Every retrospective requires some sort of tool. Tools can be as simple as a white board and markers or as complex as mind-mapping and screen-sharing software. When a team is distributed, screen sharing and teleconferencing/videoconferencing tools are necessities. The combination of technique and level of team distribution will influence tool selection. Likewise, tool availability will influence technique selection. For example, use a mind mapping tool and screen sharing when executing a listing retrospective for a distributed team so that each location can see the ideas and participate. If the distributed team could not use those tools, you will have to find a different approach. Generally the technique defines the toolset, but that is not always the case. When everyone is in the same room sticky notes are great but when team members are teleconferencing into the retrospective electronics are required.
The retrospective can’t become ritualized to the point that it lacks meaning. Each retrospective needs to provide a platform for the Agile team to reflect on their performance and to determine how they can achieve more. This is a team activity that requires a free flow of conversation and ideas in order to maximize effectiveness. That means someone needs to facilitate the process and police the boundary. No team is perfect and all teams can learn and improve on a continuous basis. Most obstacles to effective retrospectives are solvable with a bit of coaching and education, if you recognize the obstacles before you abandon the technique. Facilitation skills, retrospective techniques and tools are all important for an effective retrospective. The technique is driven by needs of the team. The coach/facilitator needs to be aware of the needs of the team and the proper tools to facilitate the technique. If they are not available, pick another technique. However once the retrospective begins, facilitation skills are always the most important factor. Even with the best technique and tools, retrospectives are all about the people.