The Starfish exercise is based on an evolution of the typical three questions that are used for retrospectives:
What went well?
What did not go so well?
What will be improved?
Instead of the typical three questions, the starfish exercise contains a circle with five words:
Stop – These are the activities that do not bring value to a team or to a customer. Activities that bring waste into the process.
Less – These are activities where the effort required to perform such activities is much smaller than the benefit. (Or activities that were brought into the team in the past but did not show any overall improvements to a process.)
Keep – Usually these are good activities or practices that team members want to keep. These activities are already being applied.
More – Activities on which a team should focus more and/or perform more often. For example, many teams tell me how pair programming is good, yet they do not do it each time they should.
Start – Activities or ideas that a team wants to bring into the game.
With the starfish exercise, teams can get a good overall picture of what’s going on within the team, what is working and what is not. They can get an overview covering both failed and successful work experiences in the past. In my personal opinion, I think this is a great evolution of the typical three questions.
When you would use this technique:
I believe the starfish exercise is quite simple and does not require any special occasion. Although, it might be interesting to apply it to situations wherein a team went through several ups and downs during the iteration. This technique reveals all the good things and less positive things achieved by a team. Therefore, this might be a good tool with which to make a summary of the sprint.
Starfish exercise is suitable for any team; it does not require any specific level of maturity.
How to do it
The starfish exercise is quite simple: First, we draw something like what is shown on the picture above in a flip chart. One of the beauties of this exercise is the fact that collocation of a team is not mandatory. You can use, for example, tools like Lino to apply the exercise to non-collocated teams. This tool allows us to do everything that we need to in order to run this exercise.
After placing the picture on a flip chart, it´s good to start a brainstorming session with your team, allowing them to dump their ideas in the “Stop” area. After that, give 2-3 minutes to each person to read out loud their “stop” ideas. Afterwards, spend 10 minutes on a short discussion to see if everyone is aligned.
Repeat the exercise for each of the different parts: “Less”, “Keep” and “More”.
For the “Start” part, add one extra step and use the Toyota approach, choosing one single topic to “Start”. I would ask for votes to see what the most important topic is, and that is the one the team should start with. After selecting the topic, design a small strategy to make sure a topic is well-implemented. This strategy might include responsible persons, the due date, and the most important success criteria. In order to know if the implementation was successful or not, we must have success criteria outlined.
I would like to highlight the fact that the theme that is chosen in the “Start” part does not need to be a new topic for a team, it can be an improvement on something that is not working well within the team.
Another important thing that is worth mentioning is the order of different “words” in the circle. I really like to start with: “Stop”, “Less”, “Keep”, “More” and finish with “Start”. I think this has a big impact. Starting with negative topics and progressing little by little towards the positive ones will help the team to end the retrospective with a much more positive feeling than if they did it in a random order.
I honestly think the starfish exercise is both pleasant and effective, but I would love to get your feedback. Please comment on this and let me know your opinion.
On my next blog post I explain how to use the “Value Stream Mapping” exercise to run a retrospective.
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