Can agile save the world? Using retrospectives to improve volunteer meetings.

Retrospectives and Global Justice

White October is leading the way in applying agile software-development principles to the work of a web agency.  So it’s only natural that I’ve been wondering what agile could contribute to my spare time activities too.

When I’m not leading the Backend Development Team at White October, I chair Global Justice Oxford (“GJO”), the Oxfordshire branch of Global Justice Now, a UK organisation campaigning on issues of economic and environmental justice.

When I became chair, I decided to try out an adaptation of the agile concept of “retrospectives”, applying it to GJO’s monthly planning meetings.  At White October, we have a retrospective meeting at the end of every two week “sprint” – this is a structured time of critical reflection designed to drive continuous improvements to our ways of working.  For GJO, I tried a retrospective at the end of each of our monthly meetings to think about the meeting itself.  This article explores how we got on.

The retrospectives

The month before I actually ran a proper retrospective, I ran a brainstorm to think about the purpose of our meetings and the purpose of our group.  Then, over the course of 9 months, we ran the following retrospectives (some more than once):

  • Good, bad, ideas, kudos: Each participant was given a stack of sticky notes on which they wrote good things about the meeting, bad things about the meeting, ideas about how we could do better next time and “kudos” (thank yous) for anyone who made a particularly good contribution.  These were then stuck on a big sheet of paper, with each participant explaining the notes as they were added.
  • Marks out of 10: Each participant gave the meeting a mark out of ten and had the opportunity to suggest something that would have made it better (or could make our next one better).
  • New year’s priorities: We ran this one in January.  I reminded everyone of the aims of the group which we’d brainstormed previously.  These were listed on a large sheet of paper.  People then annotated the list, adding a plus, minus or equals-sign, depending on whether they thought that aim should be given more, less or the same amount of focus in the coming year.  There was also an “anything else” section of the paper where other ideas could be added.
  • Loved, loathed, learned, lacked: Each participant was given a stack of sticky notes on which they wrote things about the meeting they loved or loathed (or just “liked less”!)  They also wrote notes for things they’d learned in the meeting and for anything they thought the meeting was lacking.

You’ll notice that many of these involve writing responses on sticky notes.  This is the recommended approach rather than simply asking people to say their ideas out loud. Writing notes makes it easier for shyer members to contribute, it allows people to think without being influenced by others’ opinions, and it provides natural thinking time whilst writing the notes.  Plus you end up with a ready-made record of what was discussed!

Most of these activities were ones I’d encountered at White October.  You can read about other similar exercises at http://plans-for-retrospectives.com.  However, if you want to use the exercises on that website for a similar voluntary group, you’ll need to adapt them – they’re designed for software projects and for meetings wholly dedicated to the purpose of a retrospective.

post-it notes from volunteer retrospectiveWhat worked well?

Encouragement and thank-yous

One definite positive was that the retrospectives provided good opportunities to encourage group members.  For example, one group member had an idea for our upcoming stall which in the end we decided not to go with.  However, in the retrospective, three separate people gave her “kudos” for the idea, explaining how it had helped shape the plan that we actually went with.

Similarly, when we had an outside speaker at a meeting, the retrospective provided a good opportunity to thank the speaker for their contribution – the speaker could also directly hear which parts of their talk resonated and what people specifically learnt.

Thinking about the positives and understanding others’ opinions

Just thinking about the positive aspects of a meeting was an encouragement in itself, especially when people talked about what they’d learned.

As meeting chair, I found it helpful to know what people thought of different parts of the meetings as it can be hard to gauge attitudes in the meeting itself.

Making an immediate or practical difference

On one occasion, the retrospective was able to make an immediate difference: It transpired that several people would have liked time to discuss the short film we had watched, so we spent time after the retrospective discussing the film as a group.

Retrospectives also helped us think about some of the practical aspects of meetings.  For example, someone commented that the large table we were sitting around made it hard for them to hear everyone, so we rearranged the room at our next meeting to move us closer together.  Similarly, the problem of people talking over one another came up, so that was something we could discuss at the start of the subsequent meeting and try to improve on.

What didn’t work so well?

Whilst retrospectives provided opportunities for encouragement and resulted in some small practical changes to our meetings, in other respects they didn’t work as well for us as I would have hoped.

Time was the biggest issue.  First, our meetings were regularly quite long, and so including a retrospective at the end sometimes added to the feeling of “yet another agenda item”.  Secondly, the length of meetings was often an issue which the retrospectives brought up, but we weren’t able to work out how to improve this!

The third way in which time was a problem was the lack of time to implement ideas.  The earlier retrospective exercises I ran had quite a focus on ideas for improvements to our meeting. However, even though these did throw up several ideas, we often lacked the time outside of meetings to do the necessary preparatory work to implement them!

All of this was quite a contrast with the effect of retrospectives at White October, where the team work closely together for a two-week period and so it’s easier to find opportunities to put ideas into practice.

Similarly, as GJO only meet once a month and some people can’t make every meeting, our time together was too infrequent to allow for effective experimentation with new meeting ideas and too fragmented to allow for a sense of continuous improvement.  This again felt different to my experience of our software projects, where we’re in contact with clients throughout each day.

I also wondered whether the retrospectives were more use to me as chair than to other participants.  As mentioned above, I found it helpful when planning agendas to know what people thought of different parts of the meetings.  However, this sort of information was less useful to others.  This possibly tied in with a bigger problem – I felt that I had explained the purpose of trying retrospectives, but some of the feedback I received when planning this article suggested that perhaps others weren’t so clear what we were actually trying to achieve.

Worth it?

All in all, our meetings didn’t change dramatically as a result of these experiments, and lack of time (both in and between meetings) was probably the main reason for that.  Nevertheless, I thought that this trial was worth it for two reasons:

  1. It showed that our group were deliberate about trying to change and improve
  2. It provided ideas for small practical changes which otherwise might never have come up

If you’re involved in a similar group and are wondering about trying retrospectives, I’d recommend you take the plunge – you’ll never know what ideas and understanding they could bring to light if you don’t!

An alternative version of this article originally appeared on the Global Justice Oxford blog.

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