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all hands - retrospective meeting with big groups or teams

Retrospectives in large teams or groups

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Moderating retrospectives in a small team or small group can be a challenge. Or if you has very little time. But what about retrospectives in large teams? They are usually many times more demanding. 

Before we developed our tool for retrospectives, we gained various experiences with larger groups - often we had the customer requirements that an entire area (often more than 15 people) should take part in a retro.

I would therefore like to share in the first step what challenges we have experienced in these larger teams or groups.

Retrospective challenges in large teams or groups

1. Conversation atmosphere

With large numbers of participants, the participants know each other only little from everyday life. While you can usually rely on a trusting and open atmosphere for small teams, this is often more difficult for large teams. Although this trusting atmosphere is so important for them psychological security of the team (one of the most important factors for successful teams).

2. Commitment & discussion distribution

At the same time, it becomes easier for everyone in this constellation to withdraw from discussions. So, as a moderator, you have to be much more careful that all participants participate with dedication, are able to get involved and that the distribution of discussions is reasonably balanced.

3. Time management

The more team members, the more topics can come up on the table. Timeboxing is therefore essential in order to be able to adequately accommodate all topics.

Occasions for retrospectives in large teams or groups

However, sometimes you have no choice and have to face these challenges. In practice, we typically see the following reasons for retrospectives in large teams:

  • A large team is simply not divided into any other long-term groups. According to the Scrum Guide, from 9 team members upwards one would already speak of a “too large team”.
  • An area that consists of several small teams that want to carry out a joint retrospective. Then one speaks of an “Overall Retrospective” or “Retro of Retros”.

The following tips are useful for both scenarios. 

Tips for retrospectives in large teams or groups

Here are our tips for retrospectives in large teams!

Tip 1: Question the participants in the retrospective

A large-scale retrospective should definitely be questioned. Are the framework conditions really unchangeable? Isn't there a sensible alternative?

In the case of large teams or groups, the first question would therefore be whether the team could not be divided thematically. We are not a fan of strictly interpreting everything according to the textbook (or in this case the Scrum Guide), but the limitation to 9 team members is no accident - up to this size, a productive retrospective can take place without restrictions. So if you are significantly above this number, you should question the team constellation.

In “Overall Retros” with several teams, a frequently used “trick” is that each team only sends representatives of the team to the big group. So you can keep the big round at least manageable by the number of participants. The LeSS framework For agile work, the naming of team representatives for “overall retros”, for example, also provides for this, then one speaks of “Scrum of Scrums”.

Tip 2: Pay attention to trusting dealings

  • Even if the team is very large, the content (apart from the measures) is still confidential. → This should be pointed out in the moderation.
  • Use a quick check-in to create a casual atmosphere - also, if you have little time

Tip 3: Consider team size in the schedule

The larger the team, the more topics and the longer the discussions.

So while in a small team you may be used to completing a retrospective in an hour, this will not be possible with larger groups of participants.

The time required depends heavily on the format and method of the retrospective chosen. In our experience, the periods are in the following periods:

Usual periods for retrospectives depending on the team size

  • 5 or fewer participants → 45 - 90 minutes
  • 6 to 10 participants → 60 - 120 minutes
  • 10 to 20 or more participants → 90 - 180 minutes

Like to experiment with timeboxing yourself to get a feel for it. Just take a little more time than too little at the beginning and then see which steps can be optimized - the next tips may be helpful!

Tip 4: Parallelization in the collection of topics and ideas

To parallelize the topic and idea generation, formats or methods such as “1-2-4-All” are available. How's that working?

Everyone first thinks about a topic or a question individually - for example, 2 minutes (1). Then each participant looks for a partner to exchange the collected thoughts (2), before joining together in groups of four (4) and finally presenting the collected ideas to the group in a prioritized form (All). 

You can find more detailed instructions for 1-2-4-All on the website of Liberating structures.

Tip 5: Use breakout sessions

Topics are now brought together and roughly prioritized - despite a large team or group. Next, the topics should be analyzed in detail in order to derive which small action items could be used to improve them. 

It is particularly difficult here. Because the larger the group of participants, the more likely it is that the topics discussed will not be relevant for everyone. Accordingly, only a fraction of the team members can contribute to a topic. 

The discussion of certain topics that do not affect all team members equally should therefore be outsourced or parallelized.

We have had very good experiences using breakout sessions for this: You define the topics and let self-organizing small groups work on them. Each participant can freely join and leave a group - just like one Open space format.

So everyone has the opportunity to get involved in the discussions, where they can actively contribute. When presenting the results of the breakout sessions, the best case scenario is a tangible measure that can be implemented directly in the next sprint. If the proposed measures appear plausible and worth pursuing for the entire group of participants, the measures are deemed to have been decided. 

However, it may just as well be that the small group has not yet been able to come up with a final proposal for a measure. In these cases, the decision can be made to continue the breakout session outside of the retrospective if the participants consider this to be useful.

Be careful with “half” measures

Nothing is more annoying than a semi-well-thought-out measure that was created under pressure and then nobody wants to take care of it. In our experience, it is therefore very important that the moderation in your large team or large group indicates that the decision of another breakout session outside of the retrospective can also be a legitimate measure to continue the topic illuminate if it could not be finally analyzed in the retro timebox.

Tip 6: Collect feedback in advance

Collecting feedback, in particular the "gathering data" phase, can tie up valuable time in the retrospective, which you could actually outsource by asking for feedback in advance of the retrospective.

In order to structure this query of feedback in advance, it often makes sense to combine closed questions with open questions. In this way you receive quantitative feedback on specific aspects and, as a team member, you can continue to contribute your own topics through the open questions. As a pioneer, Spotify also uses targeted, closed questions, the results of which they name Squad Health Check have baptized.

By the way, we have developed a tool that can support you in your retrospective in large teams. You can find more information directly below here.

Would you like to conduct a value-adding retrospective in a large team? This is exactly why we developed our Echometer tool. You can find more information about the tool here:

Conclusion

You have probably read out that we would not recommend retrospectives with too many participants for the reasons explained above - precisely because it is so challenging, them to moderate and appropriately involve all participants.

At the same time, we hope that with the tips on parallelization & Co. you can get the best out of big retrospectives. Because especially when you get used to the constellation of the retro as a large team, it can get easier over time and the format - despite the hurdles - a success.

We are looking forward to your reviews! By the way: If you still generally Variety in your retros then you can do it too in this blog post check.

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I recently got an ebook too "12 retrospective methods from psychology" written - interested?

Christian Heidemeyer, Psychologist & Scrum Master