Archive for the ‘facilitation’ Category

Is that even the right question?

Sprint Reviews: my experience is that they can swing from compulsory to optional and very often fall short of their true potential. Some teams see them as “demos” – a place to “show off” and prove that we did some work. Others see them as a place to give Stakeholders the reassurance that we are delivering against our plan and are on track. Sometimes, they can be a place for feedback: usually when our customer is external and it’s the only chance we get to show them something while it’s still in progress. I’ve seen organisations make them compulsory – but then only invite the team, and I’ve seen other organisations choose to do them quarterly, usually after a major feature has gone live, and then the team spends hours preparing for them. Usually, it’s a presentation. Rarely is it interactive or collaborative.

I was working on a team that frequently cancelled their sprint review. Arguments ranged from:

  • We’ve already shown the stories to the key subject matter experts (SMEs): they have given their feedback
  • It takes too long to prepare for it: we’ll show everything once we have the end-to-end journey completed (and often, released)
  • There was an Exco meeting already this sprint: we covered everything then. No need to repeat. Let’s just have a team review. (Side comment – if your Scrum team needs a meeting every sprint to show each other what happened in the sprint, then that’s a signal there are other problems to solve.)

Cancelling a sprint review made my Scrum Master heart very heavy. The Scrum Guide describes the Sprint Review as follows:

The purpose of the Sprint Review is to inspect the outcome of the Sprint and determine future adaptations. The Scrum Team presents the results of their work to key stakeholders and progress toward the Product Goal is discussed.

During the event, the Scrum Team and stakeholders review what was accomplished in the Sprint and what has changed in their environment. Based on this information, attendees collaborate on what to do next. The Product Backlog may also be adjusted to meet new opportunities. The Sprint Review is a working session and the Scrum Team should avoid limiting it to a presentation.

Some of these conversations WERE happening. But they weren’t happening in our Sprint Reviews nor were they happening with the whole team. These conversations also often focused on the roadmap from a feature-list perspective rather than how our product was evolving. Our sprint review had turned into a presentation – and one that required a lot of preparation – so it was no surprise that the team wasn’t seeing the value. We tried some experiments to get more interaction out of our attendees (often about 50 when everything shifted to virtual), without much success. Mostly they seemed to be there to get updates on how things might be progressing rather than out of interest in how our Product was developing.

So I took a step back. And decided to approach the problem with my facilitator hat on:

  • Who were our stakeholders? Why were they there?
  • What was the desired outcome of the Sprint Review – and were we inviting the right people?
  • What did the people we were inviting want out of our review?
  • Why did we seem to have multiple versions of the same meeting?

One clue to this problem was that my Product Owner and other key people in the management space often referred to the Sprint Review as a Business Review. Long story short, my first a-ha moment was this:

What was happening in our space was that the stakeholders for both meetings were pretty much the same people. And those people were not comfortable having project type debates in front of the team. And although they were interested in the thing we were building, it was at a high level and more in terms of progress rather than a desire to build the best thing for our users.

If you take these two types of interests, and then consider the following stakeholder analysis for the two “meetings”, you would get two different groups of people (with some overlap):

Another thing I noticed was that whereas the group of stakeholders for the project would remain fairly consistent; the group for the Product could shift sprint-to-sprint depending on what the sprint goal had been. Based on this observation, if your meeting invitees for your sprint reviews never change, then that might be another signal that your Sprint Review is not actually a Sprint Review.

I believe that in a true Product focused environment where decision making sits mostly in the team, the Sprint Review could and should satisfy both interests. However, while most organisations are still transforming and things like budgets, team composition, and ROI still sit with managers, it may be wise to use this perspective and ensure you’re having the right meetings, with the right people, on the right cadence for both needs to be satisfied.

What has your experience been with Sprint Reviews?

What a-ha moments have you had?

I did this retrospective with one of my teams recently, and seeing as the feedback afterwards was really positive, I thought I would share. First off, kudos to The Virtual Agile Coach for creating this retrospective in the first place. I don’t have a paid Miro account so had to recreate the experience in Powerpoint (file attached), but he had done the heavy lifting and Miro templates are available on his amazing site for those with the power to import.

Some context to add is that I have had some push-back from the team in the past when it came to activities in meetings that they did not regard as “work”. For example, some people don’t like random check-ins while others complain when we have to interact with a visual aid (“can’t we just talk?”). As an experiment, for this retrospective, I explained the “why” behind each of the facilitation activities I was using. And I believe it helped 🙂

Another note is that although I have indicated the timeboxes I used, it’s worth mentioning that this was a fairly large group (14 people) which brings its own challenges. For example, if you have a smaller team, then potentially break-out rooms would not be necessary.

1) Setting the Scene [10 minutes]

First I shared the Miro board link in the chat (I had already shared it before the session, but wanted to make sure everyone could get there) while we were waiting for people to join.

Then we started with an activity. I pasted the following instruction in the chat:

Take turns to answer this
==========================
What FRUIT are you today? (and, if you want to share, why?)

We used https://wheeldecide.com/ (which I had set up with the team names and to remove an entry after each spin) to decide the order for people to share in.

I also gave the instructions verbally.

Before we started, I explained why we were doing the activity:
“When a person doesn’t speak at the beginning of a meeting, that person has tacit permission to remain silent for the rest of the session (and often will). We want to ensure that no one has a subconscious barrier to speaking up in our retrospective because it is important that everyone feels able to contribute equally.”

Remember to pause before you spin the wheel for the first time so people have a chance to think about what they will answer.

After the “fruit” check-in, we went to the Miro board and I reminded everyone why we did retrospectives (The Agile Principle) and the mindset we were meant to have during the discussion (The Prime Directive). I also ran through the agenda.

2) Gather Data (1): Silent Writing [4 minutes]

Gather Data

I pasted the next instruction into the chat before I started speaking (it included a link to the correct Miro frame):

Silent writing for 4 minutes. Add stickies to the sections on the Miro board.

I explained why we were doing silent writing:
“Some people need time to stop and think or are not able to think while other people are talking. We’d like to give those people a chance to gather their thoughts before we move into a stage where we want them to listen to the “speak to think” people in the room. Another reason we’re doing silent writing is it is easier for the human brain to stay engaged and focused when we engage at least two of our senses. So in this instance people are seeing and typing (movement). And having a whiteboard in general means you can capture notes (movement) and listen at the same time. Another reason it’s good to capture notes is sometimes people might have to step away, or will be briefly distracted, and then there is a visual representation of what they might have missed and they can catch up with the rest of the group. We also have some team members who cannot be here today, and this creates something they can refer to when they are back at work. Lastly, our brains can only hold 5-8 items at any one time, so by writing down our thoughts before we move into conversation, it means we can focus on listening rather than trying to remember what we want to say.”

I then reiterated the instruction and played the song “Another One Bites the Dust” while they performed the activity (because the length of the song is almost 4 minutes).

3) Gather Data (2): Conversation [6 minutes]

Once again, I started with pasting the instructions (the same link as for silent writing) into the chat:

--- Breakout Rooms: Discuss Queen ----
Discuss what's been written. Add any new thoughts.

I explained that we would be going into break-out rooms of 3-4 people randomly assigned by Zoom and that each group would have about five minutes to discuss what they could see on the board plus add any new thoughts out of the discussion.

I explained why we were using breakout rooms:
“We want everyone to have a chance to speak, and because we are so many people, to do so in one group would take a long time. Breaking up into smaller groups means we can have some of those conversations in parallel. It’s also easier for people to connect online when they are in a smaller group and our brains find smaller groups less tiring, particularly when using a tool like Zoom.”

I then repeated the instructions and sent everyone into break-out rooms.

4) Generate Insights [15 – 17 minutes]

Generate Insights

Once everyone was back, I added the next instruction to the chat (with a new link to the relevant frame on Miro):

----- Breakout Rooms: Generate Insights ---
Talk about what stands out? What surprised you? What patterns do you see? What is missing?
(You can add notes -> miro_link )

I then told the group we would be going into break-out rooms again (this time with new people) and this time the idea was to step back and look for patterns or trends. To try see things from a new/different perspective. I mentioned that the instructions were in the chat and that there was a space on the Miro board to add notes (if they wanted to). I also said that we would be having a debrief of what was discussed as a single group when everyone came back from the break-out rooms.

Before I opened the new rooms, I checked in as to whether the first break-out slot had been long enough. One group mentioned that they hadn’t really managed to get to everything so, as we were running ahead of schedule, I added an extra two minutes to the five-minute break-out room timebox.

While people were in the break-out rooms, I added a funny hat to my Zoom attire.

When everyone had returned from the break-out rooms, we made time for discussions. This is where, as a facilitator, you need to be prepared for awkward silences! Once the first group had had their turn, things flowed again. I was ready to add any additional comments/notes that came out of the debrief however, in this instance, there were none.

5) What could we do? [5 minutes]

The chat instruction:

Please add ideas for what we can try next sprint to the "Ideas" section -> miro_link
We will then have a 10 minute break until xx:xx

I explained that we had gathered data and highlighted any trends or observations, and now we had to decide what we wanted to try in our next sprint. The first part of that process was to capture and share our ideas. We would do this by having five minutes of silent writing, followed by a 10 minute break, and when we returned after our break we would discuss the ideas on the board. I told the team that I would be playing music for the silent-writing part, however people could use the time as they chose, as long as they had captured their ideas by the time we returned from our break. After checking for any questions, I started playing the song: “I want it all“.

While the song was playing, I kept my camera on as a visible indication that the break hadn’t officially started. When the song finished playing, I turned my camera and microphone off (we generally stay in the Zoom room for breaks) and re-iterated in the chat window what time everyone was expected to be back.

6) What will we do? [Remainder of the timebox – approx 30 min]

I changed my Zoom hat again for the final part of the session, and reminded the team that we were aiming to shape our ideas into at least one action or first step that we wanted to try in our next sprint. We started with a debrief of the ideas that had been added to the board, particularly the ones that were not so specific and more like thinking items (so that we could generate some specific ideas for what we could try).

Once we were done discussing, we used Menti to rank vote the actions we’d come up with. One could also use something like dot voting. I used Menti because my team are familiar with Menti and I find it’s quicker to update ‘just in time’. As an aside, before we rank vote, we also usually get the team’s input as to the impact/effort for each of the proposed actions. For this session, it actually led to further discussion, because one team member realised that they didn’t know enough about the action to be able to rate the effort to do it.

Effort vs Impact of Actions

Once ranked, we took the top ranked action and ensured that it was SMART. At that point we were out of time, so I asked the team if we were OK to end the session. Sometimes in the past we have decided to take more than one action into our sprint (but we try limit it to no more than three).

We also always do a fist-to-five to ensure everyone can live with the SMART action(s) as described. I like to use a Zoom poll for this.

7) Close

To close the session, I re-capped what we had done during the session (starting with the check-in activity) and that we had agreed to one action for the next sprint. I reminded people who had specific actions from our discussions about their tasks. Finally, I asked the team if they would give me feedback on Miro by

  1. Dragging a dot to rate the retrospective out of five
  2. Where they had comments (things to keep doing, things to stop doing), adding those thoughts to a sticky

And, with that, we thanked each other and ended our sprint retrospective.


If you give a similar retrospective a try, let me know how it goes. I would be interested what did and did not work for you and your team.

 

My team had been working together for three sprints. During this time we’d been grooming and delivering stories (into Prod) but we had not done any sizing. Our Product Owner and business stakeholders were getting twitchy (“how long will we take?” – see How big is it?) and it was time to use our data to create some baselines for us to use going forward (and, as a side benefit, to find out what our velocity was).

Besides the fact that it was a new team, this team was also very large (15 people), some of them had never done an Affinity Sizing type exercise before, and we were 100% distributed (thanks to COVID19). Quite the facilitation challenge compared to the usual exercise requiring nothing more than a couple of index cards, masking tape and some planning poker cards. This is what I did and how it worked out.

1. Preparation

First, I needed something I could use to mimic the laying out of cards in a single view. As we’d already done three sprints of stories, there were a number of cards to distribute and I didn’t want to be limited to an A4 Word document page or Powerpoint slide. This meant a whiteboard (unlimited space) was required and we eventually ended up using a free version of  Miro.

Second, with my tool selected, I needed to make sure everyone in the team could actually access/use the tool. Unfortunately, Miro does require one to create an account, so prior to the workshop I sent a request to everyone on the team to try and access an “icebreaker” board.

Third, I needed to prepare my two boards:

  • The Icebreaker board which was to serve three purposes:
    1. Give people something to play around with so they could practise dragging and interacting with Miro
    2. Set the scene in terms of how sizing is different to estimating. Hopefully as a reminder to those who already knew, or as an eye-opener to those who might not.
    3. Use a similar format/process to the board I would be using for the Affinity Estimation exercise so that the team could get used to the process in a “safe” context before doing the “real thing”.
  • The Affinity Estimation board and related facilitation resources.

The Icebreaker Board

Ball game start

This layout matched the starting point of the Affinity Estimation exercise.

There was a reminder of what “size” was for the purposes of the exercise in red (1) and instructions for how to add the items to the scale (2). The block on the left was for the “stories” (balls) that needed to be arranged on the scale.

The Affinity Sizing Board

(I forgot to take a screenshot of the blank version, so this is a “simulation” of what it looked like.)

same blank stories

“Simulation”

For the Affinity Sizing, besides the board, I also prepared a few more things:

  1. A list of the stories (from JIRA) including their JIRA number and story title in a format that would be easy to copy and paste.
  2. The description of each story (from JIRA) prefixed with the JIRA number in a format that was easy to copy and paste
  3. I asked one of the team members if they would be prepared to track the exercise and ensure we didn’t accidentally skip a story.

A reminder that at the point when we did this exercise, we were about to end our third sprint, so we used all the stories from our first three sprints for the workshop (even the ones still in progress).

2. The session

The session was done in Zoom and started with the usual introduction: what was the purpose and desired outcomes.

From there, I asked the team members to access the “icebreaker board”. In the end, I had to leave the team to figure out how to use this board for themselves while I dealt with some technical issues certain team members were experiencing, so couldn’t observe what happened. However, when I was able to get back to them, I was happy enough with the final outcome to move on.

balls 2

Round 1: Small to Large

To kick things off, I copied and pasted the first story from my prepared list (random order) into a sticky and the story description (in case people needed more detail) into a separate “reference” block on the edge of the whiteboard. The first person to go then had to drag the story to where they thought it best fit on the scale.

From the second person onwards, we went down the list and asked each person whether they:

  1. Wanted to move any of the story-stickies that had already been placed or,
  2. Wanted a new story to add to the scale

A note here – it might be tempting to have some team members observe rather than participate (e.g. your designer or a brand new team member); however, I find that because mistakes will self-correct, there is more benefit in including everyone in the process.

We repeated the process until all the stories had been placed on the scale. At this point, it looked something like this (again, a “simulation”):

round 1 Round 2: Buckets

At this point I used two data points to make an educated “guess” to create a reference point.

  1. I knew that our biggest story to date was of a size that we could probably fit 2-3 of them in a sprint
  2. I could see where the stories had “bunched” on the scale.

So I picked the first biggest bunch and created a bucket for them which I numbered “5”. Then I drew buckets to the left (1,2,3) and to the right (8,13,20) and moved everything that wasn’t in the “5” bucket down to below the updated scale/grid (but still in the same order left-to-right).

buckets

Before we continued, I checked with the team whether the felt all the stories in the 5-bucket were actually about the same size. They did (but if there had been one that they felt might not be, it would have been moved out to join the others below the buckets). After this point, the stickies that had been placed in bucket five at the start of the process were fixed/locked i.e. they could not move.

Then we repeated the process again where each person was asked whether they

  1. Wanted to move a story-sticky that had already been placed into a bucket, or
  2. Move one of the unplaced story-stickies into a bucket

Initially, some people moved a couple of stories on their turn into buckets, which I didn’t object to as long as they were moving them all into the same bucket. Again, I was confident that the team would self-correct any really off assumptions.

We had one story that moved back-and-forth between bucket 1 and 2 a few times, and eventually, the team had a more detailed discussion and made a call and that story wasn’t allowed to move again (I also flagged it as a bad baseline and didn’t include it in future sizing conversations).

Once all the story-stickies had been placed in a bucket, everyone had one last turn to either approve the board or move something. When we got through a round of everyone with no moves, the exercise was done:

stories

The actual outcome of the workshop

Even with technical difficulties and approximately 15 people in the room, we got all of this done in 90 minutes. This is still longer than it would usually take face-to-face (I’d have expected to have needed half the time for a collocated session), but I thought it was pretty good going. And the feedback from the participants was also generally positive 🙂

These stories (except for the one I mentioned) then became baseline stories for comparing to when we did future backlog refinement. Also, because I now knew the total number of points the team had completed in the three sprints (sum of all the stories), we also now knew what our initial velocity was.

Have you ever tried to use Affinity Estimation to determine baselines? Have you tried to do so with a distributed team? What tools did you use? How did it go?

 

Scrum Ceremony Puzzle

Posted: November 19, 2018 in facilitation, Scrum
Tags: , , ,

Image result for puzzleThis is a “game” I played as a kick-off activity with a new team. Thought I would share in case someone might find it useful 🙂

The basic idea is to match the correct Purpose, Outcome(s) and Output(s) to each Scrum ceremony.

Preparation:

  • Print out the Ceremony Boards (each team will need its own set)
  • Prepare the Ceremony Cards (each team will need its own set)

Game Play:

  • Place the cards on the boards in the correct spaces
  • The cards are colour coded as a Purpose/Outcome/Output to help

How we played it:

  • I divided my participants into two teams and made a bit of a competition of it.
  • Both teams started in opposite corners of the room and ran to a table in the middle to try solve the puzzle.
  • When a team thought they had solved it, they would signal and both teams went back to their respective corners (think “Survivor style).
  • I would then check the solve against my solution. If the team had solved the puzzle correctly, then they were the winners. If the solution was not correct, both teams could return to their tables to continue working on the puzzle.

Feel free to try out the game and give me feedback!

Resources:

Image result for yes but improv gameRecently my team played a loose version of the “Yes, But” improv game at the beginning of a retrospective (retro) as an icebreaker. I say loose, because we played it in a round (rather than in pairs) and did two rounds. I started each round with the same statement: “I think we should have snacks at Retro” (this is something that often comes up – tongue-in-cheek – during retro conversations).

For round one, the next person in line always had to respond starting with “Yes, but”. At the end of the round (we were seated in a circle), I asked the group to silently pay attention to how they felt and what they experienced during the exercise.

For round two, the next person in line had to respond starting with “Yes, and…”. At the end of the second round I asked some questions about how the team experienced both rounds:

  • How did the first round feel?
  • How did the second round feel?
  • What made a round difficult?
  • What did or could you do to make a round easier?
  • What does this mean for how we respond to each other as a team?

Interestingly (and unexpectedly), my team struggled more with the “Yes, and” round than the “Yes, but” round. To the extent that one team member couldn’t even think of something to say for the “Yes, and” round! At first I was a little stumped, but as we discussed further we realised that:

  1. As a team, we found it more natural to poke holes in ideas rather than add to ideas we didn’t completely agree with.
  2. When we didn’t agree completely with a statement, we got “stuck” and couldn’t think (easily) of a way to add to the statement.

As an example for point 2, above, one person responded to the statement with: “Yes, and we will need to do exercise”. The person following them really struggled to respond (because they don’t like exercise) and didn’t really come up with anything convincing. As a group, after some thought, we eventually realised that “Yes, and it can be optional” would have been a perfectly valid response. However, as a group, it took us a while to get there. So it definitely wasn’t something that came naturally to us.

For me, these were quite cool insights, and probably good for a team to be aware of, particularly when we’re struggling with new problems or trying to find creative solutions.

Have you tried similar games? What did you learn or experience? How has it helped your team?

6hatsThis is my take on using “Six Thinking Hats” to reflect on a period of time. You could use a light version for a retro – or the full version to review something longer like the stage of a project or a release. It’s usually most effective after some milestone event and where the learnings can be applied going forward. There is still value in doing it at the end of a project, but what you get out of it for future teams may not be as valuable as you won’t always know what will be applicable.

Preparation

In order to save time in the session, you do need to do a fair bit of preparation. Try and collect as many facts about the time period as you possibly can before the session. Facts are anything backed by data and some common “facts” one might include are:
– Team changes (people joining/leaving)
– Events (e.g. release dates)
– Sprint information (velocity; commitment; actuals; sprint goal; etc.)
– Changes in process
– Special workshops or meetings
– Any data provided by metrics

I’ve found the most effective way to use the facts in the session (and the rest of my post assumes you have done this) is to map them onto a really large timeline. I typically use a sequence of flip chart pages that can be laid out so that attendees can literally “walk the line”. I’ve stuck them up on long walls or laid them out on a row of tables and even used the floor where I needed to.

It is also useful (for the reflectors in the team) to send out a description of the hats in advance and ask them to think about each one before the session.

Before you start your workshop, you have to set up the room (also see the tips at the end of this post):

  1. Lay out your timeline
  2. Ensure there is space for people to easily walk along it
  3. Have various stationary points along the timeline with pens and stickies
  4. Don’t forget to have a whiteboard or some other space for grouping the ideas

Materials

Besides your “timeline” of Facts, you will also need:

  • Small pieces of paper that people can write appreciations on
  • Pens
  • Stickies: one colour per hat
  • *Optional* Snacks

For the different hats, I usually use the following colours

  • Facts: N/A (people write directly on the timeline)
  • Instincts: Red
  • Discernment: Blue
  • Positives: Yellow
  • Ideas: Green

Process

The process I follow is largely based on this one and, as they mention, I have found that the order is fairly important.

For an average team, I time-box each section to about 10 minutes. Breaks need to be at least 5 minutes, but could vary depending on the time of the day (e.g. you may need a lunch break). If you are going to use the data in the session to come up with actions and improvements, then your time-box for that part will depend on what technique you plan on using. Obviously these may need to be adjusted based on the size of the group, but as most of the steps are self-paced, one advantage of this workshop is that it works quite well with larger groups.

Round 1: Facts

Have the attendees “walk the line” from the beginning to the end. This is a walk down memory lane and also a chance to fill in any blanks and ensure everyone agrees that the facts are correct. There are no stickies for this step – if people want to add or change anything they do that by writing directly onto the timeline (at the right point in time, of course). Remember to remind everyone that they should only be adding facts.

Round 2: Instincts

“Gut Feel”

Hand out your “instinct” stickies. Remind every one of the definition of an “instinct”. I sometimes skip this round because people struggle to differentiate between “instincts” and “positives/negatives”.

Appreciations and Break

Give everyone a chance to write appreciations (these will be shared later – either at the end of the session or afterwards). It’s also a good point to have a short break.

Round 3: Discernment

“Devil’s Advocate”

Make sure you’ve collected the “instinct” stickies and that the next colour of stickies is available. Remind everyone what the definition of “discernment” is. Everyone repeats their walk of the timeline, this time adding stickies to the timeline for things that didn’t go well or were disappointments.

Cool off

Have another break (in case things got emotional). Have people write more appreciations.

Round 4: Positives

“Keep doing this”

This is the last walk of the timeline. Again, remind people of the definition of “positives” and ensure there are only “positive” stickies lying around for people to use. They walk the timeline one final time and add stickies for things that went well.

Lastly: Ideas

“If I did it again”

There are various ways to capture and categorise ideas. The intention of this round is that attendees use the timeline to stimulate their thinking of how they could have done things better. Or how they would do things differently if they had to do it again. This is  sometimes also described as “green fields” thinking.

And then (now or later)…

If you were using this technique for a retrospective, you would ideally get actions from the information as part of your session. If the session was to reflect on a project, perhaps the data would be grouped into things like “Good ways to kick off” and shared with other teams. I’m quite a fan of the quadrant method of grouping similar stickies to find topics to address (see photos below for examples from a retrospective I did). What you do next all depends on the ultimate purpose of your session.

quadrants

Tips

  • Only let the attendees have access to the writing materials relevant for the round i.e. gather up the stickies from the previous round and “change colours” for the next round.
  • Have a number of “stationary points” – so that people can grab stickies and pens as soon as they have a thought.
  • Related to the above, have an excess of stationary and pens so people don’t have to wait for each other.
  • When preparing your timeline, try use pictures/symbols/colours to create visual patterns and cues for repeat facts e.g. document your sprint information in the same colour and layout for every sprint on the timeline or have a bug symbol where you have added statistics around bugs.
  • Don’t forget to share the appreciations! Especially if you’ve decided not to do so in the session.

I have applied this technique a couple of times and used the output for various things:

  1. We’ve used it to gather data for a team which was unfortunately not very transparent and then used that data to paint a “real picture” for external stakeholders.
  2. We’ve used it in retrospectives to identify improvements to team / process / products.
  3. We’ve used it at the end of a project to create guidelines and lessons learned for future projects and teams.

timeline

Have you used this technique before? What worked or did not work for you? Where might this approach be useful?

download In my opinion, one way to make a team coach feel really useless, is distribute their team across multiple locations where it’s really hard to observe their interactions with one another. For me, a lot of my “obvious” work and channels disappeared when that happened and it’s taken me a while to find alternative ways to provide the insights and support that my team needs. I also had to take a step back and acknowledge that when working distributed, certain elements of effective co-located collaboration no longer matter or have negligible impact on team greatness, whereas new elements turn out to be important levers. The trick, it turns out, is to identify what exactly those are. And I suspect, as always, that they will be different for each team.

For example, the daily stand-up or Scrum. A time for the team to sync up and share what happened the day before so that they can plan and adjust for the day to come. An opportunity to celebrate achievements and adjust for disappointments. A good time to interact and build some team rapport. The standard method is everyone stands up (to help maintain focus and brevity) around a task board (for visibility) and speaks to what they achieved yesterday (speaking and moving their tasks to show progress and create psychological ownership) and what they hope to achieve today that will help the team achieve their sprint goal. The Scrum Master and Product Owner observe – and perhaps facilitate – and ask questions where blockers might be hiding in what the team has to say. And the outcome is everyone on the team walks away with a plan for how they will contribute to the team’s success today – and a commitment to each other that they will do their utmost to complete what they have agreed to do for the day.

There are some parallels when we are working distributed – the task board, for example. There are some practices that are just impractical – like standing up. And there are others that may detract more than they add (for example, in our case, it seems less confusing to have one “driver” for the session than to pass control during the stand-up). Sometimes the limitations are tool-related. Sometimes it’s just the nature of working as a distributed team.

So what changes have I tried when facilitating a distributed stand-up? So far, these ones seem to be working:

  1. I try to watch all of the faces. We use Zoom and there is a setting where you can view all of the attendees on a single screen. Whenever we have a distributed meeting – not only stand-up – I spend most of my time and attention watching the faces of the attendees. It’s a good way to notice how people are responding to the session and give clues as to when people are tired (my team can’t do distributed for much longer than 45 minutes), or confused, or distracted, or are trying to ask a question.
  2. I make a note of who has spoken or been “spoken for” in terms of the plan for the day. Basically I listen out for what each person or pair is doing today and at the end of the stand-up, I explicitly ask individuals to share where I haven’t managed to tick them off on my list of names. Note, this is less about everyone having a chance to speak, and more to ensure everyone has made visible to the team what they plan to do for the day. I’ve noticed it’s really hard for my team to keep track of this themselves in a distributed stand-up.
  3. I try to notice if people are trying to say something and find ways to ensure that they get a chance to speak without speaking over the person who is currently speaking. Sometimes this may mean providing an order for people to speak in (you then you then you) if a group happens to accidentally speak over each other.
  4. In my opinion, certain on-line tools (like a digital task board) may satisfy the superficial purpose of the physical tool (e.g. visible stories and tasks for the team to talk to), but not necessarily the deeper purpose (e.g. the psychological ownership that comes with writing and moving a physical sticky). So I’m continuously researching and experimenting with new ways to achieve these outcomes within the context of a distributed team.

For me, the following facilitation activities are still valuable when facilitating  a distributed stand-up

  1. When necessary, introducing the session to re-confirm the purpose and outcomes – especially if there are newer team members or things have started to go a little off-track
  2. Listening out for impediment words
  3. Using open-ended questions to help the team develop insights or notice information

One thing I have noticed, is paying attention in a distributed session is REALLY exhausting. It is also very difficult to split your attention between people “watching” and understanding the content. In my case, I have decided to prioritise the former over the latter, which sometimes leads to other interesting side-effects. On the upside, I’ve become great at asking “stupid questions” 😉

What have your experiences been with distributed stand-ups? What were the challenges? What were the opportunities?

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAPSAAAAJGQ2MTIzYzU1LWM0MjItNDJjZS1iYWM2LWYxZDVmNzJmY2M4ZQ.jpgI may have mentioned it before, but at the beginning of the year I went on wonderful facilitation training which led to some positive work-related changes plus a long list of ideas and possible actions for me to try. Some I haven’t got round to (yet) while others I have been actively working on. Here are some of my thoughts on the latter.

(Side note: the format is the format we were asked to use when making our list – and I quite like it.)

I will use question agendas and review these before and during the session so that there is buy-in and we’re talking about what the group feels we need to talk about

I have been using questions agendas quite actively and have found one additional benefit is that they help formalise my own thinking around outcomes and flows for the sessions, particularly workshops.

One thing I have learned is – when running through the agenda – particularly for longer workshops – don’t just read down the list. Try and tie the parts together (like a story) so that the room gets a sense of the journey we’re taking. Also keep an eye out for nodding heads (a good sign).

So far…

  • I’ve had one session where the team members actually kept each other on track with each step by referring back to where we were in the agenda (I tend to pair the agenda with a task board to show when we’re busy with a topic or done).
  • In another session, the group went off on a technical tangent, and then brought themselves back to review whether they were actually answering the questions they were meant to.
  • In a third session, the group actually added an item to the agenda (admittedly, the item was “we find out what the cake tastes like” 😉 )

I will spend more time thinking about WIIFM so that I can try create excitement for a session

(WIIFM = What’s In It For Me)

I could probably focus a little more on this one, particularly using the information to help make sessions more exciting. Since the training, I’ve tried to be more explicit about ensuring I understand all aspects of a meeting (Purpose, Outcomes & Deliverables, WIIFM, and Roles and Responsibilities), particularly when the session is for someone else. We do tend to spend more time on the Purpose and Outcomes & Deliverables. I could probably still do more here…

I will assume yes and ask the follow-up questions so that the team is involved in the conversation and it’s not all about me

I’ve found this technique so useful that I wrote a blog post about it.

I will be more aware of where I am standing so that I leverage physical location as a chicken

I’ve tried this with mixed feelings about its success with my one team during stand-up (the idea being that if you don’t have work on the board, you stand OUTSIDE the inner circle). It’s been more interesting on the other team because soon after I joined they started doing distributed/remote stand-ups, so physical location is not something one can really experiment with. It certainly is very powerful, and I’m currently part of a coaching program where I’m trying to increase my awareness of how I use my body to communicate, particularly when stressed, so perhaps there’s still something to be explored with this one.


In total, I had about twelve ideas on my list that I wanted to try. As you can see, I’ve only really worked with a couple so far. Probably time to try one or two more and see what I learn 🙂

What have you tried recently to try improve how you facilitate sessions or interact with your teams? How did it go?