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Sprint reviews: what they’re for, why they’re useful and why they should involve everyone

Head of Product (and sprint review ring master) Matt Walton, explains what a sprint review is, why they’re really useful and how FutureLearn’s are a little bit different.

Sprint 33 review

FutureLearn’s product vision is to inspire social learning by telling stories, provoking conversation and celebrating progress. Interestingly, the vision for our product has also influenced the culture of our young company. “Celebration is part of the product vision!” has become the (slightly tongue-in-cheek) office mantra.

One of the key ways that we celebrate the progress we make is at our fortnightly Sprint Review. It has become an important ritual as our company rapidly grows and this post is an attempt to explain what we do and why it’s so useful.

“Celebration is part of the product vision!”

What is a Sprint Review?

FutureLearn, like many digital businesses, uses agile software development techniques to build our product. We’re undogmatic about our process, borrowing techniques from methodologies like Scrum, Kanban, Lean and anything else that we find works and helps us effectively and efficiently work together.

“A sprint (or iteration) is the basic unit of development in Scrum. The sprint is a “timeboxed” effort; that is, it is restricted to a specific duration. The duration is fixed in advance for each sprint and is normally between one week and one month, although two weeks is typical.” – Wikipedia

From Scrum, we have borrowed the notion of ‘sprints’: a fixed period of time where we set ourselves a number of goals that we wish to achieve. Our sprints run for a fortnight from Monday to Friday. And at the end of the day on the second Friday, we gather the company around the large monitor at the end of our office for an hour or so and review our progress against our sprint goals and celebrate what we have achieved in the previous two weeks.

Sprint Reviews normally focus on features you have shipped in your product. However, at FutureLearn we have chosen to extend the idea further and give everyone across the company the chance to share, demo and explain significant achievements.

It means that everybody’s contributions, whether they are focused on data analysis, acquiring new learners, fielding feedback for our learners or supporting our educators in creating courses, are as valued as those designing things and writing code. And it means that we all have a better understanding of what we all do and how it contributes to our overall goal of making high quality, enjoyable education as accessible to as many people as we can.

A typical agenda

We begin with a slot called “Hellos and goodbyes”. Over the last 12-months we have transitioned from a collective of contractors to an awesome permanent team which has continued to grow. This slot enables us to welcome new faces and introduce them to the whole team and say thank you to those who are leaving us. It’s a really useful way to make sure everybody continues to know who everybody is.

We then quickly review some headline stats from the last two weeks, so that the whole company are intimately aware of the metrics that are important to our business such as the rate new learners are registering, how many people have been actively learning on our platform in the last month and how many are purchasing our statements of participation.

Next, Inky our user advocate summarises the main themes of feedback we have received from our learners over the last fortnight and picks out a few choice emails that she thinks are worth sharing with the team. It keeps everyone in touch with issues our learners are experiencing and the nice pieces of feedback help keep us inspired.

Sprint 33 review
Sprint 33 review.

The product team demos each of the features we have shipped, with the developer who has been most responsible for writing the code doing the show and tell. Generally there is a presentation from one of our designers who show some of the concept work we have created or results from user testing that we have done during the sprint. It’s important that those who have made the things get to tell us what they did and means that all of the team have a strong sense of ownership and pride in their work.

The learner acquisition team take a look at what is driving new registrations, look at trends in the data and present some of the campaigns and things they are doing to drive awareness of our brilliant product and courses. Any key bits of press or surprising things happening on social media are also shared.

The content team then take us through courses that have finished in the last fortnight, what’s worked well and share some of the key metrics from each so that we can learn about what makes a successful course. They also highlight the courses starting in the next fortnight and pick out some stories that the rest of the team would find interesting or might inspire them to improve something in their area.

We finish by celebrating “Other good things”, a slot to round up other interesting stuff that has been happening around our company. This can include anything from our FutureLearn flag appearing on the BBC’s coverage of Glastonbury, the introduction of a new Cycle To Work scheme or an update on how many cups of coffee our new coffee machine has made.

The meeting ends with a mutual round of applause and then we open some beers and bottles of wine and people mill around and chat about the things they have seen and compare notes. And more often than not the celebration continues into the evening at a local pub…

Sprint review presentations and FutureLearn Talks

The spirit of sprint review is about demoing, showing, telling and proudly celebrating achievements and, sometimes, failure (you can learn a lot from failure). Each update should be five minutes or less to give everyone from across the team a chance to highlight the great things happening in their area. It’s important for sprint review to include as many voices from around the company as possible.

Sometimes people have things that need a bit more time to explain and more time for questions. With these things we normally spin them off into a FutureLearn Talk. We’ll be blogging about FutureLearn talks soon.

Our first ever sprint review
Our first ever sprint review in our original home “The Submarine”.

Why is Sprint review important?

One of our values is “Always learning”. Sprint review is another way to learn, and perhaps most importantly it’s about learning and appreciating what other members of the team do. It’s about creating a team spirit and a sense of collaboration, making sure everybody is aware of what’s going on and giving them the opportunity to give feedback on or get involved in projects.

Celebration is part of our product vision as we know that making learning visible, encouraging people to reflect on their achievements and share them with others motivates them and makes them better at what they do. At FutureLearn we try wherever possible to live our values. Celebration is part of the product vision and sprint review a very tangible and important realisation of that.

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