Retrospective Exercise: Doodle Checkin

Posted by Chris on April 16, 2009

I always start retrospectives, in fact more or less any meeting, by having the participants check in. After introducing the retrospective and describing its purpose, I let each participant in a round-robin fashion answer some question I ask. By having each participant speak in turn, the tone is set to show that during this meeting everyone is allowed and encouraged to be an equal participant. If we instead would just ask if someone wants to say something, those who are unsure, shy or quiet would probably not say anything and would be more keen on staying in that mode for the entire meeting.

doodleThe simplest way of doing this is to simply ask each participant to say something, for instance describe the past iteration in just one word. This activity, and some variations of it, is described as the Checkin activity in Agile Retrospectives, by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen.

However, if the group are becoming more used to participating in retrospectives, this activity can feel a little boring if used every time. This is a perfect time to spice it up with some more creativity from the participants. By having people draw something and then describe why the drew that specific picture, not only do we get a more rich picture (no pun intended) of their mood and feelings, but it also starts the creative process in everyone’s head.

Invite participants to be active participants of the retrospective, and help them to get in a creative thinking state. Share the mood and thoughts people have with the rest of the group, including the retrospective leader.

The retrospective leader asks participants to think about how they would describe the past iteration. Each person then draws a simple picture to symbolize their answer. Finally, in a round-robin fashion, everyone shows their drawing and describes what it shows.

Time needed
Ten to twenty minutes.

Materials needed
I recommend that you supply each participant with a magnetic drawing board (or even Doodle Pro for more size). A simple piece of paper and a pen could of course also work, but see the Motivation section below.


  • Ask the participants a question. You could ask them about their perceptions of the past iteration, or just their current feelings. Depending on the situation, you might want to hear about their feelings of this retrospective or just the work that was done.
  • Tell everyone to draw a picture that symbolize their answer.
  • When they are done (or time is up), ask them in turn to describe their picture to the rest of the group. Some will just say what it shows, others might describe why they drew that specific picture.
  • Listen carefully to signals indicating a safety concern. If necessary, follow up with an activity to create more safety for the retrospective.

In Pragmatic Thinking & Learning, Andy Hunt tells us to “add sensory experience to engage more parts of the brain” in problem solving and creativity. He goes on to write that “when you involve an addition input mode, you are activating more areas of the brain – you’re bringing more processing power online [...]“. So by drawing our thoughts and feelings, instead of just speaking them, we are thinking more effectively on this ‘problem’, and also setting our brains up for creative work.

And of course, a picture says more than a thousand words! In my own experience, people who can seem very shy and quiet often draw very descriptive pictures, and are normally quite happy to talk about them.

The question of using simple pen and paper or something like a magnetic drawing board comes down to the purpose of the activity, and the specific situation you are in. The ease with which you can erase a drawing board can create a sense of safety. “It does not matter if you cannot draw very well, it is just a doodle that will be gone in a minute.” The playful nature of it, a children’s toy, also helps in this regard.

On the other hand, you might want to use the drawings later in the retrospective for some other activity, or even bring them back to the team room, in which case paper trumps.

Two specific variations of this that I know of are the Project Weather activity (I will talk about this in an upcoming post) and my friend Michael‘s Car Instrument Board activity (which I will let him write up a description for himself).

Alt. 1: To really get the creative thoughts going, have the participants pair up to create a drawing together two-and-two. Tell each pair to take turns adding something to the drawing. You can start them off by giving them a subject to draw, such as an animal symbolizing the past iteration. The other person then gets to add something to the drawing to change it, for instance another animal trying to eat the first. The first person ‘defends’ by adding something more to the drawing, and on it goes. After discussing their thoughts and the drawing, the pair then presents it to the rest of the group.

Alt. 2: If you only have one drawing board, and preferably a large one, start by letting the first participant draw something (or do it yourself). The board is then passed to the next person who is not allowed to erase it, but must add to the picture. Everyone gets a turn to add to the complete picture!


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  • I really appreciate this wonderful post that you have provided for us.

  • Hi Chris,

    This is a great entry! It's fun, creative, educational, to-the-point and based on real experience.

    I bought my Doodle pad last Christmas and have been waiting for the opportunity to use it. Thanks to your inspiration, I'll be using it with my teams because doodling together is so much more fun than just on your own =>

    Keep writing!

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