Meaningful inclusive retrospectives are possible with distributed teams. Let’s talk about the basics you need to have in place, how you can facilitate a distributed retrospective, and what to look out for. This guide is based on the retrospective format that we used at LRF Media. The retrospective participants included 5 team members at the office in Stockholm, one person working from home, and 2 people working at the Kraków office.
- Video conferencing solution. Something you can use to stream from all locations, and also share the screen. E.g. Google Hangouts, Zoom, Appear:in, Skype, Slack.
- Camera, and microphone/speaker system. The team members in Kraków, as well as the person working from home, used their own computers, so the built in cameras worked well. The group in the Stockholm office used a camera that showed everybody in the room. You should invest in a good microphone/speaker system for your setup as well, we suffered from bad sound quality on and off in the conference room.
- Online retrospective/whiteboard solution. There are many out there, including interactive whiteboards like the one my colleague Henrik Kniberg has made! If you already have a license then use the product you have. We used Trello! It’s a bit unconventional, but it worked really well, and we didn’t need to add yet another product/login/url.
Agenda and facilitation
The agenda can follow a typical co-located retrospective agenda. In this case I’ll go over how I facilitated a “What worked well”, “What can be improved” retrospective using Trello. I would definitely use a whiteboard solution if I were doing a timeline as well, but we didn’t do that for this retrospective.
- Check in – It’s really important to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard, even more so when face to face interaction is significantly reduced. Start by asking how the team felt about the sprint, for example. Make sure that everybody gets a chance to say something. Be very clear on the order that you’ll use to keep the meeting moving.
- Gathering input – We created columns in Trello: “What worked well”, “What can be improved” and “Appreciations”. Each person got to add their notes as cards to the respective columns. You can collaborate real-time simultaneously, which we did by making sure everybody had a computer and login to Trello.
- Read appreciations out loud – I really want to give a shout out to “appreciations” especially in a distributed retrospective. Most teams are not good at giving feedback even when they work face to face. So before we got to work on improvements each participant got to read the appreciations they had added to the Trello board out loud.
- Grouping – Now it’s time to look at the positives and changes. Instead of visually grouping the cards in Trello we went through the cards and removed all duplicate notes. This gives the added bonus of allowing people to clarify what they mean.
- Vote for discussion topics – We voted for a card by adding ourselves as members on the card! It was very easy to see which topics got the most votes, and the process was relatively quick as everybody could vote at the same time.
- Discuss – As with any retrospective, it’s good to limit the number of points discussed, pick the top 2 or 3 and open the floor for discussion. It’s really important to allow for longer silences due to lag time and people not being sure if it’s ok to start talking. As a facilitator you can explicitly ask if anyone wants to comment. Don’t forget people who aren’t at your own location.
- Documenting Action points – We added a fourth column to our Trello board. Each action point was written as a card description.
- Close the retro – Ask for feedback on how to improve, and thank all the participants.
Well, this sounds really easy.. There were no problems?
- The microphone. Make sure you have a working solution given the number of people who are participating and the shape of the space you’re in.
- It is easy to just talk to the people sitting in the same room. Especially when the board is projected on the screen. I would love to try this retrospective out with each person sitting at their own desk with a headset. I think this would put everybody on even footing.
- You are influenced by what other people write. As soon as the notes started showing up on the Trello board it was difficult to not be influenced by what other people wrote. It would be nice to have a solution where the cards are face down and you can flip them over, or that you can stop syncing until everybody’s done writing. Otherwise it was great having Trello update so quickly!
We were really happy with the simplicity and collaborative power that Trello offered. This was one of the most successful distributed retros I’ve participated in, and it opened up the possibility for someone working from home to easily participate. Finally, it’s really in the attitude, the team at LRF Media were keen to make sure that distributed development worked and they were all willing to meet each other halfway.