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How to Run an Asynchronous Sprint Retrospective Meeting

Even though it’s entirely possible to connect async for retrospectives, you may not want to use them for every step of the process.

March 5, 2021
Hunter McKinley

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How to Run an Asynchronous Sprint Retrospective Meeting

In a remote-first world, we have to question every kind of team meeting. Sometimes, we need to keep things live, such as during 1:1s. But at the same time, meetings we once thought could never be done asynchronously… absolutely can be. Take sprint retrospectives, for instance. An occasionally emotional meeting, leaders typically believed these could not be done async. 

In this guide, I’ll walk through how to do it without losing the human element that is cherished - and necessary - in the retrospective process. For those that don’t want an entirely asynchronous process, I’ve broken the meeting down into multiple elements, noting where you can make one element synchronous while doing the rest async to save everyone’s time and energy. 

Elements of a sprint retrospective

At the heart of any retrospective is the drive to do better: the meetings are designed to help teams critically examine and refine their workflow. Ultimately retrospectives are meant to help teams build a consistent habit of continuous process improvement and to give employees an opportunity to gather and review how they work together over the course of the sprint. 

With that in mind, there are a few elements of retrospectives that must be kept, whether sync or async: 

  • Time for people to review what happened during the sprint.
  • Time for people to think about their opinions on what worked vs. what went wrong. 
  • Space for honest feelings and emotions to come forward. 
  • Celebrations for what worked during the process. 
  • Honesty about what didn’t - without taking it personally.
  • Commitment to incremental improvements or changes for the next sprint. 
  • Following up on improvements or action items from the sprint.

While retrospectives are the right time for teams to review their workflow issues and roadblocks, they’re also opportunities to broach difficult discussions about interpersonal relationships and team dynamics. Emotions can be high through this process. 

During these moments it’s important to remember that the retrospective is also a place to celebrate what worked well, and how those wins can be replicated in the future. Most of all, it’s an opportunity to acknowledge everyone’s hard work. Be sure to take these elements into account when conducting your retrospective async.

To make successful async retrospectives, you have to both respect all the above elements and break down the meeting itself into pre-meeting tasks, running the meeting, and post-meeting action items. 

Async pre-meeting tasks for a retrospective

Once the date is locked in, prep for a retrospective is like any other meeting in that the agenda needs to be sent ahead of time - then people need time to digest. 

Here’s how that looks: 

Step 1: Instead of a retrospective meeting time, set a whole day for people to take part. Send the retrospective agenda 2-3 business days before the meeting day via email. 

Agendas are usually the same every time: 

  • Introductions to who is in the room.
  • What worked.
  • What went wrong.
  • Commitments on what to improve for the next sprint.
  • Action items to make the process better.

Step 2: Have each person send asynchronous voice messages into a common channel, introducing themselves and explaining their opinions of what worked and what didn’t. If you like to keep all your team communication in a specific platform, you can integrate Yac with Zapier so the messages are shared across platforms. 

Time-box this to give each person between 2-5 minutes to record their thoughts (to avoid team overwhelm).

Step 3: Have everyone listen to each other’s comments the day before the meeting day. You can listen at accelerated 1.5x or 2x speeds to just get the gist of the conversation if you don’t have time to listen to everything at regular speed.

Since a lot can happen over the course of a sprint, it pays to take the time and chat freely about what worked, and what didn’t. By having a dedicated space set up for everyone to document critical evaluations ahead of time, you'll have a solid foundation to conduct your impending retrospective on. You’ll have the benefit of a team ready for a constructive discussion, that will help give rise to the sort of constructive discussion that makes for the most effective retrospectives. 

Making a retrospective async

Conducting a digital retrospective can be challenging, but not if it’s managed properly from the start. Now that your team has had the chance to get caught up from your last sprint, they’ll come to the retrospective ready to share. To help kick things off, assign a moderator who can guide the conversation constructively to make each minute count. 

Here’s how to keep the momentum going from Steps 1-3 above:

Step 4: Start the meeting day with each person sending another voice message, highlighting what they felt were the key trends from all messages (theirs included) in Step 3. Time-box this to 2 minute reactions / responses so people don’t go overboard. 

If you’re setting up a whole day for the meeting, make sure everyone submits their key trends message by a certain time. It’s flexible to allow people to respond when they’ve got time, but a deadline means you won’t be waiting all day for one person.

For instance, set this to 11 am on ‘retrospective day.’

Step 5: Everyone listens to everyone’s messages and responds with what they feel the action items for the sprint should be based on key trends. 

Set a deadline for this as well so people have a window of response. If your Step 4 timeline is 11 am, you could set this at 2 pm the same day. 

Step 6: Based on key trends, the moderator highlights the most commonly suggested action items to improve any common-thread issues. 

Set another timeline - for instance 3 pm on retrospective day.

Step 7: The team agrees and commits to action items as they normally would (through back and forth messaging). 

Set the timeline for this at the end of your working day (~5 or 6 pm) on retrospective day.

Note: This section is often the most difficult to do asynchronously. If you find pure async doesn’t work for your team, do the pre- and post-retrospective work asynchronously and have the actual meeting done live. You’ll still save loads of time and give the team more flexibility without losing the point of the meeting itself. 

Post-meeting follow ups and action items

After the retrospective is over,  ensure that you follow up properly.

Step 8:  Share each of the recordings, meeting notes, and any additional media like whiteboard photos and brainstorms. Connecting async can produce a lot of back and forth communication, so be sure you have gathered the most pertinent messages as well.

This task can be taken on by the meeting leader or an assigned note taker / moderator.

Step 9: Relevant individuals take and execute on action items, sharing status updates asynchronously via voice messages or notes to the relevant team channel. This is done in a distributed fashion (i.e. everyone does what they need to).

Your goal should not only be transparency but to keep people up to speed on what went on during the meeting. Normally following up to make sure everyone's still committed to what was agreed to can also be helpful to stay focused. 

Looking back to look forward

Even though it’s entirely possible to connect async for retrospectives, you may not want to use them for every step of the process. For example, you may want to conduct the meeting portion of the retrospective live to respect everyone’s emotions and create a safe virtual space. By doing so you can make all other elements of the retrospective to async communications, and that way better review the gathered information objectively and without bias. 

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