Help to make Retromat sustainable

Hi, my name is Corinna Baldauf. In 2012, I had a month of free time between quitting my old job and starting at a new company. During that time I created Retromat. Before Retromat, it took me at least an hour to plan a retrospective, looking through various blogs for inspiration. I was sure that there must be a faster way to find a wide variety of ideas. AFAIK there wasn’t one at the time, so I built it. Retromat launched with 16 activities.

Afterwards I spend large chunks of my free time adding activities to Retromat, blogging and creating 1-page summaries. For a while all was well and I was a happy creator.

2014 came along and 2 things happened: 

  • I became a mom. From then on, my free time belonged to my daughter. 
  • Retromat became popular. With it came “community work”. People suggesting activities, asking questions, sending photos etc.

Invisible work

As someone interested in Open Source, I eventually recognized that I had landed myself in the Catch-22 that successful OS projects suffer from: You have a successful project. Yay, that’s awesome! People are using your brainchild. But it means community work (bug reports, pull requests, questions, contributors that need onboarding – if you’re lucky). Community work is not why you started the project. It’s mostly invisible work and takes away time to improve the original project.

In my case, community work soon became 95% of what I did. After a job and family I just didn’t have much energy left. What little energy I had went into answering emails – and feeling guilty about the ones I hadn’t answered yet… It took me months to answer emails.

I might sound ungrateful. I’m not! It’s still remarkable to me that so many people use their time to translate Retromat into 6 languages, suggest activities and so on. Still, in 2015 I realized that the current situation was not sustainable. (And we’re big fans of a sustainable pace over here in the agile camp, aren’t we ;))

Goal: Work part-time

You probably know the phrase “Time is Money”. The opposite is also true: “Money is Time” as in, “money can buy you time”. Money that the projects earn is money I don’t have to earn in my day job. If I want to have time and energy for my original projects (i.e. new activities and features for Retromat, new summaries, new blog posts), I have to find some way for the projects to support themselves.

Retromat is the only project with an audience big enough that it might pay for itself. So I started looking into possibilities to “monetize” with the goal of me going part-time at my regular job. Below I’ve listed the things I’ve tried or consciously decided not to try.

tl;dr: In a cruel twist of fate every monetization attempt paid about for as much time as it took me to implement it. But not for more. If I had taken the “monetization time” to create new content I’d probably have been happier. Creating is what makes me happy. Selling… not so much. Well, no use crying over spilt milk. Maybe someone can learn from my fails. If you’re not interested in the details, scroll past the boxes.

How have I tried to monetize? Let me count the ways:

PRINT RETROMAT

Actually this one doesn’t really count: I’ve created the print edition before Retromat became popular. I wasn’t even sure I’d break even. I did. The Print Retromats are the only thing on this list that made serious money.
Upside: That pays for a nice holiday.
Downside: After a round of selling I really need that holiday! It’s largely manual labor. Each and every Print Retromat is hand-cut. 

But Corinna, can’t you produce them pre-cut? Yes, but that completely changes the game for me. Right now I fall under a very nice VAT tax exemption for small businesses. For pre-cut Print Retromats I need to order much larger numbers and pay VAT, making them more expensive. Also lots more bureaucracy for me. And the risk of not knowing how big the market actually is. Could I sell 5000 Print Retromats without being able to give huge discounts to bulk orders? It’s complicated.

DONATIONS

This one was the least effort to implement but also the lowest return. Donations were typically 5-10 dollars. A one-time-donation of 10 bucks every 2 weeks is not sustainable. Still, thank you donors! Especially to Steve who donated 50 bucks 🙂

To be fair, I never really pushed donations. AFAIR I’ve never even mentioned them on my newsletter. I was too ashamed. Donations feel like begging, not like being compensated for valuable work.

SPONSORING

Next I thought I’d go big: Instead of asking lots of people for donations I’d ask a few companies for bigger amounts. Companies usually have more money than individuals. And on Retromat the audience is a very desirable niche. I know how much it costs to find a new employee via a head hunter -> a sponsorship on Retromat to find a new Scrum Master is a great bargain.

Sponsoring would be close to viable if we had a sponsor every month. Alas, we’ve had 1 per year. At least they’re both cool, worthy organizations! Thank you Emendare & Teammood.

EBOOK

This one is still around and does earn money. Unfortunately, I started selling the eBook around the time I exposed the newsletter more and subscribers skyrocketed. In most months the eBook pays for the Mailchimp account. So no extra time to work on projects either…

That’s all the monetization efforts I’ve tried so far. For completeness sake I’ll also list the options I rejected:

Considered and rejected

ADS 

I don’t like ads. I use ad blockers. I’d prefer not to put them on one of my sites. And AFAIK the earning potential is very limited so not a big loss either.

PATREON

Lots of people suggested Patreon. I perceive Patreon as a platform for individuals to support content creators. In contrast, I view Retromat as something that companies should pay for, since we use Retromat for our work. 

Plus, Patreon is based on extra content for Patrons. I’m trying to carve out some time to create at all. When would I create that extra content?

A NATIVE APP

Lots of extra work and risk for very little expected pay-off: App prices are low and the potential audience is not big enough to off-set that. Plus, I don’t really know what an app could offer that the website couldn’t.

GOING FREELANCE

Many of the people who put out valuable content are freelance consultants. Sometimes I get the impression that this is the only viable way: Freelancers (in IT) usually get paid very good day rates. The difficult bit is getting hired. That’s why it makes perfect business / marketing sense to put content out there, have a newsletter, etc. 

For me, as a full-time employee, it would be the other way around. I would go freelance to subsidize the time to create content under the risky assumption that it would be relatively easy for me to get jobs. 

I’ve actually tried that route. I never advertised workshops or facilitation but when someone asked for one, I’d usually say yes. I like preparing for the engagement and the actual job. Judging from repeat bookings by customers, I’m good at it. But consulting is a very different lifestyle, including traveling, etc.

It doesn’t seem like a good trade-off to completely change my life just to make my side projects viable and “sensible marketing”. And most importantly I really, really like my job. It’s where most of my content ideas come from – grounded in long-term experience at the same (awesome!) place. This long-term perspective seems valuable to me. I like what I’m doing. I love my colleagues. I don’t want to stop working there. I’d just like to work fewer hours.

What now?

I always tried to monetize something “extra” although I think the most valuable thing Retromat has to offer is … Retromat itself! Think about it: What would you do without Retromat? How much time does it save you? How much better are your retros because you can find activities that fit to your team’s situation?

I’ve narrowly avoided burn-out earlier this year. Without my doctor I’d be burned-out right now. Something has to change. Either I stop having projects or I find a way for them to be sustainable, i.e. earn enough money. I’ll give it one last shot:

Does Retromat create enough value for you to support it on a regular basis? Take the poll:

If enough people pledge their support, I will implement payment and billing. There are lots of providers in the US, not so many in Germany. I’ll have to look around. The bill will look like a regular bill for a SaaS.

If it doesn’t work out, don’t worry, Retromat will stay free and online. My projects will freeze in the state they are right now. The amazing agile coach Timon Fiddike will continue to take care of the Retromat backend. Retromat translators can still work and we would add new translators, but that’s about it. Requests regarding new activities, photos, features, questions etc. get a polite “This project is not maintained anymore”-email. I just don’t have it in me anymore after a day’s work and family time with 2 children.

How can we help?

A number of people have offered their time to help. Thank you, I appreciate it! Unfortunately I can’t think of anything that I could easily hand over to someone else. And if I could, the handing over, keeping track of it, reminding people, … Managing other contributors is work too and not the fun kind. So right now it’s down to money. If that ever changes, I’ll publish it here.

Money will help me tackle my huge backlogs: At least 30 activities for Retromat; features  for Retromat (comments, anyone?); 50 ideas for Wall-Skills summaries; 40 topics for blog posts; 2 3 book outlines; projects like Lift-off-O-Mat, Planning-O-Mat; physical products like the Scrum Master Emergency Kit; …

My ideas are endless. Obviously I won’t be able to realize all of them. But looking at my track record, a lot of my ideas turn into realities given some time and space to breathe.

Thank you for reading and considering to support Retromat

How much money has been pledged?

Update: As of Wednesday 30th, 6pm CEST, 37 people have pledged 460 Euros per month. After VAT and income tax this would leave about 310 Euros.
(Other people have pledged 1-time-donations. Here, I’ll ignore those, since I can’t plan time-off with these.)

Our retrospectives are complain-fests :( – How to turn blame and whining into action

How’s this for a retrospective problem: “Our retrospectives are huge complain-fests. All the team ever does is blame others and whine, whine, whine. Honestly, I don’t know what to do…”

It’s common for newly agile teams judging from how often I have heard descriptions like “The team eternally blames external parties. They never come up with any action items.” Well, why would they when it’s all somebody else’s fault anyway…

Blaming others is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility and changing oneself. So how do you get a team out of this attitude? I describe several tactics in the ebook “Retromat – Run great agile retrospectives” and wanted to share them with you, too:

“What are you going to do about it?”

I start by stressing “you” a lot, as in “What are _you_ going to do about it?” Here are activities supporting this angle:

Solution focus

Surprisingly you can also try a very positive angle: Talking about what the team did well sometimes opens up a window to also talk about what didn’t work out, e.g. with Appreciative Inquiry.

In general, I’m a fan of the solution-focused approach, where you avoid analyzing the problem and look for things to try out instead. The following activities fit this approach:

Change perspective

A change of perspective can help the team to empathize with their scape goat and see things in a new light. It can also do wonders if the scape goat attends the retrospective and shares their view and reasoning.

Try:

If all else fails I try an intervention along the lines of “We can’t change other people. We can only change our own perspective and behavior.”

Have you ever tried one of these with a finger-pointing team? How did it turn out?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

Retromat is not meant for beginners

Apparently, there are newly-appointed facilitators out there who just use whatever random plan Retromat spits out. Oh, my God, no!

I never, ever meant for anyone to do this. The random plan is a starting point from which everyone should merrily click left and right to create a plan that fits their and their team’s needs.

That’s what I mean with the “tweak it” in “Planning your next retrospective? Get started with a random plan, tweak it, print it and share the URL”. It might have been too subtle. To me it’s obvious that random combinations will not work well together. It’s obvious to me, because I’ve facilitated retros before and I’m experienced. It’s not obvious for someone new to retros.

How could I not realize this for so long? I guess I only get emails from people for whom it works. I don’t hear from those that fail with a random plan or those that “have to pick up the pieces after an inexperienced colleague unleashed a random retro on a team” (actual quote!). I’m so sorry!

If you’re a beginner, try my best shot at an out-of-the-box, beginner-friendly retro plan. It’s practically guaranteed to be better than a random plan.

To reiterate: Retromat is a great source of inspiration for people who know what they’re doing. It’s not a good place to start for people who lack the experience to know whether activities will go together well. In theory Retromat offers millions of plans for retrospectives. In practice only a fraction of these combinations work well. A random plan is unlikely to work out!

When you plan a retrospective with Retromat you have to make sure that you know how the results of one activity will be used in the next activity. That’s what the arrows at the sides are for: To flip through the activities to find one that fits to the activities before and after it, as well as your team’s situation.

Retromat needs some experience. Please do not recommend it to beginners without a disclaimer! Recommend Agile Retrospectives instead and if it’s urgent, this plan. Thank you!

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

Retrospective fatigue? How to increase follow-through on action items

The retrospective is my personal favorite among the Scrum meetings. Why? Even if there were no other meeting, role, or artefact, retrospectives enable you to invent everything else you need to improve. In theory at least.

When I was just learning how to facilitate retrospectives, I was mainly concerned about the flow of the actual meetings. I needed to gain some routine before I had freed up enough brain cycles to realize that what happens after the retro is at least as important: The whole point is to inspect and adapt, i.e. to change something. If few of the retrospectives’ action items ever get implemented and bear fruit it’s frustrating. Ultimately it leads to retrospective fatigue where teams are unwilling to participate in the retro anymore, because “What’s the point anyway? Nothing ever changes!”

So, how can you increase follow-through and make sure that more action items are carried out? As always it depends on the situation. I’ll cover:

  • A – Team can’t agree on action items
  • B – No one feels responsible for action items
  • C – Action items are forgotten
  • D – Action items are too vague, i.e. not actionable
  • E – Team blames others instead of reflecting on own behaviors
  • F – Always the same topics and action items
  • G – No new action item because “we already have a rule for that”
  • H – We tried to change issue X – no luck yet
  • I – Too many action items
  • J – Um, we’ve got no idea if there’s follow-through

A – Team can’t agree on action items

If you don’t have a facilitator, get one or nurture one. If you do have a facilitator, the “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making” or a training about retrospectives (or moderation techniques) will be beneficial.

B – No one feels responsible for action items

Ass kick fairy

Each action item does have a name on it, doesn’t it? In the end of each retro check all action items and ask for each unassigned one who is going to take care of it. A single task such as “Write mail to admins about monitors” also needs a deadline. Recurring tasks such as “Pair program 2 hours per day” are assigned for the whole sprint (or indefinitely until the one resonsible transfers responsibility). The duty here is to remind everyone to comply. One of my fellow scrum masters lovingly dubbed this role “Arschtrittfee” = “ass kick fairy”.

If no one “adopts” a certain action item, throw it away. It’s obviously not important enough to the group and won’t get done anyway. Throwing it away makes the implicit decision explicit.

C – Action items are forgotten

Try-Keep-Board

A team might forget action items, even if there’s an ass kick fairy.  Countermeasures (simplest first):

  • Increase visibility 1 – Action items should – literally – be in everyone’s face: E.g. on the sprint board, the door, a Try-Keep-Board (see image), a rolling items list, …
  • Increase visibility 2 – Reminder stickies for each team member with their individual tasks, to stick to their monitor
  • Introduce a trigger
    • Create a calendar entry for “once per sprint”-meetings rightaway. It’s easier to cancel a meeting you don’t need than to remember and schedule a meeting during “business as usual”.
    • For continuous tasks such as “more pair programming” find a way to remind yourselves daily. E.g. make “check our action items” part of the daily standup.
    • Alternatively to setting a time trigger, you can define a triggering event such as “whenever we’ve got 3 bug tickets”.

In some cases, tasks are “forgotten” on purpose, because the responsible person is hesitant to do it. This is rampant with confrontational tasks such as “Talk to Team Brony about how their late code pushes harm our deployment and testing schedule”. Those are often conveniently forgotten. This might help:

  • Deadline – less room for “I’ll do it tomorrow”. Ideally create a calendar entry.
  • Can someone else take over or accompany?
  • Talk through the confrontation beforehand and how to handle crucial confrontations
  • Premium solution: Have a company-wide training in communication

D – Action items are too vague, i.e. not actionable

Example for a vague action item: “We won’t have failed stories next sprint”
Huh? Isn’t that always the plan? Or was it your plan to let a story fail last sprint?

What are the steps the team will take? Aim for a concrete change in behavior – including what will trigger the behavior. Ways to get there:

  • Rob asks “What could you do tomorrow in order to realize this?” Something like this is usually my first step.
  • Talk about SMART goals and explicitly check off the different letters for each action item.
  • 5 Hows (analogue to 5 Whys) an impromptu idea by Lydia. I love the idea but have yet to try it.
  • If it’s a big, important problem maybe a Micro Strategy can help.

Examples for concrete action items:

  • “We’ll learn about stories before pulling them – Recurring grooming meeting with PO on Wednesdays 9am”
  • “We’ll work at most on 2 stories simultaneously – We’ll ensure this during standup (TODO: add to standup-checklist)”

E – Team blames others instead of reflecting on own behaviors

Don’t get me wrong, I welcome teams who take initiave and confront others about problematic behavior. But talking about others is often less constructive and more a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility and changing oneself. So how do you get a team out of this attitude?

  • A PO and I once did something intervention-like, basically conveying the contents of this blog post and it worked.
  • I stress the “you” more in such teams: “What are you going to do about it?”

F – Always the same topics and action items

Hm. Is the retro always the same format? Well, that’s what Retromat is for.

G – No new action item because “we already have a rule for that”

Sometimes, teams deal with a problem early and then never again, although the problem persists. To their minds, they’ve addressed the issue. A sentence like the following rings alarm bells in my head: “We have a rule for that. If everyone just complies there’s no problem.”

Hate to break it to you: Obviously that first action item is not working. That’s precisely why we’re talking about the problem. Again. You need to try something different! Examine:

  • Is it easy to break the rule? Is there an incentive to do so? Make it easy to comply
  • Does the first approach really make sense? Do you need to try something completely different?
  • Maybe all that’s missing is a trigger? (See section C)

H – We tried to change issue X – no luck yet

Did you try it in several different ways or just the same way several times? If it’s the latter, try a different way (see previous point G). If it’s the former… There comes a time when you have to accept defeat.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Source

The “distinguishing”-part is very hard. How do you know you’ve tried everything? A way that’s often overlooked is whether you can gather data to convince someone. Data gathering is a great intermediate action item.

If you’ve tried several different ways and there’s group consensus that you can’t change that outside factor X, it’s better to accept defeat and explicitly bury the issue. If participants keep bringing it up, it just sucks everyone’s time and energy.

I – Too many action items

In my experience only about 60% of action items are acted on. This seems low and can lead to frustration. Also, the neglected action items are often the more important ones as they are usually harder to do.

A contributing factor to the low rate seems to be that “my” retros often end with many action items (3 – 8). In the future I’d like follow Steve Jobs’ example and put an upper limit on the number of action items to enforce focus:

[Steve] Jobs began taking his “top 100” people on a retreat each year. On the last day, he would stand in front of a whiteboard (he loved whiteboards, because they gave him complete control of a situation and they engendered focus) and ask, “What are the 10 things we should be doing next?” People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down—and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of 10. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.”

With the next team I’ll try culling all but 3 action items to increase follow-through on the important tasks. Or I’ll go the whole nine yards and follow Jeff Sutherland’s advice:

Identify the single most important impediment at the Sprint Retrospective and remove it before the end of the next sprint. To remove the top priority impediment, put it in the Sprint Backlog as a task with acceptance tests that will determine when it is Done. Then evaluate the state of the story in the Sprint Review like any other task.

J – Um, we’ve got no idea if there’s follow-through

Well, are you happy with your progress? Or is there a “waste of time”-feeling in the air?
If so, start writing down the action items and review them daily or in the next retrospective. A Try-Keep-Board (see image in section C) is a good place to start.

Phew, that was a long one! Thanks for sticking with it 🙂

There’s probably a number of problems still missing. What have you come across? And what did you try in response?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

“How can I excite others for retrospectives?” – Don’t be too elaborate

“I’d like to share the awesomeness of retrospectives. How can I excite others?”

On the surface, this question is similar to this one about motivation. But they are asked in very different moods. People who ask “How can I motivate people” are subdued. They’ve often run a couple of retros that somehow fell short of expectations.

People who ask “How can I excite others?” are bouncing on the balls of their feet, eyes sparkling. They haven’t run a retro yet, but they want to hold ALL the retros! They are so excited that they want to wow everyone with how awesome of a first retro they facilitate. They come to me looking for some ultra fancy activity from the Retromat treasure trove.

And I don’t deliver something fancy. Instead I’ve got a word of caution: If you want to convince people that retrospectives are a fabulous idea, then don’t make it too fancy. Don’t start with something that’s far removed from people’s normal interactions. It’s likely to confuse or make participants defiant. Depending on the team, appearing as too much of a tree hugger hurts your credibility. Let’s ease everyone into it.

In my experience a “normal”, well-facilitated retrospective already has a huge effect. You don’t need more than that to get started. If the participants get real benefits (shared understanding & improvements in their work flow), they usually want to do it again. Keep your enthusiasm and down the line you get to try funkier activities 😉

Btw, I totally get the desire to create something elaborate. When I introduce teams to retrospectives in my freelance work I always get the urge to pick special activities. I mean, they are paying me the big bucks. How can I possibly go there with a variation of my default retrospective? Well, because it’s the right thing to do: It’ll get them good discussions and actionable action items. It’s easy to understand what’s happening and what to do. It’s versatile and they can repeat something similar without me. And remember: These well-worn tried-and-true activities are new to them.

If that hasn’t convinced you, let me share some anecdotal evidence with you:
A friend of mine just started at a company where retrospectives have a bad rap. He’s a developer, but he pushed for a retrospective in his team and facilitated it himself. The team doesn’t have an agile coach and he was new so he didn’t have a huge stake in the content, yet. He’s a good facilitator but it’s not his main job. This was his first real retrospective ever.

He took my default retrospective and adapted it a bit. The feedback he got was along the lines of “The best retrospective I have ever seen in this company with a wide margin”. Really great for him, really terrible for the company. That’s why I think you don’t need anything fancy to start. Just the basics, well done.

Does that make sense? Have you ever introduced people to retros? How did it go?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

 

PPS: Have you heard of Wall-Skills.com? It’s main idea is to teach people basic concepts when they weren’t looking for something to learn, e.g. about retrospectives or the agile mindset.

Engage participants with Liberating Structures

Have you heard of Liberating Structures already? Because if you haven’t, that’s a treasure trove of facilitation structures all waiting for you to discover them. Yep, it’s time to get excited.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What problem are we trying to solve? Let’s hear it from the source:

“Conventional structures are either too inhibiting (presentations, status reports and managed discussions) or too loose and disorganized (open discussions and brainstorms) to creatively engage people in shaping their own future. […] Liberating Structures add 33 more options to the big five conventional approaches.”

And they all aim to involve as many participants as possible as active contributors, while still moving everything forward.

To give you an idea, I’ve picked 3 out of the 33 structures that are great for retrospectives:

1-2-4-All

Engage Everyone Simultaneously in Generating Questions, Ideas, and Suggestions

Pose a question, that people first ponder alone, then in pairs, then groups of 4. Debrief by asking “What is one idea that stood out in your conversation?” and let each group share.

The activity “Merge (#21)” has the same basis.

Troika Consulting

Get Practical and Imaginative Help from Colleagues Immediately

Invite participants to think for 1 minute of a challenge they’d like advice on. Form groups of 3, in which each person will have a turn as “the client”. The first client shares their question for 1-2 minutes. The other two ask clarifying questions for 1-2 minutes. The client turns around with their back towards the consultants. Together, the consultants generate ideas, suggestions and coaching advice for 4-5 minutes. Afterwards, the client turns around and shares what was most valuable about the experience for 1-2 minutes. Repeat the steps for the other two people in the troika.

This would be a great alternative to “Speed Dating (#26)” for bigger groups.

15% Solutions

This makes a great “Decide what to do” activity:

Where do you have discretion and freedom to act? What can you do without more resources or authority? What are your 15 percent?

First alone, each person generates their own list of 15% Solutions for 5 minutes. Then they form groups of 3-5 people and share their ideas – for 3 minutes per person, one person at a time.

Group members consult each other by asking clarifying questions and offering advice. – for 6 minutes per person, one person at a time.

Check out the source

These are just brief summaries. The website provides so much more information for each structure like detailed instructions, traps and variations – for the 3 structures I covered and the other 30 as well.

Btw, all this is based on the book “The Surprising Power af Liberating Structures” by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless.

Join a user group to practise

The structures are easy to learn and if you want to get “fluent” join one of the many, many user groups. There’s a list of LS user groups here.

Not sure, how up to date this list is, though. If it doesn’t list a user group in your area, google “liberating structures user group” + your city. On Twitter it seems that there’s a new local group every week 🙂

Come up with a good invitation

One more thing: Most Liberating Structures start with an invitation (a question or topic). Your results will vary depending on how good your invitation is. Christiaan Verwijs from The Liberators has some practical advice on coming up with a good invitation.

All in all, Liberating Structures are a wonderful addition to a facilitator’s toolbox. May you have fun – and productive interactions – with them!

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook


Thank you to our April 2019 sponsor Teammood.com. Teammood is valuable for Scrum Masters and team leads for continuous insight into their team’s well-being. It can improve retrospectives, build empathy and even reduce turnover.

(Sponsors help us maintain Retromat, they do not influence our content
choices.)

Can you adapt any activity for a remote retrospective?

Some people would like to have a filter for Retromat that shows only remote activities, i.e. activities that work with distributed teams when team members are not in the same room together.

Thinking about this request, I decided to internally flag activities as “remote-friendly” or “not remote-friendly” as a first step, just for myself. And then, kind of all the ones I looked at (about 10) I could easily turn into a remote activitiy – except for a few obvious exceptions. There are some activities in which “being together in a physical space” is their defining idea such as:

Take a walk
Constellation
Take a stand

The others were fair game. That was a while ago and back then I decided that if 97% of activities can be converted, a filter doesn’t make sense.

But, what if I was wrong? Let’s check this again: I’ll take the first randomly generated plan and turn its activities into remote activities. I opened Retromat the random plan was: https://retromat.org/en/?id=84-89-25-11-92

WARNING: Do not use these activities together. In fact, never just use a random plan. Go through it and switch out activities so that the plan as a whole makes sense. Think about how the output of one activity becomes the input for the next.

Okay, here we go:

Last Retro’s Actions Table (#84)

Create a table with 5 columns. The first column lists last retro’s action items. The other columns are headed ‘More of’, ‘Keep doing’, ‘Less of’ and ‘Stop doing’. Participants place 1 sticky note per row into the column that states how they want to proceed with that action. Afterwards facilitate a short discussion for each action, e.g. asking:

  • Why should we stop doing this?
  • Why is it worth to go further?
  • Are our expectations satisfied?
  • Why do opinions vary that much?

Okay, this one is easy: Create a Google Spreadsheet with the table. Ask the question on the (video) call.

NOTE: At my employer we use the Google Suite. Obviously you can use whatever your company is already using to collaborate remotely.

Retro Wedding (#89)
Collect examples for something old, new, borrowed and blue

Analogue to an anglo-american wedding custom ask the team to give examples for the following categories:

  • Something Old
    Positive feedback or constructive criticism on established practice
  • Something New
    Positive feedback or constructive criticism on experiments in progress
  • Something Borrowed
    Tool/idea from another team, the Web or yourself for a potential experiment
  • Something Blue
    Any blocker or source of sadness

One example per sticky note. There’s only one rule: If someone contributes to the ‘Something Blue’ column, s/he must also have a positive comment in at least 1 other column.

Everyone posts their stickies in the appropriate column on the board and describes it briefly.

Again, very easy: Spreadsheet. I’d still have the round of writing out stickies separately and only afterwards type it out again in the spreadsheet. This way everybody has time to think and does something more with their hands than typing.

I’d also add a photo for each category in the spreadsheet, to make it a little more visceral. Maybe play Mendelsohn’s wedding march, just to involve as many senses as I can.

Cause-Effect-Diagram (#25)

Write the problem you want to explore on a sticky note and put it in the middle of a whiteboard. Find out why that is a problem by repeatedly asking ‘So what?’. Find out the root causes by repeatedly asking ‘Why (does this happen)?’ Document your findings by writing more stickies and showing causal relations with arrows. Each sticky can have more than one reason and more than one consequence
Vicious circles are usually good starting points for actions. If you can break their bad influence, you can gain a lot.

Finally, a challenge. Hm, tricky. This one is definitely much easier with everyone in the same room. Can’t immediately think of a good collaborative software to do this. I’d probably pick a different activity.

On second glance, UML is similar. So is there a collaborative UML-tool? Yep.

Creately.com and Sketchboard.me both look promising. I’d ask 1 colleague to try those out with me and then pick the better one. And I’d have a fallback activity in case the tool turns out to have problems e.g. with too many users.

Circle of Questions (#11)

Everyone sits in a circle. Begin by stating that you’ll go round asking questions to find out what you want to do as a group. You start by asking your neighbor the first question, e.g. ‘What is the most important thing we should start in the next iteration?’ Your neighbor answers and asks her neighbor a related question. Stop when consensus emerges or the time is up. Go around at least once, so that everybody is heard!

This one might be confusing, because there’s no effortlessly obvious order like when sitting in a circle. I’d prepare a list of participants’ names to give the order and then be very curious if that is enough to keep the questions going.

Motivational Poster (#92)

Take each of your action items and create a funny poster for it (see the photos for examples).

Pick an image
Agree on a title
Write a self-mocking description

Print your master piece as big as possible (A4 at the very least) and display it prominently.

Well, there’s poster generators online. Are some people co-located? Let them work together. In the end everybody posts their poster in Slack or Hipchat or wherever.

Conclusion

This was actually more difficult than expected. The first two activities are super straightforward. The third one is convertable but I wouldn’t pick it for a remote retro. The last two are similar, possible but not obvious choices. Maybe instead of a “yes/no”-filter a “remote-friendly/remote-possible/remote-no” is more appropriate. Drop me a note if your company would like to sponsor that feature 🙂

Take it with a grain of salt: I’ve never facilitated a remote retro in my life. If I did I might find out that it’s not as straightforward as I lay it out above. But I’d feel confident enough to try.

My interviews about remote retros made it sound doable. What’s your experience with adapting activities for distributed retros?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

Remote 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: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

Remote 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!

Stay tuned for the next interview with Philipp!

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

La mejor retrospectiva para principiantes

[English version: The best retrospective for beginners]

Sos nuevo en la facilitación de retrospectivas? Entonces, probablemente estés preguntándote como iniciarte en el tema. Por si de algo les sirve, aquí tienen mi aporte: “Teniendo en cuenta que no sé nada de ustedes o de la situación del equipo, aquí va mi mejor intento de un plan de retrospectiva fácil y multipropósito”:

Positivo y Verdadero (#122 )

Por qué: Creá un ambiente positivo y dale a cada uno la oportunidad de hablar.

Cómo: Preguntale a tu compañero más próximo una pregunta formulada para obtener una respuesta positiva, verdadera y relacionada con su/s propias experiencias, por ejemplo:

  • Qué hiciste muy bien en la última iteración?
  • Qué te hace realmente feliz?
  • Que actitud amorosa tuviste o qué cosa amorosa hiciste por alguna persona en la última iteración?

Luego tu compañero le pregunta la misma pregunta a su compañero cercano ubicado del otro lado y así continúa la ronda hasta que todos hayan contestado y preguntado.

Esto les va a dar a todos un empuje y los llevará a mejores resultados.

Learning Matrix combinado con Lean Coffee

[Los nombres de los métodos se dejan en inglés porque si los buscan con la traducción no los van a encontrar. Mi mejor aproximación es. Learning matrix (matriz de aprendizaje) y Lean coffee (café de apoyo mutuo).]

Por qué: Learning Matrix es un gran método multipropósito que incluye la “valorización de los otros”. Lo utilizo para recolectar temas y luego uso el Lean Coffee para estructurar y dar el marco temporal a las conversaciones sobre estos temas. Confío mucho en Lean Coffee!

Cómo: Muestre un rotafolio con cuatro cuadrantes con las siguientes denominaciones: “: )”, “: (“,”Idea”, y “Valoración”. Repartí notas autoadhesivas (tipo post-it).

Dejá que los miembros escriban sus ideas en silencio utilizando las notas autoadhesivas y completando todos los cuadrantes – 1 pensamiento por nota autoadhesiva.

Invitá a todos a ubicar sus notas autoadhesivas en el rotafolio. La persona también comenta su tema en 1 o 2 oraciones. Juntá las notas autoadhesivas que sean aproximadamente del mismo tema.

Repartí 5 círculos para que la gente vote los temas más importantes, es decir, los que les gustaría tratar. Pueden distribuir los círculos como prefieran, por ejemplo, los pueden poner todos en un solo tema o utilizar los cinco para que abarquen el espectro de posibilidades.

Ordená las notas autoadhesivas conforme a los votos.

Comentá cuánto tiempo se dedicará a esta fase y luego explicá las reglas: Vamos a empezar por el tema de mayor interés. Vamos a poner un cronómetro por un lapso de 10 minutos. Cuando suene el cronómetro todos mueven sus pulgares arriba o abajo. Si la mayoría de los pulgares está para arriba se le otorga al tema otros 5 minutos. Si la mayoría de los pulgares están para abajo se comienza el siguiente tema por un lapso de 10 minutos de reloj.
Pará cuando haya concluido el tiempo.

Se trabajó bien, Hacerlo distinto

Por qué: Mantené un registro de los temas de acciones sugeridas.

Cómo: En preparación para la retrospectiva titulá dos rotafolios con “Se trabajó bien” y “Hacerlo diferente la próxima” respectivamente. Escribí sugerencias de acciones que las personas mencionen durante el Lean Coffee. Aclará que por ahora son sólo sugerencias. El equipo las va a votar más adelante.

Cuando se acabe el tiempo del Lean Coffee, preguntá si hay más sugerencias de acciones. Si las hay, dejá que las escriban en silencio unos minutos – 1 idea por nota autoadhesiva. Hacé que cada uno lea sus notas y que las ubique en la categoría apropiada. Liderá un pequeño intercambio sobre el 20% de las ideas más beneficiosas. Voten sobre los temas de acciones que serán probadas distribuyendo círculos o Xs con un marcador, por ejemplo 3 círculos por cada persona para distribuir. Las 2 o 3 más votadas son tus temas de acciones.

AHA

Por qué: Demostrar la utilidad de las retrospectivas preguntado sobre lo que aprendieron.

Cómo: Tirá una pelota (ejemplo koosh ball o pelota suave) pasando por el equipo para que descubran experiencias de aprendizaje. Enunciá una pregunta al principio para que la gente la conteste cuando reciba la pelota, como por ejemplo: “Una cosa que aprendí en la última iteración”

Dependiendo de la pregunta, podrían salir a la luz cuestiones que están inquietando/preocupando a las personas. Si suena una alarma, ahondá en el tema.

Se necesita al menos una hora para la retrospectiva.

Si sos nuevo en la facilitación en general, no sólo para retros, fíjate este 1-pager on “Ways to Vote”.

Seguramente este plan resultará en una agradable y efectiva retrospectiva para vos y tu equipo.

[Traducido por Alejandra Lorenzo]