Facilitating Distributed Team Retrospectives

Strong And Agile Software Development Teams

At the heart of a good team is a continuous improvement culture which gets stronger over time. Retrospective sessions help foster this culture by looking at ways to build on strengths and overcome weaknesses via an inspect and adapt process. I liken retrospectives to training sessions in the gym, where small investments into oneself, building on weaknesses result in performance enhancements on the field. Athletes train this way for a reason, and software teams are no exception.

Retrospectives require a great deal of preparation and focus to get the most out of them. When facilitating remote retrospectives for distributed teams, this can add another layer of complexity which can make the session less effective and more difficult to facilitate. However, retrospectives are particularly important for distributed teams as there are less opportunities to collaborate through proximity and the team generally rely upon distributed tools to collaborate. I would also note that facilitating retrospectives for distributed teams can take longer in some cases to cater for the stop-start nature of the communication mechanisms in play. Think about extending the time frame available to factor this in as well as the team size and issues being discussed.

I would only advise carrying out distributed retrospectives where absolutely necessary as there is no real substitute for face to face communication. However if this is not an option due to organisational constraints, you can try approaching the problem using some of the approaches described below.

This post aims to share some of the techniques I have found to be useful and hopefully create a wider discussion where you can contribute and share your experiences to build up a source of reference for others.

1. Collaborative Facilitation Through Pair Scrum Mastery

If you have a split team in different physical locations, an ideal model which can work well is pairing with another scrum master or facilitator. Each physical location would have a local scrum master or facilitator in this model. This will take some preparation discussing the format and approach you would like to take such as how to set the scene, gather data, generate insights, etc. Although you’ll likely have one main driver, each Scrum Master can facilitate each room and encourage collaboration and feedback towards a clear defined goal. A typical example can be seen in the image below, where there is a facilitator in a team space sharing a screen to the other team.

Retrospective meeting with the Brazil Team

 

Advantages

This model has the advantage of being physically present with the team and encourages face to face collaboration. This matters as the facilitator is able to read body language, facial expression and other subtleties within the team, which might not stand out by recorded information alone. They can also act as a point of focus for each group which can reduce distraction. For instance, there only has to be x1 active screen per room acting as a group focus point through which the facilitator orchestrates interaction. In addition to this, the team can still use the whiteboards and post-it notes and the facilitators can help support this through physical collaboration either end. Having a physical presence to problem solving can help visualise the issues and can keep high levels of engagement, by getting the team members to walk around the room to the problem solving space.

Disadvantages

This model can work well for 2 or maybe 3 rooms at a push. However beyond that, this model might be difficult to scale. There will be an overhead of duplicating the feedback from each side within each of the rooms if physical collaboration on the walls is required during the session. The facilitators will need to be mindful to encourage team feedback and not isolate feedback to each location. You will need a good audio and video connection for this to work. For this model to work, you will also need enthusiastic, engaged facilitators who are prepared to work together before, during and after the retrospective.

2. Structure For Distributed Retrospectives With Remote Facilitator

In the event that you can’t or don’t want to use the pair scrum master model mentioned above, don’t despair, there is an alternative. There are many tools and approaches available online to help facilitate remote sessions.

Before we jump into tools though, it’s worth mentioning there are a few different approaches to consider when structuring a session. I’ve listed just 3 below:

A. Local Team Rooms With 1:1 Device Ratio

Assuming there isn’t a designated facilitator in each room, in each location the team share a private physical space together. Each team member has their own device/laptop to engage with a shared screen space or tool. For instance, you might have 2 or more rooms in distributed locations where groups sit together, similar to the image below :

Workshop

 

Advantages

  • The team sit together which can help the team feel united
  • Having a private room avoids 3rd party distraction which can helps maintain focus
  • Can use peripheral equipment such as whiteboards or screens in the room if needed
  • One machine per person creates a stronger individual identity in the online team space which can be useful to observe engagement levels by the remote facilitator

Disadvantages

  • The team can create localised discussion which doesn’t go through the rest of the remote team which could restrict the quality of feedback
  • Members can get distracted by third party tools on their machines such as email or project which could affect engagement
  • Unfamiliar space could have a slow connection. (Would be worth checking first not to disrupt the session)

B. Individual Locations

The team members are in different locations (desks) and have a device each. This could be from their work desk, from home or if you’re lucky enough in your office to have small private rooms for individuals to use for such meetings.

Working from home

 

Advantages

  • One machine per person creates a stronger individual identity in the online team space which can be useful to observe engagement levels by the remote facilitator
  • Familiar space to the participants creates a level of comfort
  • No localised discussion possible, conversation should be going through the shared open team channel
  • Minimal effort to setup. Connection issues would be known upfront in most cases.

Disadvantages

  • Limited physical capabilities
  • The likelihood of interruption is increased if participating in an open office space. Could also distract others around the team member
  • Members can get distracted by third party tools on their machines such as email or project which could affect engagement

C. Private Room With Shared Screen

The team members are in a shared room, but share a central screen/camera per room with other individuals or other team rooms.

conference pirate FTW

 

Advantages

  • The team sit together which can help the team feel united
  • Limited distraction, as there is a shared device (no emails or 3rd party tools)
  • Having a private room avoids 3rd party distraction which can help focus

Disadvantages

  • Without the facilitator in the team room, it can be more difficult to get engagement
  • Distance from the camera and field of vision can hide or distance team members from the conversation
  • Unfamiliar space could slow the connection. (Would be worth checking first)
  • Strong characters can be more dominant in the team space which could reduce feedback and reduce the levels of engagement

D. Isolate The Facilitator

When you are working with remote teams, there are obvious constraints to be aware of which need to be elevated or overcome to improve the flow of the session and help the team communicate. When the facilitator is in one of the rooms with some of the team, issues that other remote teams may be experiencing in terms of communication will be less obvious. To be more in tune with communication issues, the facilitator could sit in a room on their own and connect to the session. When the session is running they will then be experience first hand the difficulties that each of the rooms are having which would be less obvious if located in one of the team rooms. This will help the facilitator ask the right questions to stabalise the session.

Whichever model you choose, each has its own merits. The team dynamic, maturity and enthusiasm can drastically effect which model works best for your team. I would encourage experimenting with different formats and analyse what worked well for the team not only by observation, but by asking the team for their feedback on what they felt was most effective and why.

3. Tools For Distributed Retrospectives

Whichever model you choose there are many tools that can help distributed retrospectives run smoothly. Below I have listed some of the tools I have used that can help facilitate the session. I would suggest trying different tools to discover what works for your team. To run these tools, a second window with an open voice and/or video session is advised such as Skype or Google Hangout.

A. Ideaboardz  (Free)

Ideaboardz
Ideaboardz Retrospective Tool

B. Google Docs Retrospective Template (Free – Google Docs)

Retrospective
Google Docs Template Retrospective

C. Stormz – Google Hangout Plugin (Free Limited Users)

Google Hangout Retrospective Tool
Google Hangout Retrospective Tool

D. PinItTo.me (Free)

Retrospective Virtual Board
Pin It To Me

 

E. NoteApp ($10pm – Free Option Soon)

F. StormBoard (Free < 5 users, $5 pm per user)

G. Padlet (Free)

 

H. Scrumblr (Free)

 

If you have anything to contribute to this post or have experiences to share or tools you have tried, please add comments below for the benefit of the next reader. If you try out any of the suggestions above, please feel free to feedback your experience here as well.

14 Comments

  1. I came across an agile retrospective tool which is perfect for both local and distributed teams called Groupmap which you can find at http://www.groupmap.com. It’s quite interesting because it allows each person in your team to add their ideas and avoid group think because the person who is a bit of a talker has equal weighting in the say compared with the quieter person in the group doing the agile retrospective. It does this by allowing each person to enter in their own ideas and then the team can individually vote for the key actions thus removing bias and allows everyone to have a say thus improving the insights from the activity. Have you tried it before?

  2. Thanks very much for this insightful article. It’s a very comprehensive outline of approaches that I intend to share with students at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. I especially appreciate the thoughts around isolating the facilitator. We’ve gone as far as isolating all team members when there are remote team members participating. It really levels the playing field.

    I hope you might also add Teamput (https://teamput.com) to future lists for conducting retrospectives and for visual collaboration with remote teams. Teamput is much newer than the apps that you mentioned, but we have some advantages in the simplicity and richness of visual collaboration. We are also in the process of combining visual collaboration with Kanban boards. You will be able to click on a card to get to a canvas with rich information (sticky notes, lists, images, files, and links) and discussion. So you could click on the story and get a storyboard, Or click on a task and get truly rich information. And of course, you will be be able to move the cards from list to list.

    We will be rolling out the kanban board interface by the end of August. I’d really appreciate feedback when we do. It’s the only way agile can work…. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for sharing groupmap, Angela. Teamput (https://teamput.com) goes a step further in avoiding groupthink and other biases by giving you side-by-side canvases. One can be private and the other shared. There’s voting and the ability to make notes anonymous. We’ve used Teamput for face-to-face, mixed, and completely remote teams with great success.

    • Hi Bill, Thanks for your feedback. I’ll checkout Teamputt and add it to the list. Would be great if you could share any feedback on your experiences from the Thunderbird school, sounds very interesting.

  4. We just launched a completely free tool, ScatterSpoke, to enable fast, simple, effective retrospectives no matter where your team is located. We would LOVE to hear some user feedback!

  5. Another tool to add to this list: Retrium. We are are a retrospective-specific tool with a number of prebuilt techniques that are all one click away. Retrium includes awesome features like private brainstorming, grouping, dot voting, prioritized voting, and more. Check us out!

    • Hi David, thanks for sharing. I haven’t used this personally, but from the demo looks interesting so will have to give it a try soon.

  6. In our company we’re using RetroTool (https://retrotool.io). It’s not perfect but we find it really fun to use and it allows the facilitator to customise how you do your retrospective. Plus it doesn’t look like it was built in the 90′ 🙂

  7. Not specifically for retrospectives, but I use https://realtimeboard.com. It’s a good replacement for your physical office walls. During retrospectives, I like to use the walls and be creative in the method and technique. So each time is different. The downside of a specific retrospective tool is you’re forced into a method. So if you want flexibility, use Realtimeboard.

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