Working together on the most valuable thing

The week before last, Nikki Giant and Jess Nugent from Plan International UK came to see how the Innovation team at Cancer Research UK plan their work.

They wanted to see how I support the team to be targeted in their work — focusing the whole team’s effort on the work that’ll be most valuable. I showed them how we do this by applying the ‘agile’ ways of working you’d usually see software development teams use. Then we thought about how they might apply that to creating a fresh plan for their work to support Girl Rights in the UK. Here’s what we discussed:

First off I wanted them to get excited so we listened in to the Innovation team’s daily ‘standup’ meeting: 15 minutes first thing where everyone shares what they did yesterday and will do today to achieve the team’s goal. As the team talked Nikki and Jess noticed:

  • The team were held to account for doing what they’d committed to yesterday — not by a manager but by other team members.
  • 19 tasks were discussed quickly — those completed yesterday, those that would be completed today, some were reassigned from one person to another some were ‘unblocked’ by a quick discussion.
  • Everyone left the meeting clear about what they needed to get done that day and able to do it.

Nikki & Jess were impressed and wanted to know how we were able to work is such a focused and speedy way. Here’s what I explained:

Every 2 weeks the whole team pause their work and get together to do all the thinking required for the next two weeks of work. The idea is that once we’ve done this planning we can simply do the doing, ‘sprint’, to get it done. Here’s the 3 steps we take:

  1. Reflect on how the past 2 weeks work has gone and how we’ve worked together as a team
  2. Set the one goal we aim to achieve in the next two weeks
  3. Agree the specific tasks that need to be done in order to achieve that goal

Here’s the detail of how we do it:

  1. Reflect on how the past two weeks work has gone and how we’ve worked together as a team.

Firstly we open up about what’s going well, what’s not and how we’re working together. No subject is off-limits — the aim is to air what’s bugging us and work together to fix it. It often feels uncomfortable but cathartic. The whole team jumps on a video call and one of us will use a silly theme (chicken run, 3 little pigs, cake….) to facilitate the discussion. At the end of the hour we agree a couple of actions we’ll take to improve things in future. In agile speak it’s called a retrospective. Here’s more info on how to run a retrospective, in case you’d like to try one (created by Connie van Zanten)

2. Set a goal as a team for what we aim to achieve in the next two weeks

Having wrapped up the last 2 weeks we agree what our single most important focus is for the next 2 weeks. This can feel difficult. There’s lots of negotiation and prioritising. We want to do lots of things but we push ourselves to focus the whole team’ effort on moving one goal a long way forward, rather than a few things a little way forward. Once we’re agreed on the one thing the whole team will focus on, we agree the specifics of what ‘done’ will look like. Here’s the formula we use and an example of a finished ‘sprint goal’:

How we create a goal for the next 2 weeks of work

3. Break down the goal into the specific tasks that need to be done

The final step is for the team to agree the specific actions that need to happen to achieve the goal. We estimate how long each task will take and assign it to member(s) of the team who are then accountable for making it happen. Because we’ve all agreed the tasks together, we can all help move them forward, or pick up a task if someone is unexpectedly away. Here’s what it looks like when we’re done:

Then we’re ready to go! Every morning at the daily meeting Jess & Nikki watched, all the team have to do is check that the tasks we assigned ourselves for yesterday are done and that we’re on track to achieve the tasks we assigned to today.

This system is by no means perfect. We’re applying ways of working created for developing software to the world of fundraising innovation so we’re constantly tweaking things. If you’d like to know more detail about the tools we use (Mural, Trello and Zoom) or have any suggestions for how we can do this better please shout!

I help organisations that do good innovate faster, cheaper and more successfully by applying digital thinking.