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Better Retrospectives for Distributed Teams

If you’ve worked with Agile development, you know the importance of retrospectives. By taking a look back at your past sprint, retrospectives help your team improve how it gets work done. There are a number of retrospective formats out there, and most that I’ve come across have one requirement: have everyone in the same room. The retrospective descriptions don’t explicitly say it, but you can tell by the materials and methods used. Taping notecards to walls, using big sheets of paper or whiteboards to accumulate discussion points - these all work great when the whole team is colocated.

In the eighteen months that I’ve been at Hudl, I’ve been on partially distributed teams. Currently, I’m the PM of a team of twelve, and six of those team members are remote. Because of that, I’ve had lots of opportunities to find out what works and what doesn’t work when you run retrospectives for distributed teams. In this post, I want to highlight the mistakes I’ve made, and then describe some of the best practices that make our retrospectives go smoothly.

My Three Big Mistakes

My first mistake was using in-person documentation tools—specifically, whiteboards—when conducting retrospectives. For example, we used the Retrospective Starfish on the Basketball team for a few months. I would dutifully draw the star on the whiteboard and fill it in, while another team member took notes for later. However, our distributed team members couldn’t see the whiteboard to get a feel for similar items, and had to describe the category to which their feedback belonged. My attempt to make this better was to point a webcam at the whiteboard. Unfortunately, most of the time the whiteboard was impossible to read. Our remote workers also didn’t like that they couldn’t see the entire group in that scenario. All they could see was a whiteboard with a person occasionally walking in front of it.

Another mistake I’ve made with retrospectives was making the meetings a free-for-all. By that, I mean just saying “Go,” and expecting people to chime in organically with their feedback. This structure often results in undesired behaviors. It allows your more gregarious team members to dominate the conversation. Similarly, it allows those who are more reserved or who don’t want to contribute feedback to sit back and let the conversation happen. This is true whether all participants are in the same room or not.

A third mistake I’ve made with certain retrospective formats is spending too much time in individual thought or in smaller groups. For example, the Plan of Action format involves ten minutes of individual writing, then ten minutes in pairs combining actions, then another ten minutes in groups of four, and so on. This is especially difficult if you want an in-office and out-of-office teammate pair to collaborate. My team told me that we should be able to get everything on the table and pick out what’s important without spending all that time doing individual writing and smaller group communication. Formats like this can take a very long time, limiting the amount of conversation your entire group has together.

How I Run Retrospectives

In my opinion, retrospectives should be fairly quick. Your team is most productive when they’re doing actual work—not when they’re in meetings. I make sure we come into any meeting on the same page and ready to go. My teams’ retrospectives generally take between 20 and 30 minutes, which allows me to combine retrospectives and sprint planning into the same meeting.

Make sure people are familiar with the format ahead of time. You don’t want to spend everyone’s time explaining exactly how the meeting should go. If the format involves giving the team time to write feedback down before larger group discussion, strictly timebox the writing exercise.

I run all of my retrospectives are run using a simple Google doc–no whiteboards, note cards, or sheets of poster paper. The great part about using a Google doc is that everyone can see edits in real time without the need for any screen sharing. That allows our distributed team members to keep an eye on the retrospective notes and to see the rest of the team at the same time. To make sure the local crew keeps our remote teammates in mind, I keep the video feed of the distributed employees up alongside the document for the entire meeting.

An example retro doc Before the meeting, I create the doc with the template that corresponds to the format I’m using, and give everyone access to it. I’ve had luck asking team members to fill out their feedback a Google doc in advance of the meeting. That ensures each team member has given some thought to areas for improvement, rather than trying to come up with something on the spot in the meeting itself. It also keeps the meeting moving. If a team member hasn’t filled out the notes before the meeting, I summarize their feedback in the notes as they speak rather than asking them to type and then talk about what they’ve just typed.

Recently, I’ve alternated between a simple Good/Bad format and “3Ls”—Liked, Learned, Lacked/Longed For. Rather than a free-for-all, I assign a random presentation order in advance of the meeting. We work through the retrospective one person at a time. Anyone is are allowed to add comments on anyone else’s feedback at any time. We don’t allow ourselves to get defensive about feedback. As a facilitator, it’s your job to recognize when to probe into feedback, to open that for more discussion, and to pull / assign action items out of that discussion. Action items are bolded during the retrospective, then pulled into a list at the end.

What Works for You?

Through trial and error, I think we have developed a retrospective system that works pretty well for distributed teams. I’m interested to hear from people who have worked in similar teams. What tips, tricks, and formats have been useful for your retrospectives?

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