Retrospectives are no less important for distributed teams than co-located ones, but there are additional challenges that have to be overcome to make them effective. In this post I’ll share a few of the things I have learned.
What’s the right schedule for retrospectives with a distributed team? With co-located teams, I like to end sprints on Fridays, and have a retrospective at the very end of the sprint – not wrapped up with the planning for next one. This brings psychological “closure” to the sprint, giving the team an opportunity to get everything out in the open so they can relax at the weekend, and come fresh to the planning session for the next one. With distributed teams in different time-zones this might not be feasible, but I recommend getting as close to it as possible.
Well managed retrospectives with co-located teams can run for a couple of hours or more without losing their way – or the concentration of the team! Much more intense concentration is needed to engage in a long conference or video call, and I’ve found that when the hour mark is passed the meeting becomes less and less productive. So, time-box the retrospective to ninety minutes, but craft an agenda that’s doable in sixty.
Cultural differences come to the fore in retrospectives. In particular, different norms around hierarchy, openness and directness can but a big damper on the whole effort. You can’t change someone’s cultural background but you can do a lot to explain the purpose of the retrospective, and ask them to step outside their comfort zone for a little while so the meeting can achieve its goals.
Use the Retrospective Prime Directive as a starting point, and give examples of the kind of feedback you expect. Use activities which allow team members to feedback anonymously, when you think that might expose facts and opinions that would otherwise stay hidden. If all else fails, talk to team members individually before the retrospective, help them understand the value of giving their input to the whole team, and to think of ways to communicate unambiguously that are also comfortable for them personally.
Thankfully, we have come a long way from telephone conference calls in the past few years! Retrospectives that only use audio tend to be tedious in the extreme, and although video calling is better it remains a far cry from the rich interaction that comes quite painlessly when the team is in a room together.
There is plenty of new technology which helps us rediscover that ease and richness of collaboration. CorkboardMe is a simple and highly responsive virtual board – of infinite dimensions – that the team can add virtual post-it notes simultaneously. It works really well for visual activities like Mad/Sad/Glad, as shown below. It is limited to post-it notes of different colours and sizes – there’s no freehand drawing – so plan in advance how you will work within that.
Scribblar.com is similar, but a free-form whiteboard. It’s flexibility means a lot more hands-on facilitation is needed, but used judiciously it can solve some difficult remote collaboration problems.
The retrospective is an absolutely crucial part of Agile and Scrum – the driver of improvements that allows us to focus on execution during the sprint, safe in the knowledge that everyone will get an genuine opportunity to speak their minds at the end. No matter how dysfunctional a project may be, a working retrospective brings it all out into the open, and drives the team to take specific actions for the greater good of the project and the team. Wherever a team happens to be located, it’s a part of the process that we simply can’t do without.