4 Ls Retrospective

Actionable retrospective ideas that you can launch today.

When we get together for a retrospective meeting with our team, it’s easy to stay neutral. 

Instead of digging deep on process success and failure, we keep it diplomatic, dissecting our process practices as if we were observing them from a third person POV, entirely separate from the team unit. 

However, in reality, how our team perceives different situations is subjective at its core and has a significant impact on what our effective process will end up morphing into. 

That is why it’s crucial that a retrospective format or technique invites the team to consider their process factually, but also emotionally. 

Not all retro formats were built to encourage the team to bring their emotions to light. But there is one technique that has been proven to strike a balance between what is objective and what is based on team sentiment: the four Ls retro. 

What is a Four Ls Retrospective?

The Four Ls (4 Ls) retro, initially developed by Mary Gorman and Ellen Gottesdiener, is a simple and widely-recognized template that Scrum Masters use with their teams during retrospective meetings all around the world. Mary and Ellen first discussed their newly minted format after trying it out with teams they were coaching in the original blog post about 4 Ls.

4 Ls stand for Liked, Learned, Lacked and Longed For and ask the team to consider the positives as well as the negatives of their process from these four lenses. The language of this retro format allows team members to use a more colloquial approach to phrasing their sentiment around aspects of their internal process. 

If you catch up with a team member at the water cooler or even outside of the office, you’ll often hear them say “I really liked that…”, “I truly wish we had…”, “I found out that…”, “If only we could…” The 4Ls is designed to capture the action items at the core of conversations like these.

In the LIKED category, the team might include elements of the process like achievements, a team action, or a smooth delivery such as:

  • Working with a new teammate 
  • Fixing a problem really quickly with help from my team
  • Feeling empowered to make decisions about this project

In the LEARNED category, we often encounter new findings like:

  • Something new about a team member
  • Learned how the sales team is benefiting from our work
  • Understood how to use a new tool to achieve my goals

From a LACKED standpoint, teams often float up issues like:

  • Not having enough time to work through all the deliverables we promised
  • Losing a teammate and lacking capacity in the team
  • Stakeholder alignment at the outset of our work

Teams often capture the following in their LONGED FOR category:

  • Shorter or less frequent meetings
  • A new hire to help with X
  • A way for stakeholders to talk to each other instead of funnelling everything through the team

How to Run a Four Ls Retrospective with Your Team

In preparation for a Four Ls Retrospective, whether it is in-person or virtual, Scrum Masters or Team Leads must set expectations among their team members to prepare to engage both their hearts and minds in order to make the most of this format.

Invite your team members to join in with an open mind. If you’re hosting a 4 Ls retro in person, create a system for categorizing the team’s thoughts by building a physical board to reflect each of the fours prompts and providing sticky notes and Sharpies for the team to use in order to populate it. 

If you’re hosting your retro virtually -- it’s even easier! Create an online board and share an editable link with your group.

Rule of thumb: Create the 4 Ls retro board or canvas ahead of the date of your next retrospective and suggest that the team add ideas to each category as the iteration of work goes on. This tactic will allow you to capture their ideas the moment they emerge in their rawest, truest form.

Allow at least half of the time allocated for the retro for the team to add their ideas to each category. There is no limit to how many ideas an individual contributor might add to the template, but ALL team mates are expected to submit at least one related to each area. 

Unlike other retro formats, the 4 Ls requires that team members stand behind their emotions and invites them to be more vulnerable, instead of distanced. That is why, at least 30 minutes of brainstorming is required to ensure team members have a chance to get comfortable and crystallize the way they would like to express their emotions.

Moving from emotion to concrete action items can be challenging, especially if the team is emerging from a more sentimental place (brainstorming). 

Focus the conversation around the more significant clusters that have formed in each category. If you have time leftover, discuss the outliers and ask their owners to go into more detail about their unique idea. 

Source potential action items from the group related to each cluster and note them separately, but in a visible place. 

Ask for volunteers to take ownership of no more than one action item from the newly created list. If you see the same people volunteer for action items after each retro, encourage more varied participation for greater diversity.

Try the Four Ls Retrospective Format Today

Running your next 4 Ls retrospective online? In ScatterSpoke, you can create a four Ls board in three clicks and share it with your team at any stage of your iteration. 

To customize, you can add additional columns to capture feedback on a “5th L” that is particularly relevant to your team. Options include adding categories for prompts like “I felt empowered by…” or “I felt encumbered by…” and others.

It’s all ready for you out of the box, so your distributed team can hit the ground running, jotting down all their great ideas as they shake away the hesitation to connect to their emotions and document them in the name of process improvement.