7 things I’ve learned about remote retrospectives

Why do we bother having retros? What would we lose if we stopped having them? What makes a retro go well, and what makes it go badly?

Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned.

1. It’s all about the action items.

At their heart, the point of having retros is to enable a conscious sense of shared ownership of the team’s process. We are the team, and we work out how we can be most productive together. Retros help us to iterate on that process week to week.

To that end — the really important outcome of a retro is the action items. If someone has brought up an issue, then we want to do something to solve it.

On that note…

2. A good action item can be owned.

Some people we spoke to seemed to report using action items almost as a cathartic moment —someone has brought up something they need to talk about, and writing down an action item together as a team is something like a denouement for that conversation — committing together to change something.

For that to happen, an action items should always be owned by a single person. If it can’t be owned by a single person, then it needs to be rewritten. For example: don’t write


3. Being able to show personality in a retro is good… because team bonding is good.

For good, productive, open retros to be able to happen, there needs to be trust in the room. A nice side effect of having ‘wine and cheese’ retros on Friday afternoons is that it feels a little bit like just enjoying each other’s company.

With a whiteboard style retro, people can get creative and show some personality with how they draw the smileys in each column, or how they +1, or how they interact with each other’s items. People scribble and draw.

4. Seeing people’s faces is really important, because it’s all about communication.

We asked people what their focus is in a remote retro — and it’s really all about the video conference with the rest of the team. Retros are about conversations — so of course seeing someone’s face helps.

5. Timed conversations makes the retro run on time. But not having to be the ‘time cop’ is appreciated.

I’ve sometimes seen people use timers for conversations in retros, putting 5 minutes on the clock when we start talking about an item and roman voting on whether to keep talking if we hit the time limit. But the extra work around making that happen is a barrier to entry. Opening your phone, breaking the flow as facilitator to start the timer, remembering to do it for every item, resetting the timer when conversations organically come to an end — we observed it being just slightly too annoying for it to ever feel natural.

It’s key to our philosophy that you should always get through all of the items on the retro board. For a successful retro, everyone’s voice should be heard.

Keep an eye on the time.

6. The less communication in the team day to day, the more crucial the retro is.

Empirically, it seems rather obvious that when a project is going smoothly and a team is working well together, retros are easier.

We found this was true with everyone we spoke to. There’s a definite correlation between the amount of regular, day-to-day conversation, and the importance of the action items created during retro. If everyone’s sitting together and chatting about things as they come up, then a lot of the conversations might have already happened by the time retro rolls around.

This is desirable, whether the team is colocated or remote. But it’s so much harder for remote teams to get to that point of maturity.

So for remote teams, retro can be a really important chance to have those conversations.

7. Talk about everything on the board. Don’t skip anything.

Some facilitators have the team vote on retro items before the conversation, and order the conversation by what has most votes.

This can be a useful tactic if there are a lot of people in the meeting and/or a large amount of retro items. But whenever humanly possible, you should talk about every single thing on the retro board.

Retro is just one practise that helps to build a great team. Talking about every item helps to make sure everyone knows their voice is valued and equal. Setting aside time each week purely for team communication and reflection builds a sense in the team that they can trust each other and that feedback is encouraged. And getting through every retro item helps to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. These are the philosophies that are driving us building Postfacto.

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