Early in my career I made a terrible mistake. One that I think many others have made and will continue to make. I ran a remote retrospective with people I didn’t know well enough.

I thought I did. I had talked with everyone privately before the retrospective. I knew what they told me the problems were, what they thought of the happenings around them, their goals, and what they wanted me to do. I thought I knew these things.

So I scheduled my first retrospective with the group. They had been doing these things themselves, but wanted me to take over as they had been, “Ineffective.” I put that into quotes because it adds dramatic emphasis that will soon make sense.

I decided to open with the Mad/Sad/Glad activity. The reason is that even as unobservant as I am, the conversations I had with everyone let me to believe our retrospective needed to focus on the, “We” of what was going on instead of the, “It” of the process and product.

“Fuck you,” is a phrase I don’t often hear at work, but this retrospective certainly had its share. The retrospective was extremely dysfunctional. People were cursing at one another, they were breaking down into tears.

I don’t think even to this day I would be adequately prepared to be in a retrospective like that again.

In my inexperience I let things go for probably too long before trying to ask, “So, do we even think that were trying our best here?” Thankfully, this diffused the situation quickly. People did admit that everyone was doing their best. I asked if someone wanted to say that and offer apology for any hurt feelings. Everyone did. I don’t remember what happened after that retrospective.

Over the next few months things changed rather rapidly, people who had cursed at each other began working together more smoothly, not in some kind of dream like way, but constructively.

This story is from several years ago now, and I’m reminded of it whenever I meet a new team. This team was remote, and I couldn’t see the damaged relationships when I talked to people as though they were co-located. I didn’t learn and listen deeply enough to them. I set up a retrospective that was a grenade.

When it comes to remote retrospectives it is more or less a rule of thumb to me to realize that I barely know anything about the people in the, “Room.” My senses are dulled so much that I am oblivious to very important dynamics that cause real hurt in this case. I’ve had to re-focus how I engage with remote teams and spend a lot more time with learning about everyone and their relationships before I facilitate for them.