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I have recently become scrum master for an established team that has been doing many parts of Scrum, but has not had a scrum master. The team is great team who does well and I have been trying hard to continue with what they are doing that works, while still seeking ways to improve and adapt.

The team is all in the same time-zone, but they all work remote. This has only been a problem for me in one way, the Sprint Retrospective. Perhaps in part because the meeting is held using an online tool, I often times have very long periods of silence after I ask a question. While I don't worry too much about silence, from individual discussions I know there are things that are not being brought up, and I also feel we are not being very efficient where the meeting is longer than it should be due to the silence. I am fairly certain the main problem is since everyone is on their own machines and our program doesn't allow everyone on the team to be on webcam at the same time (team is too large atm, another story), they are just kind of ignoring most of the meeting and working through them.

Here are some things I have either tried or am thinking of trying, can anyone chip in on those and let me know if they have tried some of these and had success or not, or have other little things you have done to encourage participation? To be perfectly clear I am confident in the team, and also that we will improve, but I would love to hear of other ideas to help if I am not thinking of something, or validation of a good idea.

  1. Main thing I have just started doing is talking more to team members individually, and asking them why they think the team devolves into silence sometimes. This is simple but my main plan to improve our meeting communication.

  2. I have toyed with the idea of doing safety checks, I don't think that's the problem but still might do one to be sure.

  3. I have done some anonymous polls or questions, but haven't had much response from those.

  4. I have considered having random team members run the retrospective, to see if that helps everyone be more comfortable. This is in part because I am the new team member, so that was my thought there.

  5. I have sought feedback after meetings on what they liked and didn't like, but haven't got much response there either.

  6. I do keep the meetings as short as possible and try to add some things in so they are not boring.

Any insight from experience is appreciated, just trying to make sure I am doing the right things and not missing something important.

  • Some folks have noticed this problem with remote teams and have begun working on software solutions to help. Tools are obviously only part of the problem, but why not give Retrium (not affiliated) a try. – RubberDuck Oct 25 '16 at 10:11
  • @rubberDuck, that is an interesting thought. It won't fix any underlying issues of communication, but does provide a few things to make that easier. I'll consider that for the future, thanks. – Majaii Oct 25 '16 at 13:04
  • It won't fix those other issues. That's why I only posted a comment. Good luck & you're welcome! – RubberDuck Oct 25 '16 at 13:18
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In my experience periods of silence in a retrospective are caused by the following:

  • The team sees no value in the retrospective
  • The team is too large and people are uncomfortable talking
  • The team has a lot of introverts that feel uncomfortable talking in meetings

It is quite possible that you have a combination of all three problems. Throw in the fact it is a remote meeting and you have a powerful combination of factors that discourage conversation.

The lack of video is a big issue. People use visual queues in conversation to know when to start speaking and when to listen. You will not get the natural conversation that a retrospective needs using audio only.

I wonder whether you could escalate this and try and facilitate a full video-based meeting?

Also, consider gathering the teams good/bad/suggestions list prior to the meeting. Email the team a day before the retro and ask them to reply with what they think has gone well, what went badly and any suggestions they might have. This gives them time to come up with ideas and may help the meeting to flow a little better. It also means that if the conversation dies you can quickly move on to the next item.

  • Some good points. I had considered the video option and will hopefully be able to get that resolved in a few months. I think it could be worthwhile to gather questions beforehand in the meantime. – Majaii Oct 25 '16 at 19:17
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I had a similar situation to this, with a distributed team that was getting quite large, and there was a lot of "wasted" time in side conversations, silences, or people needing to be pulled out of work they were doing on the side to chime in.

The way we addressed this was twofold:

  • we used an online note board for the sprint retrospective, which was shared publicly with the team at the beginning of the sprint so that at any point someone could quickly throw a card in for something to review at retro
  • the day before retro everyone was asked to add cards to the board or send notes to the po/sm (we asked from everyone to send us their top 3 positive, top 3 negative issues, and a shout out to a peer who did something awesome)

Then, before our retro we'd go in, categorize the cards and find common themes. Then when we held the retro, we were able to chug right through the themes, using individual cards or notes as supporting evidence and to call out specific people to chime in making sure we called out people evenly.

Retro was 1000% more effective, everyone was engaged, and it took half the time.

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I've been in similar situations, and had similar ideas to yours. Like you observed, it's very easy for people to just work through these meetings when they are remote. Many developers consider this meeting as something "for the managers", which adds to the effect.

Raising difficult questions usually helps: e.g. why did we only achieve 50% of our sprint commitment? as opposed to generic questions (what can we improve in our process?). This causes people to take note and share their thoughts: especially if they had to do overtime, or do unnecessary work during the sprint.

If the team has an established velocity, and stable dynamics, then it might even make sense to make the meeting optional and run it on demand in sprints which digressed from their goals.

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One simple thing we can do to encourage their participation is reward system. You can announce that the active involvement of every individual will be rewarded with a point. So whoever leads the table at the end of every week or month will be awarded with a small token of appreciation. People basically get involved in an act or event when they get something in return for their effort. Apart from all these technology needs to support.

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I think silence is not such a bad thing. Taking time to think before you talk is very smart. I've been called an introvert and know other introverts who don't like to hear myself talk unless I really have something worthy to say that will bring progress and help solve the problem quickly and efficiently.

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As totally agree with the points that Barnaby Golden mentioned. In the company I work for, there were no camera meetings, so the first thing I did when I joined was to say "It's 2016, we're a technology company, we need to have cameras." It's not optional, it's mandatory, if you want to achieve meetings as close as real life gets.

Next thing is the No Laptop Sessions (NLS). Make sure that no one is using a laptop or his phone, in fact, ban them in the meeting(s). I always say "If you're too busy working on something else, then you shouldn't be in this meeting. Choose what you need to do."

Retrospectives can get boring quickly due to their repetitive nature: they're not fancy, they're merely a retrospective view on what happened the last two weeks. Why not make it more fun and try new methods? A very good website is http://www.funretrospectives.com (not affiliated). It includes from warm-up, to team building, to check in, to retrospective games/activities. You can pick a few and rotate them through your sprints so that

a) the team becomes familiar

b) pinpoint different issues and touch upon different areas every time.

Retrospectives are not an easy thing to run, especially when you have to "make people talk". Be careful not to prompt people to talk, because that might switch them to defensive mode and make them even less likely to talk! Bear in mind that there will always be some people who won't talk, or don't feel like contributing in the current session, and that's fine. Just make sure this is not the majority.

Last, remember that the team needs time to be accustomed to the various ceremonies, and some people might need more time than others to open up. Make sure that managers are away, so that the team doesn't feel it's been monitored by management.

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