Keep your team engaged by thinking like a game developer: a guide for Agile scrum teams during the COVID-19 crisis

By Steven Dry

As society adjusts to the impact of COVID-19, agile teams are adapting to new ways of working. With scrum teams largely working from home for the foreseeable future, scrum masters are competing for their team’s attention amid the noise of email, chat platforms, and distractions.

While having teams agree to turn on their webcams for meetings is a start, we need to fundamentally rethink how we run meetings in a virtual context. We need to start thinking like game developers, building as much interactivity as possible into our sprint ceremonies.

Here are three things you can do to ensure your Agile teams stay engaged during the coronavirus crisis:

Boost your backlog refinements with a virtual white board

The process of taking backlog refinement ceremonies to a white board helps co-create solutions in real time, meaning everyone leaves meetings with a shared understanding of the solution and deeper buy-in. Unfortunately, we often lose this capability virtually, where people start developing PowerPoints to try to communicate, eliminating much of the engagement. To replicate this experience virtually, use products like Mural, the Microsoft Teams digital whiteboard, or Microsoft OneNote’s Draw. They allow real-time interactivity across the virtual chasm. Encourage people to use different colours to represent their own contributions. Before you know it, you’ll be co-creating a solution in real time.

Amplify team voices with interactive decision-making tools

Sprint planning and team retrospectives are most productive when all voices are heard. Traditional sprint planning estimation tools like planning poker allow the team to hear the perspectives of all contributors, have honest conversations and leave with a shared commitment to the work. By encouraging everyone to contribute during retrospectives, the team receives valuable feedback from all sides. However, virtual meetings make both estimation and retrospective activities difficult. Individuals can more easily dominate conversations or hide in obscurity, and it’s too easy to disengage with the conversation. Luckily, a number of tools can make estimation and retrospectives more engaging. For estimation, try a digital platform like PlanIT Poker or ScrumPoker. Both are free. For more secure options, check out Planning Poker or Atlassian’s Planning Poker integration. In terms of retrospectives, you could use a programme like FunRetro, a Trello board or a Kanban board in Microsoft Teams to create three columns: what went well? What could be improved? How could it be improved? Because your team can add cards in real time, it will create a much more engaging and interactive experience.

Promote impromptu meetings for greater innovation

Co-located teams create incredible opportunities for inspiration and innovation. Whether it’s a development team member gathering additional requirements from a product owner, relationship building between a developer and scrum master, or a random conversation with someone from another team that inspires an innovation, unplanned conversations can promote new or revised thinking with profound impact. Remote working requires scrum masters to manufacture these types of impromptu meetings. In a virtual setting, you might decide on a certain period of time every day where individuals commit to being on your company’s chosen chat platform. This will give people the certainty they can find someone during those times, without mandating another meeting. You could also facilitate regular virtual coffee sessions between your team. If that sounds like too much, start each ceremony with an icebreaker question to help facilitate greater relationship building.

As companies move into an indefinite period of remote agile working, our role as scrum master has morphed from facilitator to engager. More than ever, we’ll be competing for our team’s attention amidst a barrage of on-screen and off-screen distractions. We need to consider ways that our teams can interact beyond simply speaking. Just as game developers seek to embed ever-more interaction, co-creativity and decentralised decision-making into their offerings, so we as scrum masters must constantly seek to iterate and refine our agile approach to ensure our teams stay engaged in these uncertain times.

About the authors

Steven Dry PA agile expert Part creative, part quantitative: Steve moves projects from ideation to implementation

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