How to use solutions-focused scaling for Agile Retrospectives

Most Agile retrospectives are about how the team is feeling e.g. happy, sad, confused etc. We then try and understand the cause of the problem so that we can fix it, in the same way that we try to debug an issue with a software program. This approach makes sense when dealing with complicated problems, such as software, which have direct cause effect relationships. However, when working with team dynamics, people interactions and feelings, we are working with, and within, a complex system that doesn’t have a direct cause and effect relationships.

Trying to understand the root cause of something in a complex system can take a lot of time, and isn’t necessarily helpful in finding the desired solution. In complex systems, there is no direct relationship between a problem and the desired solution – this is one of the things that defines a complex system

Solutions-focused approaches to change[1] have shown that a more direct approach for complex systems is to investigate for clues of where evidence of the solution you want is happening already and do more of it. In addition you can also identify small actions to take, like mini-experiments, to see if these actions nudge the complex system in the direction of the desired solution.

The following retro format uses one of the tools from a solutions-focused approach called scaling. The retro outline is based on the Retrospective Patterns template.

Usage: Good to help a team understand what they are doing right, should do more of, and feel optimistic about continuous improvement.

Short Description: Use a scale to determine how well the team is doing, what is working even a little bit, what incremental improvements would look like, and what small actions would improve things. This is not a problem solving exercise but a solutions finding exercise.

Length of time: 60 minutes


  • White-board large enough to draw a long horizontal scale.
  • Post-it notes
  • Markers/Pens
  • Optional: Flip-chart paper

Write the questions from step 5 on one piece of flip-chart paper, and the questions from step 8 on another page and leave covered until they are needed.


  1. Draw a large horizontal line on the white-board. Mark the start of the line with 0, the end of the line with 10 and the middle of the line with 5. Mark evenly spaced dashes vertically across the line for the other numbers 1-9.
    blank scale from 0 - 10
  2. Hand out post-it notes and pens to all team members. Make sure they have plenty of post-it notes each.
  3. Explain to the attendees that 10 is the most ideal period of work that you could of had (since the last retro) and 0 is ‘Nothing being done’. Leave the details of what 10 and 0 are as relatively blurry since they will mean something different to each person – and that’s OK.
  4. Ask the attendees to write down where they rate the last fortnight on the scale. The number is subjective and need not necessarily be shared with the group. The number on the scale is not actually that important from an objective perspective but is important for the questions that we will ask next.

    Variation: Ask the team to pick a number on the scale that represents how the last fortnight was for them personally versus how it was for the whole team. Have them apply the questions in step 5 to this number as well.

    If you use the retro format for a number of sessions, don’t insist that the number participants come up with each time is higher than in the previous retro. The rating is a subjective number and depends on what has happened in the period of time to which the retro applies.

  5. It is important that you ask the following questions exactly as phrased to get the most out of this exercise. Have participants write each answer that they come up with on a separate post-it note. Ask each participant to come up with at least 8-12 ideas from across all the questions. Give the participants 10-15 minutes to do this. If you have previously written these questions on flip-chart paper you can show them now.Why are we this high as opposed to zero?

    Q1. “Write down as many things that you can think of that made your number that HIGH as opposed to zero.”
    (We specifically want to know what is happening that makes the score as high as it is. This is a deliberately different question to “Why is the score not 10?”)

    Q2. “Are there any times since the last retro, when the number was higher than now? What was happening at those times that made the number higher than the one you chose today?”

    Q3. “Who or what helped you in giving a number that high?”

    Q4. “What else made your number that high? What else? What else?”

  6. Have the participants come up to the white-board and stick their post-it notes below the scale line but anywhere along the scale. They don’t have to put up the number they chose and they can put the post-it notes anywhere on the scale they just need to be visible.
  7. Spend 10-15 minutes going through the notes and expanding out what each note meant and understanding what was happening and HOW we did it. We want to know what’s working, and how to do more of it, and what resources we used to make it happen. Resource may include qualities, skills, co-operation, friends, others, opportunities, money, time, attitudes – absolutely anything that helps. Stay away from unwrapping the problem to try and understand it. The focus is on understanding how we are making the things we want to happen occur and how to do more of it.
  8. It is important to ask the following question as written to get the most out of this exercise. Have participants write each answer that they come up with on a separate post-it note. Participants can probably come up with 3-5 options each. If you have previously written these questions on flip-chart paper you can show them now.What's happening at +1 on the scale?

    Q1. “What would you notice was different for your to give a number one step higher on this scale e.g. if you’re now at a 6, what would be different for your to give a 7? This is not about what action you would need to take but just what would be different.”

    Q2. “What might others notice if you were at +1 on your scale?”

  9. Have the participants stick their post-it notes above the scale line and towards the 10 end of the scale.
  10. Spend time going through the +1 ideas to understand what they are and also to check if they are actually a small step up the scale rather than trying to go from say a 6 to a 9. If they are a larger step, ask “What would be the first small sign that this was happening?”
  11. Sometimes, the above is enough, and, if you have time, ask the question “What tiny steps do you have in mind that would help you move forward? Something that you can do in the next few days.” The answers to this question may or may not get you to +1 but they will help you make progress.

    I don’t necessarily capture the action items because, as the next few days unfold, there may be other tiny steps that participants come up with that will move them up on the scale and it’s OK if they take those actions instead.

  12. End the session by thanking everyone for participating. Capture the output of the session it whatever way is convenient.


1. Jackson, Paul Z. and McKergow, Mark. The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE, Nicholas Brealey Publishing; Second Edition edition (December 14, 2006)1