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) appear.in 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 appear.in 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!

118 activities in Retromat

Loads of great new activities in Retromat! Check them out:

100 Activities in Retromat!

Rejoice with me for Retromat now features 100 activities!

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 9.33.04 PM

It’s come a long way since its humble launch with 16 activities 3 years ago (May 2012). It started with activities from Diana Larsen and Esther Derby‘s “Agile Retrospectives” and in an attempt to come full circle activity #100 is by Diana Larsen again.

Huge thanks to everybody who made that happen: People who thought of activities, suggested them, translated, sent photos, supported the print version, spread the word, … All you of you: Thank you!

SMARTe Ziele auf deutsch

Hm, wie würdet ihr die SMARTen Ziele übersetzen? Für den deutschen Retromaten (um den sich ansonsten Patrick Zeisig hochverdient gemacht hat) habe ich es gerade folgendermaßen eingedeutscht:

  • specific = spezifisch
  • measurable = messbar
  • attainable = ausführbar
  • relevant = relevant
  • timely = mit Termin

3 davon sind ja sehr naheliegend. Auch “ausführbar” finde ich nah dran. Einzig “timely” finde ich kniffelig. “terminiert” und “Termin gebunden” fand ich beides weniger gut als “mit Termin” aber so ganz trifft es “timely” im Sinne von “zeitnah” nicht. Was meint ihr?

Retr-O-Mat Print Edition – Prototypes

Do you like product development documentations such as “Made by Hand“? I love them! I love to see how something takes form.

That’s why I’d like to share with you how the Retr-O-Mat Print Edition came into being:


First things first: I needed to settle on a format that allowed for viewing 5 different “slots” at the same time and for easy switching between activities. I thought of printing the activities on business cards and putting them in a box with 5 compartments. Given that I had no idea how many units I could sell the upfront costs of 50 different kinds of business cards + custom boxes were too high.

Then I thought of these children’s books with flaps which let you combine heads, bodies and legs into fantastic animals. Naturally it would have to be a longish format with a stable back because it would have to be stable even with most of its pages cut into flaps. I could not find a suitable brochure printer but I did find a – pause for effect – table calendar:

table-calendarThe back of each and every Print Retr-O-Mat out there consists of two paperboards glued together and the overlapping bit cut off.

[Fun(?) fact: The final print job was delayed because there IS the option to print this format as a brochure after all – not that you can find on the printer’s website, mind you. The printer was wondering if I mis-ordered and paused my order. It would have saved a lot of work, but I did not want to order 220 copies with a back I’d never seen before. So I went with the option I had prototyped. But I’ll check out a prototype with the brochure back before ordering the potential 2nd round.]

Color Scheme

I wanted the print version to reflect the digital one, so I spend a lot of time on getting the colors right:

  • It shouldn’t be too many different colors
  • Neighboring flaps must have visibly different colors – not only on screen, but printed
  • One page = one plan = one base color, so that you have some notion of which activities work well together IMO

color-schemeOver the course of 4 weeks and several prototypes I went through at least 5 different color combinations, until I was happy with one.

Elastic Cord

cordTo be usable, there needed to be some way to fix the flaps in place. As there are not that many different cords and colors to pick from, it was easy to choose. Only the light blue cord looked nice with the other colors.

Proof of Concept

pre-alphaThis is an early proof of concept to see how it would feel to flip through the phases. It already contains activities to get a feeling for length. At this point I had already shortened the activities to fit on the flaps. Continue reading

Retr-O-Mat Print Edition – Stats

Now that the Retr-O-Mat Print Edition has sold out, I’ve had time to crunch some numbers. For all the people out there who like charts and data porn (or plan a similar project), here’s a breakdown of Print Retr-O-Mat’s numbers:

  • Copies ordered from printer: 220
  • Copies meeting my quality standards: ~160
  • Sold: 145
  • Send out as “Thank you” copies: 15
  • Donated: 10 (these had minor flaws)

Countries shipped to

My first sale ever shipped to the USA. I shipped to 16 countries in total \o/

The Top 4:


Other = Canada, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Chile, China, France, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal



Lost packages

3 packages didn’t reach their recipient the first time, so I had to resend them: Continue reading

Don’t bundle tasks – A tale of two stickers

Back in While we’re at it…, I recommended not to bundle tasks, however tempting it might be. In the meantime I gave into temptation and promptly got a cautionary tale about bundling tasks of very different priorities:

I was working on the Retr-O-Mat Print Edition and decided to throw in some stickers (bottom sticker in photo below). While I was at it I decided I might as well create some stickers for my new project Wall-Skills.com as well. (That was not yet the mistake.)


My critical error was to bundle up both stickers in one order, although the Retr-O-Mat sticker was really important to me and the Wall-Skills sticker was a nice-to-have. What can I say, there was plenty of time and wanted to save shipping cost. It seemed like a good idea at the time…
I ordered the stickers and went on vacation.

Upon my return, the finished stickers had not yet arrived. Neither had the finished Retr-O-Mat copies. Both was unexpected and unwelcome, since I had pre-orders and rush pre-orders 🙁
I didn’t want to let anyone down.

Out of the two missing shipments, the actual Retr-O-Mat copies were more important so I followed up on them first. When they finally arrived, my head was free to phone up the sticker company. Apparently they had printed both kinds of stickers, but then misplaced the Wall-Skills.com ones. So the Retr-O-Mat ones I really cared about, had been sitting around for weeks. No value without delivery to the customer… In the end they shipped the Retr-O-Mat stickers first and reprinted the others.

But the first batch of copies went out without the nice stickers 🙁
This is the much more attractive second batch:


So this was an instance in which I really wished I had taken my own advice…
In my experience this is how it happens in software, too. Bundling makes sense, it saves on $foobar and you’ve got time to spare. Until you haven’t.

PS: Another lesson is not to order print jobs right before Christmas. But I just couldn’t curb my enthusiam.