How to run agile retrospectives remotely.
Due to the impact that COVID-19 has had on companies, the challenge arises of overcoming the restriction of working in person with teams and in the day-to-day of being effective and efficient remotely; this also includes agile retrospective meetings.
One of the Agile Manifesto principles is: “The most efficient and effective method of transmitting information to and among a development team is through face-to-face conversation,” but this sentence contradicts the present moment.
Organizations are looking for solutions to minimize the operational impacts of face-to-face interactions, supplying the communication restrictions of these interactions between individuals, given the current risk with face-to-face work. Such a challenge involves using online tools, which provide the best experience and the awareness of participants about the principles of making a remote interaction productive and collaborative to achieve a particular objective.
The agile retrospective meeting
Another principle in the Agile Manifesto is: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective and then refines and adjusts their behavior accordingly.” In other words, this is the opportunity to seek improvements through agile retrospectives.
Retrospective meetings collaborate with reflection on how the team can adapt to present situations, prevent future problems, and learn from past failures. A team can evaluate what has been working, what has not worked, and what needs improvement through this meeting.
For example, the retrospective allows evaluating the behavior problems of the team’s individuals, flow problems that impact the productivity of this team, systemic improvements with automation, quality of the software increment, etc. Through continuous cycles, the retrospective enables the constant improvement of processes and the evolution of a team’s maturity.
What issues can we face in remote agile retrospective meetings?
Since the retrospective is a meeting, it may encounter similar problems as any other meeting. Let’s evaluate the whole context of remote sessions. Additional difficulties can arise with the absence of principles, lack of skill with tools, technical limitations, and ineffectiveness in achieving results.
In her article “Mastering Remote Meetings: How to Get Engagement and Keep Participants Engaged,” Judy Rees cites some issues that can impact remote meetings. It addresses that:
- Participants do other things while the meeting is taking place;
- Tools with constant errors lead to loss of time and focus;
- Lack of social interaction and the presence of side conversations in the meeting environment;
- Doubt in knowing the right moment to speak;
- Some people are inside conversations, and others are in complete silence.
Psychological Safety: Create a trusting and collaborative environment.
A key point about retrospective meetings is establishing an environment of “psychological safety” for the participants. Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School created the concept of Psychological Safety in 1999, and she observed that companies with a trusted environment achieved better results.
“Psychological safety is about giving honest feedback, admitting mistakes openly, and learning from each other,”– Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School.
To have trust and collaboration in a team, it is essential that the participants feel comfortable diverging and talking freely about problems. Differences between points of view between individuals on a team are common; the important thing is that agile values such as trust and courage collaborate with the mutual learning and maturity of the team.
How to make productive remote retrospectives.
Some initiatives can help make the remote retrospective meeting more productive. If you share some recommendations with the participants before the retrospective, you may contribute to the team’s alignment and focus.
Here are some suggestions that contribute to the productivity of a remote meeting:
- Reinforce, as possible, that participants seek a place with the least amount of noise;
- Recommend participants to use a headset for clearer audio;
- Reduce the number of external stimuli such as on-screen or device notifications;
- Connect to the call a few minutes before the scheduled time (avoid mishaps).
Martin Fowler, a signer of the Agile Manifesto, published an article on his website about “How to do effective video calls” because of the impacts of COVID-19. He describes practices that he adopts as his guidelines and preferences, which he practices in his remote interactions. These practices fully apply to remote retrospective meetings. Follow:
- Get decent equipment, especially audio;
- Use the video camera in the meeting;
- Mute the audio when not speaking;
- Use the videoconferencing software’s “gallery mode” to view them all;
- Position the camera so that you are looking at it;
- Don’t stand in front of the camera with a bright light behind;
- Use Chat as a second communication channel;
- Do not hide children and pets (as long as they do not get in the way);
- Turn off video if bandwidth compromises audio quality;
- Dress comfortably;
- Don’t overlap someone else’s speech (people talking at the same time);
- Take the time to explore the features that video conferencing software has;
- Use gestures;
- Do some ice-breaking/energizing dynamics before starting the meeting;
- Record the session, but don’t dismiss the notes;
Good meeting guidelines also apply to remote meetings.
What are effective agile retrospectives?
An agile retrospective meeting is the opportunity to “do the right thing” so that an improvement action is sustainable. Every team must have a purpose to deliver value to an organization or customer. Taking retrospectives in a disciplined way fosters the evolution of the process or an advance in the team’s maturity.
Effectiveness can be achieved when short and continuous feedback loops are established to validate whether the hypotheses identified by the team were effective in solving a problem or learning from mistakes if the team has not reached the solution. Such hypothesis validation generates systemic improvements once the problem is solved, develops collective learning, and sustainably evolves the team’s maturity.
Here are some suggestions for an effective feedback loop:
- Use data and facts to identify last cycle issues or process improvements that need to be made;
- Define the most appropriate solution for that problem(s) or for that improvement(s), evaluating the value that such a solution can generate if it is feasible, and if it is following the team’s purpose;
- Establish actions (such as hypotheses) and how they will be carried out;
- During the cycle, monitor whether the activities evolve towards the solution;
- Validate if the result was achieved as expected at the end of this cycle with the retrospective; if not, evaluate the possible causes and seek a new set of hypotheses to reach the solution.
The suggested steps are similar to a PDCA cycle, intending to establish continuous improvement cycles.
How to make remote retrospective meetings more effective?
Considering that the principles, cautions, and tips described have contributed to the awareness of individuals about organizing a retrospective, here are some practices based on the above information on how to do a compelling remote retrospective:
Emphasize the context of the retrospective, so everyone is aligned.
The idea here is to stimulate the reflection of the team so that everyone is “on the same page.” For example:
- From evaluating the metrics of the last cycle of a team, seek to assess the current situation, trends, and impacts.
- Graphs like Cumulative Flow Diagram help identify bottlenecks visually in a Kanban flow or for teams that use the Scrum framework.
- Operational metrics such as lead time, throughput, and user story age are also important to consider, as it reflects how efficient the team is in managing its flow and deliveries.
- Assess whether the actions defined in the previous retrospective had a positive or negative influence on this last cycle;
Facilitate a dynamic to collect these insights based on the retrospective context.
Following the suggestion about conducting a reflection using metrics at the beginning of a retrospective, ask each participant to fill in cards with their insights and facts from the last cycle. A way to collaborate with these perceptions in a structured way can be the Starfish tool; it helps in the perception of value around the practices applied by the teams.
You can use a solution like Google Drive Sheet, Excel online, FunRetro, or Trello, for example, to apply Starfish practice remotely, configuring the columns with the following items:
- Keep doing it – something the team does well and recognizes the value;
- Do Less – something is already done, has value, but the team understands that it needs to be reduced;
- Do More – something already being done and can bring more value if done even more;
- Stop doing – something that does not add value or that harms the performance of the team;
- Start doing – a new idea or something that has already worked. It is commonly a hypothesis that can solve a problem or generate improvement.
- Establish a timebox for participants to write their opinions on cards individually according to the columns filled in the chosen application.
Discuss with the group the opinions recorded and prioritize
After the team registers their ideas:
Discuss each item. Evaluate the similarity between the ideas and group them if you find them.
If you have more than one item per column, evaluate the prioritization, ordering by importance the items with the highest priority (at the top) of the lowest priority.
After the daily meeting with the team (daily meeting or Kanban meeting), make a quick reminder of Starfish consolidated in the retrospective. This initiative will help the team remember what was discussed and know if they are evolving according to the perception of value, which was discussed in the dynamics.
If you have difficulty applying these practices or want to learn more about our remote agile retrospectives, schedule a conversation with us.