Keep Your Agile Ceremonies Effective, Even With Remote Teams and Workers

Business people sitting inside conference room having a video call. Business team having an online meeting during pandemic.

“Can you hear me?” “Can you see my screen?” “Is my video on?” “You’re muted.” “Can you repeat that? You cut out.” These all-too-familiar moments seem to arise in every remote call or video conference. We work at a technology company with seamlessly integrated communication tools, and it still feels like getting a video call up and running involves more work than it needs to. 

For anyone accustomed to interacting in-person, making the switch to remote work, or trying to work closely with others who are remote can be frustrating. This can be especially true in the context of SAFe and Agile. Regular, transparent communication is at the core of the Agile approach, and one of the guiding principles from the 2001 Agile manifesto is that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” 

So, what can individuals and teams do to keep projects running smoothly when remote work is part of the equation? Below, we have some tips straight from our SAFe and Agile coaching and consulting team to help Delivery Leads, Scrum Masters, Product Owners, Product Managers, and others to keep project momentum going, even with a distributed workforce. 

Tips for Facilitating Online Meetings and Agile Ceremonies 

The struggles of running online meetings are not unique to the world of Agile. The best way to improve the quality of remote meetings is to prepare. Here are some of the best ways to set your video meetings up for success: 

  1. Always plan a little extra time (usually 5-10 minutes) into your schedule to ensure that you can properly set up screen sharing, audio, and video—and troubleshoot any unforseen technology issues. 
  1. Keep a close eye on the time and agenda. Focused, timeboxed meetings and Agile ceremonies will ensure everyone can get the information they need and maximize their potential. 
  1. Consider preparing and practicing ahead of time, as if you’re about to lead a live performance. A well-rehearsed facilitation can improve engagement and success. 
  1. If possible, create a recording of your meeting to ensure that no one gets left behind. If someone can’t make the meeting, if someone loses their connection or if the audio or visual becomes an issue, having a recording can be a valuable tool for everyone to move forward. 
  1. Be mindful of the unique issues that can arise in video conferences. For example, to accommodate for sound delays, pause a little longer after asking questions to wait for an answer. Because distracting sounds can disrupt a meeting, see if you can mute participants until its time for an open discussion—or politely request that participants mute themselves until they have something to say. Planning for common video conferencing challenges can help streamline the experience for everyone. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of online meeting tips, but focusing on these practical ideas can improve everyone’s experience, both online and off, and increase alignment as your projects move forward. 

At Vervint, we aren’t affiliated with any specific tools, and we don’t receive any benefits for mentioning them. We just wanted to share some of the tools that have worked well for Agile ceremonies and other workflows in this remote working environment. 

  • Zoom with breakout session capability is great for meetings. Microsoft Teams, Webex, and other video conferencing tools can also work, but Zoom’s breakout session feature has been very efficient to use, especially for PI planning. 
  • Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other messaging platforms are effective for organizing side discussions. 
  • Miro is a great tool to manage your program board and for teams to manage their sprint boards if they choose. Planning directly in tools such as Azure DevOps, Jira, etc. also works well. 
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How to Improve Remote Agile Ceremonies 

While you can improve any online meeting with the tips above, our SAFe and Agile consulting team have some specific guidance to help optimize your Agile ceremonies for remote meetings. Each one is listed below along with its typical duration, though the length of your specific Agile ceremonies may be slightly different depending on how long your sprints are, what methodology you’re using and other factors. 

In general, having teams dispersed means dedicating additional focus to the work you’re already doing. Prep work, careful backlog grooming and clearly aligning and prioritizing features will help keep teams focused. 

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Daily Standup (DSU): 15 Minutes  

Most teams hold a daily standup meeting in the morning. Among many other things, this allows the team to get a view of what work has been accomplished, learn what still needs to be done and raise a flag if anything is blocking forward movement on a project. Keep the following tips in mind when you’re holding online daily standup meetings: 

  1. Hold a video conference to keep everyone engaged. 
  1. Screenshare the Kanban board to keep it front and center for everyone. 
  1. Make sure each person reports on the specific story or task they’re working on using the number or title. 
  1. Be vigilant in protecting the timebox of 15 minutes. 
  1. Remind and encourage the team to use messaging tools throughout the day, such as Slack, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and others. 

If your team is having trouble staying connected and focused throughout the day, it might be worth implementing a second DSU in the afternoon to enhance coordination. 

Sprint Planning Meeting: 60 Minutes 

Sprint planning meetings are meant to define the scope of upcoming work by deciding which tasks from the overall project backlog should be moved into the sprint backlog. Sprint planning can be especially difficult with remote team members, due to the detailed work that is involved and that needs to be documented. Below are a few tips to help improve your online sprint planning meetings: 

  1. Focus on developing a thoroughly groomed team backlog prior to sprint planning so the meeting can run as efficiently as possible. 
  1. Utilize video conferencing to encourage engagement. 
  1. Screenshare the Kanban board, and open each story under discussion. 
  1. Update every story and task that is discussed to create reference points that can be reviewed later. 
  1. Utilize your tools as much as possible, including for story estimating. 

For sprint planning meetings, documenting decisions is crucial. Make sure you or someone you have delegated is keeping careful track of updates and sharing them effectively. For example, that person should document decisions within individual user stories by adding them to the discussion thread within the user story work item. Why? Because this will ultimately be the source of truth for decision outcomes. 

Retrospective Meeting: 30 Minutes 

The retrospective provides you and your team with an opportunity to reflect, learn and improve future work. Sometimes a team can commit to making crucial process changes, while other times a simple change to standard operating procedure (like adding a video component to a daily standup) can improve everyone’s engagement and enjoyment. A few ways to improve your remote retrospective meetings include: 

  1. Consider using tools like IdeaBoardz, Trello or the Azure DevOps Retrospective plugin to keep track of and document ideas. 
  1. Encourage engagement from the whole team. 
  1. Take the time to discuss each entry. 
  1. Make sure to formally incorporate improvement work items into the team backlog 

Retrospectives are the first Agile ceremony people will want to cancel, but the retrospective is a critical part of continuous improvement. Take this time to find opportunities for improvement, no matter how big or small. 

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System Demo: 60 Minutes  

System demos are a critical moment for teams. These meetings give teams a chance to show off done items that have been completed, evaluate their effectiveness, and gather feedback. This is another Agile ceremony that can be particularly tricky if you’re trying to facilitate it online with remote attendees. Here are a few tips to make sure your demonstrations are successful: 

  1. Ensure necessary team members have (and know how to use) screen sharing capabilities. 
  1. Perform at least one dry run ahead of time to work out any kinks. 
  1. Record the meeting for later review. 
  1. Ensure that someone is carefully documenting any feedback and questions raised during the call. 
  1. Make sure the Product Owner is available and on the call to determine if stories meet the definition of done. 

With a successful system demo, everyone will have a deeper understanding of the value delivered during a sprint. This builds confidence among stakeholders across the organization, boosts team morale and propels projects forward with momentum. 

Program Increment (PI) Planning: 4-5 Hours or Up to 2 Days  

PI planning will look different for every organization depending on the team size, sophistication of SAFe implementation, nature of the project and other factors. Recently, our team has facilitated remote sessions that were 4-5 hours for a small group, 1 day for a reduced project workforce, and 2 days with a full set of teams still trying to hit specific milestones. 

Some organizations are choosing to delay their PI planning sessions until they can do them in person. Our advice is to avoid delaying. If your upcoming PI planning is your first event, however, it may be in the best interest of the program to delay until everyone can be present. This is because a team’s initial PI planning requires more discussion, and doing your first event in-person may help instill more confidence and trust in the process. 

PI planning is crucial for coordinating across teams and orienting everyone toward a common vision and goal. Below is some guidance from our SAFe consulting team to help  keep program increment planning focused and efficient, even when teams and workers are remote. 

  1. A single online meeting should be scheduled to accommodate the first hour of PI planning where everyone is involved; make sure your online meeting platform can handle the predicted number of attendees for the full hour. 
  1. Everyone should leave that hour of vision, architecture and design updates knowing what their focus will be for their separate team meetings. 
  1. Separate online meetings can be set up for each Agile team’s subsequent planning time. Typically, two hours are scheduled for teams to plan 3 sprints of work. 
  1. Ensure Scrum Masters know they are responsible for identifying feature delivery and updating the digital program board. 
  1. The Release Train Engineer and Scrum Masters need to “huddle” (stay in constant communication) throughout team planning sessions to document risks and dependencies along the way. 
  1. Dedicate 30 minutes to review teams’ plans and review the program board. 
  1. Dedicate 30 minutes to discuss risks and determine if any team’s plan must be adjusted. 
  1. Don’t forget to allow some time for making any necessary adjustments. 

Planning a program increment can be very complex, especially with remote teams and workers. The tools you’re using for communication and conferencing can truly make or break the whole process; make sure they’re up for the task, and make sure everyone knows how to use them effectively. 

Inspect and Adapt Event: 2 Hours  

At the I&A closing out each program increment, your team demonstrates and reviews the current state of the solution. Much of the advice above applies to the I&A event, especially our tips about the sprint demo and retrospective. You will also want to keep the following ideas in mind: 

  1. Pre-organize ad-hoc working teams for the problem-solving workshop to save time. 
  1. Set up an individual online meeting for each ad-hoc team. 
  1. Make sure a Scrum Master has been assigned to each ad-hoc team. 

Need SAFe and Agile Coaches or Consultants?   

Whether you’re planning ahead for a change or your need for SAFe consultants is more urgent and unforeseen, Vervint has trained coaches and facilitators available to help your organization fully leverage SAFe and Agile. Contact Vervint today to start a conversation! 

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