Virtual Parkbench: Retrospectives for Distributed Agile Teams

For large distributed retrospectives, where participants are in different cities, I have created a variation of popular group discussion technique called “Park Bench”.

Some Background

I was coaching within a large organization with different Scrum teams distributed in three separate cities: Bellevue, WA; Chicago, IL; and Waterloo, Canada. This organization had executed many projects using Scrum in pilot mode, and on my recommendation they wanted to retrospect on different pilot Scrum projects that were executed in these different cities. To manage participation of large number of people, we split these groups in two batches of 30 people each (I facilitated two separate retrospectives). In each of these retrospectives, there were various exercises; some of them were breakout exercises in which people at their respective locations would participate locally. One of the main exercises was ‘Virtual Park Bench’ to enable discussions between people in different cities mentioned above.

For the purposes of this blog, I will not describe the entire retrospective format. Instead, I’ll focus on the variation of the Park Bench technique and how I addressed the situation when there were some issues. The setup for the retrospective included a live video feed from all locations. In other words in Bellevue, we had direct video and audio feed that displayed happenings in two separate monitors, one for Chicago and another for Waterloo.

Park Bench

In this group discussion technique, there are about 4 empty seats (park bench) facing rest of the participants in the group discussion At any given time, only three seats can be occupied by the participants; the other seat is kept empty. Only those seated on the ‘park bench’ can talk while the rest of the participants only listen. If some one wants to contribute, they can take the fourth seat to join the park bench. When this happens, one of the existing speakers must vacate their spot and leave the discussion. This ensures that only three seats are occupied most of the time. This setup allows a large group to focus their discussions on a hot topic. These group discussions are timeboxed and enable everyone to participate on the central topic of discussion.

Virtual Park Bench

In the virtual setup, we had two chairs in each location and the video cameras were focused on these six seats. The rules were similar to a typical park bench exercise. Whenever there were more than three people on camera feeds, one of the existing people had to leave and make room for new participants. There were many breakout exercises in the full retrospective, and we had setup for virtual park bench to allow for engaging conversations between people from different locations. This section was timeboxed for 45 minutes.

virtual parkbench retrospectives for distributed teamsDuring the retrospective, the discussions were passionately engaging and people from different cities and from different Scrum projects were discussing their experiences. One simple rule of this exercise, that only three people can be on camera in discussion, was working well. As a facilitator for this retrospective, I explained the rules and ensured that they were being followed.

After the first fifteen minutes of this discussion format, I realized that only a few people were repeating themselves on the park bench and that the discussion was becoming polarized. There were others whose voices needed to be heard. Sensing that a few people were monopolizing the discussion, I interrupted and introduced one more rule. This new rule was that each person leaving the park bench had to invite another person from the larger group to join the discussion. The person requested to join had to take a seat on the park bench and could choose to not contribute — in this case, the person had invite someone else before leaving the park bench. This minor modification worked extremely well. We were able to politely manage the more vocal members of the group, and also ensure that the quiet ones had an opportunity to express themselves. The ensuing discussion following this minor modification was much more balanced and I feel that it enhanced the value of of retrospective for the participants.

Takeaways

In hindsight, I feel that for distributed retrospectives, when facilitating the virtual park bench discussion format, I will always use the modified rule of inviting people. For balanced discussions, every one should be awarded the opportunity to share their perspectives — meetings via webcams often tend to get monopolized since it’s easier to forget others who are not physically in front of you. (Out of sight, out of mind)

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