk after the meeting. 
  • Our own custom ‘cards against humanity’ game (you can find print your own and blank cards here.
  • The board game “Codewords” (great for highlighting communication styles, problem solving, negative testing)
  • The 16 Personalities quiz and discussion of different personality strengths, weaknesses and traits

In conclusion…

Thinking carefully about the desired outcome of a retro isn’t exactly a new idea. But having time to think deeply and consider the purpose of what you do in retros has benefits. My reading a picture book in a retro gave our team an outside the box moment which allowed us to talk about challenging things.

Fun things are important for team building, but they also loosen people up a little. It sparks the neurons and allows easier communication. If the team is speaking freely then it’s easier to get to the heart of things and find meaningful ways to improve.

Having the time and freedom to experiment has also sparked my brain, and I have two pages of ideas which I’d like to try out with my team. If they don’t work, that’s okay, because I still will have learned something. If they do work, I might just find something magical happens in the retro.