Distributed Retrospectives – Interview with Philipp

People ask me: “How do you best run a remote retrospective with a distributed team?” and I have no idea. I’ve only ever worked with co-located teams. That’s why I started to ask people who actually do run distributed retrospectives. After the interviews with Christoph and Frank I present to you:

Philipp Flenker, Product Owner from Münster

tl;dr A) Most online retro tools are bad. Just try something simple like wikis, Google Docs, etc. before wasting time with research on specialized tools. B) There are activities that don’t work remotely, e.g. anything with movement or anonymity*.

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Full Interview

What’s the situation?

Our team consists of 5 people including me. We cover 3 time zones (3 people in Germany, 1 US east coast, 1 US west coast) and 2 languages. We speak English at work.

I’m the PO but since we don’t have a Scrum Master (don’t ask …) I facilitate the retros for our team.

Sprints used to last a month. Last month we switched to 1-week-sprints.

We meet every 6 months to see each other in person. That really helps with “individuals and interactions over processes”.

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

Yes, there are a lot of activities that don’t work in our setting:
Anything with metaphor, because of the language barrier. For instance, when using Speedboat, the US colleagues would use all the nautical terms and us Germans couldn’t follow.

Anything with movement is out.

And nothing is anonymous. This one I miss the most. Anonymity is great to have, e.g. for ESVP and we can’t really achieve that. Each input has a name attached to it.*

One activity that works well is Learning Matrix. It’s easy to learn and fits a wiki page.
About twice per year we meet in person. I plan these retros very differently! I plan for more honest and more difficult subjects. Participants tend to be too polite in remote retros. There’s very little healthy conflict.

What’s your setup?

First, everybody writes notes on their own computers. We discuss everybody’s notes and then we all paste our notes into a wiki page that I prepare in advance.

We can hear each other, but we don’t have video. We just can’t get a good video feed across 4 company VPNs. Hangouts don’t work at all in the company network. Skype is not very good. [At a former employer we had one remote guy and used Lync. That worked okay.]
The audio works most of the time. We only lose someone’s audio connection once in about 10 retros.

Our biggest challenge is the different time zones. We hold the retro at 5pm German time. One of the German guys is an early riser, so by that time he just wants to be done and head home. In California it’s 8am, in Colorado 9am. And the Colorado guy likes to sleep in. The bio rhythms don’t work out here. Concentration is difficult to maintain. The retro needs to be short, 90 minutes max.

When you’re co-located you can easily spot when someone is wool gathering. In a remote setting you can’t. Especially if you only have audio and people frequently mute themselves.
Retros are still valuable to us. Small changes are better than stagnation.

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

No, remote retros are not better than normal ones in any way. But they are better than losing a team member all together by not allowing remote work.

Any tipps for new facilitators of remote retrospectives?

Most tools suck. There are a lot of retro tools out there and I haven’t found any good ones. You just waste time trying them out to assess what they can and cannot do. The wiki page we ended up with, was better than most. Next retro we’ll try out Google Docs. In a Google Doc you can see the others’ cursors and it’s a fair guess that the cursor is where people are reading. So we’ll have more information than with the wiki page.

Thank you very much, Philipp!

You can follow Philipp on Twitter!

* Professional Scrum Trainer Jason Knight has found a workaround to achieve anonymity: Create a Google doc (or spreadsheet) with a private link that anyone can use to edit it. The team members open the link in a browser in incognito mode.

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