Distributed Retrospectives – Interview with Christoph

Because of Retromat people assume I’m knowedgable about retrospectives and ask me questions. Which is fine! I am knowedgable about retros and I am happy to answer questions. Unfortunately I could never answer the single most asked question: How do you best run a remote retrospective with a distributed team? I have been fortunate enough to only have worked with co-located teams, so I have no idea. Of course that’s not helpful for the people who ask.

In order to remedy my ignorance in that area I decided to ask people who actually run distributed retrospectives to share their insights with me (and thereby you :))

Meet Christoph Sperle, Scrummaster from Basel

I’m very grateful that Christoph agreed to answer my questions. Without further ado 

tl;dr 1) You don’t need to plan a remote retro differently from a co-located one. 2) WebEx works well. 3) Use the inbuilt audio.

Full Interview

What’s the situation?

I have facilitated retrospectives for the last 18 months and remote retrospectives for 9 months.

The remote team consists of several people in Basel and 3 remote team members that are in Poland, UK and the US respectively. All remote people have at one point been to Basel and met the Basel team, but not the other “remotes”.

The different time zones (US) and the language barrier add additional layers of difficulty.

Outside of the retrospective the team communicates mostly by chat.

Do you prepare differently for a remote retro than a co-located one?

I used to plan them differently, for example doing brainstorming and a Learning Matrix in Trello. But this approach completely killed the vibe of a retrospective. Everybody was just staring into their computers. No real exchange.

Today I plan remote retrospectives the same way I plan co-located ones.

What’s your setup?

We use WebEx to have all remote team members with us in the room on a big screen. The remotes see our whiteboard on their screens. We do all activities as you would normally do. Whenever the remotes share their stickies, I write them down and put the on the board. That’s the most stressful part for me.

We tried lots of different things with audio. The telephone was not a good option. Low quality and it was confusing that the voice did not come from the screen. Now we just use the WebEx audio and the speakers from the TV screen that shows our colleagues. That works well for us.

Do remote retrospectives have any advantage over co-located ones?

None that I can think of. Technology is always hassle and makes it more difficult to address things. Our team members are familiar with each other by now. For fresh teams it’s harder to speak their minds.

 Thank you very much, Christoph!

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5 Comments Distributed Retrospectives – Interview with Christoph

  1. Thomas Guest

    Today I plan remote retrospectives the same way I plan co-located ones.

    I’ve never had to run or participate in a remote retrospective, but I imagine this is key. Much of what I do in a retrospective is about getting away from the screens and technology — including moving around, ball throwing, drawing. It’s not that we want a break; it’s about getting a fresh perspective on what we do. I see no reason why you can’t throw a ball to a remote colleague!

    It’s always fun when very visual stuff is done on the radio.

    I do attend stand up meetings remotely (on the phone), on occasion, and always stand up for them.

    1. Corinna Baldauf

      Hi Thomas!
      Yes, that’s probably the key! Though I was very surprised by Christoph saying that. Beforehand, I had always assumed it would be best to try to use a virtual whiteboard or so. Huge aha moment for me 🙂

  2. DerSven

    after doing co-located retrospectives for 4 years and now doing remote ones for ~2 years I can definitely say that I miss being co-located. The disadvantages of doing it remote are just too many.

    As a frequent WebEx user I find it hard to believe that this setup works with reading something like PostIts on a physical whiteboard. @Christoph: Are you using a special camera? Voice and esp. video quality is much better when using dedicated video conferencing rooms with e.g. Cisco system.

    When I plan retros I also do it like for a co-located team: I use retr-o-mat 😉 But I found some activities do just not work in a remote setup. I find ourselves often limited to some electronic whiteboard stuff posting virtual postIts…

    – Invest every € you van in real Video Conferencing hardware
    – Travel often to meet face to face
    – use web-based tools

    1. Corinna Baldauf

      Hi Sven!

      Thanks for adding a new perspective! Would you like to go into detail in an interview of your own? I’d love that!

      Cheers, Corinna

  3. David Horowitz

    Hey all great advice! In addition to video chat, it is important to have software that helps you facilitate effective retrospectives. That’s why I cofounded Retrium (www.retrium.com). Retrium is a set of collaborative facilitation techniques, like Mad Sad Glad and 4Ls that help make it easier to contribute and stay engaged in the process, even when remote. I might be biased but it’s pretty neat stuff once you try it 🙂 Retrium + video chat = successful virtual retrospectives.

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