Retrospective for remote teams
According to the Scrum Guide, a Sprint Retrospective is an inspection of “how the last Sprint went regarding individuals, interactions, processes, tools, and their Definition of Done”. The purpose of the meeting is to plan ways that increase the quality and effectiveness of a team.
Extending the above definition beyond the sprint case, more teams can reap the benefits. So, a retrospective is an inspection of the past period in regard to individuals, interactions, processes, tools, and the goals that a team has set.
Running inspection meetings, like the retrospective, is vital for all teams that want to evolve. A successful retrospective promotes open communication and improves teamwork among peers. With better communication and collaboration, a team is happier and produces positive outcomes.
Before starting a retrospective, the team needs to define:
- The scope of the retrospective in terms of both period and topic of discussion. With a clear scope, the team can focus on the important stuff, and leave non-relevant remarks outside the discussion.
- The retrospective activity theme, where the team agrees on the form of the retrospective. The purpose of the activity is to help team members to structure and share their thoughts. There is a multitude of activities to choose from by browsing the Internet, or you can create your own.
Performing a retrospective meeting consists of some steps:
- Adding notes, where participants add their notes on interactions, processes, tools, and goals of the said period.
- Grouping notes, where participants share notes and clarify any understandable notes. Additionally, some notes are grouped together since they are common.
- Voting notes, where each participant casts votes on the most significant notes already shared.
- Discussion and action items, where the team discusses the most voted notes and takes some action items that are helping the team improve.
The most typical way to perform a retrospective with a team is in sync. When all team members share the same physical room, write notes on post-its and stick them on a board. If team members are remote, the retrospective is done over a call, and notes are added to a digital board. A synchronous retrospective lasts from one up to three hours, depending on the topic in discussion.
A team can perform a retrospective fully asynchronously, too. In that case, all instructions and retrospective notes live in the digital space. A member of the team is the facilitator. The facilitator is responsible to organize the retrospective by sending emails to the team to:
- Define the scope of the meeting.
- Set the retrospective activity.
- Share the digital space where the retrospective will take place.
- Time-box the duration for each step.
All team members join the digital space to share their notes and vote. It is best to use a chat channel to ask for clarifications on notes, and to perform an asynchronous discussion on action items. A fully asynchronous retrospective can take more than a day or two and could span a full week.
A third option is hybrid, with some parts performed asynchronously and others in sync. A big part of the retrospective is for individual contribution, where members can take part at their pace. The team can start adding their notes, get clarifications, and vote asynchronously. For any clarifications, the team can use a chat channel; if there is ambiguity on many notes, the team can jump on a call to clarify together. With these steps done, the team can get to a meeting to discuss the emerging themes and take action items. Having a hybrid retrospective can take up to two days. Set a day and a half for the asynchronous note-taking and voting, and have a one-hour call to discuss and take action items.
Having a retrospective has a variety of challenges. One thing to keep in mind is securing the psychological safety of all participants. Avoid any personal blaming and finger-pointing, focus instead on ways to improve as a team. Your team goal is the collective effort, achieved through collaboration and support.
Some more things to keep in mind depending on the way you conduct a retrospective are:
- When meeting in person, keep the discussion focused on the important topics. In a retrospective, topics with varied importance for each person pop up. Deep diving into each topic early on can lead you to an analysis paralysis discussion. To avoid that, stick to clarifications only before discussing the most voted items.
- An asynchronous meeting, spanning many days or hours, makes people disengage from sharing notes and following up. Additionally, not seeing colleagues makes the meeting impersonal. To improve this, have reminders or time-boxed sessions on sharing notes.
- With an asynchronous part and then meeting for a discussion, teams might rush to resolutions. To avoid missing important notes, try walking through all the asynchronous notes as a team.
The retrospective meeting is an opportunity for team bonding, growth, and alignment. The evolution of Agile and Scrum also affected the retrospective meeting. Retrospective activities are part of that evolution. Using storytelling or analogies, an activity helps the team exchange notes and ideas.
Through a variety of retrospective activities, teams can focus on improving specific skillsets. Here are a few categories to help your team goals:
- Standard activities focus on the team’s strengths and weaknesses. Standard activities work great for a set period or completed work; e.g., a quarter, or a feature completion.
- Playful activities use analogies, fables, or fantasy storylines. Playful activities are celebratory, unifying, and inspiring the team over the completed work.
- Futurespective activities to analyze upcoming challenges. Futurespectives are good to identify areas for improvement, potential flaws, and upcoming work.
Since the retrospective format is very flexible, you can create a custom activity on your team’s needs. Custom activities are more relatable to your team’s status.
A successful retrospective for a remote team leverages all the characteristics of the remote setting. You will need a tool that allows participants to:
- Contribute independently.
- Participate asynchronously.
- Have access to all information shared by their peers.
- Group for a synchronous discussion when needed.
With all the above in place, you set the conditions to turn the retrospective ceremony into a team habit. Here are the steps that will help you get there.
For starters, you will need to set up the retrospective for your remote team. Setting up a retrospective is important to think about the period you will be inspecting with the team; is it for the last weeks, or the period it took you to get to a milestone? Going past that, you choose from a set of retrospective activities the one that suits your needs. There are activities for future thinking (futurespectives), reflection, celebration, etc. All activities are promoting open communication and team bonding so that each team member can freely share findings.
When you are ready with the setup, you can invite your team members into adding their notes. You can do that via email or through your company’s chat application. It is important to educate the team on the period of inspection, and the specifics of the retrospective activity. At this point, each team member can enter the retrospective to add their notes. Since the team works remotely, you can inform them to add notes within a specific period, spanning from a few hours to some days. There is no need for everyone to be on a call or a meeting to add their notes, each one can do it on their time. When the specified time has passed, you can share the last ping – via email or a message – and then inform your peers that the retrospective is moving on to the next step.
With all notes added, the retrospective proceeds to the next step, sharing notes and clarifications. At this point, all the notes are visible to the whole team. Participants can identify notes that are similar and need grouping, or obscure and require clarifications. You can ping the person who added the note for clarifications, via email or a direct message.
There are two options for handling this step as a team:
- Continue asynchronous, and set a facilitator to group and clarify notes on behalf of the team.
- Have a synchronous meeting, to group and clarify notes together.
When the grouping step is complete, you can ping your colleagues to cast their votes on the items of importance. Each member can cast their votes on their time, asynchronously. Doing that async and not in a meeting is excluding any bias due to talking while casting votes. You can set a specific time limit for the voting step.
With all team members done voting, you can proceed to the final step of the retrospective, the discussion. This is the only step of the retrospective that the remote team needs to get together and talk. You can send a meeting invite to the team and share the voting results. Sharing the voting results beforehand provides space for review.
When you all meet, make sure to follow the etiquette of online meetings:
- Provide space for everybody to share their thoughts on the topic of discussion.
- Try not to interrupt the speaker.
- Keep the discussion within the topic.
- Keep the discussion within the specified time.
The retrospective format can lead you to long discussions. The topics are always relevant to the team and everyone feels strongly about each item.
Please remember to:
- Be polite.
- Keep the discussion around team improvements, and avoid going personal.
- Focus on getting up to 3 action items, no more.
When you finally conclude with the discussion and action items, the retrospective is considered complete. You will need to inform all participants about the resulting action items and plan how you can start addressing each one. To achieve that you can use helpers as tasks in a ticketing system (e.g., Jira, Asana, Trello), reminders in your company messaging app, or email reminders.
This guide is inspired by a combination of our own expertise and application, as well as from our customers consultation, expertise, and usage of our service, Team O'clock.