Remote retrospective – tips from many years of practice
The Corona crisis is changing the way many people and organisations work together. For some employees it is nothing new to work in a home office, to initiate video conferences or to provide services online. For others, however, the situation is completely new. I would like to give you some practical tips on how to conduct retrospectives remotely, online or distantly – whatever you want to call it. In order not to write a theoretical treatise on remote retrospectives, I will explain my experiences based on one of my projects from the past year.
Imagine the following situation: A company with more than 100 locations worldwide. Nine of these locations were relevant for the project. The teams were spread across North America, Europe and Asia. Or more precisely: in the USA, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Malaysia, and at times in Russia. My task: To accompany the teams and the joint project as an Agile Coach. There are probably more difficult project settings, but certainly also much easier ones. At least finding a date for a remote retrospective in the same time zone seems a bit easier to me. 😉
My understanding of a retrospective
I have made the experience that before going into detail about a topic, it is worthwhile to develop a common understanding of the topic, the terms used or the content. Perhaps you are already a retrospective professional, or perhaps you have only visited a few retrospectives. I would like to share my understanding of the retrospective with you.
How do I live and design retrospectives? For me, they are recurring team development workshops. They do not necessarily focus only on a sprint as described in the Scrum Guide, but on the potentially never ending team development process.
Independent of the length of the sprint, I set up retrospectives with a duration of 90 minutes. For each retrospective, I, as a moderator, consider a targeted concept in advance according to the OHIR cycle I have developed:
1. Observe: As moderator, gather your observations from the team in preparation for the retrospective and as a basis for the resulting concept. Important: Observable behaviour is meant here and interpretations are not allowed.
2. Hypotheses: Form hypotheses that are rich in perspective and also contradictory if you wish.
a) issues that could be addressed by the team in retrospect
b) team development issues that you see as a lateral leader, such as team rules, conflicts, feedback,
c) topics already decided in the course of the day-to-day work or in the previous retrospective.
3. Intervention: Design the retrospective on the basis of Observe and Hypotheses and along the 5 phases of Esther Derby & Diana Larsen. The Retromat can help here. Please ensure that the composition of the intervention is consistent.
4. Reflection: After the retrospective, reflect on how useful, meaningful and goal-oriented the retrospective was.
For those who do not have the 5 phases of Esther Derby & Diana Larsen at hand:
1. Create a climate of discussion.
2. Collect topics.
3. Gain insights.
4. Making decisions.
Spoilers: At the end of this article, I will share with you one of my favorite retro concepts from the project described.
ALL participants are remote
So far, so good. What has been described so far applies equally to retrospectives where everyone is together in one real place, and to remote retrospectives.
In a one-hour webinar (for free on YouTube), Esther Derby and David Horowitz will discuss the special features of Remote Retrospectives in detail.1 For example, they will differentiate between whether some, many or all team members participate remotely in the retrospective. But I have made a different experience: If the rule is that some team members are always remote, I pretend that ALL team members are remote. That means, everyone is sitting at their own computer.
Why? It has something to do with fairness. All participants should have the same starting point to participate in the retrospective. In the project with the worldwide distributed teams, we mostly worked on a flipchart at the main location. Sometimes the exchange even took place without additional visualisation. After we once changed the setting to “ALL participants are remote”, the real remote team members, i.e. those who were not working at the main location, gave the astonished feedback: “Wow, suddenly I have the feeling that I am really participating and not just watching.”
The 8 principles for remote retrospectives
Let’s have a look at the 8 principles for remote retrospectives of Esther and David.
1. Design to equalise participation
Create a level playing field for participants so that everyone can participate fairly and equally. As a facilitator, if you are in a room with some of the participants, you will probably notice when someone starts to speak, as breathing changes (often a deep breath is taken before someone expresses his or her opinion). However, you may not notice this with those who participate in other locations. So create conditions and rules for equal participation.
2. Structure, structure, structure
Especially for online meetings, trainings and workshops most people lack the practice.We have mostly learned our routined behaviours in real rooms. These are not transferable 1:1 to virtual space. Explicit rules and a disciplined demand and adherence help to orientate oneself. Here are a few examples of helpful rules:
- Camera on
- Mute microphone when not speaking
- Keep it short instead of monologue
- Insert breaks, e.g. every 45 min
- Joint ventilation & movement exercises
And also point out again and again at which point on the agenda the team is at the moment, because this creates orientation.
3. Enhance or replace visual cues
I have already mentioned the noticing of inhalation as a sign of the will to speak. The feeling of interrupting someone else is uncomfortable for most people. Often the video conferencing tools do not allow several participants to speak at the same time. Visual signs are helpful. Some tools have such functions built in (e.g. zoom). Others require camera activation. In this case, visual aids2 held in the camera or simple hand signals can help. However, sometimes not all camera images are transmitted at once (e.g. Google Meet). A speaker list via the chat can help here.
4. Help people remember who is there
As in regular fact-to-face meetings, the frequency of the speeches plays a role. If one participant speaks significantly more than others, this can lead to one or the other withdrawing mentally. In an on-site meeting, this is often easy and quick to notice. In a remote retrospective, however, this is all the more difficult to notice. So make sure you always remember which people are participating in the retrospective.
5. Actively engage people
Speak directly to participants and activate them to work in small groups through breakout rooms (e.g. in Zoom) or on dedicated slides (e.g. Google Presentations).
6. Use a back chanel
If something goes wrong technically, make sure you stay in contact via an alternative channel (e.g. slack) and agree on how to proceed. In the best case, there is a well-functioning alternative that can be used immediately. Such a plan B is all the more important for a remote retrospective, as it requires much more technical preparation than providing a flipchart, post its and pens.
7. Know your tools
Take a close look at the tools you want to use. The Retrospective is not an experimental space for the unprepared. Please be sure to do dry runs first. Don’t waste the time of your colleagues.
8. Don’t let tools dictate your format
First think about what you want to achieve and then the tool bet will follow the goal and not vice versa.
Especially point 8 is exciting. Often the question of tools is one of the first ones I get asked. It is good to know which tools are available for social collaboration, what features they have, how expensive they are and how they comply with the GDPA. Overview is great! But only to make a decision how to best achieve the goals of the retrospective and not to hold a retrospective with a retrospective tool. And that’s the same as if someone wanted to hold a Lego retrospective because Lego is cool and fun. It can be useful if it is used to achieve appropriate goals, but it can also completely miss the current team needs. So please always think about what you want to achieve first, and then see which tools or formats fit. If you approach the topic the other way around, you will most likely be limited by the chosen tool and the achievement of your goals will be a matter of luck.
I would like to do without a tool list at this point. I personally enjoy working with Funretro.io3 and miro.com4, and the Breakout Session in Zoom is one of my favourite features. But as I said: first the goal, then the tool.
A 9th and 10th principle for remote retrospectives
I would like to add two more points:
9. Develop tool skills
For some participants in a retrospective, more than “just” the exchange in another virtual space and the use of different tools changes. If you use a tool in the Remote Retrospective that is unknown to the participants – even if only to some of them – please take a few minutes to explain the tool and how to use it. Ideally, you should also plan some time to learn the options. Otherwise the participants, who have little or no experience with exclusively virtual and digital work so far, are in danger of being overwhelmed. Appropriate patience, prudence and also individual supervision can help.
10. Visualise together
Since we are missing most of the non-verbal communication in a remote Retrospective, we need replacements. Providing for shared images is not only metaphorically exciting, but offers a concrete benefit. Looking at the same visualisation together and even working on it together is essential. In my project I remember very well a heated and loud discussion in which the visualisation on the SurfaceHub helped us to develop a common understanding into a concrete challenge despite the poor sound quality.It’s good that we had appropriate tool skills and also a useful plan B.
Some insights of my favourite retrospective
I would like to give you some more insights of my favourite retrospective for your inspiration. As a reminder: For this purpose, I will orientate myself on the 5 phases of Esther Derby and Diana Larsen briefly mentioned above.
Create a pleasant atmosphere for conversation.
For example with the following question: “If the last sprint would have been a meal, what would have been the food today?” in my project we laughed a lot and the participants were enthusiastic about the variety of meals, especially due to the multicultural and -national setup. In terms of content, this work with metaphors is particularly exciting, as the automatically arising comparison with one’s own associations releases creativity and new questions arise.
Collect topics and gain insights.
For example with the futures perspective: “Let’s imagine it is <date of the day of the retro one year later>. You are <short description of the ideal state, e.g. overperforming, use conflicts for creative new approaches (varies from team to team). How exactly does this look like (bringing person by person into storytelling)? What have you done to become so successful?
Prioritise a maximum of 3 of the many potential action items. Why only 3 or even less? Too many action items get lost in the daily business. It is better to have a slower but constant and sustainable development process than to let the feeling arise that retrospectives are just “babble meetings” and that non-commitment in the team would be a good idea.
Get a feedback at the end of the retrospective.
A ROTI (Return on time invested) would be short and sweet. How much of your just invested time was worth it?
1 = time wasted, 3 = time spent and added value are in balance, 5 = mega valuable.
One last tip for a successful remote retrospective:
Please do not try to hold the best remote retrospective in the world in the first place! Incremental and iterative also applies to Scrum Master or other moderators. 😉
Retrospectives – no matter whether they are remote, online, distant or local – are also a question of attitude. Try to make it a little better bit by bit. Be well prepared (know the tools, you know), be courageous and experiment transparently with best intentions. It is a great adventure playground to explore. Play and have fun!
 YouTube Video: Secrets of Remote Retrospectives with Esther Derby and David Horowitz
 An example of visual aids: Supercards
Would you like to exchange experiences with Kristina Mueller or are you looking for support in your projects? Then simply contact her via her beautiful website: https://99facets.de/
As multifaceted as companies are with their cultures, products and services as well as their employees, the introduction and adaptation of agility should be as individual and multifaceted as possible. Kristina Müller acts according to this motto. As an enthusiastic business psychologist, organisational developer and agile and systemic coach, she enables teams and companies to work in a self-organised manner.