Martin Fowler states that the first law of distributed objects is: don’t distribute your object. I think that the same applies to distributed teams. Co-location just makes things easier and distributing people makes it all much, much harder. However, sometimes, for reasons outwith our control, you end up with a distributed team.

I’m hoping to catalog some techniques I’ve used to run distributed retrospectives (and possibly other activities like stand-ups, planning, pair programming, etc) in a series of posts under “Distributed Team”. It’s not an in-depth study of the retro techniques, rather notes and observations on how well they worked with a distributed team (and what changes can be made to help).

Why? Well I’ve been working on distributed Agile teams almost exclusively for the last 5 years and have tried many things to make the team feel more inclusive, work better together, and ultimately be more effective at delivering software. Some of these things worked well and I’d like to share them.


I like the Sailboat retro technique as it’s very good at gathering data and quickly grouping it. It is also fairly simple to understand, requires minimal preparation, and overall is a great introductory technique for teams unfamiliar with regular retrospectives.

For those of you unfamiliar with this retro technique, there is a picture of a Sailboat. It’s essentially a visual collaboration game where you place issues around it to signify:

  • Sails – what is making the project faster/better ?
  • Anchors – what is slowing down/dragging on the project ?
  • Rocks ahead – what risks/dangers are coming up?

Distributed Sailboat

I flexed my Paint skills to the max and sketched out the boat below, feel free to use it yourselves.sailboat

First off, we all dial into a conference line. We’re in a Windows 7 environment, so I ran a screen-sharing session with the Sailboat as my background (and a nice clean desktop). Using the Sticky Notes application, I would capture each idea as it was raised on a new note, then locate it appropriately over the image on my desktop.

It sounds simple, and for this technique, it worked really well. Once you’ve aligned the Sticky Notes around the boat, colouring them also helps. This is how ours ended up:


Summary of tools

  • Conference line
  • Screenshare
  • Paint (or use my image above)
  • Sticky Notes

Like many distributed retro techniques, this relies on one person driving the shared screen. With a lightweight activity like this, where the other participants are providing most of the data and discussing the groupings, it’s not too much of a burden.