The Opening phase of facilitation is the space in which the group starts to unpack the topic at hand. This is usually the “past” phase – looking at what has led us to this point in time.
It’s surprisingly difficult for us to look back at events that have passed and generate insight and understanding from them. Aside from struggling to remember everything that’s valuable, often there are deeply held beliefs or other organizational messages that sway our view of events until we look at them closely from a unbiased perspective.
The Gathering Data section of the meeting gives us the opportunity to ‘get back to the facts’ of what we’re dealing with, and with the Exploring section, has the most scope for variety, providing a multitude of ways to unpack the status of a team, project or company. And doing this in a group format allows us to combine individual memories to build up a reasonably comprehensive picture of what is happening in the environment.
In Gamestorming, the authors refer to ‘Meaningful Space’ as the use of visual space to sort our experiences, knowledge and feelings into comparative or relative areas. This is particularly valuable both for prodding our memories and clarifying areas of strong agreement, disagreement, and alternate perspectives.
This opening format is a great way to have team members tell their story; the narrative format grabs everyone’s attention and highlights the human side of the sprint / release etc.
- Activities over time + emotions – A good way to see individual experiences – especially if you include personal events in the timeline. Increases team’s knowledge of each other, as well as what was significant to them in the sprint.
- Emotions timeline – As above, but start by drawing the emotions timeline, only adding events at major points. Use a large graph with x axis showing the time period, and y axis equal amount positive & negative space, and have each person draw their line in a different colour. Can also be used as a check-in activity.
- What was my Pace – Same format as the emotions timeline, showing when team members were balanced, cruising or overworked. Good for analysing uneven sprints, disconnected teams. Debrief looks at where people are in sync and where they aren’t, the possible reasons for this, and any other observations.
- History Map – good for company retrospectives – a timeline showing the detail of events which shaped the company’s direction and growth over time. Fun way to share corporate knowledge and reflect on events which affected the company’s development.
A nice way to dissect information and prompt the group’s memory is to categorize experiences along a theme. The Learning Matrix is the most well known of these formats, and there are a variety of others below. When I can’t find something that fits, I often make these up. *Tip: Alliteration is an unexpectedly handy tool for maintaining overall cohesion.
- Liked / Lacked / Learned / Longed For – Clarifies current status and indicates areas of growth that are beginning to develop
- Components / Characteristics / Challenges / Characters – Product analysis tool, ideally used with a group representing different departments, from product management to development to infrastructure.
- Confident / Concerns / Challenges / Chocolate (i.e. the ‘sweet spot’) – Use to clarify the current state of a team / product / company etc. (used for a company retrospective and planning sessions)
- Proud / Sorry / Grateful – For high-trust teams: promotes deep connections. The addition of ‘Grateful’ helps to round out some spiky feelings and acknowledge others’ roles in ‘my’ experience. (adapted from Agile Retrospectives)
- Helped / Hindered / Hypothesis – Unpack how a method / improvement is working for us – useful for ‘measuring’ improvements (from Agile Retrospectives)
- We’re Good At / I Worry About / I Wonder About – Variation on the learning matrix, with a bit more focus on team identity
- Start, Stop, Continue, More of, Less of Wheel – Focus on process / improvements analysis – the subtle distinction between stop / less of and continue / more of invites some interesting discussions
- Circles & Soup – What’s happening that is within vs. outside our control; great for identifying actions a team can responsibly take on, especially useful when decisions seem to be out of our hands, or where blaming is present
- Strengths / Weaknesses / Opportunities Timeline – A visual format that combines an events timeline around the outside of the page (Past) with ‘Strengths’ & ‘Weaknesses’ (Present) and Opportunities that can reliably be completed in the next sprint (Future) all in one. Completed in groups with feedback and debrief of themes.
- Sailboat (what puts wind in our sails, what gives us direction, what weighs us down) – Creates a sense of identity and direction (combination of Gamestorming’s Speed boat and airplane metaphor in the introduction)
Other visual formats:
- Draw the Problem – A longer drawing format similar to the Check In activity, which surfaces deep connections
- Mind mapping: Good technique for generating related information quickly, but avoid the temptation to get hung up on sorting too early – I find it useful to stress quantity over quality and use a tight timebox.
- Group posters & feedback: Fun collaborative activity for sharing perspectives
- Appreciative Inquiry – Interview section of this retro: good for strong teams to find new areas of improvement
- Locate Strengths (larger groups): Powerful way to get to know team members and discover unknown skills (from Agile Retrospectives)
The aim of the Opening phase is to establish the foundation from which we are building. It’s important not to start drawing conclusions directly from this data, but simply to help the group as a whole to remember as much detail as possible.
Once we have this, we move on to Exploring, where we delve deeper into extending and interpreting the data we’ve gathered.
Most of these activities come from books, blogs or training sessions I’ve been part of; some I’ve created to meet specific needs. Where I can find attributions they are noted; if you see any I’ve missed, or know of links I haven’t found, please let me know in the comments below.