The key to Scrum team effectiveness is continuous improvement that can be realized through the inspect-and-adapt opportunity: the retrospectives. Retrospectives help the teams inspect on their strengths and weaknesses and come up with strategies to become stronger every sprint. Retrospectives need a good amount of preparation and effort, especially when team members operate from different geographical locations.

When people are distributed geographically across various locations, doing the inspect-and-adapt cycle, i.e., the retrospective ceremony of the sprint, becomes a bit challenging. It is easier for a colocated Agile team to meet and review their sprint progress, discuss the challenges, and propose an action plan to make a few adjustments for doing better next sprint. The distributed nature of the team adds another layer to the normal challenges of making the retrospective effective.

The biggest challenge for geographically dispersed teams is finding ways to leverage the essence behind the Agile value statement “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and behind the principle that states, “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-face communication.” However, by using some good collaboration tools, we can reap the benefits of face-to-face communication to some extent. Retrospectives play a vital role for distributed teams as well as colocated ones, and by using some good online collaboration tools, these inspect-and-adapt ceremonies can be really made effective!

Some tips for holding a distributed team retrospective:

  1. Have a facilitator at each location so that the communication can be streamlined and coordinated.
  2. Use some online collaboration tool so that each team can list down their views on a common shared board that is visible and editable at all the sites.
  3. Using a video conferencing system is always preferable as the conversation becomes very effective once people starting seeing each other.
  4. One practice I have seen is that the facilitator records the issues raised by the team members, they vote for each point, they discuss the two points with the most number of votes, and they move the other to the next sprint. During the next sprint they review the ones that have come from the previous sprint and see if they are still valid and follow the same process of deciding what needs to be taken up as action items by doing the same voting exercise.
  5. Sometimes if only a single person is on the team from a particular geographical location, and if the retrospective is conducted at a time that is highly challenging for him/her to attend, he sends his points through email to the SM.
  6. Listed below are some steps that could help in holding a distributed retrospective effectively.

STEP 1- Preparation for the retrospective

    • The facilitators at the locations meet ahead of the team and finalize the agenda and techniques to be used.
    • Decide which online tool will be used. It could be a simple Word document or an Excel sheet located in some shared folder accessible to all.
    • The facilitators need to check whether the online version of the tool is working well and resolve any network problems to save time during the actual retrospective.
    • Publish the agenda in advance so that the team is ready.
    • Decide on the technique to be used for holding the retrospective.
    • Facilitators encourage and ensure that the teams come prepared with data for the retrospective.
    • Come up with a working agreement for holding the retrospective; this working agreement could cover the aspects below:
      • Each site facilitator leads the session.
      • Raise a hand or some yellow card in case anyone feels the discussions are going off track.
      • Timebox the discussion so that everyone gets a considerable amount of time to speak.
      • Make sure the discussions are interactive and open.
      • Facilitators note down important points that come up.
      • Facilitators take input from their respective sites and do a quick retrospective on the distributed retrospective session so that they can inspect and adapt.
      • Use some consensus technique like fist-of-five or green cards to get agreement on any discussion point so that each site can easily understand it.
      • Take any planned timeboxed breaks as needed.

STEP 2- Retrospective in action

  1. Set the stage
    • The facilitators at the different sites would initiate the discussion.
    • Briefly go through the agenda.
    • Reiterate the prime directive.
    • Get consensus on the working agreement.
    • Describe the technique.
  1. Initiate the retrospective
    • Hold a quick recap of the previous sprint retrospective to check if there are any pending items or items to carry forward.
    • One of the site facilitators puts down the technique to be used for retrospective on the online collaboration tool.
    • Each site team member specifies their views on the collaboration tool.
    • Facilitators could show some visual indicator, such as a “Done” flag, once each site is finished.
    • At each site, the facilitator could go over their items and discuss, and give some time to the other sites to give their comments, if any.
    • Repeat this round at all the sites.
    • Once all sites are done, do a quick check to see whether any site has any other comments.
  1. Action plan
    • Each site could come up with some actionable items and share with other sites and take their views.
    • Repeat this round at all sites.
    • Once all sites are done, do a quick check to see whether any site has any other comments.
    • Consolidate the action plan and get a quick consensus.
  1. Closure
    • Share the retrospective techniques, the data gathered, and action plan with all sites.
    • Spend five minutes to get quick feedback across all sites on the retrospective event.
    • Facilitators at the various sites follow up and coordinate on the action plan.

A few collaboration tools available:

  1. Video conferencing tools such as Liteshow
  2. Microsoft Outlook Lynch
  3. Online whiteboards Cosketch or Twiddla
  4. IdeaBoardz
  7. Trello
  8. Hackpad
  9. Google Docs
  14. by Luke Hohmann
  15. A simple Word document or Excel sheet placed at some shared locations with read/write permissions for the team members.

Note: Please check whether any of these tools are obsolete or need a license before using.

Originally Posted by Madhavi Ledalla @ Scrum Alliance on 29 August 2014