Updated: Good, Bad, Puzzling Retrospective

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By popular request...here is a blow-by-blow run through of the simple 60 minute 'Good, Bad, Puzzling' retrospective format that I use. Have fun using it. 

Good, Bad, Puzzling Retrospective
Introductions and checkin (10 minutes)
Start off the retrospective by getting people to “check in”. That is, invite them to speak early on, focussing on what is being reviewed. This makes them feel like they are part of the meeting, and implicitly invites them to actively participate.

I normally use something like:
  • Describe the last Sprint in 3 words
  • If the last Sprint was a Star Trek/Star Wars/South Park character, which one would it be?
  • What colour was the last Sprint?
...and so on.... Get creative!

Once everyone has checked in, you need to create a “safe zone” where the Sprint can be discussed without blame. Everyone needs to agree that everyone in the Sprint always acted as best they could under the circumstances at the time, and to accept that anything that went wrong has happened, and cannot be ‘unhappened’. Or in other words, everyone needs reminding that “Hindsight is always 20:20” - you can always look back and say that “if x, y and z hadn’t happened, then something wouldn’t have broken”. I use Norman Kerth’s Prime Directive as a starting point:
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
Also worth remembering are the Four Freedoms (also from Kerth):
Everyone has the following freedoms:
  • Freedom to recognise and observe what is rather than what others want you to see
  • Freedom to ask about puzzles
  • Freedom to acknowledge and talk about what's coming up for you
  • Freedom to talk about not having any of the above freedoms
Often improvement is obstructed by a feeling that certain things (problems, behaviours, issues) are off-limits; the Four Freedoms are a great way to remind people that nothing is off-limits as long as it is discussed respectfully.

Brainstorm (10 minutes)
Get everyone to write down their observations and issues from the last Sprint onto Post-Its (one per issue!), and put them onto a board under one of three headings: Good, Bad or Puzzling. If possible, use a colour code - usually green for good, red for bad - this will help identify hotspots later. Also I encourage people to use a medium marker for the sake of readability, and to limit the amount that can be written.

Timebox this to 10 minutes. If everyone appears to have finished before the 10 minutes is up, wait a little longer since someone will almost always remember something. Remember: don’t be afraid of using silence.

Note that it can be worthwhile reminding people to write legibly!

Group (5 minutes)
Get the Team to organise the Post-Its into groups of related issues on the board. Exactly what constitutes a group is up to the Team. Timebox to 5 minutes max. Encourage everyone to participate - do this actually at the board, get everyone moving since it increases their energy for the discussion.

Optionally do this exercise in absolute silence apart from the final minute (to solve any disputes). The idea behind this is that speaking is controlled by the left side of the brain (the logical side), which dominates. Doing this silently is supposed to use more of the right hand brain (the creative side). Does this really work? No idea, but it’s fun....

Note that if you have used colour coding for the issues, specific areas will stand out as being predominantly good, bad or puzzling. Look out for these, and if there is one area that has a large concentration of bad comments, then consider highlighting this, skipping the vote and discussing the issue directly.

Name and Vote (5 minutes)
Once grouped, go through each and give each group a specific name. Identify what links all the issues together.

In order to pick just one topic to discuss, get the Team to do a “3-Dot Vote”. Each team member gets 3 votes to cast in the form of dots against specific issue groups. They can put all 3 against one group, 2 on one, 1 on another, or all three against different groups depending on how strongly they feel about them.

Once everyone has voted, add the totals, and the winning group has the most votes. If there is a tie, then I tend to use a simple show of hands to choose one issue to discuss.

Discuss (25 minutes)
So what we have now identified is one single issue or area that the Team has jointly agreed to discuss how to improve. Sometimes the discussion will happen quite naturally, sometimes you will need to start people off. The best way is usually to focus on what the Team believe is happening - “The Problem”. 

As specific problems emerge, get the Team to consider specific solutions. Don’t lose track of either - I tend to jot them up freeform on a whiteboard. 

As the timebox draws to an end, get the Team to agree on one or two of the solutions that will be adopted as actions in the next Sprint. Don’t allow the Team to overload themselves with change; I generally suggest a maximum of 2 retrospective actions for a two week Sprint.

Wrapup (5 minutes)
Finally, wrap up the meeting. Thank everyone for their time, and summarise the actions that were agreed.

Consider doing a Return On Time Invested (ROTI) exercise to see how people feel about the retrospective, and to provide some feedback on how effectively you ran it. 
For example, “On your way out, vote on a scale of 1-4, where 1 means this retrospective was hugely valuable, and 4 means it was a total waste of time and I may as well have been sitting at my desk working

Follow Up
Follow up the retrospective with an email stating at very least the agreed actions for the Sprint. 

Other Thoughts
I don’t recommend revisiting the other issue groups identified by the Team at a later date. The retrospective provides a snapshot of what was important to the team at that moment in time, and this will change Sprint by Sprint. If an issue continues to be important, then it will appear again in a later retrospective.

However, if you want to keep track of how retrospective issues change over time, take pictures of the grouped board. You may see recurring issue groups that has been missed by the Team.

Also you may want to take pictures of the notes (problems, solutions) discussed to serve as a reminder. A wiki is a good, informal place to store this information.


Introductions & check in    
Name and Vote


It is worth pointing out that this format follows pretty closely the format suggested by Esther Derby and Diane Larsen in their book Agile Retrospectives. Esther has also published a convenient summary video too!