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People and Teams
7 minute read

Remote Solutions for Effective Agile Retrospectives

Leading effective remote retrospectives can be challenging. These videoconferencing best practices will help you run successful retros whether your teams are remote or in-house.

During retrospectives, Agile teams come together to cooperatively examine their performance and identify areas for improvement in the next sprint. An explicit part of the Scrum framework, retros are undoubtedly useful, but they can be uncomfortable for teams: People don’t always enjoy reviewing work they’ve just done, let alone assessing that work critically.

The past year and a half has exacerbated the usual challenges faced by Agile team leads and facilitators. As distributed work environments have become the norm, disengagement and lack of psychological safety have emerged as prominent factors that can impede the success of retrospectives.

Knowing when and how to use certain features of videoconferencing software can help facilitators make teams feel safer and more motivated. The result? Remote retrospectives that can be even more productive than those conducted in person.

Leverage Tools to Shape Your Agenda

Even when conducted in person, retros that follow a single meeting formula and address only what went well or poorly in the sprint can cause people to check out mentally. The routine nature of the sessions makes it more likely that participants will view them as a chore and struggle to stay engaged. An agenda that is both well planned and flexible enough to be customized for individual retros will encourage engagement and team collaboration.

Begin a remote retro by allowing a little more time for people to chat than you would for an in-person meeting. Your remote retrospective takes place at the end of an intense sprint, and hybrid and remote teams won’t have shared the same casual interactions with each other as those who are based in an office. (Also, technical problems are sometimes unavoidable, so these few minutes can be a useful buffer in case any should arise.)

To maximize engagement, start each session with a new virtual team-building activity. This keeps retrospectives from becoming formulaic or predictable. A digital meeting venue makes ice-breaking activities particularly easy, whether through online multiplayer games or a simple shared screen.

The minimalism of a typical retro format—what worked, what didn’t work, what could be improved next time—allows facilitators plenty of room for creativity in adapting the simple structure to an array of online activities. For instance, Parabol, a company that provides software for distributed teams, recommends a game of Agile Battleships to demonstrate the value of adjusting strategy in response to early and frequent feedback.

When you begin the main retro agenda, choose from interactive collaboration tools such as Miro or Mural that allow participants to write on virtual sticky notes and engage in hands-on activities. I’ve had success with a simple learning matrix: Put up a grid with four quadrants—in the upper left a thumbs up for things that went well, in the upper right a thumbs down for things that did not go well, in the lower left a light bulb for new ideas, and in the lower right a trophy for appreciation—and then let the team fill it in with sticky notes. Netherlands-based Agile coach Ben Linders has a useful toolbox of ideas if you need further inspiration.

A sample collaborative learning matrix for remote Agile retrospectives, divided into four quadrants: what went well, what did not go well, new ideas, and appreciation.

Avoid the Blame Game

During retros, team members can feel vulnerable and exposed, so create a space of psychological safety. Whether remote or not, the retrospective should be a place where no one will feel as though they will be punished or humiliated for errors, questions, or opinions.

Familiarize yourself with the Tuckman model, particularly when guiding newly formed distributed teams. In the early stage of “forming,” your team is still building trust and learning to handle conflict. Your job as Scrum Master is to help lead them through the frustration or anger that can set in during the second stage, “storming,” steering them away from arguments or the temptation to blame others for setbacks. In your role as a servant-leader, you want to build their confidence in their own abilities and those of their teammates, bringing them into the “performing” stage—when more tasks can be delegated and they can work together effectively with little direction.

A graph depicting a team's focus on their task as they move through the four stages of the Tuckman model of team development: forming, storming, norming, and performing.
Guiding the team through the stages of the Tuckman model, the Scrum Master can build psychological safety into retrospectives.

Following a particularly trying sprint—perhaps one where the sprint goal was not met—tensions may be running high. With team members in disparate settings, the disconnected nature of remote work can make it especially easy to start pointing fingers, but you have tools at your disposal to prevent this.

One simple thing you can do is remind your team of Norm Kerth’s prime directive of sprint retrospectives: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” Send this statement in an email prior to the retro, have it on a slide, or read it aloud at the top of each meeting to reinforce that the retro is a safe space to analyze and learn from recent work. Getting people to adopt the mindset of the prime directive takes practice and repetition, but it will be worth the returns.

To set a positive tone, ask each member what they enjoyed working on and have them post sticky notes on a digital board. Later, when the team has settled into the session, pivot and ask about the aspects that didn’t work. As the Scrum Master, this is a time when I fall on my own sword first and voice something I wish I’d done better. Doing so defuses tension and makes it safer for others to do the same in a blame-free way.

Also, this is key: Do not record the session. Linders recommends advising team members of the Las Vegas rule: What happens in the retrospective stays in the retrospective. Recording the session may cause participants to worry that outsiders could have visibility into the meeting’s proceedings. Taking meticulous notes could have the same effect, should team members become concerned about who may have access to them. The purpose of a retro is to come up with one or two things to fix in the next sprint. So the only things written down and kept should be those ideas or solutions.

Be Flexible About Camera Use

Zoom fatigue has become a prevalent side effect for the COVID-19 era. Stanford University researchers have detailed four reasons why video chats are physically and mentally exhausting:

  • Excessive close-up eye contact
  • Persistent viewing of oneself on screen
  • Reduced mobility
  • Increased cognitive load

Mitigate this exhaustion during retros by giving your team members options when it comes to how you use on-camera time. Be mindful that all meetings have moved to virtual, not just your retros. Expecting optimal performance on camera for hours a day across multiple tasks can increase pressure and lead to resentment. Let each team member decide the level of interaction with which they are comfortable. If people don’t feel like being on camera for the duration of the meeting, don’t force the issue. Let them turn off their camera until it’s their turn to speak.

Alternatively, you could advise participants to take their videos off full screen, turn off their self-view window, or physically pivot away from the screen periodically and just listen in. Even then, they still may not want to be on camera when speaking.

Remember, the purpose of a retrospective is to improve the team’s performance, not to hold everyone to a rigid-yet-arbitrary format. A little flexibility aimed at increasing everyone’s comfort can create an environment where team members are more engaged and more productive.

Use Breakout Rooms

When running a retro in a physical room, it is difficult (if not impossible) to provide time away from the whole group. It is equally challenging to account for the diverse personalities among group members. Online, however, breakout rooms and private chats—Zoom, Webex, and others all have them—are one of a Scrum Master’s strongest tools to foster discussion in smaller units.

Breakout rooms are robust and relatively easy to set up, but to use them effectively, you need to have a good sense of who the introverts are and how to mix and match team members. Introverts often feel vulnerable sharing their opinions, which can be a barrier to creating meaningful exchange. Divide the team into two-person pods and have them discuss the sprint outside the context of a larger group. In this environment, shy team members will speak more freely. Afterward, invite one person from each pod to present their thoughts to the team. Alternatively, they can share the results of their discussion with you privately and you can display the results on screen—anonymously, if warranted.

As the Scrum Master, you should always strive for total participation. A particularly gregarious team member can dominate—unintentionally or otherwise—a group meeting. Breakout rooms, chat functions, and anonymous commenting or screen annotations can ensure everyone’s voice is heard. As the team continues working together, trust will grow, and you will be able to hold these sessions as one large group.

Turn Remote to Your Advantage

Traditional Scrum approaches were conceived at a time when videoconferencing software was not technologically feasible and certainly not in the common use we see today. Incorporating this technology into your retrospectives will require innovation and experimentation—some methods will work better for your team than others. Here, transparency is key, so let your team know you’re trying out new ways to keep collaboration interesting and build trust.

Development on a tight sprint schedule is an inherently stressful feat, and part of how effective you are as the team facilitator hinges on how well you can remove stressors from the process where possible. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be tempting to view remote meetings as a temporary workaround on the road back to the office. But whether your teams are fully distributed, hybrid, or on-site, a good remote retrospective strategy can help create a smooth and productive session where all team members feel secure and engaged, and the results they produce are perhaps even more valuable than if they were meeting in person.

Understanding the basics

An Agile retrospective is a meeting held at the end of each sprint to assess the team’s performance.

While the agenda and meeting format can vary, at its core an Agile retrospective assesses the team’s interactions, processes, and tools as weighed against their definition of done.

The purpose of an Agile retrospective is to identify changes that can improve the team’s effectiveness, not to cast blame on individual team members. Appreciation for a job well done is as important as identifying areas of improvement.