Provide a way for your team to reveal long-standing issues, discuss contentious topics and chart a way forward to help your team remain happy and productive.
At regular intervals - such as every two weeks or every month - a product manager is responsible for taking a ‘pulse check’ of how the team is doing so far, if they have any gripes, concerns or complaints about how the team is run or delivery of initiatives and to discuss potential solutions to these issues. This is known as a retrospective (a.k.a a retro).
As a product manager, it's important that you take the time out to regularly check in with the rest of the team, to give them the chance to let off some steam and solve any potential issues or problems within the team. All before they can become a massive burden on you and the delivery of your initiatives.
Before we dive into the steps you can follow for your retro, read the below points to make sure you’re fully prepared for your session.
Start and begin your retro on time
As mentioned in my previous article, any meeting - whether it is a discovery interview with customers, a discussion with your engineers about the technical feasibility of an initiative or a meeting with internal stakeholders — you should always ensure the meeting not only starts on time at an appropriate hour for all involved, but that it also ends or finishes on time for everyone that attends the meeting.
Again, although this sounds like a basic requirement that should naturally be ticked off by everyone involved, you would be surprised by how often this simple rule is either overlooked or ignored by many product managers. It is important that you respect the time of your team who, by attending the retro, are being ‘forced’ to down tools for about an hour so that they can discuss internal team members.
To ensure that they are not pulled away from their other tasks for too long, and that your discussions are short, sweet and to the point, ensure that the meeting starts on time for your team. If folks are running late, give them 5 minutes before calling time for the meeting to begin. Make sure that your retro is only running for about an hour to ensure that there is not only enough time to discuss and have a chat about anything that might be bothering your team, but to also ensure that focus is maintained until the last minute.
If the meeting starts late, ends late or lasts too long, you’ve lost your team and you’ll be unable to achieve the true purpose of the retro, which is to allow the team to surface problems up for discussion and to come up with an action plan as to how you’ll rectify these problems.
Create a Kanban board that has 4 columns: good, bad, constructive & shout out
Set up your retro board on either your whiteboard tool of choice or using specific software dedicated to conducting retrospectives. I’ve personally used either Whimsical or Miro, as well as TeamRetro, so this is just based on personal experience.
Once you’ve got your retro board up and running, create the following 4 columns:
- Good - this is a column to allow folks to list down all the good things that have happened in period between your last retro and your current retro.
- Bad - this is a column to allow folks to list down any issues, complaints or problems they are having that are materially impacting their daily productivity or happiness at work
- Constructive - this is a column to allow folks to list down any neutral issues i.e. it’s bad enough that it’s impeding some work but it’s not bad enough that it’s stopping them from either not being productive or enjoying work as a whole
- Shoutout - this is a wholesome column to allow folks to list down any team members that have been performing well, any work that they have been enjoying doing and anything in general which they feel are going well.
As soon as all of the above are prepared, use the following steps to conduct your retro:
1. Give everyone time to put in each of their problems, praise or feedback into the 4 columns
Give everyone time at the start to put down their thoughts, via virtual sticky notes, under each of the four columns of your retro board. This exercise will usually take about 10 minutes and provides an opportunity to your squad to fully express any praise, concern, issues, problems, constructive feedback or anyone they would like to shoutout under the retro board columns.
Use a virtual stop watch for this activity (which is a feature that is provided by virtual whiteboards and specific retro programs) so that the team and yourself are aware of how long they have left in order to leave all of the comments, concerns and constructive praise or feedback they would like to provide. Also use this time to get in on the action — don’t feel that you are merely a facilitator and not a contributor. As a product manager, you should also dive in and use this opportunity to let out some steam, to bring forward any topics or opinions you would like to discuss with the wider team to either iron out issues or to praise the work that’s been undertaken by the team recently.
2. Allow each member of your team to voice their problems, praise and feedback
After the ten minutes are up, poll the room for opinions. Go around and allow each team member to mention what they have written down column by column. Give them the time and space to fully explain why they have decided to provide praise, constructive feedback or the issue in question, where they have been experiencing it in their day-to-day workload and why they feel that this is the time to discuss it with the wider team in order to find a way to solve the problem.
As a product manager, it is important your team not only sees that you are hearing their issues but that you are also empathetically relating to what is being said and the problems that they are facing. You have to not only care about the issues that your engineers or designers might be facing but actively want to find solutions that can be agreed to by the wider team. As such, it pays to ensure that you are fully aware of any issues that are being discussed and understand the finer details before you are able to propose one or two solutions to tackle the problem.
Hence, provide the time for your team members to echo their issues, then take the time to listen, absorb and understand what is being said and why they are deciding to bring the issues to the table now, rather than later.
3. Organise a vote of what topics you should be discussing
Once everyone’s had the time to air their concerns or to provide constructive feedback on things that have been going good/bad in the team, it’s time to vote on the topics that everyone want to discuss. The reason for this is, you’ve just provided the chance for all of your team members to voice their opinions. Due to this, there might be too many topics for the team to consistently discuss during this short one hour time period.
As such, you should be prioritizing which problems, issues or feedback you and your team should be spending this time discussing. Allow a three-minute block where each of your team members are allowed to vote on the sticky note that they would like to have further conversations about later on in the session. These usually turn out to be either long-standing issues in the team stemming from inefficient workflows or a complaint about how productivity has dipped in the team for one reason or another.
Provide the time to your team to vote on the topic that they feel, if discussed, could alleviate the issues being faced by the team on a daily basis and improve their working life, both in terms of team happiness and productivity, as a whole.
4. Discuss solutions for each problem, praise or feedback mentioned and create an action plan
After everyone’s had the chance to vote, prioritize your discussion topics by arranging the sticky notes from top to bottom. The top should be the most voted topic, complaint, problem or feedback that your team would like to discuss, while the bottom should be the least voted topic, complaint, problem or feedback.
Once it’s been arranged, engage in deep discussion with your team about the problem that was top-voted and try to find solutions for them. If it is a work productivity issue, figure out how you can remove the issue to increase productivity. If it’s a communication issue, find a way to open or unblock channels of communication that your team was having trouble finding a way through it. Where it is a work relationship-related issue, mediate between the individuals involved to ensure that everyone is on the same page and any damage in the relationship between individuals is solved by the time the retro is over.
However you find your way to solve the problems or issues being discussed, it’s important that any solution or next steps is being documented in an action plan. This action plan should then be the guiding star for figuring out the steps that need to be taken in order to solve said issue or to respond to any feedback. It should include:
- What was discussed;
- The solution that was agreed on;
- The directly responsible individual that should be implementing said solution; and
- A timeline for the implementation of the solution so that it’s progress can be discussed at the next retro.
Follow all the steps above and you’ll be well on your way to conducting a retro like a product manager.