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Remote Agile (Part 5): The Remote Retrospective with a Distributed Team

April 14, 2020

TL; DR: A Remote Retrospective with a Distributed Team

We started this series on remote agile with looking into practices and tools, followed by exploring virtual Liberating Structures, how to master Zoom as well as common remote agile anti-patterns. This fifth article now dives into organizing a remote Retrospective with a distributed team: practices, tools, and lessons learned.

Remote Agile (Part 5): Retrospectives with Distributed Teams

Update 2020-04-20: I created the Remote Agile Guide — a handy PDF of all articles of the remote agile series. Download your copy of the Remote Agile Guide here.

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The Scrum Guide on the Sprint Retrospective

According to the Scrum Guide, the Sprint Retrospective serves the following purpose:

The purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to:

  • Inspect how the last Sprint went with regards to people, relationships, process, and tools;
  • Identify and order the major items that went well and potential improvements; and,
  • Create a plan for implementing improvements to the way the Scrum Team does its work.

The Scrum Master encourages the Scrum Team to improve, within the Scrum process framework, its development process and practices to make it more effective and enjoyable for the next Sprint. During each Sprint Retrospective, the Scrum Team plans ways to increase product quality by improving work processes or adapting the definition of “Done”, if appropriate and not in conflict with product or organizational standards.

By the end of the Sprint Retrospective, the Scrum Team should have identified improvements that it will implement in the next Sprint. Implementing these improvements in the next Sprint is the adaptation to the inspection of the Scrum Team itself. Although improvements may be implemented at any time, the Sprint Retrospective provides a formal opportunity to focus on inspection and adaptation.

SourceScrum Guide 2017.

This is a compelling pitch as it addresses the why, the what, and the how of the Retrospective. Moreover, there is no reason whatsoever to deviate from this guideline just because we are working in a remote setting.

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Remote Retrospectives with virtual Liberating Structures and Zoom Breakout Rooms

The following suggestions on how to handle a remote Retrospective as the host, facilitator, or Scrum Master are based on two assumptions: a) we use Zoom as a video application as we need to work in breakout rooms, and b) our Retrospectives are modeled around Liberating Structures strings. (The latter does not rule out utilizing other techniques from the agile toolbox, and there are plenty of those available on Retromat or Tasty Cupcakes.)

The Design Elements of Virtual Liberating Structures

Virtual Liberating Structures share a set of common design principles:

  • Breakout rooms are used to divide the whole group of participants into smaller workgroups, starting with pairing up two participants. (I am using Zoom for that purpose.)
  • Muting/unmuting is used — beyond the purpose of reducing noise — to mark different states of participants. For example, in the Conversation Café exercise during rounds 1, 2, and 4, everyone is muted except the individual that is sharing his or her thoughts.
  • Video on/off is used to distinguish between roles, for example, between the inner circle and the outer circle of the User Experience fishbowl. Here, the outer circle members turn their video off as well as mute themselves.
  • shared workspace is needed to aggregate findings, for example, as the result of a 1-2-4-All session. This can be a simple Google slide or a board.
  • Workbooks are useful to provide participants with instructions when working in breakout rooms; for example, a detailed description of how an individual Liberating Structures works.
  • chat channel is used to facilitate communication within the whole group.

The following LS microstructures refer to these basic patterns of virtual Liberating Structures.

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The 5 Stages of a Retrospective

I modeled the following design of a remote Retrospective is after the five stages of Esther Derby and Diana Larsen’s book “Agile Retrospectives:”

I. Setting the Stage

  • Impromptu Networking is a simple application of breakout rooms; just make sure that after each round, the pairs are created a new. Provide the invitation and the three questions in the workbook in advance. 
  • Organizing a Mad Tea in the virtual realm requires a different approach. Of course, we cannot recreate two concentric circles of attendees facing each other. However, what we can do is use the prompts—the half-sentences that the attendees shall complete—and the chat channel to create a quick and comprehensive picture of the team’s sentiment. As the moderator, prepare a few prompts in advance regarding the topic of the remote Retrospective, for example, “when I think of our recent Sprint, I….” Then post that prompt to the chat and ask the participants to add their answers but not to hit enter. That is done simultaneously by all attendees when the host asks for it. The result is a bunch of answers on the same topic in the chat. Allow the team to scan the answers and then move on to the second prompt.
  • Use check-ins with emojis. (Industrial Logic has created a set of SprintMojis for that purpose.)
  • Choose from a growing list of online icebreakers. (For example, see Online Warm Ups & Energizers or 10 Fun Virtual Icebreakers to Take Remote Working to the Next Level.)
  • Consider crafting a working agreement for the upcoming meeting or workshop if the team has yet done so.

II. Gathering Data

There are numerous ways of gathering data for an upcoming Retrospective. Probably, you want to track quantitative metrics like cycle-time or the number of bugs that escaped to production. Or you might be interested in qualitative metrics such as team-health or the sentiment of the team members. The point is that concerning the data, it does not matter whether the Scrum team runs the analysis in a face-to-face or remote setting: Both environments provide access to the same data. Typical practices of gathering data for Retrospectives are:

  • Not only is Impromptu Networking an excellent way to create a sense of togetherness among the participants, but it is also a useful exercise to gather data if the invitation is crafted in the right way.
  • Anonymous surveys provide an option to collect data during the Retrospective as well as in advance. Those surveys can be Sprint-specific, penciled-in between the Sprint Review and the Retrospective. Alternatively, they can be open-ended surveys such as a permanent suggestion box. Or, they are conducted at regular intervals to track progress in areas of interest. Suitable applications for this purpose are, for example, Google FormsTypeform, or SurveyMonkey. (I use to run anonymous surveys with Scrum teams after each Sprint Review, asking for the perceived value created during the recent Sprint, the state of technical debt, the employer NPS, and finally, the personal sentiment: are you happy, or are you looking for a new job?)
  • A subset of the anonymous survey is the ‘Team Radar.’ It is a great way to create transparency about important team matters and track their development as time passes. (One team radar I regularly run with all Scrum teams, for example, is the Scrum Values radar.)
  • Finally, you can derive metrics from supportive applications, for example, your ticket system. (Be careful, though, with the reports that are available out of the box. Often, those do not provide useful metrics specific to your situation.)

III. Generate Insight from the Data

After collecting the data, making sense of it is next. The following three LS microstructures have proven to be useful, also in a remote setting: 

  • What, So What, Now What? is a sequence of individual work and group work based on breakout rooms, aggregating findings in shared workspaces to be shared with the whole group in the end. 
  • Again, TRIZ is a combination of basic elements of virtual Liberating Structures: breakout rooms, embedded 1-2-4-All, joined workspaces, Shift & Share when several groups are working on the problem. Consider time-keeping via the breakout room broadcasting function, as participants are likely to be highly engaged and may lose track of time. 
  • Use the Conversation Café by creating groups with the breakout room function, and identify a host for time-keeping. During rounds 1, 2, and 4, where one participant is talking while the others are listening, use mute for the listeners. Once the timebox has expired, the previously talking participant “hands over” the microphone by calling out the next one in line and then muting him- or herself. As the facilitator, also consider providing a matrix — rounds by speakers with checkboxes — to the hosts to ensure that everyone has a fair share of airtime.)

IV. Deciding What to Do

The next step of the remote Retrospective is to agree on improvement items that will allow the team to grow and become more mature. Four Liberating Structures microstructures well-suited for this purpose:

  • 15% Solutions: We use a similar procedure as with TRIZ. Consider aggregating all suggestions in the whole group’s shared workspace for clustering and ranking by voting. (I like to use a board for that purpose: it is simple and does not need much explaining.) 
  • 25/10 Crowd Sourcing: This microstructure belongs to those that are hard to replicate online with the currently available tools. The following prototype is not yet satisfactory but pointing in the right direction: Use a form application to collect both suggestions from the team members on the subject in questions as well as their names. Once all participants have filled out the form, export the answers as a CSV-file and import this file into a board. (The board has the voting disabled, and the number of votes is hidden.) As the facilitator, distribute the answers in packs of five to new columns and allocate the “name tags” of the participants randomly to each column in an even distribution. Then activate the voting and ask all participants to vote on the answers in the column they have been assigned to before. (Hence the “name tags.”) Set the number of available votes so high that every answer in a column can be awarded from 1 to 5 votes. Once the voting has ended, move all answers to one column and activate the “vote count.” Finally, sort that column by votes. (There are many issues with that process. For example, you have nine answers, not ten. Also, the attendees will be assigned to a column, which reduces the randomness of the voting.)
  • Lean Coffee is an excellent example of a workaround for virtual Liberating Structures. Gather all the input in the usual way, for example, engaging in 1-2-4-All, and gather those on a board while voting is turned off. (Use several columns if the whole group is large to speed up the gathering process.) Then ask the whole group to cluster similar topics, then turn on the voting and order the remaining entries by votes. For here, you continue with a whole group discussion, or you engage smaller groups with breakout rooms. 
  • Ecocycle Planning: Principally, we apply the techniques as before, from breakout rooms to shared workspaces. Speaking of which, given the large number of “stickies” that you usually create during Ecocycle planning, you may want to consider a specialized online board application such as Miro or Mural. (Please note that both tools are not self-explanatory and require a prep session with participants to avoid frustrating them.)

V. Closing the Retrospective

The last step of the Retrospective sequence is the closing or check-out. Basically, it is a mini-retrospective within the “large” remote Retrospective focused on reflecting on what has happened as well as providing feedback: Was the time well-spent or do we need to change our approach to running a remote Retrospective next time? To entice this kind of feedback, keeping the process short and simple is paramount. Although we do not pass a door while leaving the meeting room, there are many ways to collecting the feedback of the team members:

  • We can replicate the door sticky practice with the annotation tool of the video application on a prepared graphic. All at once, attendees leave a symbol on a scale from 🤬 to 🧐 to 😀.
  • Then some applications allow for gathering live feedback, such as Poll Everywhere.
  • Alternatively, run a Fist of Five voting. (Make sure, though, that everyone knows the scale in advance. For example, include the scale in the working agreement if you use this voting practice regularly.) 

Supporting Liberating Structures

Two Liberating Structures can support a remote Retrospective with a larger team: 1-2-4-All and Shift & Share:

  • To cover 1-2-4-All, we need breakout rooms and a place to aggregate the findings. We start with everyone in the whole group for a minute in silence; then, we split the whole group into pairs using Zoom’s breakroom feature for 2 minutes. After that round, we merge two pairs into a group of four for five minutes—this has to be done manually by the host–and the group aggregates its findings, for example, on a Google sheet prepared for each group in advance. We can introduce each group’s findings to the whole group by screen sharing in a Shift & Share. 
  • Shift & Share: Each workgroup presents its findings to the whole group by screen sharing. Alternatively, if the shared workspace has been created in advance, for example, Google Slides with a slide per workgroup, the moderator can share his or her screen while someone from the team is explaining the findings to the whole group. This reduces the stress of switching screen sharing on and off among several groups.
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Applications to Run a Remote Retrospective

Of course, instead of tailoring a string of Liberating Structures to host a remote Retrospective, there are other options:

  • There are specialized Retrospective applications for distributed teams. Well-known providers are Retrium, FunRetro, or TeamRetro. 
  • Then there are digital workspace applications, namely digital whiteboards like Miro and Mural, that often have prefabricated templates for Retrospectives. Another example would be Atlassian’s Confluence that also provides a simple template that aligns with the Scrum Guide’s purpose of a Retrospective.
  • Finally, workarounds based on general-purpose collaboration tools such as Google Docs or Office 365 also allow running at least rudimentary remote Retrospectives.

Good Practices for a Remote Retrospective

From the list of all practices that generally apply to remote agile events, see Remote Agile (Part 1): Practices & Tools for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and Product Owners, I want to point at three practices that make hosting significantly easier:

  • Create a script with the probable time-line of the remote Retrospective in advance, including all the required documents to be shared with the participants and all the copy you need to provide to the chat during the session.
  • Document the outcome of the remote Retrospective so team members can revisit them at a later stage. Restrict access to sensitive information by limiting access privileges strictly to team members. (Be prepared to explain the necessity of this procedure to curious or demanding line managers.)
  • Keep good track of action items. Without a prominent placement in the team room, improvement items tend to be forgotten. (“When you put problem in a computer, box hide answer. Problem must be visible!” Hideshi Yokoi, former President of the Toyota Production System Support Center in Erlanger, Kentucky, USA.)

Antipatterns of Remote Agile Retrospectives 

There are plenty of Retrospective anti-patterns in general. However, I want to point at a few anti-patterns of Scrum Masters that are particularly relevant for a remote Retrospective:

  • Waste of time: The Retrospective provides a poor return on investment. (Probably, it is insufficiently prepared, or the team lacks the required skills to have a meaningful remote Retrospective.) 
  • Prisoners: Some team members only participate because they are forced to join. (Don’t pressure anyone to take part in a retrospective. Instead, make it worth their time. The drive to continuously improve as a team needs to be fueled by intrinsic motivation, neither by fear nor by force. My tip: Retromat’s “Why are you here?” exercise is a good opener for a retrospective from time to time, see above.)
  • No psychological safety/bullying: A few participants dominate the Retrospective, while the more introverted team members pull back, and the host/Scrum Master does confront this misbehavior. (Working remotely requires the host to become more assertive in some situations; a laissez-faire Scrum Master is usually not up to that job.)
  • Groundhog day: A useful routine has been turned into a mindless ritual. (If you run the same-style Retrospective format over and over again, do not be surprised if a) the team is no longer improving its way of working, and b) the mood is turning sour. The problem for the host is that this effect happens in a remote setting significantly faster by comparison to a face-to-face Retrospective—remote Agile speeds up the revelation of collaboration issues.) 

Read more21 Sprint Retrospective Anti-Patterns Impeding Scrum Teams.


Working as a distributed agile team is, in many aspects, more difficult than being co-located: ‘Reading the room’ is significantly more complicated, for example, and communication is taking a toll as the beloved informal meeting at the coffee machine is no longer happening. However, being suddenly distributed does not mean that we cannot have useful critical events anymore. On the contrary: The necessity to invest more preparatory work upfront may provide a chance to improving the meaning of events, and I would consider the remote Retrospective to be a prime candidate for that purpose.

What kind of remote agile Retrospective have you organized? Please share it with us in the comments.

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Remote Agile Retrospective: Related Posts

Remote Agile (Part 1): Practices & Tools for Scrum Masters & Agile Coaches.

Remote Agile (Part 2): Virtual Liberating Structures.

Remote Agile (Part 4): Anti-Patterns.

Liberating Structures for Scrum (1): The Sprint Retrospective.

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