While I was working at Redbubble, I experienced working on a team that holds weekly retrospective meetings for the first time. Since we took turns leading it, I also got to run retro several times.

We let the person running retro choose the format, but as a group, we more or less converged on one style, which was my favorite. It strikes a good balance between covering a few topics in depth, while making space to bring up many in brief. It’s also focused on identifying actions to take, while recognizing that sometimes people just need time to vent and not every gripe should be turned into an action item.

Sadly, Redbubble closed its San Francisco engineering team last month, but I will remember this format and use it in the future wherever I end up next. Here’s how it works:

Setting up the board

We used Trello for most retros. You could do this with Post-it notes if everybody is in the same room, but we usually had a few remote people, so a digital format was better. And in fact, I prefer Trello even if everybody is in the same room. It’s easier to read from a laptop screen than it is to read messy handwriting on a Post-it note across the room.

The leader sets up the Trello board with four columns:

  1. Celebrations
  2. Gripes
  3. Topics to discuss
  4. Actions

Then everybody has 5-10 minutes to write Trello cards in the first three columns, working from their own laptops. Celebrations and Gripes are for topics you want to mention, but don’t think the group needs to spend time discussing. Topics to Discuss, obviously, is for things you want to talk about. You’re allowed to move a card somebody else wrote from Celebrations or Gripes to Topics to Discuss if you want to talk about it.

When all the cards are written, use Trello voting to vote on cards. Voting for a card in Celebrations or Grips means “I agree,” while voting for a card in Topics to discuss means “I also want to talk about this.” When voting is finished, the leader sorts the cards by number of votes (descending).

Quick review of celebrations & gripes

At this point, the leader should share their screen if they aren’t already. (At Redbubble, conference rooms have large monitors that we shared our screens with via Google Meet, so everybody in the room could look at the monitor, and the remote participants could see it on their own screens.) The rest of the participants (except remote people) don’t need their laptops anymore, so it’s a good idea for them to close them to avoid distractions.

Then, I like to go through the Celebrations and Gripes out loud. Even though everybody’s already read them, it’s nice to take some time to acknowledge them as a group. My favorite way is to go down the list and have the person who wrote each card read it out loud, and the whole group responds “Yay!” or “Boo!” It doesn’t take long if everybody’s paying attention and ready to speak when it’s their turn.

Discussing topics

Now it’s time to go through the Topics to Discuss, starting with the one with the most votes. Usually the person who wrote the card kicks off the discussion.

To make sure we don’t spend too much time on one topic, it’s good to do a time check after five minutes. However, we thought it was more important to give topics adequate time, rather than get to everything briefly. So, a time check is just gently asking, “Do we need to spend more time on this?”

We always finished retro at its scheduled time (usually one hour) whether we had gotten to all the topics or not. If we didn’t get to a topic, the person who wrote it could start a discussion on Slack or bring it up at the next retro if they still thought it was important.

Lightning rounds

One technique we found helpful during discussions is the lightning round. This is when you ask a question to the group, and go around the room, with each person getting a chance to answer. People can pass if they want to, but everybody gets the floor for a moment. There shouldn’t be any cross-talk until everyone has had their turn.

This can be done when you begin discussing a topic, or in the middle of one, especially if you’ve noticed a few people dominating the conversation. The benefits are:

  1. People who want to be heard, but have trouble jumping in to unstructured group discussions, get a turn to speak without having to fight for it.
  2. It takes the temperature of the room before getting into debates. One person with a strong opinion won’t dominate the conversation.
  3. It keeps people engaged and less likely to check out.

Once the lightning round is finished, the conversation can proceed naturally.

Identifying actions

As you wrap up each topic, the leader should check to see if there are any actions to take, and write them up in the Actions column. We tried to come up with actions that could be assigned to specific people, and that could be completed. So, we wouldn’t bother typing up an action like “Everybody should feel comfortable declining meetings that they don’t feel are useful”, but a specific action like “Fiona will review the calendar and cancel any unnecessary meetings” was board-worthy.

At the next retro, review the actions from the last week to make sure they got done. If an action hasn’t been completed, consider whether it’s still important.