Distributed retro

One of the most important steps of an agile process is the retrospective. It is a moment in time to evaluate the iteration, quarter, release or whatever the team would like to evaluate. Esther Derby and Diana Larsen wrote a great book about agile retrospectives. If you would like to organize a retro or are looking for a different approach, you should really read this book!

My intention is not discuss the book in this blog. However, I need to give you some information from the book to understand my problem.

A retro has different stages. Roughly:

  • Introduction, why are we here, what is the goal of the retro, what is the agenda;
  • Collect the data, facts, emotions, events, (un)completed user stories, etc. Make sure everyone has the same data;
  • Analyse the data, why did al those events happen?
  • Identify actionable items, what could the team do to improve or add used practice to there already existing process;
  • Close the retro, evaluate the retro and explicit close the retro. 

For every stage Esther and Diana describe activities you could use. They describe many great activities in the book. Some the activities are already know to everyone, and some are refreshing. For example:

  • Check-in, an activity that could be used during the introduction. Ask every person attending the retro to answer a simple question in maximum five words. The question could be for example: “what it one thing that’s on your mind about this topic that we are going to discuss?”. Goal is to make sure everyone is in the retro and focussed on the retro;
  • Return on time invested (ROTI), an activity to generate feedback about the retro process itself and measure how the attendees experienced the retro. Draw a line on white board with five marks, starting with lost principle (no benefit received from time invested) ending with high return (received benefit greater than time invested). Ask every team member to give their ROTI of the retro and discuss why the ROTI is as it is. Find out how the retro could be improved.
Back to my situation. I had to facilitate a retro about Q1 of 2010 with a development team. The idea was to look back on several iterations (one iteration is one month) and learn from the all things that happened. There were some team changes in January and the team had to find a new balance. Furthermore, the team lead had left the team, how did the team cope with this?

Here comes the problem….. the team was not co-located…. Most of the activities described in the book of Esther and Diana assume you have a co located team. There are activities that require teams to write down things on a whiteboard, group index cards, write text on post-its. All those things are hard to do when you have four team members in India and four team members in the Netherlands.

Still, I think a retro should be fun. Therefore, I selected several activities from the book and tried to implement them in a distributed environment. I think it went pretty well, the retro was a success and everybody enjoyed the retro.I will first shortly explain the activities, and secondly how I implemented them in a distributed environment.

I selected the following activities:

  • Check-in, already described above.
  • Time line, create a time line of the period that is discussed in the review. Ask the team members to add events, emotions, etc. that they experienced during the period.
  • Like to Like, team members take turns in judging which events of the period best fits with their quality cards. As the cards are evaluated team members learn about each other perspectives on the same events. Quality cards are cards with words like, Fun, On-Time, Cool, Awesome, etc. For the detailed explanation you really need to read the book.

The physical set up I used:

  • Two meeting rooms, one in the Netherlands and one in India;
  • Skype, and both sides a high quality webcam;
  • Interactive Whiteboard with screen sharing, By using screen sharing the Indian team members could follow everything that was written or published on the board.
The check-in was relative easy, I asked all team members: “How would you describe Q1 in one or two words?”. I wrote the answers on the whiteboard to make sure everyone could read them and understand them. This activity is relative easy to do with a not co-located team.

The time line activity is harder to do with a distributed team. Ester and Diana describe in their book, that team members should use stick notes, or just a marker to write their events on a whiteboard. People should discuss in small groups, two or three people. I solved this problem by preparing a digital slide on the interactive whiteboard. I draw a time line that covered Q1. I asked people just to call out events, emotions, user stories completed, etc during Q1. I wrote the items on the whiteboard and trigger the team members to come up with new items. The problem is that you don’t have the small groups, and that people could be afraid to say something in a large group. However, everyone felt safe and comfortable to speak. In my opinion everyone actively participated in this activity.
The major challenge was applying the activity “like-to-like” in a distributed team. The activity involves playing quality cards, people need to quickly play their event card, etc. After the time line activity I asked all team members to write down things that we need to stop doing, continue doing or try. The input for most of the team members came from the time line activity. The team member used paper cards to write down their things. I created a digital quality cards (png files) and a small HTML page. The page uses a java script to display a random picture from a specific folder. During the retro I displayed the HTML page on the laptop that was connected to the digital whiteboard, team members in the Netherlands and India could see the page. As facilitator I opened the page to display the first quality card (By refreshing the page a new card was displayed), all team members could see the quality card. By using the HTML page, I was able to show a quality card to all distributed team members at the same time. We used the webcam to find out which team member played his card last, that card is removed from the game.

The action to identify improvements was also done by using the whiteboard. I wrote down the things I heard during the like-to-like game and we discussed them in the team.

The closing of the retro was done by using an activity called the perfection game. Relative simply for also distributed team.

Working in a distributed team has challenges. You have limits in the things you could do with team. However, when you are creative and use the right tools you could come close to a retrospective that is as efficient and as much fun as co located team. Be creative and don’t hesitate to experiment! There is always room to improve!

For example, something I would improve next time is explain clearly the activity to make sure everyone understands the activity. Maybe inform the team in front about the activities that are used so they can prepare. When you, as facilitator, organize a retro as described above you will probably see team that is enjoying the retro and appreciates the effort you made.

I have included the materials (digital quality cards, HTML page and the agenda) I created for the retrospective, feel free to use them. I would appreciate with when you send me an email if you use them.

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