Three Rules for Remote Retrospectives

To me, it felt that despite all the communication they had daily they weren't talking about the right things. I presented some potential issues but suggested we ask what everyone else thinks. The response was epic.

Chris Murman

July 11, 2018

I'm the type of person who is up for just about anything. Some of it has to do with being a part of the story that will be told later. Or I just like trying new things and don't embarrass easily. Either way, if someone suggests an outlandish activity everyone will eventually look my way.

As exhibit A, some colleagues bet me that I couldn't eat a 6-pound lobster in Las Vegas while we were attending a conference. If I finished it I did not have to pay. Needless to say, I was not the one pulling my wallet out. I even drank the remaining garlic butter (they said "it all" after all).

As a result, I often find myself in interesting situations with teams trying unconventional ideas.

The most recent involves running a remote retrospective for a group of people that all worked in different cities and had never done one before. They weren't even doing iterative development of their project. It was just a good old-fashioned waterfall project.

I know, just give me a sec to set it up.

One of the business leads for this project attended a planning workshop I facilitated for another program. She had heard stories of this new agile initiative at her company and wanted to see it in action. The workshop had it's messy moments as they are want to do, but we ended with an actionable roadmap for the next quarter.

Afterward, the business lead pulled me aside and complimented our work. I thanked her but knew there was an ask coming. She explained her project she was working on was not set up to run in an agile framework but wondered if there were "bits of goodness" we could pull from my workshop to help her project get planned out.

I knew I was stepping in it by agreeing to help, but as I said I like a new challenge.

The planning workshop went off well, and the plan backed them into a more iterative approach. Leadership was hopeful in the plan but was nervous about the execution piece. Keep in mind I was just brought in for the workshop.

Enter the retrospective.

A month in, things were already headed off the rails. Deliverables were slipping and the business couldn't get any transparency into what the teams were doing from week to week. This was despite the fact that there were multiple daily status meetings. Go figure.

I was approached again and was asked for my opinion. To me, it felt that despite all the communication they had daily they weren't talking about the right things. I presented some potential issues but suggested we ask what everyone else thinks. The response was epic.

"Like a retrospective? But we don't use Agile for this project?"

This company is global, and the people I was asking to get together for a chat every two weeks were in more time zones than I wanted to count. No way they would get on a plane for this. And I'm a much better facilitator in person than on the phone. So what did I learn?

Make them turn the camera on.

As simple as that sounds, I've been able to get away with keeping the camera off on my laptop on many meetings. And I'll admit it: I was lazy in this regard for phone meetings. There's no reason for it in with the machines we work on today. Occasionally there are bandwidth issues, but after a couple, I learned this was one of the most important things to push for.

When delving into sensitive topics on teams that generate conflict, it's way less harsh if you can just look at each other. Even on the computer.

It also allows for more moments of friendly banter and collaboration. If I'm working from home that day and someone sees one of my kids' paintings on the wall it's a moment of connection we would have never had just keeping it on the phone only.

Seeing each other smile and laugh makes retros less intense, which we definitely need at times.

Silence is golden but needs to be used sparingly.

When facilitating retros in person, giving the team time to write down topics on stickies is such a helpful part of the event. One the phone, though, it's not as transparent of an experience. People can check mail, instant message colleagues, or walk away and do a number of other unrelated activities.

There were some weeks that giving the team 10 minutes of silence was definitely necessary. The online tool we used allowed for non-verbal interaction easily enough, and the more challenges they had the more stickies there were. Other weeks though...

Silence just gave them a chance to disengage and do something else since we were remote.

This was a growth opportunity for me to encourage more ideas from the team by commenting on what had been posted already. Could these two ideas be combined and restated? Was there a piece of one topic that could be broken down further? Can this person clarify their idea even though we aren't done adding topics?

We all need a nudge from time to time, and the more opportunities they have to disengage the harder I had to work to keep them focused. Rather than put it all on them, I challenged myself to not sit back and let them fail. Just when I felt we would end with no real topics to discuss, we would find some nugget in conversation.

I don't think it would have been uncovered if I kept silent.

Definitely don't get lazy when it comes to follow-up communication.

I have legit scars from my days as a project manager. Having to take meeting minutes and then send them out for all the people I know weren't paying attention would drive me absolutely insane. As such, I am not a fan of sending meeting notes after we have adjourned.

In this instance, though, it's crucial to end the retro with the items we discussed and what we agreed to try afterward.

My experience facilitating retrospectives over the years is the event sticks around longer in the team's memory if you are all together interacting around physical notes. The tactile activity of writing and moving stickies makes the memory more tangible I think. When your work days involve you just moving from meeting to meeting online, everything just seems to meld together.

Giving the team a reminder of what we talked about allows you to refresh minds that are just slogging through their days. You can even experiment with sending the follow-up notes a few days later just to see if results vary.

I even started sending out the previous retro's notes the day before the next retro as a starter topic for the next session. "Hey we decided to try this experiment two weeks ago, how did we do at it?"

What's your experience been with remote retrospectives? Have you found any hacks to help uncover more improvements to how they work?