Facilitating Retrospectives for Large Teams

Courtesy of ThoughtWorks

Recently I was asked to facilitate a retrospective for 26 people. Of course I said yes, but only afterwards did I begin to realise the challenge I faced. The reality is people work better in smaller groups, but sometimes you have to bring a large groups together. In this post I’d like to share how I ran this retrospective along with some of the learnings I gained. I hope you find it useful!

Things You’ll Need

  • A large room
  • Post its
  • Sharpies/Pens
  • 1-2 hours
  • Lots of wall space!

Introduction

One of the biggest challenges in running a successful retrospective for a large team — that results in usable feedback — is to ensure that everyone is heard. As a facilitator it is our job to create an environment that encourages contribution, we achieve this by:

  • Creating a safe environment to speak.
  • Giving clarity to the plan and process.
  • Guiding discussions to keep them on track.

I have found that the retrospective introduction is key to establishing the right environment. It sets the tone for the rest of the session and provides the opportunity to cement your position as the facilitator.

I started the session by explaining my understanding of why we were all here and asking participants if this was their understanding as well. It’s important to get clarity on this early and surface disagreements if they exist, otherwise they will raise their heads at a less appropriate time.

In this session everyone agreed on the reason for being in the room so I walked people through the agenda for the session. I like to leave the agenda on the wall throughout the session with timings next to each agenda item, this means participants can facilitate and regulate their own discussion because they can see the plan and where we are.

Lastly I talked to the group about psychological safety. I reminded participants that not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of large groups and can sometimes be reluctant to share their opinion with others. It is our job to help make each other feel comfortable to express ourselves. I then read The Prime Directive to reiterate the intentions of everyone in the room and we conducted a Safety Check to test the comfort levels before continuing the retrospective.

Warm Up

The first exercise we did was an icebreaker, to get people into a collaborative mindset. I asked the retrospective participants to play the line up game. They had to arrange themselves in order of who was born farthest from our office in Soho, London. We had people all the way from Malaysia and Australia!

This exercise got people to get up, move around and talk to others they may not know well, subtly breaking the social or team groups that existed within the room. I also particularly like this exercise as it demonstrates the diversity of the team, providing a very visual way to explain how different backgrounds bring great team value but also affect our ways of communicating and interacting.

Getting Input

Now we step into the retrospective session itself. It was important to find a format for this that enabled everyone to contribute. I was especially mindful of making sure that the quiet voices would be heard while at the same time encouraging people to go beyond their comfort zones – ensuring that we got meaningful feedback.

To achieve this I decided to run the first part of the session with the whole group, but asking them to work individually. I set up four stations around the room, each with a different title – Liked, Learned, Lacked and Longed for. I asked participants to take ten minutes to write their own thoughts on post it’s and put them up on the relevant section. I encouraged people to spend the first five minutes writing, then walk around, stick their post it’s up and start to read what others had put to prompt new ideas.

Group in Groups

Once we had input from everyone, we needed to refine the content on the walls. I split people into four mini teams, one per section, and asked them to put all the post it’s that referred to the same point together to form a topic. When they did this, I asked them to summarise the topic on a large post it note and place it over the top to make it clearer for those reading.

By separating into groups at this stage it made it quicker to refine the content and reduced the stress on me as a facilitator.

Read & Vote

Once the topic grouping was complete I asked each individual to put a dot on the topic that they felt was most important to them on the board they were at. We then rotated the mini teams to the next section and asked them to do the same, giving them the opportunity to read what their colleagues had put in these sections too. We did this for each section until the mini teams were back at the section they started at.

Once all the teams had voted, I went around each team and asked them to present the topics back to the entire group.

Rather than discussing each of the topics in depth, I asked people to raise their hand if they needed clarification on any of the topics or had any questions. The general rule was that the person clarifying would just explain the intent of the note in a couple of lines and we would avoid any lengthy discussions at that time.

Get to Action

Through the exercises so far we had identified several topics that people wished existed or were improved. We took the top four voted topics and distributed one to each of the mini teams to create possible ways to solve the problems. I gave each team a hypothesis template and gave them ten minuites to fill in the gaps in the statement below:

We believe that….
will result in….
and we will know we are successful when….

The hypothesis template structured the ideas teams came up with, drove them to identify exactly what their idea is aiming to change and encouraged them to provide a measurable way to know when the change has been made.

I then had the mini teams present their hypothesis back to the wider group and we agreed owners for each of the hypothesis. The aim was to leave the retrospective knowing what they would try to improve and review progress against these hypothesis in a month.

Running a retrospective with a large team is challenging. However, with good preparation they can be used effectively for gathering feedback, building team connection and making meaningful change. I hope this article may help you planning your own retrospectives.