6 Thinking Hats for Retrospectives


I like retrospectives, I like them a lot. If I had to keep a single ritual from agile practices in a project, I would choose retrospectives without a doubt.

During the last 5 years I’ve been working mostly as a product owner or product manager, and mostly on companies using agile or trying to, and retrospectives always helped me better understand the team and the issues they were facing and usually helped improve our inevitably flawed process.

Improvement is the name of the game, it helps on Kaizen in leanspeak, the continuous improvement of the process of delivering software. The ritual alone won’t improve anything, but it’s a mechanism through which you get the team talking about how to improve, and that’s how you start.

One technique I learned from Andre Faria and Luiz Faias Jr many years ago is an adaptation of Edward de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats to use in retrospectives. The original book isn’t very interesting, but the idea is very good: avoid endless discussion in a meeting by making the group focus on a single aspect of the discussion, represented as a coloured hat.

Each color represents one aspect of the subject being discussed:

  • Blue Hat - Meta, management of the discussion
  • White Hat - Information and facts only, no judgment, no rationalizations
  • Black Hat - Critical thinking applied to the “negative” side of the subject, to its problems
  • Yellow Hat - Optmistic, positive consideration of the subject
  • Green Hat - Constructive, out-of-the-box thinking about the subject
  • Red Hat - Intuitions, sentiments, emotions towards the subject

The original explanation of the colors differs a bit, but these are good enough. The rule is that when people are talking they must be “wearing” of the hats, and whatever they say must be restricted to the aspect it represents. By making the aspect explicit the discussion flows better, reduces misunderstandings and allows a more rational dialogue.

Adapting the technique to the agile world, and retrospectives in particular, we split the meeting in timeboxes named after each hat and everybody uses the same hat at each turn. We then order them in a way that is good to recap the sprint and think about how to improve for the future, in this case:

  • Blue Hat - Meta, ground rules, recap of the timebox and goal of the meeting
  • White Hat - What happened during the sprint? Just the facts
  • Black Hat - What was “bad”/didn’t work during the sprint? Avoid excuses/rationalizations
  • Yellow Hat - What was “good”/worked well during the sprint?
  • Red Hat - How are we feeling about the last sprint? No judgments, no debate, no interruptions
  • Green Hat - What can we do to improve in the next sprint? Enumerate specific actions with owners and deadlines
  • Blue Hat - Meta, review of the action list

By timeboxing each hat we “guarantee” that the meeting will have a pre-defined duration (1 hour is usually enough) and avoid never ending discussion and also have the good side effect of limiting or eliminating glib people from monopolizing the meetings. By focusing on coming out with an action list we come out with a concrete result.

Of course, only having an action list won’t fix the problems, the team must be able to execute them, but that’s left as an exercise for the reader. I’ve made a presentation with a quick explanation of the process with more operational details, you can see it bellow, it can be used to share the idea with more people, including using it to explain the process to a team.

I really like this technique and I would like to have feedback from people using it, so I can learn from other experiences and we can improve it. To make things easier I make myself available to help you run a retrospective on your team, I can act as the facilitator for a session, explain the process and be an impartial observer, free of charge. Of course, due to logistical issues this would be done remotely over Google Hangouts or similar app, it will depend on fitting it to my schedule, and I’m limited to English, Portuguese and French sessions only, but it’s a start :)

If you want to learn more about retrospectives I recommend taking a look at Paulo Caroli’s “Fun Retrospectives” e-book, he showcases different techniques that can be used in retrospectives and even other situations, it’s pretty interesting and can complement or substitute the Thinking Hats method.

You can get in touch with me on @rafaelrosafu or by e-mail on contact@mindthecloud.com, or you can leave a comment bellow.