While a successful Agile retrospective implies an open discussion in a team, many would agree that it's not always easy to have everyone in a team actively involved in an exchange of opinions. There can be a number of reasons why people feel reticent and apprehensive about sharing their thoughts and feelings with their team fellows: Some might not feel comfortable due to cultural or personality reasons, others can be new to the team, or the whole team is new.
In view of the above, a "warm-up" exercise often proves appropriate in order to prepare a team for a productive retrospective session. Many exercises exist to fulfill this mission; here I describe an exercise that a team could try during the "Set the Stage" part of the session. This exercise, called "Constellation," is recommended as part of setting an affirmative goal for the session, after a welcome to the team members. I learned this Constellation exercise during an Agile workshop held by Lyssa Adkins in Stockholm in autumn 2012.
Constellation can be particularly recommended because the team members don't need to make verbal statements, even though they're responding to questions and expressing their opinions during the exercise. Odd though it may sound, this is possible because the participants answer the questions by moving around in silence.
The Constellation exercise requires enough open space that the team members can comfortably stand forming a circle, with sufficient room for them to move forward and backward from their initial positions. There should also be enough space in the center of the circle for an object to be placed on the floor. The object encircled by the team members represents the center of the "Universe."
The topic of the exercise, the questions to which the participants should give answers, can be anything relevant for the team. For example, "How mature is our continuous integration process?" "How mature is our automated testing process?" etc.
During the exercise, the team members respond to the questions by moving forward toward the center of the Universe if they agree with the statement of the question, or backward if they disagree with the statement of the question. Therefore, the answers of the participants are shown by their positioning within the system, or Universe. The more they agree, the closer they move toward the center, making a close circle. And vice versa: The more they disagree, the further apart they move.
To have honest answers, the team members can be further encouraged during the exercise, as Lyssa Adkins recommends: "Stand where your heart and mind tell you to stand." "Stand whenever it is true for you." "Any place you stand is OK. They all are acceptable." She emphasizes the need to remain neutral no matter where the participants choose to stand in order not to shut down their honesty (see her reply on February 2, 2013 in the blog http://lmsgoncalves.com/2013/01/23/constellation-a-good-exercise-to-set-the-stage-in-the-retrospective/).
It is essential that the participants observe their positioning in the system every time after they've given their answer to a question. How far are they from each other in the Universe? As Adkins puts it, "Let the system reveal itself." Do the exercise with a few questions until there's a good "vibe" from the team.
To get the full benefit from this exercise, Adkins also suggests that the team members can answer the question, "Where you surprised with the shape of the system?" After that they can discuss their experiences from the exercise with each other.
As the next step, the team members can work further on their thoughts about the exercise by discussing and writing down what they think needs to be improved. This could be conveniently done in smaller groups of no more than three people, so that everybody has a better chance to be heard and to contribute with individual thoughts and ideas.
All that's left after this is to act on the list of improvements suggested by the team members.