Facilitating a Fully Remote Retro

2020-02-24

A couple weeks ago I facilitated a remote retro. Since this was my first fully remote retro, there were many learning opportunities. To clarify, by fully-remote, I mean that, none of the attendees were in the same room, nor even at the same site. The retro was for a volunteer initiative at Improving. As a result most of the attendees were spread to various parts of Houston. Despite the distance, the whole group enjoyed the chance to discuss,. Moreover, they decided the format was successful enough to repeat.

Being remote presented some fun challenges to work past. For example, ever tried to do a retro via conference call? I've never had good luck when a single attendee was on the line against a group of other people. Wanting to avoid this kind of problem, I hosted the meeting using Microsoft Teams. Past experience showed its video conference capabilities to be better than Slack. Additionally, video would offer some more Human feel, if we wanted. Additionally I imposed one rule on the group during the conference. Mute yourself unless you are the current speaker. This had two beneficial effects. It cut down on cross-talk. And it eliminated background noise interference. As a result, each speaker could be clearly heard, which expedited the meeting.

To coordinate our efforts, I remained un-muted the whole time. I would call on each speaker in turn to move the conversation. Now to be truthful, my gang didn't completely follow the rule, and I'm glad they didn't. Several times someone would chime in with an idea after the speaker had finished. These contributions always added to the conversation, generating good follow up discussion. Most of these ideas actually got captured as action items that I mentioned last week. That said, flexible rules seem to win the day in remote retros.

Before the meeting, I took extra actions to prepare the various participants. I shared the planned topics and questions we would be discussing. Not only does this follow sound meeting protocol, it actually enabled the speakers to enjoy the muting rule. Everyone already knew what they might talk about. And they could adapt their comments based on the conversation as it developed. I followed the set pattern for the questions. So the speakers were always prepared to answer when their turn came. What I did not do, however, was follow the same pattern of speakers in each topic. I called on a different order of speakers each time. This helped keep people engaged. By changing the order, I allowed different speakers to expand on existing ideas between each topic.

The other advance action I took was to enlist the help of a scribe. I knew that I wouldn't be able to capture all the information and coordinate the meeting at the same time. I could capture some, but I needed help. So I arranged for one of the participants to help me capture actions and thoughts. He chimed in several times during the meeting to ensure we caught something our participants had suggested. This helped convey the intent of the meeting: Let us change and improve together! I can think of no better way to say, 'we care what you have to say' than to ensure their input is captured in a meeting like this. Hats of to our faithful scribe!

In the end, the planning made this retro a success. Aided by clear communication, we were able to execute almost exactly to plan. The participants came prepared. I tested and vetted the systems before use. We were on task, and focused the entire time. Because the group knew why. and knew the expectations, they were able to execute. Because they executed, our remote retro was a success. Hopefully some of these considerations prove useful for your own future remote retrospectives!