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How to run better remote retrospectives

We gathered our four best scrum masters and asked them how agile teams can do better remote retros. Here is what they had to say.

by Tabitha Foster, UX Designer

Image of a laptop displaying a virtual meeting with multiple participants, accompanied by a mug on the side

Image Courtesy of Unsplash

A retro, or retrospective, is a review meeting held at the end of a sprint cycle to assess the overall success of a sprint — what didn’t work and develop team-driven feedback to implement in the next sprint for future success.

In Esther Derby’s book “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great”, she outlines the 5 steps to running a successful retrospective.

  1. Set the Stage
    This is where you’d establish the attention and focus on the retro.
  2. Gather Data
    This is the start of the meat and potatoes of the retro. During this step you’d be subjective and provide ‘data’ on the past sprint keeping in mind the focus of the retro (if one was established).
  3. Generate Insights
    In this step you’ll take that data and begin to brainstorm actions you can take based on the data.
  4. Decide What to Do
    This is when you’ll prioritize as a team what actions you want to take next sprint, assign them individually or as a team.
  5. Close the Retro
    This is the final step, where you’ll summarize and reflect on the retro process.

Traditionally, retros are held in person and take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to go through. There’s a sense of camaraderie that happens in person that allows your team to feel more comfortable to speak up and voice their opinions on the sprint. Unfortunately, some of these things can be lost when performing retrospectives digitally. Through trial and error our team has been figuring out what works for each pod for their retros, and has some insights to help your team execute better retros!

Structure! Structure! Structure!

“Our teams preferred to know what was coming at them in terms of the questions so they could think about things before the meeting. Now, when we schedule a retro, we’ll either include the “questions” we’ll be looking at in the invite or in a separate e-mail” — Scrum Master

The ‘Set the Stage’ phase in a retro is a great opportunity for you to send an ‘agenda’ ahead of time to your team members. This structure will allow them to brainstorm their thoughts and ideas ahead of time which further eliminates the fear/unwillingness to speak out during the retro. It can be as simple as including your main focus or question for the meeting in a Zoom or calendar invite email or just sending out a separate email altogether giving the team a heads up about the retro’s focus, like a TB member mentioned above.

Don’t forget safety checks & actively engaging your team

“As we have moved further into remote working people have found it harder and hard to come up with any constructive feedback” — Scrum Master

It’s easy to forget and get comfortable giving the same feedback to your team in retros. It’s important as a facilitator to do a safety check to see how safe everyone feels about speaking out about issues or ideas in the retrospective. These safety checks can be done anonymously with tools such as Retrium, where team members can anonymously add stickies to a 1–5 rating system the facilitator sets up. It’ll help give you an idea where your team is at and allow you to shift how you continue the rest of the retro, such as keeping all feedback anonymous.

You also need to ensure that your team is engaged to keep feedback honest and to make sure the entire team is hearing what is being said. Break out rooms in Zoom can allow for this to happen so team members feel more comfortable to speak out and gather data/feedback and share with the overall group after these breakout sessions are complete. You can also switch up the way you ask your team members for feedback from the previous Sprint such as replacing Start, Stop, Continue for the 4L’s (Liked, Learned, Lacked, Longed for). Asking your focus question or point in a different way can recharge your team members to stop and think and give more honest feedback about your sprint.

Use a back channel

“We find now that a nice and ‘social’ chat of 30–40mins via Zoom with a few leading questions thrown in gives the team a boost and gives me all the info I need on how the team felt the sprint went. We followed it up with a more social team-building at one of the pod members’ houses, around a BBQ in the afternoon (after the restrictions were lifted) and it really boosted the teams energy and morale.” — Scrum Master

Creating a non-work related back channel or opportunity to socialize outside of work and talk about non-work related things can help boost a team’s morale and camaraderie. In turn, this will help those who are more introverted and nervous about speaking up during retros feel more comfortable to voice their opinions. You can create this opportunity by creating a channel on Slack for all non-work related talk. This can be a safe space for team members to share what music they’re listening to, what they’re having for lunch, weekend plans, etc. Think of non-work related back channels as a digital way to have your ‘water-cooler’ discussion space.

Know your tools and don’t let them dictate your format

“We will usually make issues in GitLab for some for these things for Sprint Planning” — Scrum Master

The tools we use shouldn’t dictate the retros, they should support them! It’s important to remember what tools you have at your disposal and how to utilize them to benefit and support your team before, during and after retros is how to get the most out of your retrospectives. For example, using GitLab as a way to track actions you decided to work on for the next sprint like a TB member mentions above is a great way to track your team’s progress with those action items.

In conclusion

Don’t get discouraged if you try one of these techniques and it doesn’t work, every team is different. It might take a few retros of you trying these techniques to see the results and changes to your retrospectives. Need more help with running a retrospective? Start the conversation at @ThinkingBigInc!