Three Ideas to Create Safety in Remote Retrospectives

A Scrum Master asked, “How can I engage my team during a remote retrospective? People tell me things they think we could change. Then, we get into the retro and I know people are looking at their phones, not engaged. Got ideas?”

I do.

These ideas refer to safety. That's because teams need safety for engagement.

Here are my three ideas:

  • Create the conditions for success: equipment.
  • Request engagement with expectations and the agenda.
  • Model the behavior you want to see.

I'll start with the conditions for success.

Create Conditions for Success: Equipment

Ask everyone to use a separate headset with a directional microphone.

I still see team members who use their computer's built-in microphone and speakers. Or, they use in-ear speakers, but they still use the computer's microphone.

Some of those built-in mics have horrible acoustics. The speaker has to yell into the mic, and the speaker still sounds as if she's 50 miles away, not next to her computer. No one can hear the speaker's intention. The consequence: insufficient real and natural communication.

Managers: buy everyone a headset with a microphone. For about $50/person, you can buy a reasonable headset with a mic. That mic will have a sufficient dynamic range. It's also a lot more comfortable than screaming into a computer.

Even better, a headset with a mic means everyone has privacy for their conversations. People have the safety to hear and speak.

Once everyone has a mic, now you can create expectations.

Request Engagement with Expectations and Agenda

When I facilitate retros or any other meeting where we need to discuss what challenges us, I set expectations in advance. Here's a list:

  1. I say, “I'm going to use my video. I would like you to use your video, too.” I often speak with and email/message each person privately to say this.
  2. Start the meeting early and tell people you will. “I'm going to start the meeting 10 minutes early. Hop on early if you want to tell us what you're drinking, or any other interesting fact about you.” Make sure you do start the meeting 10 minutes early.
  3. If people haven't seen each other in a while, ask them to introduce themselves. And, if they have family members (people or pets) in the frame, ask the people to introduce the team to the family. One guy introduced his piano and treated the team to an impromptu jazz solo. We were all very impressed and told him so. That performance set the stage quite nicely.
  4. Ask for a check-in: “What one word describes your state right now?” Ask every single person to say their state. (Make sure everyone knows you will request this.) This one small act gets everyone's voice in the room.

Explain you will request each of these things in advance. Not just the hour before, but at least a day in advance.

Then, I recommend Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great as a way to frame the retrospective agenda.

Keep the entire retrospective to 60 minutes or less so you don't tire everyone out. You might need to gather data in advance, asynchronously.

Choose one thing as an experiment for the next week or two. That's it. Not more. People have the safety to experiment with a small thing.

Model the Behavior You Want to See

Your team might have many reasons for not reflected in a while. Right now, I'm seeing a lot of pressure from management, and a lack of safety inside the team.

Those two states can create feelings where people don't feel safe to say, “I don't know,” or, “I need help,” or “we need to experiment.”

Now is exactly the right time to experiment. Yes, it's one more upheaval in our lives and work. However, we can't discover our normal unless we experiment.

I've seen many managers worry about change. In What’s Your Organization’s Tolerance for Experiments? I suggested people might be on a continuum with respect to change.

If you can model asking for help and feedback (yes, asking for, not offering), you can increase the team's psychological safety.

If you don't feel safe asking for help or feedback, solve those problems first. You are unlikely to have a great retrospective without safety.

Safety: the Common Theme

You probably noticed there's a common theme in this post. People need safety. They need to know their conversations are private to and with the team.

The more you can help the team realize you want to support them—not necessarily lead them, and definitely not control them—the safer they will feel. You don't have to like my suggestions for engagement. Consider what fits for you and your team.

And, the more you model the behaviors you want to see, especially for asking for help and asking for feedback, the safer the team will feel.

Engagement arises from safety. Support the team so they can create safety and you'll get engagement.

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