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Posted on • Originally published at mangamaui.Medium

Facilitating retrospectives with a remote team

Lessons learned from trying to become a better leader for my teams

You might already be familiar with the term retrospective or sprint retrospective, but if you’re not:

The Sprint Retrospective is an opportunity for the Scrum Team to inspect itself and create a plan for improvements to be enacted during the next Sprint.

So now that you know what a retrospective is, I can tell you more about it.
For 2 years I worked as a product/project manager with a remote team, where I had to learn how to organize and run sprint retrospectives.

My only experience with retrospectives before that was from when I was a developer. The retrospectives here were only held after project delivery and I had to write down 3 to 5 positive and negative things about the entire time I worked on it. I found that pretty hard at the time to remember all those things that happened during those months and to write them down. So a lot of valuable info got lost.

Also, I dreaded those retrospectives meetings! They were boring and felt forced in some way. I decided that I wanted to do better now that I was in control of facilitating retrospectives!

Preparation first

I started by doing some research before I actually started organizing my first retrospective. Here I learned that a retrospective for our team would focus on the sprints (as it should) but also a bit on the personal well-being of the team.

I also learned that a retrospective should be held in a safe environment where everyone feels like they can share their experience. Even if not everyone agrees with someone’s experience. So there definitely should be a mutual respect amongst team members.

After learning those things, I started questioning my team for input and from there on we came to an agreement about the format for our retrospective. I’ve lined up the base questions we used to ask ourselves during each retrospective:

  • What went well?
  • What went wrong and/or was frustrating?
  • What can be improved?
  • What do we need more of?
  • What do we need less of?
  • Special appreciations
  • Suggestions

Point 3 to 5 could probably be reduced to one column, but we chose to break them into tiny bits because it helped the team really think about those things.
So often a memory was triggered, that otherwise might’ve been forgotten.

The special appreciations column was dedicated to team members showing appreciation to other members of their teams.

Screenshot of retrospective board and usage tips

So how exactly did we use these questions?

At first, we started out with a spreadsheet that I templated, but… it was messy. And a bit later we moved on to using Trello instead.

Why Trello you might ask?

Firstly, it has a structure of columns and cards, that was already a big upgrade to spreadsheets. And it felt more like the traditional post-it retrospectives I was familiar with. Secondly, you all can work on the same Trello board at the same time without getting distracted by what others are doing. Also easy to see if someone is already posting something you might want to post. And third, the Trello Power-ups made the retrospectives more interesting and easier to facilitate.

Ok, maybe one more… lastly Trello is free!!! But they offer more features for paying customers.

One of the power-ups we used was the voting system. You could just hover over a card and press v on your keyboard and it added a thumb mark to that card. The number of votes on a card would indicate that other team members felt the same way about this topic. So that made it easier to see how big of a deal something is.

Pro-tip: vote quickly by just hovering over a card and pressing the 'v' key on your keyboard

Another power-up we used was the giphy plugin. Gifs to express your feelings or to simply say something like “Happy Birthday” to a teammate.

All these elements helped to improve the atmosphere of those retrospectives.

Flow of our retrospective meetings

At an appointed time all team members called in for a retrospective. Everyone opened up the Trello board I provided, which only contained a couple of columns with the earlier listed questions for titles.

  1. Gathering experiences from your team. (approx. 15 — 20 mins) To gather those experiences the entire team (me included) started adding cards in the columns they had a related experience with.
  2. Voting on experiences that you shared or feel sympathetic about.(approx 10 min tops) After that we started with adding votes, every team member voted on the cards they felt similar about. This would only take up a couple of minutes, so it all went down pretty fast.
  3. Discussing all cards on the board. (approx. 30 to 40 mins) Last but not least, we would discuss all the topics on the board as a team. Which took a big chunk of our time, but it was often worth it. It gave me better insights into what my team members were experiencing and what we should/could improve towards our next sprint. Another benefit is that it also helped us to bond as a team since we left some room for casual remarks as well.

Things learned

Through our retrospectives, we learned when people needed some extra help to get them on their way. f.e. when someone new on the team was still learning react, another team member would be there to give some extra guidance.

Or when things became shitty because the specifications changed and components that were already planned out, had to be revisited and redone completely. At least the retrospective gave the team a bit of room for venting.

These are just a few examples, but a lot of stuff happens when you work on a project for a long time. And not everything is within your immediate control, but it still has its impact. On moments like that, I think it’s important that people can vent their frustrations and then start fresh.

Also showing extra appreciation to your colleagues even for small things can be just that little extra push of positiveness your team might need to keep them going. I mean who doesn’t like appreciation?

So you see, even if you have a distributed team, you can still make your retrospectives interesting and valuable with just a little help of a tool and some guidelines.

Feel free to use the Trello retrospective template that I created by making a copy.

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