7 TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE remote Retrospectives with distributed teams

Posted by Amit Goel on 27th June 2020

I have worked with various companies that have distributed development teams working in same cities or different countries. In some of the instances the team culture is very transactional which makes it difficult for teams to open-up to each other and share thoughts candidly. It becomes challenging to have effective sprint retrospectives in such a setup and with distributed teams.

So how we do it?

Tip #1: Create an environment of psychological safety

Whilst writing this I got reminded of an instance where I was working with a globally spread team in a large bank. When we started with the retro, there was a complete silence and the team was hesitant to share honest feedback. Some factors could have been that it was a vendor team and had hierarchical team structure. Some of the team members were not comfortable to open up and thus it lacked transparency and slowed down the whole process of inspect & adapt.

It is important to coach the team that the objective of the ceremony is to improve the project process and is not linked to person’s performance. Also, that this is an open exchange of feedback between everyone in the team and is not unidirectional.

Tip #2: Prepare the construct of the ceremony well and share with team

One of my former clients who was working with distributed project team, once brought to my attention that the team did not have a clue on the agenda when they started the retrospective meeting. The team members felt lost and it took 30 minutes for the Scrum master to explain the objective of the meeting and work out the discussion items. Obviously, the team was not prepared and the event failed to meet its objectives. This could have been avoided had the meeting being structured and the meeting flow shared with the team ahead of time. During the meeting it is equally important to keep the team updated on status of the flow of the meeting.

Tip #3: Give everyone an opportunity to share

We tend to listen to people who think fast and could get skewed towards the extrovert people. Instead, we should give equal opportunity to everyone in the team including the people who think slow and deep. I have been managing this is by encouraging the team to share some of the ideas that they can forward before the meeting and look for at least one answer to following questions -

Q1. What went well that they would like to acknowledge and maintain?

Q2. Recommendation to improve – this is different from “What needs to improve?”. It gives opportunity to the person to think about the improvement areas and bring options to the table.

Tip #4: Always use video conference

We communicate more effectively when we can see each other’s faces, and because discussions become intense in a retrospective sometimes, you’re gonna want all the effective communication you can get. If you are on phone and having tech difficulties, then you may pass on the topic and disengage. Always do video conference. Skype, GoTo Meeting, Microsoft Teams are among various popular tools available.

Tip #5: Keep the tone positive

Because of working in distributed locations, the team members may not get opportunity to build personal rapport with other colleagues. The environment is formal at times and it becomes important to avoid using words that may be taken negatively by the person on the other side. Also, you may not be aware of other person’s personality type or DISC profile. Be clear and expressive of your thoughts by maintaining positive tone and being respectful.

Tip #6: Sprint retrospectives are designed for equal participation

In one of the sprint retrospective the scrum master brought a power point presentation of all improvement areas and instructed the team on the resolution steps. PLEASE DON’T EVER DO THIS. Retros should not be dominated. Provide opportunities to others in the meeting to share or may take charge of the retro. It worked for me when I encouraged the team to rotate the responsibility of organising the retrospective meetings. It was then not seen as 'ABC’s retro meeting' and reduced the possibility of dominance.

Tip #7: Record the recommendations and build a plan on improvement

Record the ideas and build a plan on improvements from the retrospective. Whilst attending the meeting, look for small incremental improvements and revisit the improvement areas from the previous sprint. You will also need a way of recording all the ideas you share. In an office setting, whiteboards usually serve this purpose, but in a virtual retrospective, you need some kind of digital equivalent. Miro, a popular add-on for Jira, is well-suited for this, as are Trello, Mural and Agilibo