Icebreaker for Agile Retrospectives – Empathy Snap

I was invited by one of our London dev teams to facilitate their retrospective yesterday. I’m far from an expert in facilitating retros, although I enjoy it, and I find that I learn a huge amount from doing so.

Anyhow, I decided to try out my retro ice-breaker exercise which I call Empathy Snap, the aim of which is not only to discover the important features (‘big hitters’) of the last iteration for each team member, but also to see how well team members are aware of the big hitters of their fellow team members. In this way, aspects of the team dynamic can be explored, and dialogue is opened up in a way which immediately requires consideration of others – a useful starting point for a retrospective.

Empathy Snap works like this:

  1. Each team member gets two index cards and a marker pen.
  2. On the first card they write their name at the top and place this card on the table or hand it to the facilitator.
  3. On the second card, hidden from the others, they write the ‘big hitter’ (good or bad) for them from the last iteration, and keep this hidden from view for the time being.
  4. Once all team members have written their ‘big hitter’, each team member takes a name card from the pile, ensuring they do not have their own name card.
  5. On this card, they write what they think is the ‘big hitter’ for the person whose name is on the card, and keep the card. Essentially, they try to guess what that person has written on their hidden card.
  6. Once all the ‘name cards’ have been completed with a ‘big hitter’, a team member reads out the name of the team member written on the card and their guess at the ‘big hitter’ for that person.
  7. The named person then reads out what their big hitter actually was.
  8. If there is a match, then SNAP!
  9. The exercise continues until all team members have read out their guess and have responded with their actual big hitter

We had one SNAP out of the team of 8 (the red asterisks), but the mismatches also provide very useful insights into the team dynamic:

Empathy-Snap-SNAP  Empathy-Snap-mismatch

The team found it useful, so I think we’ll try it next time too. A variation of the exercise can use separate cards for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ big hitters, so doubling the number of cards, and requiring each team member to decide on a good and a bad thing for the person they are considering.

Update: a version of Empathy Snap is featured in the book Fun Retrospectives by @paulocaroli and @caetano_tc

Update 2: Steve Carter used Empathy Snap while expanding a team:

Update 3: Guillaume Charmetant evolved the ‘SNAP’ with a ‘high five’:

Update 4: 2017-05-17 – edited the order of the cards to be Name then Big Hitter following feedback at an agile coaching weekend. This made the exercise clearer for people taking part.

Update 5: the Empathy Snap exercise is included in an academic paper from 2015 (!). See Jovanovic, Milos, Antoni-Lluís Mesquida, and Antònia Mas. 2015. ‘Process Improvement with Retrospective Gaming in Agile Software Development’. In Systems, Software and Services Process Improvement, 287–94. Springer, Cham. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-24647-5_23.

Update 6: in the UK, ‘Snap’ is a children’s card game where you try to match pairs of cards. When you get a match, you shout “SNAP!”.

9 thoughts on “Icebreaker for Agile Retrospectives – Empathy Snap

  1. Early results suggest that Empathy Snap is going to be a useful addition to the agile retro toolset:

    * Paulo Caroli (@paulocaroli) has made some tweaks to the exercise here as part of his excellent catalog of agile retrospective activities: (linked from ThoughtWorks Brazil

    * Martijn Meijerin (@mmeijeri) tried it with success:

    * Mark Needham (@markhneedham) helped to spread the word, generating quite a bit of “Twinterest” (thanks, Mark!):

    Have you tried it? I’d love to read about your experiences and suggestions for improvements.


    1. I did it – I’m actually pleasantly surprised that the team welcomed it with arms wide open.
      The team I’ve tried it with is a new team, and so retrospectives are hard to flesh out with team information (usually I share metrics and performance data about the team for everyone to discuss).
      So I opted to use the retro to gel a little bit more and boost awareness on what one’s peers are doing.

      1. That’s great to hear, Matthew – thanks for sharing this 🙂 We’re actually developing some materials around this exercise and we’d like to offer you the chance to beta-test these. Would that be okay? How best can we contact you? M

  2. Hello Matthew,

    I hope this comment finds you well!
    I found this blog post very interesting and wanted to thank you for sharing the idea.
    I am looking forward to using this ice-breaker on my next customer engagement; I think it will be an interesting exercise to bring to a retrospective, to break the ice at the start of a project or bring empathy to a group.
    Out of curiosity, how long do you think the exercise should last? (I was thinking about spending 15 minutes on this at the start (or end) of a retro (depending on the size of the group), then move to a ‘regular’ 45 minute retro format. What do you think?)

    Best regards

    Eva (PM at EngineerBetter:

    1. Hi Eva – thanks for this! When I’ve run it in the past, we’ve used around 15-20 mins for the Empathy Snap part, shrinking down to about 10 mins for subsequent sessions after the team becomes familiar with it and finds it useful.

      I think it could be valuable as a longer exercise, too – to reflect on (say) a 6-week period. In that case, yes, 45 mins might work well. I’ve not used it like that but if the team thinks it is useful, then that’s great 🙂

      Looking forward to hearing more about your experiences with the exercise!


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