On Being Mad, And Glad, And Sad

And no, I’m not incredibly confused nor clinically insane (although others may have a different opinion).

Reveal: I love retrospectives

In my early days of Scrum Mastering, I typically stuck to the same retrospective exercise because it felt safe. But there’s only so many times that you can do “The Speedboat” before it becomes stale or irrelevant (by the way, The Speedboat exercise is great for looking back on an iteration; the team I worked for would regularly change the speedboat for other vessels: X-Wing fighters, submarines, tall ships, radar-invisible stealth cruisers..)


Fig 1. A Speedboat With MC Hammer Obstacle

Over time, I learned that not only were there different retrospective techniques tuned for certain project scenarios, but also for the different stages of the retrospective (checking in, setting the scene, gathering data etc).

Buy “Agile Retrospectives – Making Good Teams Great” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. It’s the retrospective bible, in my humble opinion.

So after messing about with The Speedboat for a few sprints, I switched to Starfish then to Team Thermometer and even Pictionary (one of the funnest). If you want to read up on them and others then buy, “Agile Retrospectives – Making Good Teams Great” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. It’s the retrospective bible, in my humble opinion. However, one retrospective technique stands out for me as being truly engaging: Mad, Sad, Glad.

Welcome to Madsadgladland!

On the beaches of Madgladsadland, inhabitants rub shoulders rather than converse across a table. They move around each other in a dance of cooperation rather than let their humble servant-leader direct their choreography. They invoke human-evolved pattern recognition rather than have those patterns pointed out to them. In short, they Own.

Sadly, in our office at least, there are no beaches and there is no dancing. But Mad, Sad, Glad is retrospective technique that encourages lots of cooperation. I’ll explain.

The suburbs of Madville, Sad Town and Glad Central

Find a big whiteboard and write the headings “Mad,” “Sad” and, “Glad.”

Ask the team to write down things that really stuck in their throat (for Mad), things that they wish didn’t keep happening and need fixing (for Sad) and things that they really get a kick out of (Glad). You can use your own definitions for the headings. It helps to have different coloured stickies for each of the categories.

Ask the team to place the stickies under their respective headings.


Next ask the group if they can spot anything about what’s been put on the board. Ask them what it felt like to write what they each wrote. Ask them if anything surprised them. There are other Powerful Questions you can ask, and you’ll find them in the literature.

Before I continue, it’s at this point that I’m reminded of how much of an impact this technique had on me. Until I’d run this exercise, many of my retrospectives involved putting stickies on a board, but then the team would sit down, relax, and let the facilitator drive. On the first time I ran Mad, Sad, Glad my heart fluttered with pride and a big grin appeared on my stubbled face as I witnessed normally static team members move and interact and debate!

So, next you ask the whole team to get up out of their comfy seats, walk over to the sticky-infested board and work together to identify patterns in what has been written. This is regardless of where each sticky was originally placed; the colour coding maintains whether it was a Mad, Sad or Glad. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll witness people collaborating (“what about putting this one with this one”), you’ll see them negotiate (“I’m not sure this Jenkins one should go with code quality; shall we create a new category for it?”) and you’ll see them query (“what does this one refer to, Jon? Why did you feel that way when Jane was super happy with the same issue?”)

Some groupings may have Glad stickies and Mad stickies in them; if this is the case, enquiry why. This can reveal misunderstandings and tensions.

In short, you’ll get the level of collaboration you wish they maintained during their normal working day. But let’s not be too hard on our teams; collaborating in a retrospective is as good a place to do it as any.


Fig 2. A Grouping Of Stickies About Team Size

During this physical interplay between team members, you should notice some healthy chat happening. If you see that one or two team members are the ones doing the organising of the groupings, politely ask that they step aside to let others review what they’ve grouped, or to add some new groups. Remember, in a retrospective, we’re all equivalent despite not being equal. When they think they’re done, I ask them to look over the groupings one more time and then label them with an appropriate heading.

In my opinion, if the technique ended there (and I guess it can, if you wish) then it would be a success, solely judged on the increased cooperation between team members. However, the next natural step is to allow team members to vote for action on the groups they’ve created. (Some groupings may have Glad stickies and Mad stickies in them; if this is the case, enquiry why. This can reveal misunderstandings and tensions.)

From this point onwards, it’s upto you how you deal with voting. In the team I serve, we try to commit to no more than two actions for improvement in the upcoming iteration. If there are others that also seem important, I’ll note them and ask the team in the next retrospective if they want to deal with them.

Just do it

My recommendation is to try Mad, Sad, Glad in your next retrospective. Its simple title belittles its awesome impact. And as with all retrospectives, don’t forget to check-in, set the scene and evaluate the meeting.

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