Circle of Questions strikes again!

Posted by Doc
Apr 19 2009

I facilitated a retrospective for a client’s product development team (s/w dev, product manager, QA) recently.  They had never done a retrospective before, so I had to choose my activities with some care.  That was challenging, because I had two hours, and wanted them to experience a variety of things during that time.  Here’s what we did:

  • Introduction and Welcome
  • Fun (the game I refer to as Count-Off – does anyone have another more common name for it?)
  • Prime Directive
  • Working Agreements
  • Starfish – I really wanted to do a timeline, but given the time limitations, opted for the Starfish
  • Break
  • Fun (Untangle or Human Knot) – facing inward, then facing outward
  • Take Temperature again
  • Circle of Questions
  • Appreciations
  • Closing

As is often the case with groups that have never done a retrospective before, it started with nervous laughter, silly jokes, a lot of shuffling, and nervous and expectant looks.

As I described the purpose of a retrospective, there were nods and some smiles and lots of interest.  This is a good group that works well together.  There were a couple of loudly self-professed introverts (is that an oxymoron?), and the usual variety of personality and communication types.

The Check-In helps to gauge the emotional atmosphere. I just asked “How are you feeling about being here right now? Give me a thumbs-up for good, thumbs-down for not good, and middle for neutral.” I got mostly up and neutral, with a few down.

Using Norm Kerth’s “Create Safety” exercise (from his book Project Retrospectives) helps to judge how safe the group feels in talking and sharing. Fortunately, the group I was working with was mostly in the 4 – 5 range, with a few 3’s.

When we got to the fun, it was – well – fun. 😉 My intent was as it is with most icebreakers – get them up, moving, stirring up some positive energy, sharing with each other, but no pressure other than our own native competitiveness.

While some disagree with it, I like Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive. For me, it sets the tone as non-judging, non-blame-searching, non-fault-finding.

Working Agreements, learned originally from Diana Larsen and Esther Derby in “Diana and Esther’s Excellent Retrospective Adventure” at Agile2008**, is a powerful and enduring tool. Once created, the team maintains them and continues to use them.  They become an embedded part of the culture. The activity of creating Working Agreements (or Ground Rules) is also covered in Diana and Esther’s excellent book “Agile Retrospectives” and in Norm Kerth’s “Project Retrospectives“.

Then we got to the Starfish. I love the looks on the first-timers’ faces. Blank, confused, unsure… and then the first person writes on a sticky and puts it up on the sheet of flipchart paper. And then the next. And then the dam breaks, and there’s a flood.  I love that.

We did clustering and discussing, and then mined it for information. The biggest thing to come out of it was that the team, as a whole, felt that they didn’t have an ongoing grasp of the overall product vision. They’ll be scheduling something to work on that.

After the break and the fun, I decided to check safety again. Not surprisingly, the numbers had shifted upward, with more 5’s and 4’s, and just a couple of 3’s remaining.

Now we get to the Circle of Questions.  Thanks for bearing with me.  The long lead-up was important.

You can imagine it. This group sitting around, with me explaining how Circle of Questions works. Oh, my. Blank looks, some looking distinctly uncomfortable, even just a touch of hostility, perhaps?

I finished explaining, and then chose one fellow to start it off. Wouldn’t you know that I’d picked perhaps the most introverted of the folks there, with the next most introverted sitting to his left! There was a long pause, after which I said “If you’d like, I can start you off.” He declined my offer, and got things started.

As always, it was a bit slow at first. What was wonderful was that the questions quickly became very deep, insightful, and important. They talked about their process. They talked about their organization. They talked about their frustrations and fears.  All done with great respect and mutual concern.

It was glorious.

After the first time around, ending with Mr. Introvert, I suggested that we continue, but going in the opposite direction. The other introvert said “I was going to ask if we could go in a different direction!” while Mr. Introvert said “Oh – I didn’t think of another question.” Long pause, then he got it started again.

Ultimately we got around one more time before I had to call time.

After the close of the retrospective, several of the participants came up to me to talk about the Circle of Questions: how surprised they were, how much they got out of, what they learned from it.

On the surface, Circle of Questions sounds like it’ll be kind of boring. It isn’t.

I’m really glad I actually read through all of the exercises in “Agile Retrospectives” – this one is one of my favorites.


* BTW, a great site for team building and ice breaker games is Wilderdom.

** I’m delighted to say that, as Stage Producer for the “New to Agile” stage at Agile2009, their workshop will be offered again. It’s a winner, and well worth attending if you have the opportunity.

4 Responses

  1. Twitter Comment


    RT @athought:Blogged: Circle of Questions strikes again! [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

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    • Doc says:

      Normally, I would have deleted this reply, as an obviously commercial advertisement. But, frankly, looking at the product, I think it’s kinda cool. So there you go – free advertising. 😉 And while I’m doing that, I’ll mention one of my favorite stress relief toys (great for meetings), Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty.

  3. Twitter Comment


    @athought you refer to Check-In (Thumbs-up/Thumbs-down) on this post [link to post] care to elaborate on that exercise?

    Posted using Chat Catcher

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