How to organise remote agile ceremonies?
Agile involves interaction, transparency and direct communication. To achieve this team ceremonies like the daily stand-up, sprint planning, sprint review and sprint retrospective are essential. One could argue that when teams are not physically in the same place these interactive ceremonies are harder to do and perhaps are not as efficient. However, doing Agile ceremonies remotely can be just as efficient.
Authors: Anne-Marie Zeghers, Xavier Denys & Sonja Noben
Do we hold our agile ceremonies when working remotely?
In a remote environment, the most mature teams will make sure that they maintain their ceremonies regularly and in an interactive way. Not because they are asked to do this, but because they want to do it. They understand the value of meeting individuals regularly and having top-class interactions.
Today there are many tools that make it possible to hold interactive sessions with smaller and larger groups. There are quite a few good backlog management tools available, such as Azure DevOps (TFS), ServiceNow, Trello or Jira.
In addition, you have great tools to make your ceremonies interactive and fun. Think of collaborative whiteboards (MIRO, Stormboard, Mural), Q&A’s (Slidoo, Kahoot, Mentimeter, Wooclap) and chats (Slack, Discord). Some are even open source and free to use. Ready to experiment?
Take time for the intake
The intake is an important, yet often overlooked ceremony aspect. Being remote means you miss physical elements to fully read the emotions or the current mindset of someone. For example, you can not always see facial expressions clearly. So, do not forget to ask people how they are doing. This is important information that will have a large effect on the flow of the ceremony.
Socialize when the team meets in order to build trust. Trust is a base characteristic of all outperforming teams. Anne-Marie Zeghers
Much of the non-verbal communication is absent in remote workshops. How can you fill that gap? Use webcams to get a thumbs-up from everyone or to see heads nodding in agreement. Emojis and GIFs can also enhance non-verbal communication.
Turning on the camera has the additional benefit that everyone sees the “environment” of their team members. This can lead to useful information for enhanced facilitation. Learn to inspect if colleagues have a dedicated, isolated and well-equipped workspace, or if they share the dinner table with a homeworking spouse and the kids are running around.
The daily stand-up at distance
Standing up at home or offshore? Why not. We need to stretch our legs regularly, and we keep the daily short and effective. A real win-win!
Be on the look-out for hijackers. The daily stand-up suddenly becomes one of the only moments the entire team comes together. Stay focussed on the 3 questions. Announcements or other discussions need another platform.
Visual management remains a cornerstone of the daily stand-up, also remote. We recommend to digitize your physical board as soon as possible in your preferred backlog management solution. This ensures a single source of truth that is available anytime, anywhere and anyplace.
Planning the sprint
Some teams prefer to have a dedicated refinement slot. Sub-teams then refine different elements of the product backlog. Luckily, many tools like Zoom allow for breakouts.
Afterwards, the estimation of the refined stories is done with the entire team. Most teams use poker planning as their estimation technique. Yet, normally poker planning involves the use of physical cards. This does not have to be a blocking issue. There are some great digital alternatives like apps on smartphones or simply using a chatbox.
Showcasing during the demo
Ask the people who demo something to pre-open their increment. Losing time or having technical difficulties will only result in unnecessary frustration among stakeholders. Links to the demonstrated increments can be stored in a dedicated file on a common location, allowing to share information upfront or after the ceremony.
As always, collect all feedback in a structural way. If a large number of people participate in the demo, ask them to share their points via the chat or other feedback functionality. “Raising your hand” digitally may help the facilitator tremendously in managing the flow of the demo.
Alternate your digital retrospectives
Alternating the way of working for your retrospective is always recommended, but even more so remotely. Visual management tools like Miro have great templates like the ‘mad, sad, glad’. Digital post-its can be added with the click of a button by all team members.
Your outcomes are easily stored for later reference, which is super convenient when you want to track metrics like an e-NPS (employee net promoter score) over time.
What about a digital obeya?
One could argue that the Obeya, being a room, is not useful or even possible when remote working. But who said the Obeya needs to be a physical room? The main principles of Obeya, bringing transparency, focusing on continuous improvement, solving impediments and having room to experiment, are all very possible to apply in a digital and remote way.
Some great tools are being introduced in the market today, like Nureva. Touchscreens (when combining teams or team members at different locations) can certainly help you to give an authentic sensation.
Still very new to remote agile ceremonies
Be aware that these ceremonies are key impact moments where the team is influenced to move forward in creating customer value. If you are running a remote ceremony for the first time, consider doing a pilot with a smaller group to test the dynamic and timing in order to improve the experience. Keep the following principles in mind during the preparation:
- Design and plan carefully. Improvisation for planned ceremonies is not encouraged at all.
- Make sure everyone is being taken along for the ride. Let them do a quick check-in.
- Leave enough space for people to respond. Do not just jump from topic to topic.
- Go over a general checklist for each ceremony. Make sure the following topics are clear and covered: scope, logistics, methods, tools, virtual room set-up, introduction, break, energizers, conclusion, next steps.
Keep on improving
At the end of each ceremony, the team can complete a ROTI (return on time invested) by simply voting from 1 to 5 (1 meaning “waste of time” to the 5 meaning “optimal use of time.). Again, there are some great digital alternatives to complete a ROTI like Slidoo, Mentimeter or Discord.
Do not forget to ask several people why they gave their score. This may lead to valuable insights allowing you to continuously improve your remote ceremonies.
So do not forget
The agile ceremonies are there to bring the team together as much as possible, to make them plan, adjust, refine, collect feedback and continuously improve. These ceremonies are essential, even if remote is the only way. Remember:
- Discipline: Distractions at home are plentiful. Keep yourself as attentive as possible.
- Team agreements: Clear agreements make a great team. Discuss tools, ceremonies, and involvement up front.
- Enjoy: When you are working from home for a long time, fun can be the element that makes the difference
Some final fun tips
Agile organizations believe that happy employees enable happy customers. Being happy includes having fun every now and then. To achieve this, we have seen great things happen:
- The creation of music playlists that are used before meetings or during breaks.
- E-drinks where everyone gathers in a relaxed atmosphere, just like a regular after-work gathering.
- Funny sweater-day, pet-day, or wigs-day. Leave it up to your imagination.
Small energizers or icebreakers are also perfectly possible in a remote setting. One we often use: show the most interesting item near your workplace. You will be surprised by the different items shown on the webcam.