In this article, some of our Agile experts dives into organizing a remote Retrospective with a distributed team. They share some of their practices, tools, and lessons learned.
The Scrum Guide on the Sprint Retrospective
According to the Scrum Guide, the Sprint Retrospective serves the following purpose:
The purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to:
- Inspect how the last Sprint went with regards to people, relationships, process, and tools;
- Identify and order the major items that went well and potential improvements; and,
- Create a plan for implementing improvements to the way the Scrum Team does its work.
The Scrum Master encourages the Scrum Team to improve, within the Scrum process framework, its development process and practices to make it more effective and enjoyable for the next Sprint. During each Sprint Retrospective, the Scrum Team plans ways to increase product quality by improving work processes or adapting the definition of “Done”, if appropriate and not in conflict with product or organizational standards.
By the end of the Sprint Retrospective, the Scrum Team should have identified improvements that it will implement in the next Sprint. Implementing these improvements in the next Sprint is the adaptation to the inspection of the Scrum Team itself. Although improvements may be implemented at any time, the Sprint Retrospective provides a formal opportunity to focus on inspection and adaptation.
Source: The Scrum Guide 2017
This purpose is a compelling pitch as it addresses the why, the what, and the how of the Retrospective. There is no reason to deviate from this guideline just because we are working in a remote setting.
Virtual Liberating Structures and Breakout Rooms
Below are a few suggestions on handling a remote Retrospective as the host, facilitator, or Scrum Master. For this: a) we use Zoom as a video application as we need to work in breakout rooms, and b) our Retrospectives are modeled around Liberating Structures strings. We usemany other techniques from the agile toolbox too (plenty are available on Retromat or Tasty Cupcakes).
Design Elements of Virtual Liberating Structures
Virtual Liberating Structures share a set of common design principles:
- Breakout rooms: The whole group of participants is divided into smaller workgroups, starting with pairing up two participants.
- Muting/unmuting: Beyond just reducing noise, this helps to mark different states of participants.
- Video on/off: Used to distinguish between roles, for instance, between the inner circle and the outer circle of the User Experience fishbowl. Here, the outer circle members turn their video off as well as mute themselves.
- A shared workspace: This is needed to aggregate findings, for instance, as the result of a 1-2-4-All session. This can be a simple Google slide or a FunRetro.io board.
- Workbooks: These are useful to provide participants with instructions when working in breakout rooms; for example, a detailed description of how an individual Liberating Structures works.
- A chat channel: This is used to facilitate communication within the whole group.
The Five Stages of a Retrospective
The following LS microstructures refer to these basic patterns of virtual Liberating Structures. This design has been modelled after Esther Derby and Diana Larsen’s five stages elaborated in their book, Agile Retrospectives.
I. Setting the Stage
Impromptu Networking is a simple application of breakout rooms; just make sure that after each round, the pairs are created a new. Provide the invitation and the three questions in the workbook in advance.
Organizing a Mad Tea in the virtual realm requires a different approach. Of course, we cannot recreate two concentric circles of attendees facing each other. However, what we can do is use the prompts—the half-sentences that the attendees shall complete—and the chat channel to create a quick and comprehensive picture of the team’s sentiment.
Use check-ins with emojis and choose from a growing list of online icebreakers. Consider crafting a working agreement for the upcoming meeting or workshop if the team has yet to do so.
II. Gathering Data
There are numerous ways of gathering data for an upcoming Retrospective. Probably, you want to track quantitative metrics like cycle-time or the number of bugs that escaped to production. Or you might be interested in qualitative metrics such as team-health or the sentiment of the team members. The point is that concerning the data, it does not matter whether the Scrum team runs the analysis in a face-to-face or remote setting: Both environments provide access to the same data. Typical practices of gathering data for Retrospectives are:
- Not only is Impromptu Networking an excellent way to create a sense of togetherness among the participants, but it is also a useful exercise to gather data if the invitation is crafted in the right way.
- Anonymous surveys provide an option to collect data during the Retrospective as well as in advance. Those surveys can be Sprint-specific, pencilled-in between the Sprint Review and the Retrospective. Alternatively, they can be open-ended surveys such as a permanent suggestion box. Or, they are conducted at regular intervals to track progress in areas of interest. Suitable applications for this purpose are, for example, Google Forms, Typeform, or SurveyMonkey.
- A subset of the anonymous survey is the ‘Team Radar.’ It is a great way to create transparency about important team matters and track their development as time passes.
- Finally, you can derive metrics from supportive applications, for example, your ticket system.III. Generate Insight from the Data
III. Generate Insight from the Data
After collecting the data, the task ahead is to make sense of it. The following three LS microstructures have proven to be useful, also in a remote setting:
- What, So What, Now What? is a sequence of individual work and group work based on breakout rooms, aggregating findings in shared workspaces to be shared with the whole group in the end.
- Again, TRIZ is a combination of basic elements of virtual Liberating Structures: breakout rooms, embedded 1-2-4-All, joined workspaces, Shift & Share when several groups are working on the problem. Consider time-keeping via the breakout room broadcasting function, as participants are likely to be highly engaged and may lose track of time.
- Use the Conversation Café by creating groups with the breakout room function, and identify a host for time-keeping. During rounds 1, 2, and 4, where one participant is talking while the others are listening, use mute for the listeners. Once the timebox has expired, the previously talking participant “hands over” the microphone by calling out the next one in line and then muting him- or herself. As the facilitator, also consider providing a matrix — rounds by speakers with checkboxes — to the hosts to ensure that everyone has a fair share of airtime.)
IV. Deciding What to Do
The next step of the remote Retrospective is to agree on improvement items that will allow the team to grow and become more mature. Four Liberating Structures microstructures well-suited for this purpose:
- 15% Solutions: We use a similar procedure as with TRIZ. Consider aggregating all suggestions in the whole group’s shared workspace for clustering and ranking by voting. TheFunRetro.io board is simple and does not need much explaining.
- 25/10 Crowd Sourcing: This microstructure belongs to those that are hard to replicate online with the currently available tools. You can use a form application to collect both suggestions from the team members on the subject in questions as well as their names. Once all participants have filled out the form, export the answers as a CSV-file and import this file into a FunRetro.io board. As the facilitator, distribute the answers in packs of five to new columns and allocate the “name tags” of the participants randomly to each column in an even distribution. Then activate the voting and ask all participants to vote on the answers in the column they have been assigned to before. Set the number of available votes so high that every answer in a column can be awarded from 1 to 5 votes. Once the voting has ended, move all answers to one column and activate the “vote count.” Finally, sort that column by votes. While there are many issues with this process, it tends to point in the right direction.
- Lean Coffee is an excellent example of a workaround for virtual Liberating Structures. Gather all the input in the usual way, for example, engaging in 1-2-4-All, and gather those on a FunRetro.io board while voting is turned off. (Use several columns if the whole group is large to speed up the gathering process.) Then ask the whole group to cluster similar topics, then turn on the voting and order the remaining entries by votes. For here, you continue with a whole group discussion, or you engage smaller groups with breakout rooms.
- Ecocycle Planning: Principally, we apply the techniques as before, from breakout rooms to shared workspaces. Speaking of which, given the large number of “stickies” that you usually create during Ecocycle planning, you may want to consider a specialized online board application such as Miro or Mural.
V. Closing the Retrospective
The last step of the Retrospective sequence is the closing or check-out. Basically, it is a mini-retrospective within the “large” remote Retrospective focused on reflecting on what has happened as well as providing feedback: Was the time well-spent or do we need to change our approach to running a remote Retrospective next time? Although we do not pass a door while leaving the meeting room, there are many ways to collecting the feedback of the team members:
- We can replicate the door sticky practice with the annotation tool of the video application on a prepared graphic. All at once, attendees leave a symbol on a scale
- Then some applications allow for gathering live feedback, such as Poll Everywhere.
- Alternatively, run a Fist of Five voting.
Good Practices for a Remote Retrospective
From the list of all practices that generally apply to remote agile events, there are three practices that make hosting significantly easier:
- Create a script with the probable timeline of the remote Retrospective in advance, including all the required documents to be shared with the participants and all the copy you need to provide to the chat during the session.
- Document the outcome of the remote Retrospective so team members can revisit them at a later stage. Restrict access to sensitive information by limiting access privileges strictly to team members.
- Keep good track of action items. Without a prominent placement in the team room, improvement items tend to be forgotten.
Antipatterns of Remote Agile Retrospectives
There are plenty of Retrospective anti-patterns in general. But a few anti-patterns of Scrum Masters are particularly relevant for a remote Retrospective:
- Waste of time: The Retrospective provides a poor return on investment.
- Prisoners: Some team members only participate because they are forced to join
- No psychological safety/bullying: A few participants dominate the Retrospective, while the more introverted team members pull back, and the host/Scrum Master does confront this misbehaviour.
- Groundhog day: A useful routine has been turned into a mindless ritual. If you run the same-style Retrospective format over and over again, do not be surprised if the team is no longer improving its way of working, and the mood is turning sour. The problem for the host is that this effect happens in a remote setting significantly faster by comparison to a face-to-face Retrospective. Remote Agile speeds up the revelation of collaboration issues.
Working as a distributed agile team is, in many aspects, more difficult than being co-located: ‘Reading the room’ is significantly more complicated, for instance, and communication is taking a toll as the beloved informal meeting at the coffee machine is no longer happening.
However, being suddenly distributed does not mean that we cannot have useful critical events anymore. On the contrary: the necessity to invest more preparatory work upfront may provide a chance to improving the meaning of events.