What is the most popular agile retrospective meeting format?

August 20, 2020

We've all been there. Tasked with facilitating the next scrum retrospective and cruising Retromat for a fresh meeting format recommendation to spice things up for the team. How about doing that in the midst of an international pandemic where your team is no longer capable of being co-located? We are big fans of co-located agile retros but if you are now using an agile retrospective tool for your remote team, there is definitely some best practice. As an agile retrospective tool for remote teams, we've seen thousands of meetings (with over 500 different meeting formats!!!) run on Sprintlio for companies and teams of all sizes and we wanted to share the ten most popular meeting meeting formats (in reverse order) and what you can learn from them to apply to your next agile retrospective.

Quick disclaimer, all agile retrospectives in Sprintlio come with a list for action items and survey for "Team Health" built into the meeting so none of the ones listed below will include "Action Items" or "Team Health" – we 100% recommend that EVERY meeting have action items and team health.

10. Pros, Cons

Pros vs. Cons is a great starter for any discussion. Which is why of many agile retrospectives we've seen rely on it. It's basic, easy to understand, and clear for the participants. The downside is that it can polarize discussion on pros and cons about a specific topic as opposed to multiple topics in the sprint and doesn't leave room for the neutral or confusing things in between. We recommend adding an "Issues" or "Icebox" column with it.

9. Start, More of, Continue, Less of, Stop

Though popular, this format is one of the most confusing for teams in my experience. It really depends on how the actual topic is written as to which bucket it falls in vs. what the topic is. There are too many similarities here between them that I would recommend against it unless your team is experienced with this format. "More of" blends into "Continue" so easily. The degree where you should do "Less of" something vs. "Stop" altogether needs to be well-defined or conditioned into the team. It can be a time suck for the team just to discuss proper bucketing.

8. Keep, Add, More, Less

Otherwise known as "KALM", this is the agile retrospective equivalent of a sprint process SWOT analysis. Another rising meeting format, it brings a lot more nuance to the discussion and treats the topics as a spectrum. It can be a little confusing for participants to discern between "Add" and "More" but its spirit is in the right place. Similarly "Add" and "Less" can be confusing based on how the topic is written (if it includes a negative perspective or not).

7. Engines, Parachutes (sometimes "Anchors" instead of "Parachutes")

Although it's very similar to Pros and Cons, Engines and Parachutes does a better job at providing depth and roundness for the topics. Instead of something being completely positive or negative, it is more about how something made the team trend. And for a process-specific discussion, that is gold. We recommend you use "Anchors" instead of "Parachutes" though because the "Parachute" idea gets stuck in people's heads as something saving them vs. what was intended when it was made of something slowing down the engine – whereas anchors are obviously things that slow you down.

6. Discuss, Discussing, Discussed (otherwise known as Lean Coffee™)

Started by Agile Coffee (NOTE TO MIKE ... LINK https://agilecoffee.com/leancoffee/), “Lean Coffee is a structured, but agenda-less meeting. Participants gather, build an agenda, and begin talking. Conversations are directed and productive because the agenda for the meeting was democratically generated.” It's easy to understand, embraces Lean methodologies, and allows a fluidity that is natural for the best kinds of retrospectives. I love how it frames everything in an open-ended state that makes topics more about progress and moving forward than binding them to an entirely positive or negative experience.

5. Glad, Sad, Mad

The most popular format for meetings combining clients and consultants. It's often used for its primal simplicity (and rhyming convenience). The topics that fall between "Sad" and "Mad" can sometimes be confusing. As far as a discussion spectrum, "Glad" is found to be not positive enough, whereas "Sad" and "Mad" are stuck to similar ends, which causes the dynamic of the discussion to sway too negative.

4. Liked, Learned, Lacked, Longed For (sometimes "Loved" instead of "Liked")

The 4Ls are one of the most popular formats out there. One of the foundational retrospective techniques, it combines nuance and neutrality well. It brings a broad spectrum of topic opportunities while never sharply associating any one topic with a heightened emotional state. It also keeps things in a hindsight perspective (which is the point!) as they are all past-tense and leaves all of the topics with an open-ended "what do we do with this newfound knowledge" feeling that is perfect for devising action items.

3. Happy, Confused, Sad (sometimes with "Feedback" or "Suggestions")

Thought of to be the same as Glad, Sad, Mad, it is actually far different. It tries to balance the agile retrospective on three separate silos of positive, neutral, and negative. It's foundational for its simplicity and directness but struggle to generate "Sad" topics as they might feel too harsh.

2. What went well, What didn't go well (sometimes with "What can be improved")

This is a more nuanced "Pros vs. Cons" because it takes a hindsight perspective while leaving things up for change. We highly recommend adding a third column for "What can be improved" to add some neutrality to the discussion. Its simplicity has powered it to be in nearly 1/5 of all meetings.

1. Start, Stop, Continue (sometimes with "Issues")

Start, Stop, Continue is the backbone foundational agile retrospective format for remote teams. It keeps everything open-minded and flexible but has clear buckets of things that should be introduced, things that should be removed, and things that were positive. We've seen it combined with "Issues" for the more dynamic "Stop" topics but it doesn't seem necessary to us. It's a little trickier for people to understand right off the bat but once they try it they'll see why it balances positives, neutrals, and negatives in a softer and less direct personal tone than the other formats while motivating productive participation.

Agile retrospective tools for remote teams have plenty of different formats. More often than not, you can actually customize your own along the way. We've seen them evolve to the point where they are just emojis for some. That's amazing. In the end it's not really about how many formats a tool has, it's about how the team is set up for a successful discussion. The ideal format for your team is up to you but it should include a spectrum for categories (preferably evenly-weighted), avoid associating emotions with the topics (since they can cause people to hesitate from saying negative things or be confusing depending on the perspective of the topic), stay improvement and positivity-focused, and be simple to understand.

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