Many thanks to Global Justice Oxford’s chair, Sam, for this guest post:
Improving our monthly meetings
When I became chair of Global Justice Oxford, I decided that I wanted to particularly focus on one area of our group’s life: Our monthly meetings.
Our monthly meetings are the most common activity we do as a group, more regular than our occasional stalls, street theatre and the like. They’re usually the first experience a potential new member will have of our group. I felt that our meetings could sometimes be a bit “dry” and I wanted to try and improve them.
I tried two main things: One was that we bought a £40 mini data projector for the group so we could show short films at our meeting. But this article is about my second idea – “retrospectives”.
“Retrospectives” are an idea I took from a software-development approach known as “agile”. In my day job, I work for a digital agency producing software following agile principles, and I wanted to see if this particular concept would translate to the world of economic justice campaigning.
A retrospective is a practice used by software development teams to critically reflect on their ways of working and aim to continuously improve what they do. It takes the form of a meeting dedicated to thinking about how well a period of working together went and how you could improve. In agile software development, there’s a fortnightly meeting to think about the previous two weeks of a project; for us, I used a retrospective at the end of each of our monthly meetings to think about the meeting itself.
Laying the foundation
The month before I actually ran a proper retrospective, I did a preparatory exercise. I thought that we couldn’t improve our meetings if we didn’t know what the purpose of our meetings was. And we couldn’t work that out if we didn’t know what the purpose of our group was. So I ran a couple of brainstorms at our group meeting to try and answer these two questions. You can see what we came up with at the end of this post.
Then, over the course of 9 months, we ran the following retrospectives (some more than once):
- Good, bad, ideas, kudos: Each participant was given a stack of sticky notes on which they wrote good things about the meeting, bad things about the meeting, ideas about how we could do better next time and “kudos” (thank yous) for anyone who made a particularly good contribution. These were then stuck on a big sheet of paper, with each participant explaining the notes as they were added.
- Marks out of 10: Each participant gave the meeting a mark out of ten and had the opportunity to suggest something that would have made it better (or could make our next one better).
- New year’s priorities: We ran this one in January. I reminded everyone of the aims of the group which we’d brainstormed previously. These were listed on a large sheet of paper. People then annotated the list, adding a plus, minus or equals-sign, depending on whether they thought that aim should be given more, less or the same amount of focus in the coming year. There was also an “anything else” section of the paper where other ideas could be added.
- Loved, loathed, learned, lacked: Each participant was given a stack of sticky notes on which they wrote things about the meeting they loved or loathed (or just “liked less”!) They also wrote notes for things they’d learned in the meeting and for anything they thought the meeting was lacking.
You’ll notice that many of these involve writing responses on sticky notes. This is the recommended approach rather than simply asking people to say their ideas out loud: Writing notes makes it easier for shyer members to contribute, it allows people to think without being influenced by others’ opinions, and it provides natural thinking time whilst writing the notes. Plus you end up with a ready-made record of what was discussed!
Most of these activities were ones I’d encountered at work. You can read about other similar exercises at http://plans-for-retrospectives.com. However, if you want to use the exercises on that website, you’ll need to adapt them – they’re designed for software projects and for situations where the retrospective takes a whole meeting.
What worked well?
One definite positive was that the retrospectives provided good opportunities to encourage members. For example, one group member had an idea for our upcoming stall which in the end we decided not to go with. However, in the retrospective, three separate people gave her “kudos” for the original idea, explaining how it had helped shape the plan that we actually went with.
Similarly, when we had an outside speaker at a meeting, the retrospective provided a good opportunity to thank the speaker for their contribution more than a single thank-you from the chair would – they could see that group members were independently mentioning parts of their talk as an item for the “Good” list, the “Kudos” list or the “Learned” list, for example.
And just thinking about the positive aspects of a meeting was an encouragement in itself, especially when people talked about what they’d learned.
As meeting chair, I found it helpful to know what people thought of different parts of the meetings as it can be hard to gauge attitudes in the meeting itself.
On one occasion, the retrospective was able to make an immediate difference: It transpired that several people would have liked time to discuss the short film we had watched, so we spent time after the retrospective discussing the film was a group.
Retrospectives also helped us think about some of the practical aspects of meetings. For example, someone commented that the large table we were sitting around made it hard for them to hear everyone, so we rearranged the room at our next meeting to move us closer together. Similarly, the problem of people talking over one another came up, so that was something we could discuss at the start of the subsequent meeting and try to improve on.
What didn’t work so well?
Whilst retrospectives provided opportunities for encouragement and for small practical differences to our meeting, in other respects they didn’t work as well for us as I would have hoped.
Time was the biggest issue. First, our meetings were regularly quite long, and so including a retrospective at the end sometimes added to the feeling of “yet another agenda item”. Secondly, the length of meetings was often an issue which the retrospectives brought up, but we weren’t able to work out how to improve this!
The third way in which time was a problem was the lack of time to implement ideas. The earlier retrospective exercises I ran had quite a focus on ideas for improvements to our meeting. However, even though these did throw up several ideas, we often lacked the time outside of meetings to do the necessary preparatory work to implement them!
Similarly, as we only meet once a month and some people can’t make every meeting, our time together was too infrequent to allow for effective experimentation with new meeting ideas and too fragmented to allow for a sense of continuous improvement.
I also wondered whether the retrospectives were more use to me as chair than to other participants. As mentioned above, I found it helpful when planning agendas to know what people thought of different parts of the meetings. However, this sort of information was less useful to others. This possibly tied in with a bigger problem – I felt that I had explained the purpose of trying retrospectives, but some of the feedback I received when planning this article suggested that perhaps others weren’t so clear what we were actually trying to achieve.
All in all, our meetings didn’t change dramatically as a result of these experiments, and lack of time (both in and between meetings) was probably the main reason for that. Nevertheless, I thought that this trial was worth it for two reasons:
- It showed that our group were deliberate about trying to change and improve
- It provided ideas for small practical changes which otherwise might never have come up
If you’re involved in a similar group and are wondering about trying retrospectives, I’d recommend you take the plunge – you’ll never know what ideas and understanding they could bring to light if you don’t!
Epilogue: What is the purpose of our group and why do we meet?
If you’d like to see the full results of our initial brainstorms (not a proper retrospective, mind!), read on:
Here are the ideas we came up with about the purpose of our group (where more than one person raised an idea, I’ve noted how many people said it):
- Encourage Oxfordshire people to think about issues of global justice and persuade them to take action (“alternative narrative”, “objectives of GJN”, “root causes of poverty”) (x9)
- Learn more about global (in)justice through talks, films etc (x7)
- Collect signatures etc for relevant campaigns (x3)
- Be a community of like-minded activists (x2)
- Add legitimacy to GJN’s campaigns
- Recruit people to the group for more effective communication
- Plan actions that bring the issues of injustice to a wider public
- Be a local conduit for the national GJN priorities
- Make people aware of demonstrations taking place to demand justice on climate, debt, trade
- Offer an alternative to popular media coverage of events
- Raise funds for GJN
After collecting ideas for “why do we meet” on sticky notes, I gave each participant three sticky dots to put on the notes which thought were the most important. The responses in approximate priority order (and how many people raised them) were:
- Inform ourselves (x7)
- Plan events (x8)
- Think of ways to fundraise
- Exchange ideas with like-minded people (x3)
- Feed back to GJN
- Hear about other things that are going on
- Meet like-minded people and inspire each other towards activism
- Concentrate the mind on GJN once a month
- Find a way to give voice to our concerns
- Find out about GJN events
- Celebrate success
- Co-ordinate written campaigns/petitions
- Disseminate info from GJN
- Take actions in meetings
- Learn about GJN organisation
Just an example of the notes from one of our meetings retrospectives: