Product Review for Distributed Retrospectives

On a monthly basis, I see at least one distributed retrospective. Sure, I would prefer to do it onsite with participants, on a wall with sticky notes, but that's not always an option. So, what can we do about it? Not having the retrospective is not an option. Instead, I want to find a tool that has a low level of friction, is purpose built, and reasonably priced.  Sounds like it's time for a product review! Over the last few years, I've used several products for distributed retrospectives. Each of them sucked in their own special way. So, I thought about testing Retrium. My first thoughts are I like it!

Currently, they have Five major techniques (4L's, Mad-Sad-Glad, Start-Stop-Continue, Lean Coffee, and Went Well, Didn't Go Well) customized for the distributed experience. With that, I focused my attention on the  "Start, Stop, Continue" technique.

Steps I used for the product review:

Step One: Choose a retrospective format. I picked Start, Stop, Continue.

Step TwoTo start the retrospective the facilitator should explain how the technique works. He or she should then tell the team the timebox for the retrospective (30-60 minutes, depending on the size of the team).  In Retrium, you can set a timebox time for each step or the overall retrospective.  I like to set a timer for each step.

Step ThreeIdeation. The facilitator should tell participants the timebox for this phase (10-15 minutes should be enough). Participants will then start entering ideas on the board, under the respective heading (Start, Stop, Continue).  As the participants enter ideas, the text will not be visible to other participants (until the grouping phase). I like this features, as keeping ideas private will help ensure participants aren't biased by each other's ideas. When the timebox expires, we move onto the grouping phase.  If people are full of ideas, the facilitator can extend the timebox timer.

Step FourGrouping. The facilitator then chooses to advance to the idea grouping phase. I'd recommend the facilitator inform the participants that once you move on to the Group phase, you will not be able to return to the previous phase.  Since ideas will likely be related (or even identical), participants should group items into logical themes. Participants can label the logical groups on the screen.

Step FiveDot Voting. The facilitator then chooses to advance to the voting phase. Again, I'd recommend the facilitator inform the participants that once you move on to the Voting phase, you will not be able to return to the previous phase.  As noted earlier, each one of these phases can be timeboxed with a timer feature located on the screen. In my retrospective, participants had 5 votes they could cast against the groups.  After voting is complete or the timer expires, the facilitator advances the retrospective to the Discussion phase.

Step Six:Discussion.  This is where I believe you are going to get the most benefits from this product. In the discussion phase, only one idea group at a time will be displayed. Here, you will create action items. When you're ready, choose the next topic (group). Add more action items to your Action Plan.  You can then choose to review the action plan or end the retrospective.  This is by far the step most retrospectives fail at. No action plan is easily maintained and worked.

Retrospective History and Action Plan: Now that the retrospective is over, you can go back and look at previous retrospectives and more importantly, have an ongoing action plan of improvement.

So, is Retrium worth the cost?  At the time of this blog post, 1 team room was $49 a month.

You'll get the following:

  • Access to all retrospective techniques
  • Run an unlimited number of retrospectives
  • Invite an unlimited number of users
  • Create and track action plans
  • View your retrospective history

Is it worth it? I recommend you check out this ROI calculator and dynamically calculate your return on the investment. If you can save your team just 30 minutes a month, through improvements, the product pays for itself.

I would definitely recommend this product!

Full disclosure: I have no financial relationship with Retrium. However, I do know a few of the people there.

I Discovered a Productivity Pattern

My Past Experience

Be it get-rich-quick schemes or rapid-weight-loss solutions, the Internet is littered with a million improvement schemes. In my many years of attempting to improve productivity for my clients and myself, I’ve tried just about everything. Regardless if the post, podcast, or book is promising to do twice the work in half the time or that you can cram an entire work week into 4 hours, there is something out there for everyone. My first venture into this productivity-focused world was way back in the early 90s, when I watched this horrible movie titled Taking Care of Business, starring Jim Belushi and Charles Grodin. In the movie, an uptight advertising exec has his entire life in a filofax organizer which mistakenly ends up in the hands of a friendly convict who poses as him. The movie is still horrible but the organizer idea seemed to work for me.

Franklin Covey Planner

From this movie, I discovered the Franklin Covey Planner. Yep, my world was filled with A1, B1, C1’s. Alas, I couldn’t make it work. Much like the guy in the movie, everything was in a little leather book with special pages (that were not cheap). Unfortunately, if I didn’t have the book in my field of view to constantly remind myself, things didn’t get done. I think I lasted a year, until I discovered the cost of refilling the book with new pages.


I then discovered GTD (Getting Things Done) by David Allen. This was 15–20 years ago. Again, it worked for a little while but I then found myself doing too much organizing and too little doing. Things were going away from paper filing and everything in that system was all about paper filing. Maybe I was doing it wrong. It just wasn’t clear to me. I didn’t see any real progress or productivity improvement so I just stopped doing it.

Personal Kanban + Pomodoro Technique

In mid 2009, in a moment of Internet serendipity, I ventured into the world of Personal Kanban. I think I searched “Zen” and up popped a website for a Kanban tool. I started using it and loved it. Alas, that company got purchased by Rally and they are no longer taking registrations. But, this has become the first system I have been able to stick with. Just to try other tools, I soon switched over to LeanKit Kanban. I’ve been using it ever since. I like that it doesn’t make any promises it can’t keep. “Visualize your work, optimize your process and deliver faster”. Around the same time in 2009, I also began using the Pomodoro Technique to optimize my productivity.

LeadingAgile Transformation Framework

In 2012, I joined LeadingAgile. Though we didn’t have a defined system at the time, a Transformation Framework emerged.  Since that time, when the system is followed, it works really well.  When things don’t work so well, the same failure patterns are present.

Productivity Rosetta Stone

productivity pattern

So, why do some methods work and some do not? Why did I abandon the Planner and GTD systems so long ago but still use Personal Kanban and the Pomodoro Technique? Well, I started by listing common traits on a whiteboard and saw relationships and discovered some patterns. Not only are there three things I believe every productivity system needs to work, I also see three things that are necessary to prevent you from abandoning that system.

I describe it as a Productivity Rosetta Stone. For those unfamiliar, the Rosetta Stone is a rock slab, found in 1799. It was inscribed with a decree that appears in three scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Ancient Greek. The stone presents essentially the same text in all three scripts and provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. I’ve applied my productivity Rosetta Stone to Scrum, Kanban, Pomodoro Technique, Lean Startup, and even organizational transformation frameworks. All of them check out and it provided me with a key to better understand productivity patterns.

3 Things to Increase Productivity

1. A system is a set of principles or procedures to get something done or accomplished; Anyone can follow a system.

2. A ritual is a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone. It’s different from a system. A system might only be followed once, but by many people. A ritual is something someone or some group does again and again, in the hope of arriving at the same or improved outcome.

3. A habit is a regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. If you want to be productive, you have to be habitual with your rituals, as part of your system.

How does it all fit together? Name a system. Next, list your process steps, sequence, and any rules around them. Last, do the steps again and again until it becomes a habit.

Lack of These Kills Productivity

Clarity, Progress, or Commitment

1. Clarity is the quality of being certain or definite. You need clarity in order to know what you need to do. Lack of clarity creates confusion and waste. Each step of a system should be actionable and repeatable. In order to ensure certainty around your steps, write them down; maybe draw a picture or diagram. If your outcomes are not repeatable, you have an experiment but not a system.

2. Progress is forward or onward movement toward a destination or goal. Your goal is productivity. If you lack progress, you lose momentum. If you lose momentum (or should I be so bold to say velocity or throughput), you will lose commitment to the system.

3. Lack of commitment to the system results in you no longer using the system. You move on to something new to get the productivity results you seek.

In the event your system lacks clarity, progress, or commitment, performance will go down or you’ll stop using it all together.


Enough with the  scrum productivity patternnebulous ideas. Let's apply the patterns against the Scrum Framework.

Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber did a pretty darned good job providing clarity around the system in The Scrum Guide.  Being the Guide is only 16 pages long, there it's a whole lot to it. It includes a definition of Scrum, the theory behind it, and then provides details behind teams, events, and artifacts.  That's it!  Rituals (events) include sprint planning, a daily (15-minute) Scrum, a sprint review, and a retrospective.  Each of these rituals helps provide both feedback and progress within the sprint.  To ensure we see the progress, we timebox sprints, commit to deliver product increments regularly, and use information radiators like burndown charts to visualize the completion of work.  Like any system, if you are not habitual about each of the items within the Scrum Guide, Scrum falls apart.  That means commit to the system and be consistent, sprint after sprint.


Though I have only provided a conceptual model, try applying it to your personal system. Like in any productivity strategy, once your defined system becomes habitual, you can start to focus on improvements. Maybe you want to do more in less time. Maybe you want to do the same with higher quality. You be the judge. It’s your system. Remember, you’ll still need clarity, progress, and commitment or your productivity will be short lived.

Listen to Dave Prior and me in an episode of LeadingAgile Sound Notes, as we talk about the Productivity Triangle.

If you want an editable copy of the triangle, download it here: productivity triangle template

One final note. It would mean a lot to me if you could leave a comment and tell me which design you like more. Do you like the colorful Venn diagram look or the black and white triangle?  Please tell me in the comments.  Thanks!   ~Derek

3 things you need to increase productivity

What I Believe

If you want to increase productivity, I believe you need 3 key things. In a previous post,  I wrote you needed ritual and motivation.  After some reflection, I decided to update that.  First, create a system to ensure you are always getting stuff done, regardless if you're motivated (though it helps). Second, create rituals to follow within the system.  Last, repeat those rituals until they become habits.


My system of choice, for my own work, is Kanban.  It's a method I use to manage everything I do.  In short, Kanban is a visualization of value flowing through a system. I use sticky notes on a wall as signals of outcomes I'm working toward. I have columns on the wall; To Do, Work In Process (WIP), and Done.  I also have the WIP column split into two rows. One row is for active work in process. The second row is for outcomes or work that is blocked.  I believe one of the keys to a successful system is having clarity around its design but also to have low overhead (effort to maintain the system).  It doesn't matter if I use a physical wall or a virtual one, the importance is either are in my field of view.  When on the road, I use a virtual Kanban. When at home, I prefer a physical one.

My supporting system is a Pomodoro.  A Pomodoro is simply a kitchen timer.  Like it or not, I respond really well to deadlines. One of my favorite quotes is:

A goal without a deadline is merely a dream.

Give me a goal with a deadline and I may not get it all done, but I'll make progress and get you something.  If I have a goal without a deadline, I can think something to death.  Like with my Kanban, I prefer to go with physical but I'm happy to use a virtual one as well. The important thing is the timebox. It's like personal sprints. (yep, like Scrum).  Make a commitment; get it done.


  • Every morning, I review my (virtual) LeanKit board
  • I then review my physical Kanban board next

I review my Kanban board in a very specific order:  Done, Work in Process, Blocked, To Do.  [1] I do this to remind myself what I recently got done.  [2] It allows me to verify if I finished something the day before but forgot to pull it to done. [3] It gives me a chance to pull something off the to-do column and put it back in my backlog, allowing space for something of higher value.

  • I pull a card from To Do to WIP
  • When I'm ready, I set the Pomodoro timer for 25 minutes and begin work
  • When the timer goes off, I take a 5 minute break
  • Reset the timer for another 25 minutes, review what my next highest priority is, and begin
    • If I'm coming back from an extended break like lunch or dinner with the family, I still reset to 25 minutes
    • I continue this process until I finished work for the day


It's true if you get something done, regardless of the size and complexity, it makes you feel good (thanks to dopamine).  If something makes you feel good, it physically reinforces your behaviour to do it again.  You need a few quick wins (getting things to Done), to start releasing dopamine and establish the ritual for the longer term.  If you don't get outcomes, you're not going to keep doing something.  If you can create the habit of getting several smaller things done per day, you on your way. Habits are like safety nets. They are not for optimum productivity. They are there to ensure minimum productivity.  I recommend breaking work into small enough chunks that you can get something done every hour.


By doing these three things, you'll achieve increased productivity. If you can get inspired and motivated, your increase will be even higher.  Alas, inspiration and motivation are a different topic.  Until then, capitalize on the system, rituals and habits, until the next time you get inspired.

If you are looking for a system to work beyond personal productivity, the same rules apply.  Visualize your group or organization's continuous flow of value on a wall or board (physical or virtual Kanban).  Define timeboxes, like in Scrum, for teams to focus on work.  Take a short break at the end of each timebox.  Keep reflecting on the things you've accomplished.  Get that dopamine flowing!

Notes:  Picked up by DZone and viewed over 3,000 times in 3 days.

Discipline over Motivation

I recently read a compelling piece titled Screw motivation, what you need is discipline.

It claimed...

If you want to get anything done, there are two basic ways to get yourself to do it.

The first, more popular and devastatingly wrong option is to try to motivate yourself.

The second, somewhat unpopular and entirely correct choice is to cultivate discipline.

It doesn't sound convincingly balanced, does it?

What the author goes on to write

Motivation, broadly speaking, operates on the assumption that a particular mental or emotional state is necessary to start or complete a task.  Discipline, by contrast, separates outwards functioning from moods and feelings and thereby circumvents the problem.

Successful completion of tasks brings about the inner states that chronic procrastinators think they need to initiate tasks in the first place.

If action is conditional on feelings, waiting for the right mood becomes a particularly insidious form of procrastination.

If you wait until you feel like doing stuff, you’re screwed. That’s precisely how the dreaded procrastinatory loops come about.

What I think

I halfway agree with the author's thoughts. But, I believe you need ritual (not discipline) and motivation.  I believe you should create a system to ensure you are always getting stuff done, regardless if you're motivated (though it helps). My system includes rituals that I follow.  Those rituals become habits. Those habits help me get more stuff done.