The Reality Check – Remote Retrospectives

Last week I was privileged to co-host a round table discussion with Jonathan Howell on remote retrospectives as part of his ‘Reality Check’ series of discussion events, hosted by Emma Alston of Transition Partners

‘Reality Check’ round table discussions focus on three questions:-

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • What is happening on the ground?
  • How do we bridge the difference?

Prior to the first lockdown, many agile teams were used to the odd day here and there when individuals may work from home. However, when it came to the main team meetings, such as refinement, reviews, retrospective and planning, teams would co-locate in order to increase the effectiveness of these sessions, and in turn, the value that they would generate. 

For many of us the last year has resulted in all of these ceremonies being held remotely with screen sharing undertaken to enable the whole team to see the items being discussed. The difficulty with these working arrangements is that it is often hard to judge the engagement levels of attendees, even when you have cameras turned on. Co-location allowed the facilitator to scan the room to see/hear side conversations, potential distractions and any lethargy. Any of these potential hindrances could be quickly dealt with, but are much more difficult to identify and remove when you can only see small headshots of the individuals attending online and with many microphones being on mute. 

Although it was understood and appreciated that fully remote teams would initially have some challenges when it came to their new working arrangements, no-one would have predicted that many of us would not have been into an office environment for almost a year. The organisational perception is that by now, we should have found alternative methods to achieve the results that we would have seen had we all have been in the same room. 

To some extent this is probably true for a few of the regular meetings that a team will hold. The refinement of a work item is likely to be led by the Product Owner, with description details and acceptance criteria being updated as the item is discussed. Likewise, planning sessions will have a similar structure and format, albeit with items being selected and confirmed for development, whereas refinement will ensure their preparation. Reviews will see the completed work being demonstrated against the agreed acceptance criteria, with progress towards the release/product goal being analysed through the use of metrics. 

The structure of these sessions allows for them to be led by one individual and followed by the remaining attendees. Conversely, retrospectives are a ‘whole team’ affair. To gain the most value they need full team engagement and participation. It is therefore likely that teams would have discussed and agreed a set of rules around cameras, microphones and etiquette to ensure the smooth running of online retrospectives. However, for some teams the virtual nature of this session is impacting the value that they would have previously gained from co-location. 

In days gone by, the only tools necessary for a retrospective were post-its and sharpies, however, remote working has pushed us toward, almost enforcing, online collaboration. The round table discussions began by looking at the tools that individuals and teams had identified in order to undertake, facilitate and enhance remote retrospectives. The following tools were mentioned/noted, but this list is by no means exhaustive of the tools that are available (freely or commercially). 

During the discussion on tools, a number of positives were identified, but with every positive, there was also a negative. Tools such as Miro allowed all attendees to immediately collaborate, however, not all organisations allowed use of such tools due to security/data protection concerns. Others tools, like Go Reflect, offered numerous retrospective templates, but required a subscription that individuals/organisations are not willing to pay (free trials are available for some tools). One benefit that of online retrospectives that everyone agreed upon, was a reduction in the need to decipher participants hand-writing. 

The discussion on tools segued nicely into a conversation on facilitation techniques. As noted above, facilitating an online discussion is different from a discussion where everyone is in the same room. Techniques or activities that facilitators/attendees engaged in during retrospectives included:-

  • Re-visiting the output of the last retrospective first as it is likely to be easily accessible (if you are using the same tool) – what were the outcomes of the improvements that the team tried to implement?
  • Address individuals on the call by name to check-in, gather insights and prompt interactions
  • Use break-out or multiple rooms (or similar), allowing smaller groups to converse and then feedback to the wider team
  • Get ‘big voices’ to take a back-seat, or, get them to facilitate rather than participate
  • Gauge team participation by turning on cursor tracking within the tool being used
  • Start calls early, with time/space for informal chats (non-work conversation)
  • Avoid back-to-back meetings/schedule regular breaks
  • Show appreciation through the use of a ‘Kudos’ agenda item
  • Identify and fix an issue ‘in’ the retrospective
  • Utilise a co-host

The increased use of online tools has significantly benefited teams that may be located in different time zones. Creating and sharing a retrospective workspace prior to the scheduled event allows everyone to participate even if they were unable to join a combined call. Recording the meeting also allows those that can’t attend to watch/listen to the conversations that took place and/or replay the session at a latter date.

The use of online tools to support the retrospective process has also increased the variety of retrospective formats. Below are links to some of the new formats that have been identified and used (again this is not an exhaustive list of the formats available):-

Both standard and new formats are available within the tools that have been identified, with other other sites, like Tasty Cupcakes and The Virtual Agile Coach (Chris Stone) offering new ideas and templates for themed retrospective formats. Themed retrospective, using lines from a TV series/movie, song titles or analogies, bring an element of fun that should increase engagement within the retrospective.

Following the session I was able to turn my notes into a graphical representation of the items that were discussed. 

A video of the of the full session is available on YouTube.