Borrowing ways of working from the Digital team

I’m a Lead People Partner on the Food People team and I am responsible for Food stores in the north of England. Around 3 years ago, in my last role, I started looking into how we might improve Co-op colleagues’ experiences of our performance process – this led to conversations with the Digital team about how user research can help understand what colleagues really need. It also sparked my curiosity about how Digital teams work.    

Since then I’ve: 

  • spent a week working on Performance for Stores with Digital colleagues James BoardwellHannah Horton and Annette Joseph. As a result, the process is now simpler and we removed performance ratings for over 30,000 colleagues.   
  • brought delivery manager Stewart Livingstone in to help us bring different ways of working to parts of the People team.  
  • reconsidered how we communicate with colleagues thanks to regular catch-ups with Hannah Horton.  

Each of these people deliver digital products and services through agile ways of working and this really interested me. It felt like a way to be more inclusive, more democratic and in many ways more efficient. I wondered if the approach could work for some of the teams I am part of.  

Photograph from the week I spent with some of the Digital team. James Boardwell left, Fiona Linton-Forrest on the right

For the last year the Food People team has borrowed and experimented with some of the ways of working we’ve seen in the Digital team. Here are some of the things we’ve tried and the differences we’ve noticed. 

Lean coffees encourage a flatter structure and a more democratic culture  

Lean coffees’ are gatherings that have crowd-sourced agendas. Participants meet and nominate a topic – work-related or otherwise – that they’d like to talk about for a predetermined amount of time. Everyone then votes on what they’d like to hear about next and the facilitator starts the timer. We introduced lean coffee sessions into our team around a year ago and they’ve been a regular hour-long slot ever since. We’ve enjoyed them because they’ve helped us: 

  • improve morale because they give everyone a voice. We’ve heard about concerns and achievements from across the team that we might not have in a more traditional ‘top-down’ meeting  
  • become more concise when communicating – the timer pushes us to say the most important points first and stay on track with our point 
  • create a safe environment which is the first step to better transparency 
  • build and maintain relationships with colleagues (learning about teammate’s lockdown whippet brought much joy) 

We’ve chosen to have the sessions on Fridays because the positivity and the connection with colleagues that we get from them is a nice way to finish the week.  

It’s ok to be uncertain (but it does take a while to feel ok about it) 

During my time with James, Hannah and Annette I learnt about the importance of how we ask someone about something. In short, asking open questions leads us to a more accurate, less biased truth.  

When I started my current role I wanted to find out how me and my team could best support the Operational team. Before I’d spent time with James, I might have made assumptions about the challenges Operations faced, and I might have asked leading questions to elicit responses that would prove that my assumptions were correct. Perhaps that was down to some unspoken expectation of finding a definite answer immediately.   

 But an immediate answer isn’t always accurate so it’s better to sit with your uncertainty. This takes a lot of getting used to if –  like for us –  it’s not your usual way of working.  

Instead, I made sure my questions were open and worded in a way that would give honest, accurate insights. Then, rather than coming up with a plan and a to-do list, I created problem statements. For example:  

  1. How do the Operational team get access to the right people support first time? 
  1. How do the Operational team get access to the right people support first time? 

We’re still working on these but they have provided a real anchor for our work. We’ll continue to think about how we ask questions in the future. 
 

Ceremonies are great for visibility 

We’ve also experimented with agile ‘ceremonies’ that the Digital product and services teams  use. They’ve helped keep our teams in the loop – even those who don’t usually work together.  

Some teams have stand-ups 3 times a week which are great for visibility of what we’re all working on as well as being very inclusive. 

We hold regular ‘all hands’ sessions for the wider team too. 

Stewart introduced us to ‘retrospectives’ – dedicated time to reflect, air grievances and talk about how to improve next time. He guided us through various ways to frame the discussions (for example, things we loved, lacked and lost over a certain period of time or piece of work). 
 

Culture isn’t built overnight 

We don’t pretend to have all the answers (and we’re comfortable admitting that now) but by taking what we’ve observed from the Digital team we’ve been moving towards a more inclusive and flexible culture.  

Here we are on a Zoom call. Spot the honorary member of the team…

We’d love to hear about new ways of working you’ve adopted – what’s worked and what has flopped? 

Clare Fogden, Lead People Partner 

Co-op resources we find useful 

Ways of working  

A glossary of terms

We’ve iterated our Ways of working site, and we’ll keep iterating

We’ve started to bring together our design-thinking process and some of the methods our delivery teams use throughout the lifecycle of a product or service. They live here on our Ways of working site, which is part of our design system.

screen shot of the ways of working homepage

At the moment, the site includes 13 methods and they’re grouped like this:

Discover. When we’re finding out what the valuable problems to solve are.

Define. When we’re checking we’ve identified the key metrics and business objectives.

Develop. When we create many initial ideas that could address the problems, metrics and objectives.

Deliver. When our ideas are with the users and situations they were intended for – then we can start the feedback and iterate cycles.

Communicate. Working in the open and sharing our progress with the team, stakeholders and users throughout an entire lifecycle.

We’ve taken the first 4 phases (discover, define, develop and deliver) from the Double Diamond – a design process model with years of proven commercial success. We’ve also included methods under ‘communicate’ because working in the open and sharing our work and decisions with the wider team including stakeholders as we go is central to working on a digital product or service at Co-op. 

wow-2

All methods already have step-by-step on how to use them and we’re gradually adding the following guidance too:

  • when to use it
  • why you would use it
  • who and how many people to involve
  • things you may need
  • tips on running the session

wow-3

Why we brought them all together

The methods included in the site have been – and in some cases are regularly – used across Co-op Digital. The site just brings them together so they sit alongside each other as one big design resource.

Our thinking behind it is that having everything to hand, in one place, will be useful to remind ourselves of the range of activities we can try – it can be easy to forget some even if we’ve used them before.

Giving more people more autonomy

The current content was written for digital teams – not necessarily designers but people with a certain amount of knowledge about how digital teams work.

But we know that the site would be really helpful for teams and stakeholders around the business too, in particular those who:

  • aren’t familiar with digital ways of working
  • are less experienced – or less confident – at facilitating workshops
  • are interested in how design can create a competitive advantage and want to find out more about how they can trial the process

The Digital skills team is doing some work around the most effective way to introduce the ways of working site to the wider business. From there, we’d like to understand how helpful it is, and where we’ll need to iterate. This photo shows a team using the mind mapping, crazy eights and storyboard methods.

photo of 7 people around table in a crit

Another more cultural challenge is how we can create the permission and environments to use this process and methods for anyone should they be interested.

Tell us what you think

We think we’ve made a decent start but it’s not complete – we’ll add to it over time. Our next focus is adding more methods that relate directly to user research. Most of the content was written before lockdown when remote working wasn’t the default so adding guidance for when teams aren’t in the same room might be worthwhile.

We recently held a design crit with the Design team but as always, we welcome wider team or external feedback – use the feedback form on the site.

Ciaran Greene
Interaction designer

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