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Ideas for Remote Retrospectives that Engage

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Key Takeaways

  • In person retrospectives are an important process improvement technique
  • As teams become remote it is important to carry the practice forward to the new ways of working
  • The in-person collaborative techniques can be adapted for remote use
  • Tooling and communication technology matters - poor tooling negatively impacts the participant experience
  • There are a wide variety of tools which can support remote retrospective practices

With the sudden shift to remote working, teams who had a regular cadence of collaboration activities suddenly find themselves having to shift to holding them remotely. For many teams one of the most important team events is the retrospective - a regular opportunity for teams to examine their collaborative ways of working and look for opportunities to collectively improve their teamwork and their processes.

Retrospectives have well understood structures and there are many techniques for running them. InfoQ has many resources on the topic including a minibook by Ben Linders & Luis Gonçalves: Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives

What’s not so clear is how these techniques and tools can be applied when the people involved are not in the same room. How do you discuss what worked and what didn’t work so well when you’re not in the same room able to see the nuances of body-language and posture that make up so much of interpersonal communication? How do you brainstorm new ideas if you’re used to getting up and writing on a whiteboard to help make your ideas comprehensible to others?

This is a problem a group of us from Agile Welly wanted to tackle. In late March 2020 we had scheduled an in-person event for World Retrospective day on March 26, however New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown due to COVID-19 on that day so we pivoted to switch it to an online event and postponed it for a week - we were pretty confident that the first day of lockdown was not a great day to ask people to jump into a new meeting format. 

We looked at it as an opportunity to experiment - there are lots of unknowns in the new ways of working that teams are experiencing and we wanted to provide a variety of possible approaches and different retrospective techniques that participants could experience in a safe environment, and hopefully have some fun while doing so.

We wanted to put people into small groups and have them experience different styles of retrospective format and different remote collaboration tools. To do this, we needed to go beyond the standard capabilities of a tool like Zoom, so we took inspiration from the recent Business Agility Conference in New York where the organisers had moved to supporting more than half of their participants attending remotely. 

The idea was to give participants a “landing page” where they could select which part of the event they wanted to participate in and give them the freedom to move between the virtual rooms freely.

The structure for the event was a 30 minute panel discussion, presented using the Zoom webinar functionality. This supports up to 500 attendees and is largely one-directional. Using the Q&A feature of Zoom the panel was able to respond to questions but the attendee experience was mainly broadcast mode.

The panel discussion centred around the characteristics of good retrospectives in general and then asked how these could be replicated or replaced when running retrospectives remotely. 

After the panel discussion participants were invited to pick a breakout room they wanted to move into for the next 30 minutes to experience different retrospective approaches using different virtual tools. The breakout room boxes on the landing page were live links to six different Zoom lines.

Agile Welly Breakout Rooms Landing Page

We borrowed Zoom professional lines from the Business Agility Institute, ICAgile and from some of the facilitators. Each line had a host and the host was responsible for running the retrospective in whatever way they chose. Here are the approaches/tools used by the six hosts:

  • Line 1: Tool: Retrotool.io Let's have a play with an online Retro tool that doesn't need you or your teams to sign up - just open and use immediately! Customisable, good functionality and ability to export outcomes
  • Line 2: Tool: Google Jamboard - using virtual sticky notes on a shared whiteboard with five different formats 
  • Line 3: Tool: Trello - A range of different Retro ideas you could use within Trello to help your teams transition to retrospecting virtually
  • Line 4: Tool: Zoom - Using the Mad Tea Liberating Structure. A fun way to share your voice in the realm of remote retros
  • Line 5: Tool: Google Forms - Nice and easy that you can start using it today. Setup is very simple and you can customise it to ask any retro questions. No signup needed and great for teams who want to get straight into it
  • Line 6: Tool: Retromat - Still want to have a meaningful retrospective, but perhaps you are limited in what types of tools you can use. In this session we’ll use retromat.org and Zoom to run a full retrospective.

What follows is a brief reflection from some of the room hosts and some lessons we learned from the experience. 

Some advice for facilitating a meeting in Zoom that was shared in all the groups:

  1. Have everyone put themselves into gallery view so they can see their fellow participants 
  2. Audio off if you have background noise
  3. Keep video on to increase engagement 

Additional guidance for participants was provided on the landing page document:

All the groups were asked to retrospect on the same topic - their experience with the COVID-19 lockdown over the previous week. 

Breakout Line 1: RetroTool.io

The big lesson we learned here was check the tech and set up on the equipment you plan to use before the event. Unfortunately this session didn’t get up and running. Although the host was set up and ready, participants couldn’t access the line. Previously the host was being a participant not logging in as a host. This should have been tested in our rehearsal. An immediate fix would have been to use the Zoom app instead of using the browser however the computer had been locked down by their organisation so this wasn’t possible. Fortunately the structure of having 6 breakout lines meant people moved to one of the other lines after a few minutes of waiting. 

In this breakout line we were meant to play with Retrotool.io. Retro tool is a fun and easy online tool that you can access immediately without the need for logging in and/or people setting up seperate accounts. It’s very simple to use. You can create boards you need quickly by using one of the templates or create your own from scratch - great for the beginner or more experienced Retro aficionado!

To allow others to join the ‘board’ all you need to do is send the room link to your team. With one click your team enter the Retro board you have set up. 

A standard Template looks like this: 

Once in the ‘board’ there are some quite cool features for something that at first looks quite basic. 

  • You can gather and write your thoughts on cards in your own private section. 
  • To publish your cards, just drag the card and drop it in the common section (where everyone joining online can see it)
  • There is the ability to vote for favourites - even an ability to limit the amount of votes people have. 
  • There is an inbuilt timer to manage timekeeping. You can all agree the timeframe up front before you start. All participants can see it so it allows you the facilitator for focus on the conversation and less on administration.
  • You can change the colour of the ‘cards’ and participants can choose what colour they want to use. This is great for easily identifying who’s card is who’s without the need for people to add their names to each card.
  • Action points can also be gathered in the tool.
  • You have the ability to export the board to keep as an artifact.

My takeaways would be:

  1. Check and double check the tech/set up even if you have changed a small thing! 
  2. Think about what tools and tech you are ‘allowed’ to use. And what information you can put online. Does your workplace have any restrictions? 
  3. Some workplaces may have firewalls that stop access to particular sites. Can you access it from home? Can the other participants? Like with the Zoom example above, do a trial run to see if there are any access issues. 
  4. Remember to add extra time to allow people to become familiar with the tool. Even though it might seem easy to you - it might be the first time for others to work this way. Be patient. 
  5. Think about how you can make it easier for people to talk without all jumping in at once and talking over each other. I.e. could someone nominate a team member to talk next? 

Breakout Line 2: Google Jamboard

Jamboard is a simple whiteboard with the ability to add images and notes to the board. Multiple people can access a board simultaneously and you can create multiple boards in a single document. For this exercise we created five boards which the participants could use. After the initial briefing the host put people into Zoom breakout rooms in groups of 4-6 people and let them use the board for their room as if they were using a physical whiteboard in person. After 20 minutes the participants were called back to the main room for a debrief.The consensus was that the experience was similar to being in person, that tool has a low learning curve and the ease of adding items to a board makes it possible to run an effective retrospective using this tool. The ability to add images also enhanced the experience - as seen in this image of a sailboat format used by one of the groups.

Breakout Line 3: Trello

We are all in the position where we need to take time to reflect and re-evaluate the world in which we have been thrown into. This goes for our work life as much as our personal life. At times navigating what tools will work in different situations and more to the point what tools are permitted at your workplace can be hard. 

When I was asked to be on the panel for Agile Welly and I took it upon myself to give an overview on how you can use Trello for your team. I had to really sit back and think about what it was that I was trying to show. Given our current situation there are people who have never worked from home before. There are teams that have never been apart. There are retro’s that have only been run around whiteboards using post-it notes. I myself have teams in my office that are in this situation. So the best way that I can explain how you can use trello effectively is to say, be kind to yourself and your people. Don’t over complicate what it is that you are trying to create in your new world. Go back to basics and make simple retrospectives. There are a number of companies who have a selected suite of tools that you have to use due to security restrictions. If you are afforded the chance to use a number of other tools then give Trello a whirl. Just remember that it is better to start simple and actually see if the tool is going to be the right fit for what it is you are trying to achieve with your team.

I created a total of 5 different boards that are public and therefore give you the ability to copy these and try them out with your own teams. The complex board allows you the ability to see what a full retro on Trello looks like. Trello allows you to add stickers to cards so if you run a lean coffee session or anything that you need to vote then you can do that with the stickers. You can add card covers (you will see this in the complex retro board), emojis and upload images into cards. If you run a retro where you need to get your team to answer questions, put these onto a card that can be a Template. This then allows the team to copy this card and answer the questions more succinctly.

Sprint Retro Sailboat

Sprint Retrospective Get Data 4Ls

Sprint Retrospective Basic What Went Well

Sprint retrospective Get Data Gain Insights and Decide What to Do

Agile Welly Complex Retro Board

Here are my key takeaways for you:

  • Be kind - to yourself and your team. This may be your first ever virtual retro. Don’t panic if it is not the same as it has been in the office. It will take time to find your groove again.
  • Don’t over complicate things - start simple and go back to basics
  • Find the tool that will work for you - Trello may be it but again it may not
  • If your retro doesn’t feel good then stop and pivot and find out what is happening
  • Create your new safe space - being virtual is not the same as being in the same room. Your new normal is virtual so create that virtual safe space for your team.

Breakout Line 4: Mad Tea

Mad Tea is a new Liberating Structure designed to provoke a deeper set of reflections and strategic insights among group members. The questions focus attention to let fresh understanding of strategic options and next steps emerge.

We looked at three different Liberating structures in the session:

  1. Mad Tea
    1. Using Mad Tea to Engage the Neural Network of Groups
  2. 15% Solutions
  3. What, So What, Now What? W³
    1. Create shared understanding with ‘What, So What, Now What’

Check In Suggestion

In the top right hand corner of each person’s picture there are two buttons, one to mute / unmute, the other with 3 dots. To get a sense of the room en masse, w/out having a long check in, especially if there are 30 - 40 people on the call. Have everyone click the 3 dots button and then choose rename and then change it to their name plus ‘- <how they are feeling>, e.g. Colin - Grateful

In terms of using Mad Tea as a retrospective remotely, it works in two parts. Two sets of questions will be presented to the group in the Chat window. Individuals type their answers, but DO NOT press return, instead putting up spirit fingers (wave fingers either side of their head on video). Once everyone’s fingers are in the air, the host will count down, 3, 2, 1, MAD TEA. Everyone presses return. All the answers will appear in the chat window. Note. This can be saved, manually or automatically depending on the Zoom settings.

Part 1 Questions

  1. What’s the biggest challenge moving retros virtually?
  2. What makes you nervous about that?
  3. What’s an innovative retrospective you’d like to try in the next week?

Now, create breakout rooms for trios to discuss their answers, especially Q3 for 5 or so minutes. N.B. If there’s a number mismatch, groups of four work equally well.

Once the time is up, bring them back into the main room and ask the next set of questions in the same manner as the first set.

Part 2 Questions

  1. What did you discover?
  2. What feels important to you now?
  3. What’s your next move?

Ask if anyone would like to briefly share, popcorn style their experience.

My takeaways would be:

  1. People are really eager to connect
  2. Apply the KISS principle, as there are multiple layers of tech to navigate (and hope works).
  3. In terms of Zoom, when one leaves a main room, the webinar in this case, close down the zoom app, if running, and any associated post attendee browser windows and restart the app, rather than open up and log into Zoom account in a browser window. This locked people out attempting to get in, stating the host had another video in progress.
  4. Assuming those involved have given their permission, always remember to press record.
  5. Get lateral on using the tools available in the orgs one is helping, rather than frustrated at constraints.

Breakout Line 5: Google Forms

Ruka Yamakami wrote about her approach to running retrospectives using Google forms on the Boost blog

In her discussion, she gives some pros and cons of using Google forms as a tool for remote retrospectives:

Pros

  • Google Forms are web-based and only the Scrum Master needs a Google account (unless you ask people to upload files and a couple of other exceptions).
  • Facilitation is easier since you’ve done most of the set up beforehand.
  • Preparation is easy since setting up Google Forms is straightforward.
  • You can use this approach for various retro topics by tailoring the questions to the topic.

Cons

  • While forms are good for gathering ideas, they don’t really give you a shared way to pick the points you want to focus on. This can be harder, especially with a larger group.
  • You need to create the form beforehand, so you can’t just wing it.
  • Facilitation is harder because it’s trickier to read the room remotely. It’s harder to tell if people are struggling to come up with answers for example.
  • It can feel less creative. The main way you get to be creative is through the questions you ask.

Breakout Room 6: Retromat

It’s not uncommon for some organisations to be constrained by what types of tools they use. This can be because of a variety of reasons, but mostly budgetary constraints or the vetting of online tools that need to take place to determine the risk of that product.

So thinking about that as a possibility and how teams could still run meaningful retrospectives got me to thinking, what are the basic things a team will have access to? Probably video conferencing and the internet.

Retromat is a great online tool that gives you the flexibility to build a complete retrospective from a range of different exercises. It breaks it down into the different parts of a retrospective (setting the scene, gathering insights, gathering data, deciding what to do and closing the retrospective). 

Interesting Fact: Tony O’Halloran (from our Agile Welly community) has his very own retrospective on this site.

The video conferencing tool we were using for the Agile Welly Remote Retrospectives meetup, was Zoom. So I wanted to come up with some ideas to share with the meetup attendees of a retrospective that could be done using the video conferencing product, it’s chat ability, use of the camera and post-it notes where possible.

Zoom has a nice feature that gives people the ability to go into different breakout rooms. You can pick the number of people per breakout room, you can make it random and as that host, you can drop in and out of any of the rooms at your leisure. You're also, as the host, able to bring everyone back into the main meeting room.

Although we didn’t ‘do’ a retrospective, we talked through the retrospective I’d chosen from Retromat (feel free to check it out). We threw around ideas of what we think could work, we experimented with the breakout rooms and talked through how we could use those in a meaningful way to allow for further team collaboration.

My takeaways would be:

  1. Look at what is already out there and see whether you can adapt it to work
  2. Think about the video conferencing tool you have, what are the basic interactions you can have so you can craft a retrospective to work
  3. Set the meeting up early, allow yourself time to work through any gotchas
  4. If you are linking to things, have those websites either open or the links at your fingertips
  5. Give people time to familiarise themselves with working in this different way, it takes time and some people handle this differently to others
  6. Check-in with everyone throughout, get feedback early so you can adapt/tweak as you are running the retrospective
  7. Know it’s not going to be perfect and let the team know we are all experimenting

About the Authors

Shane Hastie leads the Culture and Methods editorial team for InfoQ.com where he hosts the weekly InfoQ Culture Podcast. He is the Director of Community Development for ICAgile and is the founding chair of the Agile Alliance New Zealand.

Charlotte Hinton is an Agile Coach and works with a wide range of teams who are all at different stages of their agile journeys. She is involved with the agile community in Wellington and is one of the organizers for the Agile Welly meetup. Charlotte is also a member of Agile Alliance New Zealand.

Colin Basterfield is an Agile Practice and People Coach, currently contracted to NZ Police working across multiple teams and individuals. He strives to surface everyone’s voice, so makes use of Liberating Structures at every opportunity. To augment his people coaching skills, he recently graduated from Integral Coaching Canada’s Associate Coach program. He is also a member of Agile Alliance New Zealand.

Gillian Hemphill is an Agile Practice coach working in BNZ Digital & Apps. A big advocate for the voice of the customer and user research. Encourages and coaches teams to understand the why so people can not just ‘do’ agile but ‘be’ agile. A recent member to the Agile Welly organisers team. She is also a member of Agile Alliance New Zealand. 

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