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Niko-Niko Retro Mashup

The scrum guide describes the retrospective event as an opportunity for the whole team to inspect and create a plan for improvements going forwards. There are several techniques available to conduct a retrospective. Depending on the goal of the retrospective, a technique could be chosen for facilitation. The book Agile Retrospectives by Ester Derby and Diana Larsen is an excellent source of information on retrospective techniques. Irrespective of the technique used, a good retrospective generally follows the structure below:

  • Set the Stage – Set the mindset of looking at issues without assigning blame.
  • Gather Data – Get the viewpoints of all members of the team so that you can create a shared picture of what is happening.
  • Generate Insights – Unpack the data and analyse or look for the root causes.
  • Decide what to do – Make sure the team decides together and prioritizes what is the most important thing for them to do.
  • Close – Appreciate peoples time and get feedback in terms of how to get better at retrospectives, both you as facilitator and the team.

Niko-Niko Retro Mashup is a new technique, that I created, that leverages the structure described above for facilitating a retrospective. The word Niko comes from Japanese and means “Smile” and Niko-Niko relates more with the word smiley. The Niko-Niko calendar is often used by agile teams to record the mood of every agile team member at the end of the sprint day. Mashing-up this technique along with retrospectives, gives birth to the Niko-Niko Retro Mashup 🙂

Here is simple illustration of the retrospective board to “Set the Stage” and “Gather Data” initially.  

Niko-Niko Retro board mashup
Niko-Niko Retro board mashup

Setting up the Board

  • Draw two lines on a clear whiteboard or on a large chart paper that divides it into 3 sections. The whole retrospective will progress with activities corresponding to the three sections starting from left to right.
  • At the top of each column of the board, affix or draw stick figure images. These are meant to provide some visual clue on what is expected as an activity for that column. The left most column should have a standing figure with a pose of someone who is thinking. The central column should have a figure of a person that is standing and observing. The final stick figure on the right most column should have a figure of a person that is starting to run or sprint.
  • The central column has some clouds drawn into them. I’ll explain how to use these shortly. The bottom most cloud should have the word “ETHER” written inside it.
  • The right most column has three additional figures. Starting from left to right, there is a sketch of an upright flower plant in a pot, which is at its prime. Healthy and full of life. The figure to the right of this pot, is another flower pot with a slightly drooping flower, but still standing. The rightmost sketch is of a flower that is past its prime and drooping down the side of the pot. I will explain what these mean and how to use them shortly.
  • Fill the remaining clouds with some aspect of the process you want the retro to be focussed on. Topics could be as diverse as managing technical debt, sprint planning 2 and the team’s first experiment with practicing Acceptance Test Driven Development (ATDD).

Facilitating the Retro

  • Gather the participants around in a semi-circle in front of the board.
  • Start with a quick warm up exercise. I usually ask the participants to all clap their hands as loudly as possible for 10 seconds. This sets up a positive mood and gets everyone ready and focussed!
  • As the main facilitator, explain to everyone that the retro will be divided into 3 stages corresponding to the three sections on the board and that we are all getting into stage 1 shortly.
  • Talk about the rules to be followed. It is recommended to write these on the board as well : (1) Only 2 post-its to be used per person for the main activity. (2) 1 emoticon to be drawn per post-it and (3) Place the post-it closest to the cloud you associate your emotion with.
  • In stage one, people are given 5 minutes to write into the left most column or place post-its related to their thoughts, specifically on the items written in the clouds in the central section. The cloud called “ETHER” is the wildcard and represents anything or everything.
  • Stage 2 is about associating the Niko-Niko post-its with the clouds. Each participant gets two post-its each. Using these, they could draw one of three emotions on it. Closer a post-it is placed to a particular cloud, stronger the emotion associated with it.
Niko-Niko emoticons
Niko-Niko emoticons
  • Allow 5 minutes to complete the activity. Then, as a team, start looking at the post-its and their affinities towards the clouds. Inquire with the team on patterns observed. Are there a lot of smileys against the cloud depicting technical debt? If so, invite participants to share why they feel so. Are there many sad face post-its against sprint planning part 2 topic. Again, invite participants to share. This activity usually gets everyone talking and some great insights could be gleaned from these.
  • Now comes the final part, Stage 3 – which is associated with the right most column. This activity is timed for 5 minutes duration.
  • What do those three flower pots depict? The first pot on the left represents whether the retro has resulted in identification of actions that could make the next sprint better. These actions often come out consciously or sub-consciously from the discussions that were part of Stage 2. The second flower pot represents that fact that some actions were understood, but there is still some ambiguity. The flower pot on the extreme right represents no actions having come out of the retro that could be used to improve the next sprint.
  • Using only 1 post-it per participant, these can be placed along with the Niko-Niko emoticon drawn on it, following the same rules, under one of the three flower pots.
  • The team now reflects where most of the post-its have been placed. Some discussions could take place. Finally close the retro once everyone gets a shared understanding of the actions for the next sprint. A lot of smileys under the pot with the drooping flower could mean that the team has reached “Nirvana” state and is comfortable that it can’t identify anything to improve with respect to the previous sprint. Teams that have been working together for many years enjoying many successes could be at this state.


A good retrospective is one that follows that 5 stages mentioned in this article. It is the open conversations and group decisions to embark on trying out improvement experiments that over time would make the team perform to higher levels.

Niko-Niko retrospective mashup is one more tool you could use as an agile coach or scrum master to help teams get the best out of themselves. Its simplicity makes it easy for anyone to participate in it. It could be conducted within 30 minutes and has the flexibility to be applied in various contexts, including training classes and workshops. It sets the team culture.

As Jeff Patton would say: “Read it, try it and share what works!”

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Posted by on December 10, 2018 in Agile


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