High-Performing Teams Debrief. They Do NOT play Retrospective Games.

A little while ago I read an article by Doug Sundheim - https://hbr.org/2015/07/debriefing-a-simple-tool-to-help-your-team-tackle-tough-problems which discusses how high performing teams don’t do retrospectives, they debrief. The link to the article was titled ‘High-Performing Teams Debrief. They Don’t Play Games’, i.e. using retrospectives is wrong we should be all grown up and use the term debrief – while you’re at work you’re not allowed to enjoy yourself. My first thought was ‘why?, what’s wrong with a good retro?’ . 

 I had a read through and Doug Sundheim pretty much re-iterates the points made by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen in Agile Retrospectives (see table below). So that’s a good point, everyone agrees on what makes a good retrospective whether you want to call it a debrief or a retrospective, and we all agree that a retrospective with no actions implemented after it is not a good one.




Schedule a regular time and place

Allocate enough time for the meeting. Book an hour at least, you can always leave early if you have finished. Structure the meeting carefully to ensure the session flows well, from a clear opening through to the definition of actions at the end

Create a learning environment

Use engaging (and fun, even) activities throughout the session Vary those activities each retrospective to ensure that these regular meetings stay fresh and challenge attendees to look at things from a new perspective 

Review four key questions


What were we trying to accomplish?

Set the stage

Where did we hit (or miss) our objectives?

Gather data

What caused our results?

Generate insights

What should we start, stop, or continue doing?

Decide what to do

Codify lessons learned

Be tenacious when it comes to creating a small number of concrete, actionable tasks at the end of the meeting. These actions are the real value of the retrospective – the teams adaptations and the mechanism through which they will improve. Close – Goal: Summarize and end the meeting 

So what then about the games bit – should we be ignoring the idea of themes and games and only following the same format of retrospective? I would argue no, but thought I would capture some reasons why. 

Team bonding

It sounds like the first reason I mention belongs in a game of buzzword bingo, but, this is an important item when it comes for team improvement.  The more the team can get used to each other, learn to respect each other’s skills and aspirations, the more the team will be able to operate at its highest level.

Distraction / Relaxation

Getting a team at ease, improves the chance of openness and free speaking within the meeting. This then follows into a far more accurate representation of the steps and stages leading to success or failure that the team then want to analyse. The same is true of distraction, people who are taking part in a game are using a different  area of their brain to their regular working mode, this means that there is likely to be some subconscious processing of issues leading to steps in understanding of what happened / what needs to happen. It is often mentioned that people have eureka moments in the shower, advocating team showers probably won’t go down well, but having games in some of your retrospectives is an enabler to a focus change in our thinking. A linked-in survey suggested that only 0.6% of eureka moments happen at work or in a brainstorming style activity.

Highlighting Assumptions

There are quite a few games that seek to ‘out’ assumptions or elephants in the room, often during a more structured meeting teams will tend to the normal behaviour of not challenging the assumptions that they live with. The distraction of certain game formats targets assumptions and drawing them out for assessment.

Targeting behaviours

We can use specific game types to view specific behaviours or behavioural areas meaning we can highlight or target certain parts of how the team behaves, to either improve or re-inforce.

Targeting a time period

We can use differing games types to target either long term or short term issues, we need to cycle through both as part of our continuous improvement cycle.

Other Debrief tools still fit in

Want to use ‘5 whys’ or similar analysis on a particular issue – using games doesn’t break the capability to mix multiple techniques.

Using games is not about frivolity, they serve a purpose as part of the over-all retrospective method. It is part of the duty of the person running the retrospective to plan a meeting that will enable the team to improve, by targeting differing methods, sometimes serious or simple ones as well as slightly more complex games, we enable a team to thoroughly inspect and adapt their process at varying levels.


All said and done, games or not, Doug is right – the most important point is to regularly inspect and adapt our processes as a team, if you aren’t you need to start.