Retro Technique: Building Team Empathy

One in a series of posts intended to provide retro techniques to facilitators by way naming a flavor* and then describing tricks or insights to help tackle that flavor.

* flavor – an often implicit vibe, emotion, or general attitude of a team that can inhibit fruitful conversation.

I recently had a delightful opportunity come my way: design a retrospective to help the “Left Brains”  and the “Right Brains” on a team figure out why they were having so much trouble communicating effectively.

The problem had emerged as feelings of frustration by both “sides” over the course of several development iterations that were part of a new release. And the more standard retro’s in my toolbox ( were just not producing action items that helped the team improve their situation.

The left brain thinkers continued to be their verbal and analytical selves. And if you hadn’t already guessed it, this group was the platform developers, the engineers. The folks writing the code. Their approach was to process information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces, then putting them together to get the whole.

The reciprocal part of the team was the graphic UI designers / UX folks – the right brainers – who relied on visual, nonverbal and intuitive cues, using pictures rather than words.  They also generally looked at the whole picture first then the details.

So the goals of the retro:

  • Help the “two sides” grok how the other side “thinks”
  • Make the root causes for their current impediments and frustrations more visible
  • Lay the groundwork for building more empathy

Left brain versus right brain

Introducing “The Empathy Toy”Toy box


The Empathy Toy from Twenty One Toys – “a blindfolded puzzle game that can only be solved when players learn to understand each other” – seemed like a great experiment to try for this situation.

Designing for this retro technique

Oh, I forgot to mention, I had one additional challenge: The retro was scheduled for 2PM, after a team lunch, which included wine and spirits, lots of pasta, and of course sugary desserts. Every facilitator’s fantasy…. the post lunch drowsiness dip for attendees.

So before diving right into the retro proper, I planned an ice-breaker that would get people up and moving: Tribes.

If you aren’t familiar Tribes, here’s how it works.

Someone with a “speaking stick” stands up, goes to a clear spot in the room, and makes the statement:

  • “All my tribe members that appreciate_______, join me here.”

Filling in the blank. Then those that the statement applies to gather around the speaker. The speaker passes the stick to a member of their ad-hoc tribe. That tribe disperses and the new speaker plays the next round…

Each speaker can choose their own related fill in the blank topic, and they vary from non-work to as work-context specific topics.

To launch the activity, I gave a few examples (good coffee, IPA beer, pinot noir), and we continued until the energy started to wane (which was well before my planned time box of 5 minutes.)

We then did a quick “So, what do you think this exercise was about? What did you learn?”

The obvious first answers were:

  • It allows team members to get to know each other a little better
  • It creates quick connections and some shared values

The less obvious answers were:

  • The setup constrains us to binaries – either you are in the tribe or you aren’t.
  • It raises awareness about multiple identities – that one can belong to more than one tribe quite easily.
  • Large muscle movements help keep folks from dozing off!

Ok, on to the empathy game, the main part of this retro.

Puzzles and Blindfolds

I had the full team count off by twos, and split into teams: The “evens” and the “odds.”

And then I asked each team to self-select three players (1 builder, 1 guide, 1 assistant) for our first round of puzzle time.

Each three-some got two identical (except for color) sets of five puzzle pieces.

I gave them a few minutes to examine the pieces, exploring all the ways they could fit together.

The only constraint was there was to be no speaking and no naming of the pieces.

Designed toy for retro technique

Basic Game Play – 10 minutes

After the players had exploring the shapes, the assistant then:

  • Blind folded the builder and the guide (surprise!)
  • Selected 3 puzzle pieces from guide’s set of 5
  • Silently assembled those 3 pieces together in any shape they wanted
  • Give the assembled model to the guide

It was then up to the builder to assemble his/her puzzle pieces to match what the guide had. I instructed the team that only the builder and the guide could speak during this round. (Assistant needed to remain quiet.) One instruction I did not give, and no one tried or asked, was that it was ok touch the either set of pieces.

Team members trying out this retro technique

If the builder got done before the timebox was reached,  both the builder and guide could remove their blindfolds and compare the “model” to the “replica” to see how close they came.

Round Two – 10 minutes

Same general set up as round one, with new set of three players. And one change introduced: this time the assistant was permitted to answer Yes/No questions from either the guide or the builder.

Debrief (10 minutes)

After two rounds, the Evens and the Odds rejoined to discuss what happened in their games, and to explore parallels to what happens in their day-to-day work.

My facilitator’s prompts for the debrief included:

  • What were the Positives (Catalysts) that directly or indirectly support solving the puzzle?
  • What were the Negatives (Inhibitors) that impeded or blocked progress?
  • How did you feel with one of your senses restricted?
  • Assistants, what did you see/observe?
  • What instructions worked most/least effectively?
  • How did communication styles change over the course of the game? Why did they change?
  • Did you have any breakthroughs?
  • Guides, how did you know when you were being understood?
  • What were common barriers to effect communication?
  • Did you jump into details or fully understand the larger whole?

The team collected their ideas, summarized below:


  • Asking clarifying questions – “You said, ‘To the left.’ you mean your left, or my left?”
  • Using clear “way-finding” –  “Find the single dot and point it away from yourself”
  • Having a shared context – “Work from the table top up”
  • Developing a shared language – “The cogs with the bumpy center – let’s call that one ‘Bob’”
  • Asking for help – “Hey, assistant, is the piece I’m holding the right one?”


  • Lack of a shared vocabulary
  • Missing a vital sensory input (vision)
  • Not asking for clarification, and instead making assumptions
  • Getting tunnel vision, not utilizing the assistant
  • Ambiguous instructions like “towards me” or “to the right”

Wrapping Up

This was the first time I ran the empathy game, and I learned that while 10 minutes cycles were sufficient for a single game using 3-4 puzzle pieces out of the total 5, two iterations were just not enough, the players got to only touch the tip of the empathy iceberg.

I have another opportunity coming up in a month to play some more. So I’ll plan on at least three games. There are a near infinite number of variations to try. A few ideas I’m toying with are:

  • Sighted guide, blindfolded builders
  • Sighted guides, sighted builders, but no verbal communication…. just slack chat (is this too cruel?)
  • Single guide, multiple builders – simulates multiple clients (Android and iOS) with a common Design/UX crew.

Next time I’ll also plan to shoot some video. It would be great for the “players” to get to observe themselves, as well as to share with you.

What do you think: On the continuum of GTFO to “this might just be useful here!” where does this retro sit?

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3 thoughts on “Retro Technique: Building Team Empathy”

  1. Really great explanation of the retro process here, and it sounds like a great technique for mixing things up and keeping people active. The question I am left with though, is did the activity accomplish what your goals? Meaning, did the team tie their observations about the game back to the issues they were struggling with as a team?

    1. Great question, Meghan!

      In my view the answer is “Yes”

      In looking at the positives/negatives to effective communications thru the lense of the game, they were able to draw parallels to the difficulties they had during recent sprints.

      1. Using the “ADKAR” model, the primary goal of this retro was ADK, the enablement zone of the change process. Awareness of how their assumptions that they “were communicating” when in fact they were not…

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