Friday Retro: clarity and focus in 30 minutes

Friday Retro facilitators Sally Newton and Margaret L Ruwoldt are international members of AUA, and serve on the Bass Regional Committee of ATEM, the Association for Tertiary Education Management.

When everything is changing around you, every demand on your time and energy seems both urgent and important.

Talking to friends and colleagues in March 2020, we learned that many newly-distributed teams were struggling to respond to daily challenges – let alone setting aside time for reflection or planning. While some people wanted to continue their professional development during lockdown, the opportunities to do so seemed limited or non-existent.

With support from the Association for Tertiary Education Management, we decided to create an online community that would help members through a period of tremendous upheaval. This would be a free service for ATEM members, open to tertiary education staff in Australia, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Papua New Guinea.

The program ran from mid-May to the end of November 2020, with 12 people participating regularly in each of the fortnightly Zoom sessions. ATEM’s Leah Boucher provided tech support in the first few weeks and taught Sally how to manage Zoom meetings herself.

The online meetings consisted entirely of conversations: between individuals, and among the larger group.

“It was great to share with others from across the sector and I have made new friends/connections”, said participant Fiona Margetts, ATEM Fellow and Associate Director of Service Improvement at the University of Southern Queensland. “I also appreciated the intent and the approach” of the program’s design.

Even when you’re crazy busy, finding time for reflection is not impossible. All you need is:

  • a regular spot in your diary
  • a structured method to focus your thoughts
  • a community of peers to support and encourage you

Deb McDonald, Associate Director of Student Professional Development at Swinburne University, said she “enjoyed connecting with colleagues across the country (and beyond), including some new. A silver lining for working remotely!”

If you’ve had experience of Agile methodology, you’ll be familiar with the ‘retro’ meeting. A retro, or retrospective, is an opportunity for the Agile team to take a deep breath and reflect on what’s happened recently, and to agree on simple steps to maintain morale and improve team performance. A well-run retro is short and energising.

In an Agile project team you would normally meet at the end of a sprint – a specific piece of work – to review the team’s performance and progress. Our Friday Retro program didn’t quite fit that model. Our retronauts all worked for different organisations, on different projects, in different states – different countries!

Clearly we needed a different model for our remote, divergent retro sessions.

Except – it was not really that different.

For all of us, in Brad Adriaanse‘s lovely phrase, our sense of order and stability has been upended: that’s what we had in common this year.

One participant brought her baby daughter to the fortnightly sessions; another tuned in from her son’s Year 12 graduation. Most of the participants took leave during the program, either an occasional long weekend or a longer, well-earned holiday. Because the online meetings happened regularly and were spread over six months, it was easy for participants to skip a session or two without missing out on the program’s overall benefit.

“Like others, I looked forward to these fortnightly retros as they brought a rhythm at a time that has been very disjointed,” said David Morgan, senior advisor on higher education standards at La Trobe University.

We were all working on getting through isolation and distancing, figuring out how to juggle working, family and other commitments – and maybe some of us were starting to think about what’s next. That was our collaborative project.

 “I am so glad that I decided to give this a go when it started. I am grateful for everyone’s support in the group, as they say ‘in good times and in bad’, sharing our ups and downs this year,” said Elizabeth Ng, Research Manager in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney and an Associate Fellow of ATEM.

Every two weeks the group met online and asked three core Agile retro questions:

What went well?

What happened that was unexpected?

What’s my own focus for the next two weeks?

Answers were captured anonymously as Post-It notes on a Google Jamboard. Every fortnight we saved the jamboard as a PDF, so each participant now has a record of their own progress and development during the year.

Between online sessions, we sent out emails to participants with links to extra resources about topics that came up during the conversation. Together the group explored:

  • techniques for analysing workplace behaviors and events
  • how individuals can enhancing their own and their team’s performance
  • improving the quality of workplace conversations
  • deep listening (which is different from active listening)
  • appreciation and gratitude
  • self-esteem
  • setting healthy boundaries and making time for self-care
  • cultivating hopefulness
  • self-coaching techniques
  • maintaining social connections – and making new ones 🙂
  • ensuring your workday includes a bit of awesome

“Never have I expected that I can meet strangers and make friends online, without meeting you face-to-face. This is truly connections without borders and time zones,” said Elizabeth Ng.