The intersection of technology and leadership

Retrospective Safety Exercise: Three Word Starter

I’ve been looking for alternatives to the standard Create Safety (1-5) Exercise. I’ve found this sometimes fails me when you have new people to a team you’re facilitating a retrospective for. It’s hard to distinguish between “I’ll just smile, nod and agree everything is okay” because they have nothing to add, or they feel very uncomfortable because of things going on in the environment. I adapted this exercise from a coaching technique that a fellow trainer (JJ) suggested. I feel this exercise helps set the scene and mood of the group and gives the facilitator additional qualitative insights. I call it the Three Word Starter.

What it is: A way of gauging the general mood of the group using a qualitative technique.

Time needed: 10 minutes

What you need:

  • 3 sticky notes per person
  • A marker pen
  • A place you can put them up

How to run it:

  1. Ask each person to take 3 sticky notes each
  2. Ask the group to consider how they’re feeling about the retrospective
  3. Ask each person to write down a single word per sticky note. Remind them to avoid pictures or phrases if possible.
  4. Collect them and post them up on the wall/chart/board (you have the option of doing this anonymously or asking them to do so)
  5. Group words together (exact/common ones) and talk through general themes.

Tips for facilitating the 3-Word Starter

  • Ensure everyone is made aware of the overall mood of the group. Depending on the size of the group, get everyone to read each other’s feelings or read them out to the group.
  • If you see large themes of concern or indicators of low safety, address them directly by asking them to Check-In. Say something like “We recognise that the group is feeling a little bit [insert word or theme here]. I’d like to ask you to “check in” these feelings and be open to this discussion that aims to strengthen confidence and improves effective. It is an exercise for celebration and improvement. It’s not about blame or criticism. At the end of the session you are welcome to “check out” these feelings again”.

As the group size diminishes think about increasing the number of words per person. For a group of 15 people, I used a 3 word starter. For a group of 8 people, I used a 5-word starter. The aim is to get enough words to draw common themes, but not so many that it’s overwhelming.

Tag Cloud

Group together words that are exactly the same, or have the same meaning. When I report back the results of the retrospective, I use a Text/Tag Cloud generator to help put common words together so you get a good feel of how the group is going. I’ve been very happy with the ones TagCrowd produces.


  1. Jason Yip

    I’m curious how this would vary with differing language skills.

  2. Brendan Flynn

    I have used this technique with a professional facilitator but it has not been used since. The feedback from the team was that they did not get much value out of the exercise, felt it was a bit “touchy/feely.” We spent 20-30 minutes exploring our feelings when everyone just wanted to jump right into start, stop, continue. While I do see the value for new teams… teams that have established patterns have a sense of trust in place already and do not need to go through this exercise, the themes present themselves naturally through conversation. For new teams, it does create a collaborative environment and sets the expectation that they are required to participate. I like the idea of the tag cloud, will have to steal that one :).

  3. Patrick

    Jason – I can only guess how it would work with varying language skills. Three single words should hopefully be easy and chances are you may not get exactly the same words though may still see common themes.

    Brendan – I agree that for some groups, it might be too touchy/feely. I could try to reduce this sense by not emphasising it too much and use it as a device to quickly gauge the group mood. I think it works well for new teams – for teams who’ve formed, may be less so.

  4. Owen Rogers

    Nice post. I’ve also had misgivings about the safety exercise and this seems to be a nice way to mix it up.

  5. kent

    Interesting article.

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