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Sprint retrospectives: reflecting on how we do things at FutureLearn

Can you remember the last time you stepped back from your day-to-day activities to think: “How do I feel about this? Is this the right thing to be doing? Is there a better way to do it?” Here, our Product Manager, Simon Pearson, explains how we ask these questions at FutureLearn, through regular sprint retrospectives.

A FutureLearn team taking part in a retrospective

Every two weeks at FutureLearn, our three product teams have a sprint retrospective, where we reflect on what we’ve done. Those familiar with developing software in an agile way may be familiar with this term, but these moments of reflection are useful whether you’re developing software (like us), managing a business, getting fit or even writing a book.

So how does a sprint retrospective work?

Every two weeks we meet up for an hour, in a room where no-one else in the company can hear, to discuss how we’re working together and see if there are ways to improve.

Often this discussion is structured around questions such as:

  • What went well?
  • What went less well?
  • What’s puzzling us?

At the end of a productive retrospective, despite discussing some tough challenges, the team leaves the room on time, feeling positive and like everyone has contributed. There is a set of tangible actions that can be used to adapt the team’s way of working – hopefully for the better.

Achieving a productive retrospective requires careful facilitation. If you can have someone outside your team do this for you, it is a big benefit. But sometimes that is hard, and not everyone knows how to facilitate. So what does a facilitator do? How can we become good at it?

Recently we ran an internal workshop to help everyone feel confident at facilitation. We focussed the discussion on a few key questions which I’ve outlined below.

1. What makes a good facilitator?

We agreed that a good facilitator:

  • is impartial;
  • keeps everyone to time;
  • makes sure everyone is included;
  • ensures people do not interrupt each other;
  • asks probing questions ( “why” is your friend in these situations, to get to the root cause of issues);
  • and keeps people on track – focussed on the things that the team actually has control over.

2. How do facilitators help people feel safe?

Sometimes people want to raise issues that they may feel are difficult to raise, so it’s important to make sure they feel safe to do so.

The facilitator can remind the team that the primary objective is to learn, not to blame. A good way to do this is to remind everyone of the Retrospective Prime Directive:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” – Norm Kerth

Other ways to ensure that the team feels safe to speak freely include ensuring that the space is suitable, comfortable and private, and potentially starting with an ice breaker to reduce any tension in the room.

3. How can facilitators help people come to a shared understanding of what we could improve?

Often, something that one person raises in a retrospective may be misinterpreted by others in the room. This can be mitigated by clustering similar ideas, summarising the issue and repeating it back to the room, confirming it is correctly understood before writing an action.

4. How do facilitators make sure everyone gets a chance to contribute?

As with any meeting, sometimes the same few people can either dominate or remain silent in retrospectives. A good facilitator will intervene to redress this imbalance by:

  • setting ground rules (for example, “no interruptions”);
  • using “warm up” games to set the expectation that everyone should speak but no-one should hog the conversation;
  • using Post-it notes to allow those who aren’t comfortable with speaking to write their thoughts down instead;
  • and gently encouraging quieter team members to contribute using language like “Would you like to add something?” rather than “What do you think?”, as the former question is much easier to politely decline.

5. How do facilitators stop retrospectives overrunning?

One of the trickiest things about facilitating is keeping to time. There are several ways to do this:

  • timeboxing (sharing a plan of how much time will be spent on each section of the meeting up front);
  • gently nudge things along;
  • focussing on the important issues first or asking the team to prioritise the things they feel are the most pressing, if there are many;
  • and creating spin-off meetings about wider issues that need further discussion to create actions.

6. How do facilitators bring the meeting to a conclusion?

It’s usually as simple as summarising and reiterating action points. Posing a question at the start and coming back to it at the end can also be a good way to end the retropsective on a positive note.

Keeping things fresh

One of the challenges of running these regularly (some team members attend two each fortnight) is keeping them fresh. We often use different techniques to mix up the sprint retrospectives and keep the format interesting. Resources like Retrospective Wiki, Fun Retrospectives and the Government Service Design Manual are a big help.

Reflecting on longer projects

It’s worth saying that we also run retrospectives on projects, which can cover a wider period than just two weeks.

In these sessions, we bear all of the above in mind, but additionally use exercises at the start of the meeting to jog participants’ memories – for example, building an interactive timeline of the project.

Running retrospectives like this on a regular basis has changed the way we work significantly over time – hopefully for the better.

If you have any tips for ensuring you adapt the way you work as a team, we’d love to hear them and try them out. Tell us in the comments below.

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