Visualize remaining time with TimeTimer

How do you keep track of time when you facilitate a retrospective or other meeting? How do you make sure you all keep short timeboxes? A timer on a smart phone is one way to do it, but for me it lacks visibility. I forget the timebox and only remember it, when it’s used up.


What works beautifully are TimeTimers. With a TimeTimer you set the timebox by pulling out a red disk. As soon as you let go, the red disk slowly starts retreating back below the white parts. That way you always have a pie chart of the remaining time. Elegant, easy to use and it communicates time very effectively!



Host Leadership is the better metaphor

Whenever someone mentions “Servant Leadership” it triggers an almost Pavlovian reflex in me to say: “Have you heard of ‘Host Leadership’? IMHO it’s the much better metaphor for Scrum Master work.”Host-Leadership

Part of SM work is enforcing rules. How can you do that as a servant? The metaphor breaks. As a host it makes perfect sense: You have to make sure that everybody is having a great time and not one person ruining it for many. As the host you set house rules.

Despite being a big fan I haden’t even mentioned Host Leadership in this blog, yet. Until now 🙂 If you’d like to know more, here’s the 6 roles of Host Leadership and the official webpage for Host Leadership.

Mein rechter, rechter Platz

[English summary: Armin Schubert suggested a super nice “Set the stage” activity for Retromat that doesn’t translate well, so I present it in the original German.]

Immer wieder bekomme ich tolle Vorschläge für Retromat, die ich schweren Herzens ablehnen muss, meistens weil es bereits eine sehr ähnliche Aktivität im Retromaten gibt. Bei der folgenden Idee von Armin Schubert war der Grund, dass die Aktivität nur auf Deutsch funktioniert. Aber wozu habe ich ein Blog 😉

Hier kommt also Armins “Mein rechter, rechter Platz”: Diese Aktivität ist für den Anfang einer Retro und läuft wie folgt ab:

Die Teilnehmer sitzen im Kreis und starten mit dem bekannten Kinderreim “Mein rechter, rechter Platz ist leer, ich wünsche mir den $Name her!” mit einer entscheidenden Änderung im Text:

“Mein rechter, rechter Platz ist voll und der $Name, der ist toll!” Dann noch drei positive Eigenschaften des rechten Nachbarn und schon ist derjenige selbst dran.

Die Idee dazu ist in einer Retrospektive entstanden, weil wir einen schnellen aber positiven Einstieg gesucht haben. Das wirkte am Anfang etwas hölzern, war dann aber ein grosser Erfolg, auf dem im Nachgang immer wieder referenziert wurde.

(Falls jemand den (neuen) Kollegen rechts von sich nicht kennt, kann er gerne die anderen Anwesenden um Hilfe bitten. Hat bei uns mehrfach super funktioniert!)

Thanks for sharing with us, Armin!

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Cluster stickies next to each other

Here’s another tiny facilitation coconut for something I’ve handled wrong suboptimal in the past:

When it’s clustering time, related stickies often ended up on top of each other. Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka remarked that this is not very appreciative of the bottom sticky and its author. It’s just a tiny detail but it makes sense to me. Most people probably don’t mind, but some might, especially in power imbalanced situations. Since it’s not making things worse for those who don’t mind and makes it better for those who do, I vow to cluster related stickies next to each other from now on.

This will also create a more accurate visualization of support for a topic 🙂

All eyes not on you – Chain Question

As a facilitator, I think it is my job create opportunities for others to speak. I try to keep in the background as much as possible, which isn’t always easy. Participants focus on me more often than I’d like. That is to say, not only when I talk about meta information like instructions, but also when they themselves talk about the subject matter.

One simple technique to connect participants to each other, rather than to you, is to create a questioning chain. This works well when the group forms a circle and there’s a question everyone should answer. As the facilitator you can start it of by asking the question to your neighbour. Then they ask their neighbour on their other side. It works best, when the asker actually waits and listens to the answer 😉

Just like Role Play for One this technique is popular with language teachers. I relearned it in Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka’s workshop on solution-focused coaching.

I hope it’ll help you get attention off of you and on the content your participants bring to the table.

Do you have tricks you’d like to share?

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*.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 00.02.10

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.

PS: Interested in retrospectives? Sign up to the Retromat newsletter to get related news and tricks!

Would you like a coconut?

Last week I attended a very enlightening workshop hosted by solution-focused coaches  Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka. Early in the workshop Veronika introduced a superb metaphor for giving advice that nobody asked for. I’ve written about unsolicited advice before, but the coconut-model does a much better and funnier job.

Let’s start with one of the solution-focused tenets: “Everybody is the expert for their own situation”. Based on our experiences we all see the world differently and can never truly know anyone else’s impressions. We each live on our own island and usually don’t know much about the islands of other people.

Bertram's island and Zili's island

Let’s say there are 2 people on their respective islands, Zilli and Kurti. Zilli’s island sports a glorious coconut tree and Zilli looooves coconut. The meat, the milk, the pina colada – she loves all of it!

Kurti’s island on the other hand has fir trees growing. Kurti has never heard of coconuts in his whole life, let alone seen one. What a sad state of affairs! Zilli wants to share the coconut goodness and saves one of her precious coconuts to throw over to Kurti. What do you think how Kurti will react? Grateful?

Zili throws a coconut

Unlikely. Zilli just attacked him with a big stone. Unprovoked! Why would she do that? Kurti has no choice. He has to defend himself!

Bertram raises the shields

Which in turn will anger Zilli. Kurti lets her gift go to waste! That was an excellent coconut! Pfft, she’s never going to share anything with such an ungrateful person!

Not a good exchange at all. Yet, it often plays out like this when someone tries to introduce change. But Zilli could have done better. She could have asked, whether Kurti is interested in trying coconuts. And if he’s not, accept that. And if he is, all the better! She could have shown him how the crack one. The meat, the milk, the pina colada. Chances are that Kurti would have liked some of it.

Questions build bridges

I plan on using this metaphor a lot in the future. I want to pass on what I learn. I hail from a long line of teachers, I can’t help myself. Heck, this blog is nothing but a big pile of coconuts, so that I have an outlet. You’re here on your own free will, so I hope that’s okay with you. And if we meet face to face and I ask “Would you like a coconut?” you know that I’ve got excellent, excellent ( 😉 ) advice that you didn’t exactly ask for. You can say no. That’s okay. It’s why I ask first 🙂

PS: Thanks to Veronika for the flipchart drawings!

Distributed Retrospectives – Interview with Frank

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 run distributed retrospectives. After the initial interview with Christoph, I present to you:

Frank Deberle, Developer/Coordinator, working in Mainz

frank-deberle tl;dr 1) Don’t fret. Remote retrospectives are not as bad as it may seem. Just try to run one and you’ll see. 2) works well for us

Full Interview What’s the situation?

I’ve been facilitating retrospectives for 2 years now. For the last 6 months these retrospectives have been remote – every 3 weeks, 60-90 minutes. There’s 3 of us in Mainz and 2 in Stuttgart. We all know each other face to face too, which makes it easier to work together remotely. Two of the team member are immigrants, but they both speak German, so the language barrier is low.

We all work for an agency that in turn works in a big project for another company. I coordinate everyone from our side working on that project and I facilitate the retrospectives in that capacity. That is to say, we are probably a special case, because our retrospective is not the whole team working on that project, but only with the people from our agency, working on that project. They are part of two different Scrum teams (both working on the same project). Phew, that was a little complicated.

Anyway, at first we were all together in Mainz but then we started an office in Stuttgart and suddenly we were a distributed team. In the beginning I was convinced that retrospectives couldn’t possibly work if we were not all in the same room. I was kind of waiting / hoping for the perfect solution to come along. But then we realized we needed to do retrospectives again. We tried it and it just worked. There was no need for me to be so worried about it! Of course, it’s different, but at least you get to do a retrospective at all!

Remote retrospectives? At least you get to do a retrospective at all!
– Frank Deberle (@fdeberle)

How is a remote retrospective different from a co-located one?

It’s very hard to feel everyone’s vibe. In a co-located retrospectives it’s much easier to pick up nuances in voice and mimic and thus read the team’s general mood accurately.

Also everything seems to take a little longer than when co-located. Some part of it is the occasional lag or that Mac microphones’ sensitivity settings spontaneously self-lower. The bigger part is that it seems more chewy in general. Because feedback is less direct, people tend to explain in greater detail. And all of that together leads to slightly longer retrospectives.

What’s your setup? 

We use video chat. It’s super easy to set up. Once you’ve installed a Chrome plugin all you have to do is send around a link, no special code or password required. The quality is well enough, certainly better than Skype. We’ve never tried Hangouts.

Ideally we use 1 laptop in Stuttgart (for 2 people), and 2 laptops in Mainz (1 for the whiteboard, 1 for 3 people).

Sometimes we enhance this setup with our agency’s bluetooth speaker and standing mic. That improves the sound quality, but we only use it, if it’s already set up.

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

Not really. That is, I don’t plan differently, but I noticed that in the distributed retrospectives we tend to do fewer activities. I think it’s because of the slower pace and more explicit explanations I mentioned before. 

Any tipps for new facilitators of remote retrospectives?

Just try it out! It’s really not that big a deal! Oh, and vary what you do. Otherwise it’ll get boring soon. Retromat is cool for that! Okay, that last one was more of a general tipp 😉

Thank you very much, Frank!

PS: Interested in retrospectives? Sign up to the Retromat newsletter to get related news and tricks!

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!

PS: Interested in retrospectives? Sign up to the Retromat newsletter to get related news and tricks!

Pink stickies considered harmful & other arcane facilitation tidbits

There are some odd tidbits of experience you pick up when you work with whiteboards and stickies for a longer period of time. Here’s a random collection of my tidbits that might be nice to know for beginners:

pink-sticky-stainsBeware, 3m pink stickies leave pink stains on most non-whiteboard surfaces. Walls, doors, tables, … Especially when wet / moist.

3m sticky notes are still the best ones, i.e. the stickiest ones that are least likely to fall off your board. AFAIR there are differences between the colors. The light yellow, archetypical notes are the stickiest.

We’ve tried out a lot of cheaper stickies and it just led to autumn being year round (= the “leaves” falling down a lot). Among the sticky note copycats I remember Tesa to be the best one.

The usual way to tear off a sticky (upwards) will make it stand off of the board at an angle. If you peel them off left to right, they’ll stay flat. Despite this knowledge I can’t rewire my muscles to tear off to the sides. My stickies always curl :/

Blue Edding boardmarker (most common brand in Germany) becomes non-dry-erasable after a few weeks. Really annoying! That’s why we’ve stopped using blue marker all together.

You can remove dried up writing on a whiteboard by retracing the lines with another whiteboard marker and then wiping. The solvents of the new line also solve the old writing. If you don’t want to whip out the whiteboard cleaner, that’s a working alternative.

Do you have any tidbits to share?