The “Mad, sad, glad” Retro Format

When talking about agile collaboration at a certain point the term “retrospective” will come up. Agile retrospectives are defined as regular meetings of a team to examine past collaboration and to derive suggestions for improvement for future cooperation. You can read further into this topic in our article about How to run great retrospectives. There are many different agile retrospective techniques that can help to structure your retrospectives. One of those techniques is the “Mad, sad, glad” Retro format.

Similar to 4L-Retrospectives “Mad, sad, glad” Retro formats can be used to emphasize positive (glad) as well as negative (mad, sad) parts of your last sprint. The difference is that “Mad, sad, glad” Retro formats aim to look at the events from an emotional perspective rather than a factual one. 

To give you further information on this agile retrospective technique we’ll give you detailed insights on when and how “Mad, sad, glad” Retro formats can be used.

5 phases of agile retrospectives

In general, agile retrospective meetings can be structured into five different phases. Those are:

  1. Setting the stage
  2. Gathering information
  3. Developing insights
  4. Deciding what needs to be done
  5. Closure 

For a deeper understanding of the five retrospective phases you can read our article on How to run great retrospectives. But how is this connected with the “Mad, sad, glad” Retro format?

This agile retrospective technique is implemented into the second phase of agile retrospective meetings: Gathering information. In order to fully understand the causes of the occurrences of the last sprint it is necessary to gather information on what exactly happened first. Organising these events into Mad, sad and glad events helps to remember specifically what was going on during the last weeks. People tend to remember things better if they are linked with emotions. Therefore looking at the events from an emotional perspective can have a supporting effect on gaining a deep understanding for the causes of potential obstacles. 

Questions to open up a “Mad, sad, glad” Retro format 

In our experience many teams run into the problem to get creative with this format and open up. That’s OK, it’s not so easy to talk about feelings in a team if the psychological safety is maybe not yet developed fully.

The following questions can help you as an easy entry and food for thought for your team:

Exemplary questions & reasons to be “Mad”

This category can be used to talk about what made you mad in the last sprint. So what could that be? Here are our exemplary questions you can use to open a discussion about topics that could potentially cause team members to be mad:

  • In which situations did you feel unacknowledged or overlooked? 
  • Which decisions have been made above your heads?
  • Which problems have been discussed behind your back? 
  • Do you feel that someone made a fool out of you or cheated on you?
  • What are unresolved issues that concern you?  

All these questions can generate insights about things that are stopping your team from performing at its best and uncover things that your team feels need to be scotched.  

Exemplary questions & reasons to be “Sad”

The second category can be used to talk about incidents that disappointed you. Typically those right here are good questions to uncover reasons for being sad:

  • What makes you sad or takes away the joy in your work? 
  • What achievements have not been reached? 
  • Where are we slower than expected? 
  • Which promises have been broken? 
  • What made you feel hurt?
  • Have there been conflicts that continue to bother you?

This can be linked to specific events or to a general atmosphere. It can be a real relief for your team to talk about those aspects. So make sure your team members feel heard when sharing their thoughts on this.

Exemplary questions & reasons to be “Glad”

This is the happy category. It comes last to end on a positive note. This part is usually easier for teams to express:

  • What brings you joy? 
  • What makes your day at work? 
  • What makes you like coming to work? 
  • What went way better than you thought? 
  • Which risks have turned out well?
  • Was there a specific event that made you happy?
  • On what occasion did you and your team felt a strong bond? 
  • What don’t you want to miss in your working life?

It’s important to discuss this as well in your retro to include those things in your everyday working routine. Because different from the prior questions, this question is focusing on positive things which your team likes to keep up or even invest in which are equally important.

By the way: If you like this retro format, you can open it directly in the team development tool Echometer:

How to design a “Mad, sad, glad” Retro format

Within the phase of gathering data you go through several steps for the “Mad, sad, glad” Retro format. These four steps are equally important and you should therefore use all of them in order to use this agile retrospective technique efficiently. 

Step 1: Explanation

It’s necessary to start the exercise with an explanation. In order to explain the exercise and its categories you can for example draw a table on a whiteboard with three columns on it with the headings Mad, sad and glad. Also make sure to maybe share some of those exemplary questions from above to make it easy for your team to make up their minds and get creative.

Afterwards you hand out sticky notes and explain to the participants that they should think about and write down what made them mad, sad or glad during the last sprint. They shouldn’t talk during that phase. This is important so they do not influence each other. Each sticky note stands for a different topic. 

Participants sometimes tend to be confused about what exactly belongs to being mad or sad. These two emotions are often connected. If it’s not possible for someone to differentiate between those two emotions they can place their sticky note in the middle of both columns.

Step 2: Writing down the events in silence

As you already explained to the participants of the agile retrospective meeting they should write down what made them mad, sad or glad in this phase. Usually three minutes are enough but since retrospectives need to be adapted to the needs of your team you can extend or shorten this step a bit.

It is important that you adjust the amount of sticky notes to your team. If you have team members that are quiet and don’t participate much you can set a minimum amount of sticky notes that they should use. If you have team members that are extraverted and strongly involved you can set a maximum limit of sticky notes.

You, as the moderator, can choose yourself whether you want to be involved as well. It can be complicated to take on two roles: as a team member and as the moderator of the agile retrospective meeting. You should decide yourself whether you’re able to do this. If not, we recommend to only function as the moderator.

Step 3: Structure and categorise

At this step the team members are requested to place their sticky notes on the board and explain what they mean with each one. The participants should place their sticky notes one after another on the board. This is important to prevent chaos and to make sure that they listen to each other.

If there are similar topics those should be put into categories. It is important that the moderator reminds the group of categorising the topics. 

Although people are allowed to clarify questions during this phase and discuss the topics, it is important that this doesn’t gain the upper hand. It is the job of the moderator to limit discussions if they tend to get out of hand. This step is only about gathering data and therefore shouldn’t end in an endless discussion. 

In order to make everyone feel worshipped you should thank every person for their contribution after placing their sticky note on the board and explaining it to their fellow team members. 

Step 4: Choose a topic 

After having all topics explained and categorised the moderator should generate an overview of the columns. For example you can explain which column has lots of topics and what this says about the last sprint. 

If one topic particularly stands out you can choose this one for a more detailed discussion. If the importance of the topics is balanced you can use dot-voting (An explanation is given in our article about 4L Retrospectives) in order to choose a topic for the in-depth discussion. 

In the discussion you should talk about what happened, why it happened, what you should keep for your next sprints or what needs to be improved. This is helpful to develop insights and decide what needs to be done (phase 3 and 4 of the 5 phases of agile retrospectives). 

In Summary: “Mad, sad, glad” Retro format

“Mad, sad, glad” Retro formats are an efficient agile retrospective technique which can help your team to gather detailed information on the events of your last sprint. Nevertheless, there are still more possibilities to create retrospectives in order to look at recent events from different perspectives. If you want to gain further insight in other agile retrospective techniques you should check out our upcoming articles about X and Y retrospectives.

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