The Mountaineering Retrospective; seeing the big picture

The Mountaineering Retrospective is a simple and fun Retrospective that I came up with to help teams reflect on the bigger picture. Sprint Retrospectives tend to focus on the past sprint (what’s in a name), but it does help to occasionally apply a broader view.

Using the visual metaphor of ‘climbing the mountain’, this Retrospective helps teams to look at their growth, and what is needed to continue, from another perspective. It takes around 45 to 60 minutes and a room with sufficient room to move around.

Here’s how to do it with your team

Preparation (although you can easily do this with the team as well)

  • Identify the overarching themes that you want to reflect on with the team. My experience is that four or five themes is generally enough. Examples are; ‘Technical quality’, ‘Working with customers’, ‘Scrum’ and ‘Transparency’ and ‘Teamwork’;
  • Create a flip for every time, writing down the theme at the top and drawing a large mountain below. I always have a bit of fun with this by decorating them with birds, trees, mountain climbers, rope-bridges, rainstorms, snowy peaks and UFO’s. Kind of fits with the lighthearted, serious-but-fun attitude that I feel works best in (Sprint) Retrospectives; Put up the flips in the room where the Retrospective will be taking place;

With the team

  • Introduce the metaphor of climbing the mountain to the team. Much like climbing a mountain, becoming an effective Scrum Team is difficult and littered with obstacles. But every journey becomes doable if you focus on putting one foot in front of the other. We don’t have to scale the mountain right away, but it helps to know what obstacles lie ahead (an upcoming thunderstorm, a rolling boulder or that UFO) and what can help us climb more effectively (a bridge, better gear, base camps, anchors left behind by other climbers);
  • Ask people to form pairs and pick the mountain they’d like to start with, making sure that no mountain has more than one pair. Provide the pairs with pens and post-its. 
  • Ask the pairs to take a few minutes to write down what it looks like at the top. How does the team work? What characterizes collaboration? What keywords apply? Is there snow or not? Now that we have a sense of what the top looks like for the various mountains, ask the pairs to take a few minutes (4 or 5) to brainstorm what kind of ‘mountaineering aids’ might help them reach the top. -
  • Think in terms of skills, activities, workshops, knowledge or changes in how the team works. Writing down one idea per post-it, ask the pairs to rate the difficulty. Aids that are quite difficult or involved are put near the top of the mountain, whereas ideas that are easier to implement are put down the bottom;
  • Ask the pairs to rotate clock-wise to the next mountain. Give them a couple of minutes (4 or 5) to check the results of the previous pair, and extend with more ‘mountaineering aids’. Pairs should feel free to change any post-it, add questions, clarify them or move them around the mountain;
  • Once the pairs have had an opportunity to reflect on each mountain, and diverge in terms of ideas and options, now is the time to start converging on what is most important. I like to do with the ‘Butterfly Test’. Give members 5 post-its or (preferably) butterfly stickers, and ask them to walk around the room, check out the mountains and ideas, and (individually) pick 5 ‘aids’ that they feel will have the largest impact right now. I don’t generally time box this; just let it happen and wait until all the post-its have been distributed;
  • Count the number of post-its / butterflies and identify a top 5. Discuss these ‘mountaineering aids’ in more detail with the team to make them actionable. They key question to answer is: “What is needed to achieve this?”. If the suggested improvement is quite involved, identify what a first step would be. I generally prefer to write these down on larger post-its that we can put on the Scrum Board to keep it in everyone’s attention;

Some of the ideas on this mountain received a lot of butterflies, so we discussed them in more detail afterwards.Enjoy this Retrospective with your team! I’m always looking forward to reading about the results, seeing some pictures and learning from your experiences in the comments.

Christiaan Verwijs
Christiaan Verwijs

Scrum Master, Trainer, Developer & founder of Agilistic