A constellation exercise can be used in agile retrospectives to visualize what’s happening in a team. It enables team members to take a systemic view, explore the situation at hand, and decide on what to do to improve how they work together.
This is an exercise for people who do not like to talk much (introverts) or do not feel comfortable sharing their opinion/feelings openly. Initially, people don’t have to speak, they will just move their body to show how they feel about a topic.
Facilitating a constellation retrospective
Start by creating an open space by moving tables and chairs to the side of out of the room if needed. You need to have enough space so that people can move around comfortably and have an overview of where everyone is in the room.
Put an object on the floor in the middle and explain to the team that this object is the center of the universe. Next, ask the attendees to form a circle around it at a distance where they can move in all directions freely. As a facilitator, take a position outside the circle so that you have a good overview.
Explain that as the facilitator you will read some statements. After reading one, you would like people to move closer to or farther from the object depending on how true the statement is for them. So, if they agree with the statement, they should move a step to the object. If they do not agree with it, they should do a step away from the object (note that this is the “basic” way for people to move in a constellation, see below for more options).
After some questions, ask the participants to take a look at what is happening, how people are positioned, the moves they made, etc. For instance, you can ask “What move did you make, why?“ or “What does the shape tell you?” or “Are you surprised with the shape?” Let them talk to each other. It’s important to allow healthy discussions.
As a next step, you might pick two or three statements with the most differing opinions for discussion within the team in order to get a common understanding of where they are and where they would like to be. After that, help the team decide which actions they will do and close the retrospective.
Constellations in practice
The constellation exercise has been described in my book Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives. Luis Gonçalves, co-author of the book, learned this exercise from Lyssa Adkins when he attended her workshop Coaching Agile Teams.
The first time that I personally experienced what a constellation can do was at the beginning of this century. At that time I was the chairman of a foundation that aimed to share knowledge and experience with process improvement. The whole board of the foundation took part in the constellation exercise, led by a facilitator who was trained in doing family constellations. Doing the constellation gave us very valuable insights on how we worked together as a team and showed where we felt disconnected with our members and stakeholder. It was a great learning experience, which drove me to dive into both systemic constellations and family constellations.
Nowadays I use the constellation retrospective exercise as a tool to make things visible and have people experience what is happening. My experience is that it’s easier for people to vote with their feet or body than to say how they feel about something.
When I do a constellation, I’m ok with people to not agree nor disagree, and stay at the same place. I have seen this happening in constellations, usually it’s a sign that they don’t have a real opinion about a topic or feel that the topic isn’t really important. Which also tells something …
Doing constellations I also encourage people to move in whatever way best represents how they feel about a statement. They can go sideways, turn around, jump or lay down, what move they think fits with the statement is allowed.
Questions for constellation exercises
The questions that are asked during the constellation have a great impact on the result. They should challenge the attendees (in a positive way of course) to take a position and show how they feel about a topic.
To have a focused retrospective, it’s important to pick one topic and phrase questions to view it from different sides.
As a facilitator, you have to invest time preparing the questions before the retrospective. Then again, I’ve also had constellations where I can up with a new question during the exercise based on how people responded to earlier questions.
Let me give you an example. In one of my workshops, I use the questions below to do a constellation on “retrospectives”:
- Our Scrum masters see the need for retrospectives
- Retrospectives are well prepared
- Retrospectives are time well spent, they are never dull
- Team members are willing to do retrospectives and they always attend
- We use different exercises in the retrospectives
- Managers want teams to do retrospectives, they support them
- Actions from the retrospective are follow up and done
The above questions are all focused on retrospectives, but they give attention to the different aspects of them. Together they provide insight for my workshop attendees how retrospectives are working out and where the main challenges are.
Your toolbox of retrospective exercises
As a retrospective facilitator, it helps to have a toolbox to do retrospectives. Teams are different, and also the things that teams are dealing with can differ from sprint to sprint. Therefore it helps if you know many retrospective exercises that you can choose from.
The Retrospective Exercises Toolbox provides a collection of exercises that you can use to do valuable agile retrospectives, with additional information about books and workshops on agile retrospectives.