Virtual Retrospectives – Tips & Tricks

Esther Derby (who literally co-wrote the book on Agile Retrospectives) had some sage advice at a recent webinar: When facilitating Retrospectives for remote teams, structure becomes increasingly important. Facilitators need to be methodical about going through the 5 stages of a Retrospective, and constantly remind the group which stage they are in. Even though many of us are on camera during these sessions, it’s much harder for people to infer what’s going on – and so being explicit is key.  A reminder about the 5 stages of a retrospective:

  • Set the stage. Set the goal; Give people time to “arrive” and get into the right mood
  • Gather data. Help everyone remember; Create a shared pool of information (everybody sees the world differently)
  • Generate insight. Why did things happen the way they did?; Identify patterns; See the big picture
  • Decide what to do. Pick a few issues to work on and create concrete action plans of how you’ll address them
  • Close the retrospective. Clarify follow-up; Appreciations; Clear end; How could the retrospectives improve?

Remember to start the session with a ‘check-in’ activity. Most of the activities found here can be easily adapted to be done remotely:

“Generating Insights” is something that most Scrum Masters easily navigate in the non-virtual world. We use sticky notes, give people some quiet time, and off we go. In the Virtual world though, we need to put some thought into how to achieve this. One option, if you are using a tool like Zoom, is to ask participants to type their insights into the “chat” window (silent) but ask everyone NOT to press enter just quite yet.

Once everyone has has enough time to get their thoughts down, have everyone hit enter at the same time. This helps simulate the ‘silent reflection’ time we’d normally give people, without the Loudest Voice ‘leading’ the conversation. Once the insights are sent, you can still have each person read out their own insights. 

“Leveling the Playing field” – This is another one that is second-nature for most Scrum Masters when facilitating in-person sessions. Virtually, we may need to be a bit more explicit with this one. One idea: The facilitator keeps a list of names of participants on a sheet of paper. Each time a person speaks, they add a ‘check’ next to their name. As the session progresses, note who has talked the most/least, and actively try to balance the discussion.

“Decide what to do.” Action items, action items, action items. This goes for in-person retrospectives as well (obviously), but doubly so for remote sessions. The reason being is that as soon as the meeting is over, everyone is instantly transported back to their own isolated space, and it’s easy to quickly shift to the next fire/meeting/whatever and forget about what they said should be done at the retro. Be explicit, ensure someone is taking notes, and make the action items visible to everyone.

“Break out sessions.” Don’t rely exclusively on large, whole group discussion. Use breakout rooms (a feature of Zoom, but you can mimic this in an adhoc way by having people create temporary slack channels) in order to facilitate liberating structures like 1-2-4-ALL:

And finally: make is safe for people to fail when using whatever tools you are using. This stuff is new to lots of people, and if someone is struggling with an exercise, or having trouble completing a task in the tool, thats ok. Follow up with them after the session to see if you can help them next time around.