18 December 2019
Image of retro process

The end of a year is often a time to reflect on what's been, do some planning or set goals for the year ahead. Lists of ten things people have done or experienced since 2010 have been popping up on socials lately. Then there's the #tenyearchallenge where people are posting photos of themselves in 2010 and now.

I'll put aside whether the end of 2019, or the end of 2020 is the 'right' time to do a check-in on the decade! And while the #tenyearchallenge is more tempting to do now, rather than 2000 versus 1990 (bad hair moment), I'm not going there. 

This year I started a new role as Project Director for Delivering Great Policy. Having 'Delivering' in the title signals a focus on the future… and delivery. For this project, delivery is undertaking activities over time, with agencies and people in a variety of roles, to catalyse delivery of great policy advice - to support better outcomes for all Australians.

But sometimes we are so focused on the future and delivery, we don't take a moment to look back and acknowledge what went well, and what we can learn when things go wrong. This year I've realised how adding one meeting, every two or three weeks, called a 'retro' or retrospective, is a useful way of working. While retrospectives are most common in ‘agile’ IT solutions teams, we've found they work well in our context.

In a retro, the team reflect on what went well, what didn't go well, and what we learned - next steps. This minimises the likelihood we make the same mistakes (although we do from time to time), and sets us up for delivery. It also provides a useful reframe for what ‘success’ looks like – in Delivering Great Policy we strive to succeed and fail as a team rather than at the individual level. 

So how does it work?

We use post-it notes. Individually, we reflect and write one post-it note per thought. After we've written our notes, we share them with the team - grouping by theme. And once we've worked through to the "what we learned - next steps" category, we come up with actions for the future.

Any hot tips?  

We have found retro works best when we are specific rather than general. It’s also helpful to switch up who facilitates the session – retros do not have to be led by the ‘leader’. Finally, we always make sure someone documents the session so we can look back on them as individual events, but also to track and measure progress when our memories of specifics fade.

One retro, after a significant highlight of our year - the 8 November Delivering Great Policy Launch - we added some extra framing questions for thinking and reflection… while retaining the three categories:  

  • How did working with this group compare with groups you’ve worked within the past?
  • What would you change to make the group work together more effectively?
  • What was the greatest challenge you had as a group? 

The reason was to continue to build our team. We are seconded from across the APS, have different backgrounds and experience, and are adopting different ways of working and new tasks – like turning co-designed content into launch-ready products. The 'high' post Launch was a great time to celebrate success as a group and check-in on how we are working as a team - the ups and the downs.  

You might be interested in a primer on Retrospectives from Atlassian: https://www.atlassian.com/team-playbook/plays/retrospective 

I can see retros working in other APS contexts, outside of project-based work. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort (all you need is some post-its and sharpies) and can be an easy way to bake evaluation into team practice.

 Looking forward to 2020 and more work toward delivery… which I'm sure will lead to further opportunities for reflection for the team, and on Delivering Great Policy.

Emma Cully