Setting the stage. Gathering data. Encouraging participation. Making your team feel safe.
Facilitating retrospectives doesn’t come without challenges that require attention and preparation to overcome. And these obstacles to success can be exaggerated by a sudden and dramatic shift in team dynamics like a sudden transition from being together to working from home.
On Wednesday, April 14th, seven Agile experts from across the globe, gathered (virtually) to discuss effective strategies for remote retrospectives in a webinar co-presented with the Agile Alliance. The panelists included: Diana Larsen, Esther Derby, Molood Ceccarelli, Paul Tevis, Jay-Allen Morris, and Kirsten Clacey. I moderated the discussion.
The webinar began with my question: ‘Why is it even important for companies to have retrospectives right now?’
“Retrospectives can help your team learn everything it needs to know about Agility.”
Not to mention the opportunities for improvement that retrospectives provide, it’s especially important during these times of uncertainty and constant change for teams to press pause and figure out how to become better.
Remote Retrospectives: Where To Begin
When it comes to running an effective retrospective while distributed, the best place to start is at the beginning — the beginning of the 5 Phase Approach, that is.
Set The Stage — Virtually
- With a remote team, structure is more important than ever. Experts recommend putting a heavy focus on maintaining structure and constantly informing teammates where you’re at along the way.
- Check-ins are imperative — not only to keep track of work but also to humanize the distributed experience and show a sense of understanding.
- A check-in can be something as simple as having team members identify how they’re feeling by choosing a word from a list of adjectives, or it can be a check-in on the core-protocols of the company. It’s important to note the constantly changing state of the world and with that comes a constant need for agility as a team, a core-protocols check-in is a good way to manage any confusion.
- Keep in mind, a check-in is different from an icebreaker and the two shouldn’t be used interchangeably. A check-in identifies where team members stand mentally, while an icebreaker can be a way to get to know someone.
- To keep check-ins from becoming an hour-long chat about life, make them visual and engaging, giving people a chance to think about things and write or draw them out prior to answering out loud.
Gather The Data
- Data follows focus: subjective data is at times necessary, but quantitative data should be gathered and distributed ahead of time. Inputting data during a sprint will allow an easy jump from check-in to retrospective while pre-distribution of the data gives team members a chance to pull the information up on their own screens and read at their own pace.
With asynchronous collaboration being a hot topic right now, facilitators should allow some space for new data to be added within the retrospective.
- Not solely in the form of data implementation but also across the retrospective, being prepared is key to success for the entire team.
- Diana Larsen shared:
“I spend as much time preparing as I plan to spend in the retrospective. Back in the day it would be double or triple that, with potential follow-up afterward.”
Questions & Answers From The Webinar
Question: What are some suggestions for a fun, mind-freeing retrospective?
Molood’s Answer: Collective mediation: guided meditation followed by a retrospective. This helps your mind to be free before delving into tough topics. Also, having a talk over the phone while on a walk takes away the screen aspect and allows you to focus on the conversation.
Kirsten’s Answer: Creating more balance in our lives by co-creating documents and real-time editing together to capture entire conversations via virtual retrospective, the same way you would when co-located.
Paul’s Answer: One way to get people to engage more is to actually ask them to. Create opportunities and give people a chance to participate where they might not have otherwise. Have team members answer a check-in question in the chat, but have them wait to hit “enter”. Countdown from 5 and ask everyone to hit enter at the same time. Then, read aloud what they wrote — it’s even more important now to actually ask people to engage and participate.
Jay Allen’s Answer: It’s important to consider, “am I thinking about the meeting from the perspective of how everyone is experiencing the meeting?” Give everyone a chance to engage in their own way. This means providing writing time and speaking time to appease the introverts and extroverts in the group. If you notice people aren’t participating, ask how they’re doing and how they’ve been experiencing the retrospective.
Question: How do you boost psychological safety in your retrospectives?
Esther’s Answer: Do a safety survey and ask what can be done to make it a more comfortable speaking environment for the team. Figure out what level of safety your team is at before deciding what needs to be done. Some teams may not have as much work to do, others may need to have a bigger meeting.
Paul’s Answer: It is not only on the facilitator, the group as a whole needs to figure out what they need to do to improve. Once they have the right data to work with, they can see what to do about it.
Diana’s Answer: The degree of psychological safety in the retrospective happens well before anyone shows up to the retrospective. You and your team need to be working on it all the time.
Kirsten’s Answer: In a co-located space, it’s hard to leave a retrospective angry, go back to your desk and act like it never happened. As a distributed team, it’s much easier to hang-up and never talk about that disagreement again. It’s important to never hang-up angry, addressing any discomfort before ending the call.
Question: How do you build psychological safety when working from home?
Esther’s Answer: The more your team gets into the habit of understanding that it’s okay to talk about things to continue getting better at what you’re doing. This includes checking in on side channels and making sure you’re talking to people, facilitating continuous learning — not incremental learning.
David’s Answer: Things that might be comfortable for one person may not be comfortable for another. Take advantage of someone who is comfortable with a situation to prove that it’s okay for that situation to occur to those that aren’t. An example is that I have four kids and there’s always a chance that one of them can barge in at any minute. I would love for one of them to do that because it will show many uncomfortable people that it’s okay if that happens, we are all human.
Paul’s Answer: One way to make it safe to bring up problem items is to follow through on rectifying problems that do come up. Physically show to your team that when problems occur it’s okay and they will be dealt with appropriately and as a team.
Question: How do you deal with action items and follow-through?
Jay Allen’s Answer: Have an understanding that the follow-through isn’t for the facilitator, it’s for the team. Be sure the action item and what was agreed upon is clear and visible post-retrospective to the entire team.
Diana’s Answer: Actually having action items is obviously important otherwise your retrospective is really just a conversation and doesn’t contribute to anything getting done.
David’s Answer: Be willing and open to everyone’s ideas and be careful about how you respond to the ideas of others. Instead of responding with something like “I don’t think that’s the best idea,” try something like, “that’s a hypothesis and maybe it will work, we don’t know.”
Question: Video or no video? How do you create engagement when not everyone is comfortable.
Molood’s Answer: Note before the retrospective whether or not video will be used, and be understanding that technology can fail or glitch. Also, understand that not everyone has the communication bandwidth to focus without many of the in-person visual cues. Nodding, for example, is a way people acknowledge one another with video, without it, the acknowledgment should be done in another way.
Jay-Allen’s Answer: If you’re forcing people to put their video on and they’re not comfortable with it, you may be intruding into their home life and into psychological safety. Find other ways to ensure feedback and responses without seeing them physically in this situation.
Esther’s Answer: Forcing people on video shows you lack trust and that’s not great. Stress that video is voluntary.
Question: If you had to pick one technique or game that works for remote teams for a retrospective what would it be?
Esther’s Answer: Sticky walls – anything that has to do with brainstorming and grouping.
Paul’s Answer: I’m a very verbal person so I’m shifting more to doing things visually. I like to actually ask people to draw things in order to get out of their words. There is an activity called Drawing Together, it gives them a prompt and asks them to draw it and then you interpret each other’s drawings. Let’s stop trying to do everything in five minutes and acknowledge that this isn’t just “working from home,” it’s surviving during a crisis and trying to get work done at home.
Diana’s Answer: A recent technique I saw was, “If you’ve had this experience, put a sticky note over your camera,” and the results showed a bunch of colors as well as people getting a sense for who had certain experiences. It was very effective in adding a different element to things we normally do.
Jay’s Answer: Add fun to your retrospectives and invite those involved to play along. Add images to give a “theme” and help people to make sense of the space and what you’re asking.
About the Author
This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.