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Bad Is Good!

Leveraging a universal human trait in retrospectives for better results

26 July 2016

Bad is good!

Bad is Good

Eliciting quality inputs

One of the challenges ScrumMasters and Agile coaches face is getting quality inputs and insights from the team during retrospective meetings. Of course, there are a lot of prescribed techniques. In this article, I present how, as an Agile coach, I have used negativity bias, a common human trait, to elicit quality inputs about a completed sprint during a retrospective. Not only has this technique opened up my team but it has also provided surprising inputs. Ultimately, the team was able to identify bad practices that they should eliminate in upcoming sprints.

Bad outweighs good

Bad outweighs good

According to Elizabeth Kensinger's research, negative events may edge out positive ones in our memories.

The details we are most likely to remember accurately are the things that directly cause our negative emotional reaction. For example, if you are mugged, you might remember the gun pointed at you with a high level of detail, because it is what caused your fear; you might completely forget details that seemed peripheral, such as the things around you on the street or what your assailant was wearing.1

The retrospective

When the team is assembled for the retrospective, it takes three rounds to ponder bad practices and raise negative things that happened during the sprint. Team members write their inputs on three different colored sticky notes. Each color represents the degree of impact that the bad things had on the sprint.
  • High impact: The team struggled a lot with these things and everyone is unhappy.
  • Medium impact: These were really painful, but somehow the team managed them.
  • Low Impact: These were some silly and stupid things, which could be avoided easily over time.

Round 1: User stories (15 minutes)

During this round, we focus on user stories and the bad things that happened regarding them, such as changes in the accepted user story as part of the sprint planning, or user stories not satisfying the DEEP criteria (detailed appropriately, estimated, emergent, and prioritized) but forced on the team by the product owner. These are identified by the team, and their impact is also analyzed. The correctly colored sticky notes are used to write up the bad thing or incident.

Round 2: Development (15 minutes)

The focus then shifts to development.

Challenges: Availability of the needed environment, timely inputs, and clarifications from the product owner

Round 3: Definition of Done (15 minutes)

During this round, the team focuses on all those obstacles that prevented the team from meeting the Definition of Done.

Challenges: Poorly defined acceptance criteria and changes in acceptance criteria during testing

Round 4: Prioritization

Now that all the bad things have been identified, the team prioritizes the color-coded inputs that can be addressed in the upcoming sprint.

Everyone agrees that once bad things are fixed, there are no activities for the team to underperform. New bad things may happen during the current sprint, but that is good for the retrospective!

Bad is good!

A word of caution

The retrospect is about the process, not about the people. When we ask the team to discuss the bad things that occurred during the sprint, team members might get personal. When such views are expressed, intervene and redirect their focus and phrasing immediately.

1 Andrea Thompson, "Bad Memories Stick Better Than Good,", September 5, 2007,

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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