Can agile be remote? Sure!

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When Corona came into our life, remote work became more or less standard. In Germany, it was more of a problem than in the Netherlands.In the Netherlands in 2015 remote work, or home office, has been legally established due to the Flexible Working Act. An employer can’t refuse untill he or she can proof, that itis not possible that an employee works remote.

But it is also a matter of culture. Dutch have a different culture and mindset. We aremore pragmatic, relaxed andthere is a lot of trustand respect in a company on all levels. Leaders trust their teams and therefore, the team members are motivate to do a great job because being appreciated. And this way of working makes us quite successful.

Dutch companies are aware of the fact, that a healthy company culture is the basis to be successfull.

I was often amazed when i saw all the discussions on social platforms and on television, because for methere is no difference between working in the office and working at home.


Across the globe, many companies have found that the shift to remote work has been a less-than-smooth transition. Setting up usually office-based staff with computer equipment, and recalibrating working culture to keep employees connected, has been a significant shift for most. But for the Netherlands, the country’s already sizeable remote workforce means that the adjustment has been much less dramatic.

“Dutch people had certain advantages when we went into lockdown,” explains van Doorn, whose employer Auth0 gives all workers the option for flexible work, offers a budget to create a comfortable and productive home working set up, and helps to arrange coworking spaces if needed. “We’re fortunate enough to be a country where 98% of homes have high-speed internet access, and the Netherlands has the right combination of technology, culture, and approach to make remote working successful. I’m judged on whether I deliver value, not on the fact that I sit at a desk for nine hours a day. ”

A culture ripe for remote work

“Values such as democracy and participation are deeply rooted in the Dutch working culture, so managers place more trust in their workers than elsewhere in the world,” she says. “For example, ING bank [an influential Dutch company based in Amsterdam] now has a policy on unlimited holidays implemented for pilot groups of workers, who can take as much holiday as they want as long as their tasks do not suffer. Employers elsewhere are now learning that employees can be trusted to work from home, and I believe that in post-corona[virus] times, smart combinations of working from home and meeting in real life will emerge more and more worldwide.”

But there are also broader economic and social contexts that enable remote work to flourish in the Netherlands.

“Physical infrastructure is well developed, and public and commercial remote-working facilities are plentiful,” says Bart Götte, a business futurist and psychologist based in Amersfoort. “Public libraries have reinvented themselves as massive and comfortable modern working spaces, and there are an enormous number of small, quality coffee shops that service the remote workforce. Employers in the Netherlands have also seized the opportunity to cut costs and become more productive – they need less square metres of expensive office space, and strict sick pay legislation in the Netherlands means that they are motivated to make sure that their workers have healthy working facilities at home.”

Source: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200623-what-the-dutch-can-teach-the-world-about-remote-work


Dutch King Willem-Alexander working from home in a posed photo at The Hague in April. Many Dutch have been working from home, even pre-pandemic (Credit: Getty Images)

How to work remote

No need to say, thatit takes n amount of time to perform a good planning and to create an infrastructure, that suits almost all situations and comply with the needs of the team(s), So let’s see what has to be done, and what’s possible. For being a guy who is fond of  Scrum, I will write about remote Scrum and Liberating Structures.

“By 2022, 90 percent of agile development teams will include remote work as part of business continuity planning, up from nearly 30 percent in 2020”, according to Gartner

Gartner “3 Steps to Sustain Productivity and Collaboration in Remote Agile and DevOps Teams,” Manjunath Bhat, Mike West, 6 May 2020.

What is a distributed scrum team?

A distributed scrum team is just that — a scrum team that is either fully or partially remote. In order for a distributed scrum team to be successful, new approaches to adopting scrum need to be implemented. Because of constraints on ad hoc collaboration and informal communication, remote teams need to be more disciplined about their scrum rituals and create new opportunities for bonding and collaboration.

Fortunately, much of scrum’s defined set of rituals, tools, and roles, can be adapted to a remote work environment, including sprints, ceremonies, daily scrums (aka standups), and retrospectives. 

It’s recommended that a standard agile team follow the “two pizza” rule: teams should be able to be fed by two pizzas, which means teams should be about seven to 10 people. However, when working remotely, it’s often best to have smaller teams, especially since a video conference with 5 – 6 people is much easier to manage than 10. The traditional scrum roles are just as important with a distributed team but need to make adjustments for the specific challenges of remote work.

Benefits

  • Wider pool of available talent that can increase skill sets of teams
  • Teams across geographies that allows for 24-hour workday

Today, some of the best teams are self-organizing, cross-functional agile teams that come from a wide pool of global team members. Companies that allow remote workers can access a wider pool of talent. 

As more companies have teams with at least some remote workers, scrum offers a framework to collaborate together effectively. Plus, the adaptability built into scrum that helps teams adjust to changing conditions and user requirements, helps remote teams be agile and constantly learn and improve.

“Remote teams that closely follow recommended agile technical practices could easily outperform a colocated team that does not”, according to Gartner

About the ceremonies

Remote Sprint Planning with a Distributed Team

The purpose of the Sprint Planning is to align the Development Team and the Product Owner on what to build next, delivering the highest possible value to customers. The Product Owner introduces the business objective the upcoming Sprint is supposed to meet, the Scrum Team collaboratively creates a Sprint Goal, and the Development Team forecasts the work required to achieve the goal by picking the appropriate items from the Product Backlog, transferring them to the Sprint Backlog. 

Also, the Development Team needs to come up with a plan on how to accomplish its forecast as well as pick at least one high priority improvement issue from the previous Sprint Retrospective.

According to the Scrum Guide, the Sprint Planning answers two questions:

  1. What can be delivered in the Increment resulting from the upcoming Sprint?
  2. How will the work needed to deliver the Increment be achieved?

Given the relative distance between the members of a distributed Scrum Team, the task of aligning everyone becomes even more crucial for a remote Sprint Planning as is the determination of the Sprint Goal:

During Sprint Planning the Scrum Team also crafts a Sprint Goal. The Sprint Goal is an objective that will be met within the Sprint through the implementation of the Product Backlog, and it provides guidance to the Development Team on why it is building the Increment.

By comparison to a co-located Scrum Team, the preparatory work, for example, regular Product Backlog refinements, keeping track of technical debt, and preserving a high-quality Definition of ‘Done’ is paramount to securing a successful outcome of the Sprint.

Virtual Liberating Structures for a Remote Sprint Planning

To ensure that the physical barrier is not impeding a remote Sprint Planning, and similar to the remote Retrospective, we once again turn to virtual Liberating Structures to include and engage all Scrum Team members, ensuring that everyone has a voice.

For a remote Sprint Planning, the following Liberating Structures microstructures have proven to be supportive:

The Celebrity Interview

The Celebrity Interview is a useful way for the Product Owner to introduce the upcoming Sprint’s business objective. Working in the whole group, use mute and video off to distinguish between the Product Owner, the interviewer — a member of the Development Team — and the remaining members of the Scrum Team. Gather additional questions through the chat channel from the listeners as the interview proceeds. The interviewer should pass on these new questions in due time. During the discussion, the Product Owner should not read these new questions at the same time. 

Conversation Café

Use a Conversation Café to discuss the purpose of the upcoming Sprint: Create 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.

Mad Tea

Consider running a Mad Tea to identify a Sprint Goal based on the business objective and the introduction of the Product Owner. Of course, we cannot recreate two concentric circles of attendees facing each other; however, what we can do is use a prompt—a half-sentence that the team members shall complete—and the chat channel to create a quick picture of the team’s sentiment on the Sprint Goal. 

As the moderator, prepare a few prompts in advance regarding the topic of the upcoming Sprint, for example, “I think the Sprint Goal should be…” Then post that prompt to the chat and ask the participants to add their answer(s) but not to hit enter. That is done simultaneously by all attendees when the host asks for it. The result is a bunch of suggestions on the Sprint Goal. Repeat the exercise if no suggestion finds unanimous support.

25/10 Crowd Sourcing

Alternatively, a 25/10 Crowd Sourcing can also support the creation of a Sprint Goal: 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 FunRetro.io 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 eight suggestions for the next Sprint Goal, not ten.

Min Specs

Min Specs: Min Specs is an excellent exercise to focus the whole team on the essential work to accomplish the next Sprint Goal. In a remote setting, it 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. Min Specs work well with embedded 1-2-4-All and Shift and Share, see below.

Integrated~Autonomy

If you need to balance the demands of the Product Owner for new features with the necessity of the Development Team to keep technical debt at bay, probably already a latent conflict, consider running an Integrated~Autonomy session and ask “How is it that we can be more integrated and more autonomous at the same time?” As Integrated~Autonomy builds on a sequence of small group work based on 1-2-4-All, breakout rooms, and a shared workspace to visualize the outcome, it is also well-suited for a remote Sprint Planning.

Supporting Liberating Structures

Three Liberating Structures can support a remote Sprint Planning with a larger team: 1-2-4-AllShift and Share, and Lean Coffee:

1-2-4-All

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 and Share. 

Shift and Share

Shift and 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. 

Lean Coffee

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 FunRetro.io 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.


A Remote Daily Scrum with a Distributed Team

The purpose of the Daily Scrum is clearly described in the Scrum Guide — no guessing is necessary:

The Daily Scrum is a 15-minute time-boxed event for the Development Team. The Daily Scrum is held every day of the Sprint. At it, the Development Team plans work for the next 24 hours. This optimizes team collaboration and performance by inspecting the work since the last Daily Scrum and forecasting upcoming Sprint work. The Daily Scrum is held at the same time and place each day to reduce complexity.

The Daily Scrum is an internal meeting for the Development Team. If others are present, the Scrum Master ensures that they do not disrupt the meeting.

Daily Scrums improve communications, eliminate other meetings, identify impediments to development for removal, highlight and promote quick decision-making, and improve the Development Team’s level of knowledge. This is a key inspect and adapt meeting.

Source: Scrum Guide 2017. (The old version. The revised version can be found here)

The Daily Scrum is an essential event for inspection and adaption, run by the Development Team, and guiding it for the next 24 hours on its path to achieving the Sprint Goal. The Daily Scrum is hence the shortest planning horizon in Scrum and thus mandatory.

Virtual Liberating Structures for a Remote Daily Scrum

Contrary to popular belief, the Daily Scrum’s 15-minute timebox is not intended to solve all the issues addressed during the event. It is about creating transparency, thus triggering the inspection. If an adaption of the Sprint plan or the Sprint Backlog, for example, is required, the Development Team is free to handle the resulting issues at any time. In my experience, most Daily Scrum issues result from a misunderstanding of this core principle. We hence look at the Daily Scrum’s two parts separately.

Virtual Daily Scrum Part 1: Are We Still on the Right Track to Accomplish the Sprint Goal?

This is the 15-minute time-box where the members of the Development Team inspect the progress towards achieving the Sprint Goal since the previous remote Daily Scrum. To structure this part of the remote Daily Scrum, the Sprint Guides suggests a non-mandatory information-sharing pattern — the three questions —, that pretty well translates to a remote set-up. 

One way of applying this pattern to a remote Daily Scrum is to run a virtual Mad Tea to collect and distribute information from all developers rapidly among the team members. Of course, we cannot recreate two concentric circles of attendees facing each other. However, what we can do is use the set of questions to create a prompt—a half-sentence that the team members shall complete—and the chat channel to create a quick picture of the team’s sentiment. 

As the moderator, prepare the necessary prompts in advance regarding the progress of the team towards the Sprint Goal, for example, “Today, I will support the Development Team by contributing…” Then post that prompt to the chat and ask the participants to add their answer(s) but not to hit enter. That is done simultaneously by all attendees when the moderator asks for it. This way, the Development Team can generate insight synchronously at a rapid pace, identifying potential areas where more collaboration is needed to ensure that the Scrum Team is meeting the Sprint Goal.

Virtual Daily Scrum Part 2: Dealing with Issues

Let us move on to the part of the remote Daily Scrum, where the Development Team collaborates on solving issues that might impede its ability to achieve the Sprint Goal. Consider the following microstructures for the second phase of the remote Daily Scrum, when Development Team members may need individual support, or where the whole team needs to decide how to adapt in the light of new learnings:

  • Troika Consulting proves to be especially helpful at sourcing support at the individual level, for example, from other Development Team members on how to solve a technical issue. To run it in a distributed team, we start by creating breakout rooms for groups of three. Consultants and the consultee have the initial conversation; then, the consultee turns around on his or her chair for the consulting phase. Alternatively, both consultants stop broadcasting their video, so the consultee is just listening to what they have to say. 
  • Min Specs has proven to be a very effective virtual LS microstructure when it becomes apparent that the original plan to achieve the Sprint Goal is no longer valid and needs to be trimmed, probably in collaboration with the Product Owner. Like What, So What, Now What?, a remote Min Specs is a sequence of individual work and group work based on breakout rooms, aggregating findings in shared workspaces to be shared with the whole Development Team in the end.
  • In an inexperienced, new Development Team in its early team-building phase or structures centered around component teams or challenging software architectures, ‘What I Need From You (WINFY)’ could offer the right frame to articulate core needs to achieve the Sprint Goal and coordinate and involve everyone in the collective effort. Again, in a remote setting, we employ breakout rooms, the chat, and shared workspaces. Embedded 1-2-4-All or What, So What, Now What? may support the effort as well.
  • TRIZ may prove to be useful when the team needs to reaffirm its plan to achieve the Sprint Goal, for example, because of outside pressure. Again, TRIZ is a combination of basic elements of virtual Liberating Structures: breakout rooms, embedded 1-2-4-All, and joined workspaces. As a Scrum Master, you may consider supporting the effort by time-keeping on behalf of the participants as they are likely to lose track of time. 
  • Another approach to solving the beforementioned challenge is the Discovery and Action Dialog (DAD) to “Discover, Invent, and Unleash Local Solutions to Chronic Problems.” A remote set-up may result in a heightened bias for action, particularly on the side of stakeholders and the management due to a perceived loss of control, impeding a Scrum Team on its way to achieve its Sprint Goal. DAD can support the Development Team to discover outside intervention and how to address the situation by identifying positive deviant (PD) behaviors and practices to provide solutions to real (and perceived) problems. Technically, a virtual DAD applies standard procedures like breakout rooms, embedded 1-2-4-All, joined workspaces, and probably a Shift & Share.

Supporting Liberating Structures

Two Liberating Structures microstructures can support a remote Daily Scrum and particularly its second phase: 1-2-4-All, and Lean Coffee:

  • 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. 
  • 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 FunRetro.io 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. 

A Remote Sprint Review with a Distributed Team

The Purpose of the Sprint Review

Before we get into recreating the Sprint Review online in a virtual setting, let us first revisit the purpose of the Sprint Review. The Sprint Review is Empiricism at work: inspect the Product Increment and adapt the Product Backlog. The Development Team, the Product Owner, and the stakeholders need to figure out whether they are still on track delivering value to customers. It is the best moment to create or reaffirm the shared understanding among all participants whether the Product Backlog is still reflecting the best use of the Scrum Team’s resources, thus maximizing the value delivered to customers. It is also because of this context that calling the Sprint Review a “sprint demo” does not match its importance for the effectiveness of the Scrum Team.

The Sprint Review is thus an excellent opportunity to talk about the general progress of the product. The Sprint Review’s importance is hence the reason to address Sprint Review anti-patterns as a Scrum Master as soon as possible.

What Does the Scrum Guide Say about the Sprint Review?

  • Attendees include the Scrum Team and key stakeholders invited by the Product Owner;
  • The Product Owner explains what Product Backlog items have been “Done” and what has not been “Done;”
  • The Development Team discusses what went well during the Sprint, what problems it ran into, and how those problems were solved;
  • The Development Team demonstrates the work that it has “Done” and answers questions about the Increment;
  • The Product Owner discusses the Product Backlog as it stands. He or she projects likely target and delivery dates based on progress to date (if needed);
  • The entire group collaborates on what to do next so that the Sprint Review provides valuable input to subsequent Sprint Planning;
  • Review of how the marketplace or potential use of the product might have changed what is the most valuable thing to do next; and,
  • Review of the timeline, budget, potential capabilities, and marketplace for the next anticipated releases of functionality or capability of the product.

The result of the Sprint Review is a revised Product Backlog that defines the probable Product Backlog items for the next Sprint. The Product Backlog may also be adjusted overall to meet new opportunities.

Source: Scrum Guide 2017. (The old version. The revised version can be found here)

Virtual Liberating Structures for a Remote Sprint Review

The Sprint Planning indeed features a level of bringing everyone onto the same page, although this should not be confusing with a reporting session. Nevertheless, it seems to be tempting to many teams to handle Sprint Reviews precisely like that: As a team, show that you have been a useful entity of the organization by delivering the feature requests to the stakeholders that are paying for the team. This attitude tends to prevail in less “agile” organizations that are still in the early phases of a change, often fostered by a traditional management style rooted in the industrial paradigm, thus focused on output and the utility of the individual. 

While this scenario is problematic when working co-located, its inherent lack of trust is seriously impeding a Scrum team’s ability to create value for customers in a remote scenario. Scrum is an excellent probe for organizational dysfunctions in normal, more or less co-located corporate life. Moving everything into the virtual realm is like putting the organization’s culture under a microscope: Remote Scrum reveals all shortcomings, problems, and issues at a much faster pace. 

Therefore, to mitigate the risk of running a remote Sprint Review, for many Scrum teams applying Liberating Structures is sound business advice. Including everyone in the process, giving everyone a voice in the remote Sprint Review builds the trust to cope not just with the competition of the markets but also with the challenges of working remotely. Hence the following virtual Liberating Structures microstructures offer a useful start to learn, inspect, and adapt how to run a remote Sprint Review.

Virtual Sprint Review Part 1: What Has Scrum Team Accomplished during the Sprint?

  • Shift & Share — the science fair approach: Members of the Scrum Team present different elements of the Product Increment to the whole group by screen sharing. (While Shift & Share properly includes the developers, the stakeholders might remain passive. To address that issue, see below: Simple Ethnography.)
  • Simple Ethnography: Why present the outcome to the audience, when the stakeholders can explore the Product Increment on their own while the Scrum Team is carefully observing what is happening? (If the stakeholders are thinking loud during the exploration, it will improve the Scrum Team’s capability to understand whether the Product Increment is meeting expectations and where there is room for improvement. Simple Ethnography uses screen sharing and session recording for later analysis and is hence simple to move to a remote work environment.)
  • User Experience Fishbowl: The UX Fishbowl is an effective follow-up to Simple Ethnography. Working in the whole group, use mute and video off to distinguish between the inner circle — the stakeholders — and the outer circle — the Scrum Team — of the User Experience fishbowl. Here, the outer circle members turn their video off as well as mute themselves. Gather additional questions through the chat channel from the out circle members. A facilitator should pass on these new questions in due time. (While discussing the topic at hand, the inner circle members should try not to read these new chat messages at the same time.) Use W3 to debrief in the whole group. 

Virtual Sprint Review Part 2: Is Our Product Backlog Prepared for the next Sprint?

  • The Celebrity Interview is a useful way for the Product Owner to repeat the upcoming Sprint’s business objective as well as the longterm objectives, thus encouraging reflection on whether the Product Backlog is still up to its task. Working in the whole group, use mute and video off to distinguish between the Product Owner, the interviewer—a member of the Development Team or one of the stakeholders—and the remaining participants. Gather additional questions through the chat channel from the listeners as the interview proceeds. The interviewer should pass on these new questions in due time. (During the discussion, the interviewee should not read these new questions at the same time. The Celebrity Interview is also an excellent format to interview, for example, the CEO, when a shift in the organization’s product strategy has occurred or is imminent.) 
  • Min Specs: Min Specs is an excellent exercise to focus the whole team on the essential work to accomplish the next Sprint Goal. In a remote setting, it 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. Min Specs work well with embedded 1-2-4-All and Shift & Share, see below.
  • If you need to balance the demands of the Product Owner for new features with the necessity of the Development Team to keep technical debt at bay, probably already a latent conflict, consider running an Integrated~Autonomy session and ask “How is it that we can be more integrated and more autonomous at the same time?” As Integrated~Autonomy builds on a sequence of small group work based on 1-2-4-All, breakout rooms, and a shared workspace to visualize the outcome, it is also well-suited for a remote Sprint Planning.

Virtual Sprint Review Part 3: Closing

To close the remote Sprint Review, consider running a virtual Mad Tea to identify areas of improvement for the upcoming Sprint Retrospective. Of course, we cannot recreate two concentric circles of attendees facing each other. However, what we can do is use a prompt—a half-sentence that the team members shall complete—and the chat channel to create a quick picture of the team’s sentiment. As the moderator, prepare a few prompts in advance regarding the upcoming Sprint Review, for example, “I think the next Sprint Review should be…” Then post that prompt to the chat and ask the participants to add their answer(s) but not to hit enter. That is done simultaneously by all attendees when the host asks for it. The result is a bunch of suggestions from the stakeholders and the Scrum Team members regarding the upcoming Sprint Review, serving as data for the next Sprint Retrospective.

Supporting Liberating Structures

  • 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. 
  • 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 FunRetro.io 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.

A Remote Retrospective with a Distributed Team

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.

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 FunRetro.io 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.

The 5 Stages of a Retrospective

The following text 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 FunRetro.io 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 FunRetro.io 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 FunRetro.io 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.

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

  • 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.)
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