For large distributed retrospectives, where participants in the retrospective are in different cities, I have created a variation of popular group discussion technique called as “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 wherein 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; however will focus on the variation of Park Bench technique and how I addressed the situation when there were some issues. The setup for the retrospective included 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 of the group discussion At any time only three seats can be occupied by the participants, keeping one of the seats empty. Only those seated on the ‘park bench’ can talk and rest of the participants can only listen. If some one wants to contribute then they can take the fourth seat to join the park bench. At this time one of the existing speakers must vacate their spot and leave the discussion. Thus ensuring 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 time-boxed and enable everyone to participate on 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 must 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 time boxed for 45 minutes.

During 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 it was being followed. After the first fifteen minutes of this discussion format, I realized that only a few people are repeating themselves on the park bench and discussion was getting polarized.

There were others whose voices that needed to be heard. Sensing that a few people are monopolizing the discussion, I interrupted the discussion and introduced one more rule. This new rule was that each person leaving the park bench must invite another person from the larger group to join the discussion. The person requested to join must take a seat on the park bench. The person now requested to join can choose to not contribute, however will have to invite another person 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 retrospective for the participants.

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 and meetings over web cams often tend to get monopolized, as it gets easier to forget others who are not physically in front of you. (Out of sight, out of mind)