Retrospective classic: Mad Sad Glad

Mad Sad Glad is a classic exercise that you can use in your agile retrospectives. It helps teams to look for things that make them happy, sad, or drive them mad, and to decide how they want to address these things working together as a team.

The Mad Sad Glad retrospective is described in the book Agile Retrospectives: Making good teams great; a book by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen which I highly recommend to read.

Doing a Mad Sad Glad retrospective

Create three flip over pages and label them with Mad, Sad, and Glad.

Handout sticky notes to the everyone and ask them to reflect on the past iteration and think about things that:

  • drive them mad: Problems, time wasters, unwanted surprises, etc.
  • make them feel sad: Issues between team members, things that didn’t go well, etc.
  • they are glad of: Successes, things achieved, anything that puts a smile on their face.

Attendees should write one issue per sticky note and label the note with Mad, Sad, or Glad.

Next, they put the sticky notes on the corresponding flip over. I usually make a quick pass over the notes just to check if all team members understand what is meant.

As a facilitator, you invite team members to discuss the things they wrote down on the sticky notes and ask them to explain why they feel this way.

After some discussion, bring the team towards agreement on the major issue(s) that they want to address in their next iteration and think about the actions that will help them to do that.

My experiences with the Mad Sad Glad exercise

Over the years I’ve done many Mad Sad Glad retrospectives with teams. The words hint people to think about how they feel, which makes retrospectives more personal and increases involvement of team members. People can react from their emotions, which is something to be aware of when you are facilitating a Mad Sad Glad retrospective.

I also use Mad Sad Glad in timeline retrospectives, where teams dive into how the team atmosphere has developed over time. Discussing team low and highlights has often turned out to be very valuable; this is a great exercise to make things visible and have an open and honest discussion in the team.

It’s an exercise that’s easy to learn and do. Everyone recognizes the smileys, my experience is that attendees start writing immediately when you draw the images. Don’t use the words, visualizing it with smiley faces works much better.

I also often use the Mad Sad Glad exercise on my feedback door when I’m doing a workshop. Attendees will share how they feel about my workshop on the way out for a coffee or lunch break; it gives me feedback that I use during the day to deliver maximum value to my course attendees.

As any retrospective exercise, this one needs a safe environment. Even more, because you want to get insight into how people feel. You can use the Prime Directive to remind the team that the aim is to learn and not to blame each other.

You can do this exercise with remote or distributed retrospectives, but make sure to have a video connection so that people can see each other and observe any non-verbal behavior.

The retrospective exercises toolbox

The Mad Sad Glad is listed on the Retrospective Exercises Toolbox, a collection of exercises that you can use to do valuable agile retrospectives.

This technique is also offered by Retrium as one of the possible ways to do a retrospective in remote/distributed teams.

Which (classic) exercises do you use in your agile retrospective?


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.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Zoltán Ludányi

    In order to keep emotions under control, you may help the parties in using assertive communication. Even if they formulate an offensive statement (without meaning to be offesive), you may help them reformulate it into the usual 3/4 step assertive message.

    1. Ben Linders

      Nice remark Zoltán, thank you for bringing this up!

      This is also why facilitation skills are so important in agile retrospectives. An experienced facilitator will recognize any communication which might offend people and then assist in rephrasing it to keep a positive atmosphere.

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