Sprint Retrospective for Remote Teams with Liberating Structures

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Photo by Dil

Introduction

One year ago, for the first time in my career, I became a Scrum Master in a distributed team, and for about a month the entire company has gracefully been forced to be converted to a “fully distributed” organization, due to the COVID-19 emergency.

My greatest challenge during this year was to understand how to facilitate Scrum events in an efficient way while addressing the needs of this team. After a few months of experiment with all Scrum events, I realized that the most difficult Scrum event for a distributed team is the Sprint Retrospective. Despite the other Scrum events, where a simple Product Backlog view sharing (as in a Sprint planning) or a Product increment inspection (as in a Sprint review) could help a lot in maintaining focus, especially in remote meetings, in Sprint retrospectives it’s easy to lose focus, and being distracted by something else to do.

One of the main responsibilities, as a Scrum Master, is:

The Scrum Master ensures that the meeting is positive and productive. (Scrum guide)

The Sprint Retrospective is one of the necessary meetings for any Scrum team together with other Scrum events (Sprint planning, Sprint review and Daily scrum). Regardless of the kind of team you are in, or the location or time zone distribution, Scrum teams should frequently look for ways to inspect and adapt. Stop doing that, and your team will probably no longer improve how they deliver value.

After several experiments, I get that it is not easy to facilitate Sprint Retrospective with a mix of remote and non-remote people.

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Mentioning Stefan Wolpers, the top three Sprint Retrospective anti-patterns are:

  • not making the retrospective a safe place,
  • unequally distributed speaking time, and
  • a ritualized format that never changes

I realized that we ran into those anti-patterns several times in our retrospectives, then I recall that there is a very efficient way to facilitate Sprint retrospectives: Liberating Structures. Liberating Structures were first created by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz back in 2014, to conceive powerful ways to collaborate and engage everyone within a team (e.g, Scrum teams or perhaps larger teams/groups of people), and to boost team interactions.

Until one year ago, I’ve always had the chance to have Liberating Structure meetings and workshops, in person. Suddenly a question has come to me: why not try to facilitate retrospectives with liberating structures also for distributed teams?

In this blog series, I will explore the path and experiments that started months ago, through a series of posts, focusing on Sprint Retrospectives with Liberating Structures. Our company distribution (3 different locations, 3 time zones) gave us the possibility to try those experiments with different kinds of teams, fully collocated, mixed collocated, and distributed and fully distributed. We are going to focus on the last 2 team categories.

Impromptu Networking with distributed teams

Impromptu Networking is a great way to receive important feedback and ideas from a team.

It allows a team of any size to improve interpersonal connections, share ideas, listen and help teammates, involving everyone from the beginning and allowing an equally distributed speaking time. It’s a great way to rapidly share challenges and expectations and to build new connections.

The idea is to organize a few meeting rooms, allowing 2 people per room, 5 minutes for discussion; and at the end, back to the main room.

Before going through details it’s good to recall that, like every Scrum event for distributed teams, offline and the async work are very very important.

You should try to prepare the ground, in anticipation, with few steps

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Photo by Fabrizio Magoni
  1. Understand the availability of your audience: Ask everyone in advance if they’ll participate (usually, I ask on a team chat a few hours before starting, or the day before). Knowing the number of people that will participate is very important for prepping. Once you obtain this, you can go to step 2.
  2. Organize the audience debate: You have to create a round-robin calendar, like for example a football schedule for national leagues, to schedule small debates across team members and help explore each other’s concerns. I suggest a random league schedule generator, which helps especially in the case of an odd number of participants. Once the round-robin scheduling pattern is adopted and the meeting scheduled, you can go to step 3.
  3. Prepare the virtual conference rooms: now that you have a clear calendar schedule, you have to create virtual rooms to host the rounds. In our case I created in advance one Google Meet (being the company communication platform) room for each participant — you should simply create different events on Google Meet. In our case, each round is held in the room of the person written first.
  4. Transmit the information: Collect all meeting room links (and other relevant retrospective information, more on this next) and share the “round-robin schedule” with the team (I used a shared Google Slides presentation, and injected the information within all the retrospective phases)
  5. Make sure it’s Timeboxed: Before starting, be sure to have an online timer available for everyone, or just choose a member each round that rings the bell (I use a Tinghsa bell, thanks to The Liberators for the tip) when time is up.
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Gather Data (This part can be done asynchronously before the Retrospective)

I usually collect data a few hours before the Retrospective. We start the event with a quick analysis of the brief overview (about 10 min) of the Sprint, where we usually explore some data gathered in a shared google presentation with the entire team. This allows each member to look at outcome metrics like Lead & W.I.P. time, a number of items added after the planning, defects closed, and other qualitative data like Sprint goal analysis, Burn-down/Burn-up path, which “old” items we closed and so on… In this phase, we usually compare the current sprint just finished with previous ones.

Then we can go through Impromptu Networking.

Generate ideas

This part has to be done synchronously, preferably with video meetings to have visual feedback. Body communication is very important and video helps us understand each other’s context, helping the team connect each other, and with rich and natural face-to-face communications, teams can pair and gather together even if they are not collocated.

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Photo by James Pond

Steps

  1. The first thing to do is to expose a question for the entire team, for example: “What is your challenge for the next sprint?”
  2. Give everyone a minute of self-reflection to reflect on their answers. Make sure that everyone can take notes somewhere on their laptop (a shared board/docs, or a private one — in-person meetings it’s easier to use a board or a flip-chart).
  3. Then start the first round. Ask people to take their place in the virtual rooms, according to the round-robin schedule (make sure that everyone has access to the links presentation). When everyone is in the right room, have each pair share (with a brief explanation) their answers to the exposed question (5 minutes — 2 minutes and a half for each person). At the end of the timer, ring the bell and move to the next round.
  4. Ask people to move to the rooms for the next rounds. Within these new pairs, ask to share their answers again, repeating themselves, and ask them to note if there are similarities or differences from the previous discussion.
  5. Keep on changing rooms for each round, until the round-robin is completed.

Final Discussion

Return to the main retrospective room with everyone, and share a blank slide of the retro presentation.

Now ask, one at the time:

  • what were each person’s answers,
  • what they gained from discussion with their team-mates,
  • and how important it was to have a different P.O.V.

Try to summarize in the shared document each answer, and raise any possible actionable item

Conclusion

We found this Liberating Structure allowed each person to refine their answers when iterating through the rounds, as each discussion tends to start more complex and detailed; but after exploring concerns with a few members, it became easier to grasp a bigger picture and better understand the team’s needs over personal quarrels, without any additional need of external mediation (which is typically problematic and energy-consuming in standard Sprint Retrospective meetings). The teams cooperated as a single unit, trying to query everyone as an individual and bring up common concerns to the table.

It also fomented individual 1-on-1 discussion, potentially raising awareness of each other and improving team building, especially with new team members. Contrasted with previous open-talk retrospectives, we were able to stay focused and on target, unexpectedly arriving at a single consensus.

(a Scrum team member)

On the other hand, it is not so efficient to repeat this format that often. I suggest doing it about 3 or 4 times a year, to always have fresh ideas and keep people motivated.

In the next episode, we will explore another experiment done within a distributed team in a Sprint Retrospective with Liberating Structures.

Thanks to the Product development teams (Scrum and no Scrum) in my organization that took part in this experiment (Vega, Delivery and U.A. for the distributed versions, and Sirius and Atlas that had this experiment in person).

References

To further explore the fantastic world of Liberating Structures I suggest to read the book “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures” (Lipmanowicz & McCandless) and blogs like The Liberators, Age-of-product, Serious Scrum and visit the website: www.liberatingstructures.com

Kilby, Rothman “From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver” ISBN-13: 978–1943487110

Lipmanowicz, McCandless “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation” ISBN 13: 9780615975306

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