Running Virtual Agile Retrospectives – 5 Useful Tips for Distributed Teams

Eugene LaiFri, 09/21/2018 - 10:16

Running Virtual Agile Retrospectives – 5 Useful Tips for Distributed Teams

If you have to work on an Agile team, I’m sure you have been asked to read (or at least have been exposed to) the Agile Manifesto at least once. As you recall, the Agile Manifesto states: “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” While this seems like common sense, the application of Agile principles continues to evolve over the past few years, as more business organizations seek to become more global in nature. In-person communication is no longer the norm, as many teams are now virtual in nature and often never physically meet with each other.

According to the 12th Annual State of Agile report, 79% of the 1,400+ respondents indicated that their organization is currently practicing Agile for distributed teams. While this seems counter-productive, it is understandable since many businesses are becoming global organizations and taking advantage of the connected economy across the globe, leveraging skilled resources anywhere they can find them, often at a lower cost. This means that Agile teams need to adapt to the new paradigm and remain productive in order to consistently deliver value to their customers.

The challenges in communication impacts all Agile events such as Planning, Review, Daily Stand-ups, and Retrospectives. As technology and toolsets continue to evolve, there are many tools that enhance the communication between remote workers within a virtual team such as Skype, Slack, Google Hangout, etc. While these tools enhance communication, it is often difficult to replicate the experience of a co-located Agile team working together, side by side.

Arguably, the most challenging of all of the Agile events to reproduce virtually is the Retrospective. In my opinion, the Retrospective is the single most challenging event to master, regardless of where the team is located physically. Why is this the case? Below are a few reasons that highlight the difficulties that teams often face during Retrospectives.

  1. Lack of understanding on the purpose of the Retrospective. Most teams that are new to Agile have had their share of poorly-run “lessons-learned or “project post-mortems” from working on traditional Waterfall-type projects. These are often very negatively-perceived because the value is very low, and team morale is often significantly impacted by the final outcome of the project. Agile teams often do not understand the goal of the Retrospective, so they associate this with their past experiences with lessons-learned, which typically puts them in a negative mood.
  2. Lack of effective facilitation. Most Scrum Masters, even ones who have attended formal training classes and have acquired their certifications, do not know how to run an effective Retrospective. There are great resources available but most Scrum Masters do not make this a priority, which leads to poorly-facilitated sessions, which consequently leads to negative experience for the team.
  3. Lack of effective, user-friendly tools. While many Agile management tools have steadily entered the market and have significantly improved the overall workflow that aligns to Agile team practices, there are still very few options for conducting Retrospectives; these tools often require an additional purchase, which is difficult for teams to justify to senior leadership. The end result is, again, a situation that is not set up for success.

Having worked with many remote, distributed Agile teams, I have experimented with a variety of approaches to ensure that the Retrospective is leveraged as an effective tool towards team excellence. One technique that I have found to be effective is the use of a whiteboard tool, which is a feature of Skype for Business. If your organization provides a different communication tool, you might investigate and see if there is a similar feature.

The whiteboard tool enables the team to achieve the following key objectives of an effective Retrospective:

  1. Share positives and negatives/challenges with each other.
  2. Discuss potential solutions to issues.
  3. Make a commitment as a team to make an improvement in the next iteration.

For co-located teams, the most effective Retrospectives often involve the team members collaborating at a whiteboard, either physically writing or posting their ideas using Post-It notes. While this technique is difficult to reproduce virtually, if you have the right tools, it can still make this a valuable forum for the team to inspect and adapt their processes.

Here are some suggestions for conducting a virtual Retrospective:

  1. Start with text-based Retrospective formats such as “Mad, Sad, Glad” or “Stop, Start, Continue”.
  2. Once the team is more used to the tool and flow, try other formats such as “Sailboat” or “Speed car”. For details on these Retrospective formats, do a web search using term “Agile retrospectives”.

If you are part of a virtual Agile team, give some of these techniques a try and see how they work. Do your best to fight off any temptation to eliminate the Retrospective at the first sign of trouble…this is a critical opportunity to empower the team to improve, so be sure to commit to it and keep trying new things until your team finds a solution that works. Once you find the right tool/process, your team will be equipped with a powerful tool to accelerate their growth and learning, which will ultimately translate to higher team performance.