Editorial note: Originally published in November 2019, we are re-publishing this thematic article in celebration of the holiday.

This is the time of year we come together to celebrate everything we are thankful for in our lives. It's easy to incorporate the spirit of thankfulness at work, too.

Often, emotions are suppressed within technical teams. We need to make space in our team now to acknowledge and honor emotion in order to avoid an explosion later. This isn't to say that we have to focus on emotion every day, but even the most stoic among us can benefit from a retrospective that serves both as a safety valve* for work-related annoyances and as a space to celebrate team successes.

Additionally, we too rarely show our colleagues that we appreciate what they do to make our work life better. Making a specific effort to appreciate our teammates not only lets them know their hard work is noticed but also reminds each team member that it takes a village to complete the project.

To strengthen team bonds, hold a team-building, thankfulness-inducing retrospective (with appreciations!).

Exercise: Retrospective*

While retrospectives are usually associated with Agile teams, they can work well in any team. For teams not using Agile workflows, I suggest holding a retrospective after an important project achievement (a code or feature release, a fielded experiment, etc.). The following discussion uses the Agile term “sprint” -- one timeboxed iteration of a continuous development cycle. More generally, readers can substitute “project achievement” for this term in the discussion.

One of the simplest and quickest retrospectives proceeds as follows**:

  1. Have the team list all the good things that happened in the sprint. On my teams these include technical successes, administrative successes, and even life events -- bugs found, features released, office space found, students hired, new team members, vacations, holidays, awards, and more.
  2. Have the team list all the things that could have gone better in the sprint. Again, these can include administrative, technical, and life issues -- bugs unsolved, resources denied, too many people on travel, equipment failures, and more.
  3. For each item in the "needs improvement" list, have the team problem-solve to find an action to take to improve the situation. Ideally, the team's process can be improved to avoid the problem automatically in the future. Even if the team cannot solve a problem directly (e.g., "we need more conference room space"), it should acknowledge the problem to allow for venting.
  4. Hold appreciations (see section on Appreciations).

Exercise: Appreciations***


  1. Have the team sit in a circle.
  2. Each team member in turn appreciates another member with the following formula: (Person's name), I appreciate you for (appreciated action).

Ground rules:

  • Everyone must participate.
  • Address the appreciated person by name.
  • Don't try to appreciate everyone on the team -- this leads to empty/repetitive appreciations.
  • Appreciate a team member for one of the following: something that person did help you or to help the team or an impressive work accomplishment.

The use of "appreciate" as an action verb emphasizes the interactive nature of the exchange. Appreciations should be an integral part of our interactions with our colleagues. Hopefully this exercise helps you include them in your routine.


*Thanks to Mark Gray for the analogy of the retrospective as a safety valve.

*, ** I was first introduced to these ideas by Esther Derby, Johanna Rothman, and Jerry Weinberg in their leadership workshop “Problem Solving Leadership.”

Author bio

Angela Herring is a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She specializes in leading multi-disciplinary, Agile research teams. Currently, she leads two research software teams. One team develops the remap software, Portage (www.github.com/laristra/portage) as well as an interface reconstruction library, Tangram (www.github.com/laristra/tangram). The other team, Lynx, focuses on applications of code to code linking. Angela received a M.S. in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering from U.C. Davis in 2005 and a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Mississippi State University in 2003.


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