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How to help your failing team using a “Catastrospective”

Posted in: Management / Leadership Started by

How to help your failing team using a “Catastrospective”

Photo Credit: Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters
Photo Credit: Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

Have you ever struggled to understand why a team is not performing? Whether it’s missing deadlines, failing to communicate or simply not sharing responsibility for the outcome, there’s usually more than one cause. It’s frustrating as a people manager or leader to see talented individuals not living up to their potential when they work together. Having individual 1:1s to listen and act on feedback is the best starting point, but sometimes it’s more complicated than that. Working with people on a 1:1 basis isn’t a silver bullet, because there’s usually something damaging happening as a result of individuals coming together. Once you’ve eliminated yourself as being the problem (shock horror!) you want to bring the team together, break down the silos between roles and help them to be motivated and happy.

I hit across this problem relatively recently and came up with an exercise for a marketing team to work through. Coming from an Agile background, I called it a Catastrospective because it’s like Armageddon (or a catastrophe) in an Agile Retrospective. Catastrospective also sounds like a Steampunk jazz record which isn’t necessarily a good thing. A Retrospective would typically be used in a software Scrum team to address team performance issues, but if your team doesn’t practice Scrum and is failing then a Catastrospective might help.

What is a Catastrospective?

A Catastrospective asks the team to list every single detail they can about the worst possible marketing or development project imaginable. This includes how the team behaves and performs, the work they deliver, the reaction to the campaign and anything else you can think of. Each point is written on a post-it note and stuck on the wall. There are no limits to where your imagination can go on this, and the invigilator should encourage creativity, absurdity and speed. After 30 minutes, you lead a discussion through the points written on the wall and ask each person to talk through the points they wrote.

The Catastrospective will help you create a positive and motivated team as follows:

  1. Make the team comfortable talking about failure. They’ve been so keen to avoid failure that they don’t want to think about it. Break down this mental block and they’ll become more “failure aware”. This confidence will allow them to analyse risk and deal with ambiguity more effectively.
  2. Improve communication and have some fun. There will be a degree of resentment and blame coursing through the team that you need to address. The source of this is the pressure they feel from the work they’re failing at. The Catastrospective will have your team thinking openly and creatively in a relaxed, low pressure environment. People will start to admit to past failings, which will create empathy in others and strengthen the team bond.
  3. Show them that their performance could be far worse. This might feel like you’re creating a culture of praising failure, but in fact it reduces stress within the team and encourages greater creativity and risk taking. They will realise that they are doing some things right, and you need to play to these strengths.
  4. Show that project delivery is a team, not an individual responsibility. In the discussion that follows the writing down of creative failures, the team will draw consensus on what success and failure look like. This builds trust and understanding – the foundations of a successful team.

A Catastrospective is not going to fix major problems, such as people being in the wrong job. If you can get the team to relax and actively take part, you’ll see how they interact and this is insightful in itself: How do people talk to each other? Do they listen to each other? Is anyone getting left out? Is anyone being especially negative or disruptive?

Running a Catastrospective

I ran this with a marketing team, but there’s no reason why it can’t be adapted for a software development team, depending on roles and responsibilities. Start by asking:

“Describe to me in 30 minutes the worst possible online marketing project possible for our company”

Here are some suggestions that start at the basic and move into the absurd:

  • No project deadline
  • Constantly changing requirements from management
  • Micro-management
  • Spelling mistakes or swear words in the marketing copy
  • Campaign gets zero engagement, zero traffic and sales
  • Campaign was copied from one of our competitors the previous week
  • Campaign deeply offends a group of really important customers
  • Campaign costs so much that the company goes bust
  • Campaign goes viral as being the most embarrassing online marketing campaign ever and we become a laughing stock
  • We feature products that are out of stock, or services we don’t provide
  • The marketing team turn up drunk to work every day
  • The marketing team has a physical fight that ends up in the police being called and the office burning down


Figure 1: The Catastrospective board looks much like a retrospective board

The outcome

The invigilator should next lead a discussion through the points and get the team talking about the scenario. Don’t lead the conversation into talking about real projects unless the team takes it there naturally. After you’ve talked through the points, the invigilator should use the discussion about the negative points to draw up a one page set of “standards” that the team will follow in projects from now on. This basically turns the negative points on their head, for example taking 5 of the points earlier:

  • No project deadline …becomes… every project should have a deadline
  • Constantly changing requirements from management …becomes… requirements should be agreed upfront with management
  • Micro-management …becomes… the team will push back on micro-management
  • Spelling mistakes or swear words in the marketing copy …becomes… all marketing copy will be well proof-read
  • Campaign gets zero engagement, zero traffic and sales …becomes… all campaigns will drive engagement, traffic and sales

This set of standards are then sent out to the team as a one-page document that they have effectively produced which defines their future conduct and performance. This mustn’t be seen as a mandate forced down by management, as that is unlikely to improve performance. You can however cite the standards document in future if the standards are not being kept. Stick it on the wall of the room to keep it in clear sight and share it across the organisation to change perceptions and help the team succeed.


Any struggling team will know as well as you do that they’re failing to hit targets, and this creates pressure and stress. They know they’re being watched and judged negatively by outsiders which is simply not good for business. If you want to help and prevent self-destructing behaviour spreading then you need to get them working together and the Catastrospective is a fun, lightweight, engaging approach to turn things around. A Retrospective focuses on what happened and how to improve on it, a Catastrospective uses an implausible disaster to boost confidence and improve trust and communication within a team.


If you want to find out more about exercises to run with your team that look into the future then take a look at this range of “Futurospectives”. To my knowledge, the Catastrospective is not included in their range, or indeed anywhere else I’ve looked.

Main Photo Credit: Ueslei Marcelino /Reuters (http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2011/apr/03/pillow-fight-day#img-4)


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