Retrospective retrospective

While nothing is actually finished (and really never will be) the Beta team essentially held a ‘final’ retrospective this week. Some of the core, long term team are moving on as commercial arrangements come to a close and for those remaining it seemed like a good point to take stock and, if I’m honest, for us all to take a breath and relax for a moment.

I tend to personally facilitate our retrospectives — I’m not sure if this is really the best way of handling things but the many headed monster that is my role means I am often slightly divorced from the day-to-day and I find it helpful to take a proactive role in at least something!

It was a pretty straightforward format –

  • 5 minute intro
  • 10 minutes for everyone to write some Post-Its about ‘things we could have done better/differently’ (not sure I was clear)
  • 30 minutes of discussing what was written down. We went round the table asking team members to read out one of their Post-Its then other members could add theirs to that suggestion if they felt it was a similar theme. We discussed as we went along and then picked two significant themes for further discussion.
  • 10 minutes for everyone to write some Post-Its about ‘things we did well/were proud of’
  • 30 minutes in the same format as above.
  • 20 minutes collaborating on a timeline of the Beta year (Feb to Feb) discussing how the team felt month by month and giving a red/amber/green score for morale basically! It was also an opportunity just to acknowledge all that had been done over that time (our week notes in Slack were a great reminder for this!)


There were some clear themes in the ‘things we could have done better’ department though interestingly they were often seen as initially things that were positives but evolved into issues.

Here are a few of the ones that stood out;

Better integration with the wider ONS digital/technology community

Initially our isolation was a plus. We were able to move fast and make technology decisions uncoupled from legacy issues and while over time we did integrate and communicate more it wasn’t enough and at crunch time we would have benefited from closer relations and people having a wider understanding of our work. In the last few weeks of the project this ended up happening — with colleagues co-locating with us and it has been brilliant.

Some activities need specialists

This is both on a technical and organisational stand point. We could have seriously benefited from an embedded security/assurance expert throughout the project — it was something we discussed early and thought we had covered off in a different way but there needs to be a much closer relationship from early on. The same with Operations.

Elsewhere the hiring burden was extensive and again in different circumstances we would have had someone in the team for whom this was a significant focus. It is such an important aspect of making this work sustainable and we always made it a priority but there are only so many hours in a week so other things suffered.

Lack of a Plan B

Generally speaking we didn’t really build in or plan adequately for any contingencies. It was all a bit all or nothing which amped up the stress at times and pushed the idea of agile working to the edge. We always shared a common understanding of the end goals but not always the path to get there and there were almost certainly occasions we could have made use of alternative routes.

Engagement with our own team and wider contributors

We didn’t get some important people involved in the decision making early enough with led to needing to make changes down the road that could have been easily avoided with some earlier engagement and while I’m not sure there was much more we could have done on the face of it widespread internal engagement really didn’t happen until late on. How to address this in the future remains a bit of a mystery but it needs doing.

Now on to the plus points.

Team Communications

There were a whole pile of comments that I’m just grouping under a general heading of ‘team communication’. I’m really proud of the way this team has worked together over the last 12 months and it was gratifying to see that I wasn’t alone in this.

Things that came in for particular praise was how well the daily stand-ups had worked (a noticeable side effect has always been the immediate clutch of smaller huddles after each of them), the fact that there was a nice balance of being able to ask anyone for help but also respecting their need not to be interrupted sometimes, Slack came in for praise and especially our ‘week notes’ channel which I in particular have found consistently useful. The mentoring of more experienced team members for relative newcomers and the extent that pair programming has been encouraged was also highlighted.

Good tools = happy team

At the every start of the project we invested in Mac Pro machines for the developers — the hope being that some upfront cost would lead to major productivity gains down the line and this certainly seems to have been the case. The extent to which these machines have been of benefit to the team has been raised time and again (especially given some of the high intensity data work Tom in particular was tasked with). Elsewhere we also tried to ensure that everyone had access to the software they needed — whether that be Slack,Github, New Relic, Heroku, AWS, Loop11 or just decent Post-Its and pens. Oh and we have nice stickers.

Shared responsibilities

Another thing that came out that warmed the cockles of my heart was the theme of a team with a shared vision who shared responsibility for delivering that. It was clear people had certain roles (for some like me and Laura our job was making sure the rest of the team had the space to do their job) and that individuals took ownership for things while not becoming silo’d from the wider objectives. More than one person identified a ‘clear direction’ as a positive.

There was also a feeling coming through that the team had the freedom to suggest/recommend approaches — even if they were slightly radical — and that was open to all not just a couple of senior team members. Also that it was ‘one team’ — developers, content, UX, analytics, research etc were all tightly knit (eventually — see engagement above).

The timeline was a fun little exercise mainly to prod peoples memory and getting them to think about the whole year. Honestly I should have done it first as it would have helped expand peoples perspectives quicker but live and learn.

It was interesting how peoples perception of things are different but over the course of the discussion it was clear that there had been a couple of particularly trying periods of time — particularly over the summer in 2015 and this January (though the stress of January was focused on a relatively small group of us — though it had clearly permeated wider!)

So that is a bit of a retrospective of this retrospective. If you got this far thanks for sticking with it 🙂

3 comments on “Retrospective retrospective”

  1. So having tested your new visionary beta site last year (with jaws guide and supernova software), which I’m sure you and your team have been working hard on for some time, when will this one be replacing the existing O.N.S site which you quoted the times as once calling a National Disgrace? (and which is not screen reader software friendly).

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