We held a massive retro and this is what we learnt

Holding team retrospectives helps us make sure we keep questioning the value in the things we’re working on and the ways we’re working. Retros give us a chance to reflect and learn.

At the Co-op, the Membership team is made up of 8 smaller teams with separate sets of objectives. Each small team holds regular retros and although they’re beneficial, we wanted to try a really big, joined up retro to see how that could help the wider group.

Photograph of a wall with hundreds of post it notes from the mega retro stuck on it. The big membership retro write up is written in red pen on the wall.

Six discussion points with long-lasting benefits

As a delivery manager, hosting retros falls under my remit. What I love about hosting them is that there’s no right or wrong way of doing them and I have the chance to experiment with different formats each time.

This time, after discussing them with other delivery managers, we chose these 6 giant retro topics:

1. Autonomy – how do you feel about the support, tools, skills you have and how trusted are you to get on with things?
2. Purpose – what’s your understanding of why you come to work and how your work contributes to the bigger picture?
3. Mastery – do you feel you have the opportunity to develop and use your skills?

These 3 ideas come from Daniel H. Pink’s book ‘Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us‘. Of course, we want our teams to feel motivated so talking about things that contribute to feeling that way is important.

We also spoke about:
4. Agility – how agile are we and how could we be better at working in this way?
5. Unity – how well do we work as a team, support our colleagues and feel able to ask for support?
6. Thoughtfulness – how well do we learn from mistakes and take alternative action?

All 6 of these topics are general enough that any digital team could use them in a retro.

The nitty gritty: how we did it

We split into groups of around 8 people – the average size for most of our individual team retros. We chopped our time into six, 20-minute rounds which felt like just enough to explore a topic but not enough time for people to lose interest.

Photograph of some of the membership team standing around a whiteboard talking about the thoughtfulness topic.

Outcomes: reality, aspirations and ideas

People had a lot to say. They had over 500 post it notes-worth of things to say in fact which is great: it means they felt the environment was safe enough to raise their issues. We grouped the post its into 22 themes and worked through each theme to figure out:

  • what our reality is now
  • how we’d like things to be
  • how we could make that change happen

We dot-voted on each theme to help us prioritise our actions.

The team came up with hundreds of ideas for how we can improve but one popped up again and again: dismantling and redistributing our central test team and giving crews more responsibilities for testing, quality and releasing. So that’s how we’re working now.

Try this at work

The general consensus for us was that holding a massive retro was useful. We found it’s worth keeping these points in mind though.

  1. Organisers will need to commit to a couple of days preparation and evaluation before and after the event.
  2. There’ll always be sceptics. Don’t let them stop you giving it a go. If it’s not valuable for your team, you don’t have to do it again.
  3. Be prepared to act on feedback quickly. If you don’t, there’s no point doing the retro.
  4. Don’t try and fix everything at once. Prioritise a couple of things and let the team know you’ll be addressing those things first.

If you’ve tried a retro on this kind of scale we’d be interested in finding out how it went and what effect it had on team morale. Let us know in the comments.

Rob Wadsworth
Delivery manager

Life as a software engineer in Co-op Digital

Software Engineer Nancy Richardson shares her thoughts about working in the Digital team.

(Transcript) Nancy Richardson: What I love about working here at Co-op Digital is I feel that at the end of the day that I’m making a difference. The products that we have are very well thought out and I’m also excited about the future as I’ve heard of some of the things that Co-op could be working on in say five years from now. Also I enjoy the diversity of the people I work with, we’re all different ages, different backgrounds.

I was attracted to the role because of its full stack and polyglot approach. This makes the work very varied, you could be working in the front end, back end, or on DevOps, and every sprint could be focusing on a different area of the stack, so this makes it very interesting. And I come from a Ruby background but now i’m learning Java which is really different from ruby but I feel very supported.

I’m learning from my colleagues on the job and there are also code show and tells. There’s even dedicated learning time. I think now is a really good time to join the Co-op because Co-op Digital is starting to expand so you have more influence in helping develop our standards, our ways of working, our teams stack and our practices.

Nancy Richardson
Software Engineer (Membership)

We’re looking for engineers at the moment. If you’re interested take a look at our Work with us page.

 

Posters. They’re part of our culture

Arch_Principle_4

Our workspace in Federation House is shiny and new, open-plan and airy, and best of all it reflects our teams’ progress. Whiteboards show what we’re working on now and what’s coming next – they’re chocker with post-its.

But we’re also beginning to fill our walls with posters. Instead of showing work in progress, our posters show off overarching ideas, ones that don’t change from sprint to sprint.

We posted about our 10 Architecture Principles back in April. We’ve since made them into a series of posters. Putting them up reminds us how we’ve agreed to work and makes our workspace ours.  

Posters: words by Ella Fitzsimmons, design by Gail Mellows.

Co-op Digital team

Why using jargon can alienate your wider team

Working in an agile way is now the norm for software development, IT and digital professionals (two thirds of companies describe their way of working as ‘agile’ or ‘leaning towards’ agile). And it’s how we work at Co-op Digital.

It’s a way of building products and services in gradual phases, instead of delivering it all at once, at the end. It means giving value to the people who will use the product as early as possible and letting them influence the direction of the product . It puts the user (in our case the customer, member or colleague) at the centre of the design and development process.

But agile comes with its own set of terminology and jargon. Search for ‘agile jargon’ and you’ll be met with a collection of dictionaries, glossaries and jargon-busters to help you understand the specialist vocabulary. ‘Sprint’, ‘kanban’, ‘scrum’, ‘MVP’, ‘retrospective’: there’s hundreds of terms that make up these aids.

What is jargon?

The Oxford Dictionary defines jargon as:

“Special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.”

Sometimes jargon can be used as a shortcut to communicate a complex concept. It can be used to show that a person is a specialist in their field or connected to a certain community.

But, if we use jargon, we restrict the audience to those who understand the terms — it’s only understandable to those who know.

Why jargon’s a problem

As with many agile teams, Co-op Digital works with more traditional parts of the business. Recently, I’ve been working closely with Co-op Food. We couldn’t build a successful service without our Food colleagues’ knowledge and expertise. The least we can do in return is talk about these services in a way everyone understands.

This collaboration also gives us the opportunity to show the value that the agile way of working can add to a project and the rest of the business.

Agile often works best when it converts people — when it’s demonstrated an effective way of working to people who were initially sceptical. We should make the effort to make this transition as easy as possible for people.

But, by openly using agile jargon within a wider setting, we risk isolating the very people we want to help work in this way. If someone does not understand the vocabulary being used, it can be unnerving, alienating and mean they misinterpret an important part of what’s being said. Research shows that the less people understand, the less they trust the people telling them the information.

Using jargon can be inaccessible, ineffective and damaging.

What agile teams can do better

However we communicate, we should be inherently humble of what we assume. And good communication should not assume any specialist knowledge of the audience.

When we write for users of Co-op products and services we learn about the language that they use and make a considered effort to speak to them in a language we know they understand. We should do the same when we’re speaking to the wider team about our processes.

That means not using specialist terminology (or, at the very least, adding a plain English definition at the point any specialist terms are used) if we’re communicating:

  • publicly about our work
  • to people outside of our immediate team
  • to people who are new to a team or organisation

By doing this we’re not only removing barriers to comprehension, but showing that we’re open, transparent and respectful of our audience’s time.

Joanne Schofield
Content designer

Read more:

Introducing our informal cross-Group meet ups

Around 70,000 people work for the Co-op Group across 5 business areas so it’s safe to say there’s a lot of people we’re never going to get to know. It’s really easy to only spend time with people you come into contact with which is a shame because we can learn a lot from colleagues working in other areas.

To help bring people from the Co-op Group together and to start conversations we hold ‘Tea for 3’ meet ups. Over the last 3 years there have been over a thousand meet ups and over 350 people have connected. We’re hoping more people will get involved after reading this post.

The meet ups are an opportunity for colleagues across the business to say hello, find out what other people do and whether they have any common interests inside or outside of work. Ultimately, meeting and chatting to people with different expertise is an excellent way to get different perspectives on solving problems and ways of working.

How it works

The meet ups are open to colleagues across the Group. If you’re interested in getting involved you can sign up to take part. Three people are chosen at random and introduced over email beforehand. They then meet in person, over the phone, videoconference, Google Hangout or however works best.

The next 30 minutes is up to them. We haven’t proposed a series of questions or conversation cards or anything. The whole thing is supposed to be really informal so that conversation will flow freely.

The lowdown from this month

Photograph of Nassali, Sabrina and Mike sitting at a table and smiling at the camera.

We were involved in this month’s Tea for 3 meet up. We are Nassali Douglas, a food project manager in the Retail Support Centre and Sabrina Jacobs, a community programme management office (PMO) manager.

Nassali’s role is to manage changes that affect our food stores. This includes things like our customer service learning and development initiative, Service Rocks, as well as setting up email in our stores to improve the way colleagues can communicate with the business and their communities.

Sabrina helps manage many aspects of the Community Change programme which aims to build on Membership as the community strategy. She also looks after budget management, recruitment, governance reporting and risk and issue management.

The third person at our meet up was Mike Bracken, Co-op’s Chief Digital Officer. Mike is responsible for making the Co-op an organisation that can operate effectively in the digital age.

We spent most of our meeting chatting about how we can use digital to encourage younger people to become Member Pioneers, and how the Digital team is helping some of the exciting developments in our food stores.

If it wasn’t for this meet up, it’s unlikely our paths would have crossed and even more unlikely that we’d spend half an hour chatting and learning from each other.

Tea for 3: networking works

Since the meet ups started, people have made new friends and acquaintances and there have been occasions when people’s informal networking has been useful in other ways.

One example of many would be when Nassali went to a meet up and found out that our Co-op Academies were looking for school governors. The person who told her encouraged her to apply because Nassali had mentioned she had a background in teaching and was looking for a way to reconnect with education. She’s now a governor for the Co-operative Academy of Manchester.

Every now and then you bump into people you’ve met through Tea for 3 and it’s great to already have a connection. It turns out that Nassali will be joining the same team as Sabrina when she moves roles in the next few weeks – good to have a friendly face in a new team.

You can sign up to take part in Tea for 3 or email EA.ThinkTank@coop.co.uk if you have questions about it.

See you for a cuppa soon.

Sabrina Jacobs and Nassali Douglas  
Community PMO manager and food project manager

Our mental health meet ups and why they matter

Mental health problems affect around 1 in 4 people in the UK each year according to the latest stats from Mind. In England, 1 in 6 people say they’ve experienced a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week.

This week is mental health awareness week so it seems like a good time to talk about how we’ve been supporting each other at Co-op Digital.

Opening up

Getting people to talk is something I’ve been encouraging people to do here for a little while now. Since September last year, I’ve been running a mental health meet up.

I set up the group after finding that opening up about my experience with anxiety helped me. I also noticed that friends and colleagues I’d spoken to would often then open up to me and say things like, “I’ve never talked about this with anyone before”. That’s not good. I wanted to change that. So, twice a month a group of us have been meeting to talk about all issues relating to mental health.

A safe place to speak

I knew the most important thing for anyone who came to the meet ups would be knowing that anything they said would be confidential and for them to feel they were among empathetic people who understood. This way they could talk freely.

So our meet ups started out small and very informal. Everyone was welcome but I didn’t want to risk opening up the group to spectators, which would be easily done in an organisation as big as ours, so I didn’t involve HR.

No minutes, no register, no pressure.

At the meet ups

We hold the 1-hour meet ups on site because it’s hard to find a safe space off site. Doing it on site also means it’s in the open and makes it as accessible for people as possible. There’s no pressure to come to every session. Come when you want to.

Sometimes, we have an agenda but most meetings start with people saying how they’re doing. Then we talk. Loneliness, depression, isolation, medicine, stress, sex, relationships – no topic is off limits. Some like to talk a lot and some don’t like to talk much, and that’s ok. Whatever works for them.

This is a place where you can come to feel reassured you’re not alone, and a place you can let others know that they’re not alone either.

A few guidelines

To keep people safe in the meet ups, we have a set of guidelines that we stick to.

Photograph shows 5 post it notes. 1 says "guidelines" the other 4 have one guideline on each.

  1. Everything said during meet ups is confidential.
  2. There’s no need to apologise for how you feel.
  3. Instead of advice, offer personal experience. Ask, “Can I tell you what I’ve done in a similar situation?”
  4. Try to speak openly. The more we do that, the more we can remove the stigma around talking about our mental health.

Learning as we go

I regularly ask the group how they think the meetings are going. This cycle of feedback means I can continually iterate and do what’s right for the group. In the early days, I learnt that even though what we talk about may be hard and people might feel sad, the meet ups shouldn’t just be a place to be sad together.

To prevent that happening, we try and end on a positive note. We’ll look at a feel-good article or a funny YouTube video or Twitter account. Just something that helps people leave feeling more positive.

In the future

The group has gone from strength to strength and we’re keen for it to become an even stronger support network. We’re throwing around ideas about how we could help more people. At the moment, we don’t know the answers so we’d like to hear from you.

If you’re a Co-op colleague, let us know what you’d like to see. We’d also like to hear how other organisations help their staff. You can leave a comment below (anonymous if you like), or email tom.walker@coopdigital.co.uk

Mental health is a big deal and is often an unseen issue. It affects so many of us and workplaces need to give their colleagues the time to build stable and useful support networks.

Tom Walker
User researcher

Co-op employees, we meet every second and fourth Thursday of the month at 12 noon in Federation House. I post reminders in the #general Slack channel a few days before.