An Easy Guide for your next Timeline Retrospective

The Timeline Retrospective is a classic format for reflecting on any timeframe longer than one month, the maximum prescribed on the Scrum Guide. For years, I have been experimenting on this format with different topics, timeframes, group types and sizes. In this article I would like to provide a structured and easy guide, as a summary for myself and maybe an inspiration for your next retrospective.

Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

Timeline Retrospective Base Formula

The Timeline Retrospective is composed of three core ingredients:

  1. Building a Shared Reality
  2. Visualizing the Emotional Journey
  3. Collecting Forward Actions & Learnings

1. Building a Shared Reality

A shared reality is an overview of events that happened during the timeframe we want to reflect upon. This overview is fact-based and neutral. Possible examples of events are: new colleagues joining, project deadline, OKR planning, Christmas Party.

Building a shared reality is important, in order to:

  • Reactivate the memory of the timeframe we want to discuss,
  • Fight the recency cognitive bias that gives greater importance to the most recent event,
  • Merge all perspectives that may not have been present in one place before.

In order to provide a mental checklist for the participants’ easy recollection, you can include different event categories such as: company, project, team, or product, process, people.

Timeline Example from MIRO

When starting the exercise, it helps to have an explicit invitation in which you state the reflection questions and the timeframe you will discuss, for example:

Please reflect on the second half of 2020 and note the events that you find were the most impactful for our project on a team, project or company level. State them in a neutral, clear and compact form.

There are different ways to populate the timeline based on the focus of the retrospective, size of the group and time available. If the group needs to create a shared understanding and clarify possible miscommunications, then it is important to give enough time to build a shared reality and discuss it.

The participants can reflect on the timeline individually, in pairs or in groups. After the participants reflected and collected the events, invite them (either individually or as group representatives) to populate the timeline. Keep an eye as a group on events that can be merged.

Once the timeline is complete, invite everyone to take a step back and look at the shared reality picture. On this timeline stand the events that the participants found impactful for this timeframe. Debrief in the larger group, by asking:

  • How was it to populate the timeline?
  • Was there anything you forgot but you are happy other colleagues brought up?
  • Any event you were not aware had happened until now?
  • How does it feel looking at this timeline together?
  • What comes up?

2. Visualize the Emotional Journey

The emotional journey is the summary of emotional changes the team members went through in relation to the events build above. For this second ingredient, we conciously switch our glasses, from neutral and fact-based to personal and emotional. In order to have a healthy sharing space, you need to make sure that the group has an established psychological safety.

Vizualising the emotional journey is important, in order to:

  • Give a voice and acknowledge everyone’s experience,
  • Visualise that more often than not, it is a shared experience and noone is alone,
  • Practice empathy by listening to each others inner perceptions.

To set the direction, have a clear invitation:

You can now walk through the timeline, revisiting your emotional states and sharing what you feel comfortable with to the other(s).

If the group is small, invite the participants one by one to draw and tell the story of their personal journey through the timeline. This can be a very powerful moment, where participants share experiences for the first time within the group. Therefore, it is crucial for the facilitator to hold a safe space, acknowledge the experience and truly appreciate the courage it takes to show vulnerability.

The Emotional Journey — Lines

If the group is large, organize the participants in pairs or triads. Invite them to dot and tell the story of their personal journey through the timeline to each other. Optionally, during debrief, you can create a common line through the patterns visible in the dots.

The Emotional Journey — Dotting

Debrief the exercise in the larger group, walking the timeline and inviting the participants to share as much as they are comfortable with.

Possible questions:

  • What patterns do you see?
  • What lows do you see? What do you think happened there? How was that?
  • What highs do you see? What do you think happened there? How was that?
  • What else do you think is important to acknowledge today?

3. Collecting Forwad Action & Learnings

At this point in your retrospective, you have created together a shared timeline and you have visualised the emotional journey of every participant. If you can afford it, now it is the perfect time for a short break. Otherwise, move ahead with the collecting forward action and learning step.

Collecting Forward Action & Learning is important, in order to:

  • Collect the learnings that emerged in the first two steps,
  • Consolidate these learnings with defined action items,
  • Agree on ownership & dates for the actions that are agreed upon.

My favorite activity for this step is a slightly modified jigsaw exercise, that I first read about in the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner.

A) Interest Groups

You start by creating groups based on a shared interest. My teams are inter-disciplinary, so I organise the first groups based on disciplines, creating space for the first reflection to happen in the tighter collaboration space. However, if you are running a multiple-team project retro, you can do this within the teams. I would suggest to keep an eye that these groups are not bigger than 4 people, otherwise I would advice more than one facilitator to hold the space in the parallel groups.

For this step, the invitation to the group goes along the lines:

The first half of this retrospective, we have build a shared reality timeline and visualised the emotional journey that everyone one of us has gone through. Having that big picture in mind, please take some time to reflect in your groups on the point below:

  • Achievements
  • Surprises
  • Learnings
  • Patterns
  • Action Items

B) Jigsaw Groups

For the second part of the exercise, form the jigsaw groups. In the best case scenario, every jigsaw group should include one representative of each interest group. However, shall this not be possible because of the uneven size of the interest groups, make sure to give some guidance to avoid crowding, such as a limit of group participants, no double representation of interest groups, etc.

Once the jigsaw groups have been created, invite them in the same steps as the previous round:

In the previous interest/discipline/team groups, you have reflected on the bigger picture and your achievements, surprises, learnings, patterns, and action items. Please bring the main points of the previous discussion to your jigsaw group and consolidate where appropriate or add more information to the 4 categories. You will be invited to introduce the action items back in the larger groups.

Once back in the larger group, invite the jigsaw groups to present in the following choreography:

  • One group shares their top action item,
  • Check with the other groups if they also had the same. Discuss if this is largely accepted and if yes, ask for an owner and a due date.
  • Move to the next group, and so on until everyone had their action items either introduced by themselves or others.

Consider a Check-in and Check-out. Otherwise, sometimes a quick stretch is the most welcomed 5 minute exercise in our remote setups.

And voilà!

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Anablava Abendroth

Anablava Abendroth

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I like writing my thoughts down. Sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, always with gusto.