Non-verbal Exercises for Agile Retrospectives

non-verbal-exercses-agile-retrospectivesNon-verbal exercises can be used in agile retrospectives to “hear” from introverts and involve people who find it difficult to speak up in groups. Earlier this year I attended a sessions at the Retrospective Facilitators Gathering 2016 where we explored different techniques and ideas that can be used in non-verbal exercises for Agile Retrospectives. Here’s what we came up with.

To truly understand how a team is doing you need to involve all team members in the agile retrospective. In almost all teams there are members who find it difficult to speak and tell about their experiences or views on a topic. They can be shy, introvert, and feel reluctant to interrupt people who are speaking. With a non-verbal exercise you can get input from every team member.

Ideas and techniques for non-verbal exercises

We did a session at the gathering where we collected ideas using sticky notes (which is actually non verbal too):


Here are some techniques and ideas that can be used in non-verbal exercises:

  • Brain writing, asking people to write down stuff in stead of talking about. It also help introverts to bring in ideas.
  • A variation is to have note blocks or blocks with sticky notes where people write down one idea and then swap it, which makes it possible to see others persons ideas, build on that, and become inspired.
  • Drawing the last iteration. It can be a time line with mood, free format, etc.
  • Telephone pictionary where one person starts by drawing a first part of a picture, then others add on to build a story together.
  • You can write ideas on a piece of paper, fold it into an airplane, then make it fly. Next you collect the airplanes, unfold them and read the ideas, at random.
  • A constellation exercise (as described in our book Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives) can be used to visualize a system. People are asked to move and take position based on questions asked by a facilitator.
  • You can write yourself a letter as a reminder for something that you want to do. Or write a letter to your future self, a kind of futurespective.
  • You can draw the agile journey that you plan to take. Visualize your destination, the path, possible challenges and successes, etc.
  • Lego Serious Play, a methodology where Lego bricks are used to build metaphors that help to communicate ans solve problems.
  • Silent prioritization and clustering of ideas to come to preferred solutions.
  • Showing appreciation in a non verbal way, with gestures or animation. You can even create a animation gallery.
  • Doing a silent check-in by asking people how safe they feel and aggregating this information and showing it without giving an opinion.
  • Making a pose to describe a situation.

Non-verbal techniques for verbal retrospectives

There are techniques that can be used in retrospective where people are speaking to include people who often remain silent. These kind of techniques, although not truly non-verbal, also popped up in our session at the gathering:

  • You can play with silence or talking speed in a retrospective. For instance, if you want some person to bring up something, ask them to speak up and be silent and ask others to speak up. If you want people to slow down and think more, speak slowly.
  • In a circle or group setting you can use a talking stick. The person who has the stick can speak, others should listen and focus on understanding what is being said.
  • Creating silence by holding up your hand or by looking away from people who are speaking too much/often.

The Retrospective Facilitators Gathering is a yearly Open Space conference by and and for experienced practitioners in agile retrospectives. People from all over the world come to this gathering to share experiences and ideas and to learn from other facilitators. The 2016 edition, which was my second one attending, was held in Sagres, Portugal. The RGF 2017 will be held in the USA, RFG 2018 will be in the Netherlands.

What are the techniques that you use to do non-verbal exercises in your agile retrospectives?

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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