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Sailboat Retrospective

Picture a sailboat headed toward a beautiful tropical island with all the drinks with umbrellas you could ever want.🍹 But as you sail to your island paradise, you want to stay wary of the obstacles in your way, like rocks or coral. And you want to harness the wind to keep your team progressing toward your end goal. Wait...obstacles, progress, and goals? Your vacation has all the makings of a great agile retrospective! In fact, a Sailboat retrospective is a useful retrospective template that can illuminate all of the things that are helping and hindering your agile team. ⛵

Use the sailboat retrospective technique when you want to…

Define your team's end goals.

Identify risks that may disrupt your path.

Identify what is slowing your team down on its journey to the end goal.

Identify what helps the team achieve its goals faster.

How to run a sailboat retrospective?

This fun retrospective exercise is all about the visual. So, before we sail off on this meeting, the facilitator sets the scene by explaining all elements of the retrospective: a sailboat heading towards an island, rocks between the sailboat and the island, gusts of wind pushing the sailboat, and an anchor hanging from the sailboat. Each of these items represents a part of the team's previous sprint. Together they will paint a full picture of your team's current sprint retrospective.

  • The Island
  • Represents the teams’ goals and larger vision.
  • The Rocks
  • Represent the potential risks the entire team may encounter while working towards their goals in future sprints.
  • The Anchor
  • Represents things that are slowing team productivity and success.
  • The Wind
  • Represents ideas for improvements that may help propel the team towards your goal.

    Setting the Stage

    Before casting off, make sure everyone has a shared understanding of the common goal of the retrospective. Depending on the size of the team, your entire retrospective meeting has the possibility of lasting several hours. 😱 If you want to limit the time on this retrospective session, create a timebox for the entire meeting (30-60 minutes, depending on the size of the team) so the team has an idea of how much time each discussion should take.


    Begin the retrospective by deciding as a team the purpose of your “mission,” keeping the end goal in mind. 🏝

    At this step, the team will be expected to brainstorm and identify areas and processes that are:

    • ⚓ Currently hindering the team
    • ⛰️ Posing risks to the team achieving the goal at hand
    • 🌬️  Already existing team strengths that are propelling the team forward

    The facilitator should set a timebox and let participants develop their ideas and capture these as multiple notes. During the brainstorming session, the entire team should keep their valuable feedback private. 🤫 This helps prevent groupthink and ensures that team members aren't swayed by seeing the opinions of others. (Psst, we know a retrospective tool that makes this step easy...) 


    Many notes will likely contain similar (or even identical) ideas. It's always great to see points of team alignment! To get the next step started, the facilitator announces the timebox (5 minutes) and encourages the participants to group notes into logical themes. This part of the exercise is intended to highlight popular and differing opinions that are in need of a discussion.

    • 🌑 Identify the rocks: What are the things the team recognizes as potential risks to their success?
    • 💨  Identify the wind: What’s going well for your team, or, in other words, what’s putting wind in your sails?
    • ⚓  Identify the anchors: Is there anything negatively anchoring your ships and blocking opportunities for improvement?

    Dot Voting

    Sometimes discussion topics are obvious. For example, if there are several similar notes on process improvement ideas, your team has an obvious pain point to discuss. However, sometimes it can be challenging to structure the discussion in an organized way. If this is the case, the facilitator can opt to use dot voting to prioritize the discussion based on the collective desires of the group.

    Team Discussion

    If dot voting was used, then the team discusses the notes in prioritized order. If not, the facilitator can choose the order of discussion. When it comes to timeboxing the discussion, you have a couple of options. You can set a period of time for the entire conversation (20-40 minutes), or you might choose to timebox the discussion of each individual topic (typically 5-10 minutes). The second approach tends to keep the conversation on topic and moving at a faster pace. 

    Throughout the discussion, the facilitator focuses on each part of the scene and helps the team evaluate all the anchors, wind, and rocks. For example, during the discussion, the team can strategize how to turn an anchor into a gust of wind, or eliminate as many rocks as possible. As the conversation progresses, it's imperative that the facilitator also write down any action items that come out of the discussion in order to help the team realize continuous improvement with each sprint.

    This effective retrospective technique is a creative way for your team to visualize the end goal and understand what systems need to change for your team to reach all their islands. 🏝️

    Ready to run a sailboat retrospective?

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