Agile teams regularly convene for retrospectives to evaluate their progress and identify potential areas of improvement for the upcoming sprint. Retros, which are an essential part of the Scrum framework, are critical to the success of a team, but they can be uncomfortable for some members of the team. People may not enjoy reflecting on their recent work and analysing it, particularly when done in a critical manner.
In the past eighteen months, Agile team leaders and facilitators have had to grapple with an increase in challenges. Notably, there has been a decline in engagement among team members and a decrease in psychological safety, both of which can substantially affect the success of retrospectives in the current environment of remote working.
By familiarising themselves with the available features of videoconferencing software, facilitators can create a sense of security and motivation among their teams. This can have a positive impact on remote retrospectives, potentially leading to more meaningful outcomes than those achieved during in-person sessions.
Use Tools to Help You Plan Your Day
Retrospectives that follow the same format and only focus on successes and failures from the sprint could lead to participants becoming bored and disengaged. The monotonous nature of these meetings can quickly become tiresome, and as a result, people may find it difficult to maintain their enthusiasm. To ensure that everyone remains engaged and actively participates, it is essential to prepare a structured agenda that is also flexible enough to be tailored to the specific needs of the team.
At the conclusion of a busy sprint, a remote retrospective should begin by providing attendees with a bit more talking time than would be used for an in-person meeting. This is because hybrid and remote teams do not usually have the same opportunities for casual conversations with their colleagues as those who are office-based. It is also beneficial to allow a few extra minutes to account for any potential technical issues that may arise.
At the commencement of each virtual session, it is recommended that a new team-building exercise be employed in order to boost engagement. This serves to prevent retrospectives from becoming dull or predictable. Within digital meeting settings, ice-breaking activities are especially straightforward, ranging from online multiplayer games to shared screens.
The utilisation of a basic retro format that enables facilitators to identify what has been successful, what has not been successful, and what could be improved in the future provides an opportunity for creativity when adapting it to various online activities. For instance, Parabol, a software provider for distributed teams, suggests playing Agile Battleships to demonstrate the advantages of adjusting tactics when receiving regular and early feedback.
To ensure productive and interactive collaboration, consider introducing tools such as Miro or Mural to commence the primary retro agenda. This will enable participants to have a hands-on experience by jotting down their thoughts on virtual sticky notes. I have had success in the past by utilising the following basic learning matrix: creating a grid with four quadrants – a thumbs up in the top left for what went well, a thumbs down in the upper right for what didn’t go well, a light bulb in the lower left for ideas and a trophy in the lower right for appreciation – then allowing the team to fill it in with their own sticky notes. For additional assistance, Agile coach Ben Linders from the Netherlands has created a helpful toolkit.
Avoid Playing the Blame Game
Creating a psychologically safe environment is essential for a successful retrospective. Team members should feel comfortable to share their thoughts, even if they are vulnerable or exposed. It is important to ensure that no one feels judged or embarrassed for their mistakes, questions, or perspectives. This will help build a culture of trust and open communication, which is essential for any team to thrive.
As a Scrum Master, it is important to understand the Tuckman model, especially if you’re leading newly established remote teams. Your team is still in the process of ‘forming’, which involves establishing trust and learning how to handle disagreements. As the Scrum Master, it is your responsibility to guide your team through the ‘storming’ stage, which may involve dealing with irritation or anger. Your role as a servant-leader is to instill confidence in the individual talents and abilities of your team members, leading them towards the ‘performing’ stage, where they can take on more responsibilities and work productively in collaboration with minimal guidance.
Tensions may be escalating after a particularly challenging sprint, especially if the sprint target was not achieved. The disconnected nature of remote work could make it alluring to start apportioning blame among the team members in different locations, but fortunately, there are tools available that can help to prevent this.
It is important to remind ourselves of Norm Kerth’s key mandate for sprint retrospectives: “Regardless of what we learn, we must remember that everyone has done their best with the knowledge, skills, resources, and circumstances available at the time.” Encouraging this primary directive attitude requires effort and commitment, but the rewards of doing so will be worth it. To ensure that the retrospective is a safe and secure environment for reflection and learning, this message can be sent in an email before the meeting, included in a presentation, or read aloud at the beginning of each meeting.
As the Scrum Master, it is important to start the team session on a positive note. We can achieve this by asking each team member what they enjoyed working on and having them place the information on a digital board. As the session progresses, we can transition and ask the team to reflect on what did not work as well. At this point, I should take the lead and be willing to admit something that I could have done better. This helps to create a safe and non-judgmental environment for the team to openly communicate about their own mistakes.
It is important to note that recording the session is not recommended. According to Linders, the Las Vegas rule should be applied in retrospectives: what is discussed and revealed during the session should remain confidential. Participants may be concerned that recording the session may make the proceedings accessible to people who are not involved with the meeting. Taking notes can also help to avoid this situation, as long as the team members are conscious of who could access them. The goal of the retrospective is to identify one or two issues that can be addressed in the upcoming sprint; therefore, only the ideas or solutions generated during the session should be documented and saved.
Be Open to Using a Camera
In light of the unprecedented rise in the use of video conferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford University researchers have identified four key factors which are likely contributing to the phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’. These factors include the physical and cognitive demands of video calls, such as an inability to read body language, the lack of physical movement, and the need to be constantly ‘on’ during the call. Additionally, the perpetual presence of one’s own appearance on the screen can be tiring for some. The findings of this research demonstrate the importance of taking proactive measures to reduce the strain of virtual communication.
- Close-up eye contact that is excessive
- Constantly watching oneself on screen
- Impaired mobility
- Enhanced cognitive load
In order to ensure that fatigue is minimised during retrospectives, it is important to provide team members with alternative options for utilising on-camera time. As all meetings have now become virtual, expecting peak performance and engagement on camera for extended periods of time could add an unnecessary amount of stress and dissatisfaction. It is recommended that each team member be allowed to choose how much engagement they are comfortable with when it comes to being on video. If an individual does not want to be on camera for the entire duration of the meeting, this should be respected and the subject should not be pushed. It is acceptable to allow them to switch off their camera until it is their turn to speak.
Alternatively, you may advise participants to discontinue viewing their films in full-screen mode, deactivate the self-view window, or physically turn away from the screen and only pay attention to the audio. Even if they do this, they may still be unwilling to converse in the presence of the camera.
It is important to keep in mind that the purpose of a retrospective is to improve the team’s performance, not to impose a strict, yet arbitrary, structure. Making small modifications that increase everyone’s comfort level can lead to a more enthusiastic and productive team.
Utilise Breakout Rooms
It is nearly impossible to provide individual time away from the entire group when conducting a retrospective in a physical space. Moreover, it is challenging to take into account the different personalities of group members. Fortunately, several online platforms, such as Zoom and Webex, provide powerful tools for Scrum Masters to facilitate discussions in smaller groups through breakout rooms and private conversations.
Breakout rooms are a powerful and easy tool to set up, however in order to maximise their effectiveness you must be aware of the introverted members of your team and how to pair them up. Introverted team members may feel exposed when they are asked to contribute their thoughts, creating a potential obstacle to constructive discussion. To get around this, you can split the team into pairs and have them work on the sprint individually. This will create a more comfortable atmosphere for those who are usually more shy, allowing them to exchange their ideas more freely. Afterwards, you can ask one representative from each pair to present the outcome of their conversation to the rest of the group. If desired, you can also present the results anonymously, allowing team members to remain anonymous if they so choose.
As the Scrum Master, it is essential to foster an environment of full participation. When working with a team of individuals, it is possible for a single member to unintentionally or deliberately dominate a group session. To ensure that all voices are heard and respected, it is recommended to utilise breakout rooms, chat tools, anonymous comments, and screen annotations. As the team builds trust, it will be easier to hold group gatherings in their entirety.
Use the Remote to Your Advantage
Incorporating videoconferencing software into traditional Scrum methodologies can be a challenge, as they were developed prior to the widespread availability of this technology. However, it is worth exploring the possibilities of using this technology in retrospectives, as it can help to foster collaboration and build trust between team members. It is important to be transparent about the fact that you are experimenting with new techniques, and to acknowledge that some methods may work better for your team than others. By taking this approach, you will be able to ensure that your team is able to benefit from the latest technological advances.
The development of projects under a limited time frame can be a challenging process, and your proficiency as a team coordinator is influenced by your capacity to reduce workplace tension whenever practical. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be easy to view remote meetings as a temporary solution until the return to the office. However, whether your teams are dispersed, hybrid, or on-site, an effective remote retrospective plan may help create a successful and productive session wherein all team members feel secure and engaged, and the outcomes they produce could even be more helpful than if they met in person.