GuidesProduct developmentHow to use retrospectives to improve your product team

How to use retrospectives to improve your product team

Last updated

22 March 2023

Reviewed by

Jen Lee

The responsibilities of product managers go beyond shipping a winning platform. They have to not only be the voice of their customer base but also be proactive in building the engine that creates great products that stick. A product manager must build processes and cultures and refer to best practices around what results in a product that solves a problem with a deep need in the market.

Retrospectives are part of the culture and practices that strengthen the engine over time. Key practices in a product team's culture, like retrospectives, enable product managers and development teams to internally reflect, establish clarity, create new goals, and distinguish what is working and how to improve what isn’t. Retrospectives principle and philosophy come from the agile framework, which iterates teams and their solution towards better platforms and processes.

Read more about retrospectives and how to use them to improve your product team.

What are retrospectives?

A retrospective can be a meeting held at the end of the sprint. Product managers, technical leaders, and developers attend the meeting to review development performance in the last sprint, identify what can be improved, and establish ways to take action. 

By using reflection as a way to input new data, the team can identify learning opportunities and use retrospectives as a dialogue to improve future sprints. This way, team members get an open and honest environment to share their thoughts, identify areas for improvement, and take solid steps to address them.

Why are retrospectives important in agile teams?

Below are the key benefits of retrospectives:

Helps identify areas for improvement

Reflecting on past performance helps the development team identify areas that need improvement and take firm steps to address them. Therefore, an agile led development team can achieve results and goals and measure their progress to improve and iterate quicker to execute a seamless sprint in the future.  

Strengthens communication

Retrospectives offer team members an opportunity to share their thoughts with each other, which can help reduce misunderstandings, build trust, and strengthen communication. 

Encourage continuous improvement

Doing retrospectives at the end of the sprint cycle can foster a culture of continuous learning and shorten the path to process and development improvements in a team. In addition, it also ensures the development team remains focused on the new goals they’re creating, so the group becomes more efficient and effective. 

Improves team morale and collaboration

Retrospectives offer an opportunity for team members to share their thoughts and perspectives, air their concerns, and feel heard. This safe space and designated time helps improve team morale and collaboration, as the members feel more involved in the platform’s success. 

Who participates in a retrospective?

The ceremony brings together team members involved in the product development and process of releasing new features. This includes product managers, developers, and technical leaders. In good practice, at least one representative from each team or department should participate and have a chance to share their view of the last sprint experience. 

Areas where retrospectives apply

Retrospectives greatly impact agile teams because they reduce the time it takes to learn new solutions so they can apply action on them to grow as a group and reinforce the engine driving the organization. Retrospectives can be applied to almost anything outside of development sprints, but extra ceremonies are incredibly valuable in some areas. 

These include:

Product launches

Product launches involve just about all departments in a product organization, from finance to legal to support to sales to marketing. Therefore, they can be complex if not structured and organized due to the simultaneous parts involved. Conducting retrospectives is valuable since it can help determine how the soft launch went with more clarity on how to prepare for a larger one with plans to scale.

Some details to understand when doing product launch retrospectives include:

  • The effectiveness of the go-to-market strategy: which parts were successful, and what were those that fell flat or didn’t reach the KPI (key performance indicator) or OKR (objective key results) benchmarks and why?

  • Internal processes on how departments are collaborating and exchanging information: are there no bottlenecks so hand-offs between teams are smooth? 

Quarterly planning

Planning is crucial in product organizations to help identify the roadmap and align the platform release priorities with the business OKRs. The downfall is planning is expensive, time-consuming, and does not show an immediate tangible gain. Further, it has to be reasonably flexible with pathways to adapt in case of roadblocks, miscalculated risk assessments, or lack of resources with unseen blocks for earlier staged teams. Otherwise, it can lock the whole team into the wrong set of actions unnecessarily for a longer time period, which you can avoid. 

Therefore, an iterative approach to collect new inputs and make new decisions with team information and insights readily available is valuable to incorporate more frequent retros during significant periods and standard retrospectives quarterly. 

The retrospective should reflect on the following:

  • How can we increase our North Star Metric Goal?

  • For business to businesses platforms, asking how can we shorten our sales cycle, where in the funnel are they getting stuck?

  • Which process do we have that yields the most value to the business? 

  • Which processes don't yield value, and how can we transition away and remove them? 

  • Are there any key gaps we have missed from launching a new feature? 

  • What was the impact of the plan? Were we more effective and efficient, or did we slow the team down? 

Challenge management

Doing things perfectly while in the midst of a crisis is difficult, especially when we’re so focused on putting out the fire and unable to place our attention anywhere else. Therefore, revisiting a crisis or challenge after resolving it indicates good management and practices to keep everyone prepared for the next time. 

Below are things to discuss during the retrospective:

  • What caused the crisis, and how could it have been prevented?

  • What early signs did we have indicating this challenge could grow?

  • Which processes did we maintain that went really well during the crisis or challenging event?

  • Who on the team exhibited leadership skills voluntarily during the challenge? And were they adequately recognized and appreciated among the team?

Won deals

Diving and repeating models of success helps a product team learn ways to replicate them effortlessly and with more consistency. The team can learn many things by holding retrospectives on won deals, including:

  • Which pitches worked best?

  • What was the main reason our customers said the product organization stood out against competition?

  • Which activities didn't bring much value? And should we continue, adjust, or eliminate them next time?

Lost customers or lost deals

Retrospectives can be valuable in reviewing the reasons behind lost deals or customers. When conducting retrospectives on lost customers or deals, team members can reflect on the following:

  • What were possible reasons why a customer chose to stop using the platform?

  • What feedback did we have behind losing a deal to a competitor?

  • Were there possible tactics we could have considered that would have prevented the loss?

  • Which efforts did we attempt to retain the prospect customer? And why was the strategy not effective? Why didn’t it generate the results we were looking for?

Time management

Tracking output and daily time management can help identify how effective and efficient individuals are and gain insight into if they spent their time well or poorly and how to improve. During the retrospective, the team can seek to learn how they managed their time effectively the previous day and what can help make the current day easier and more productive

Professional development

Regular reviews of a team's professional development plan and checking to see whether they are still meeting personal goals they created can help increase productivity, boost motivation, and gain them new skills that can lead to a promotion.  

During a retrospective focused on professional development, we can reflect on topics such as:

  • What are my career goals, and how soon do I want to accomplish them? 

  • Past achievements and how they were possible—in other words, what was the last model of success, and how can I do it again?

  • What are the different ways to strengthen the ability to achieve?

How to run product retrospectives

Product managers can keep retrospectives productive by continuously challenging the team to create new and fun methods. 

Popular ways of running a retrospective include:

The 'Start, Stop, Continue' exercise

The 'Start, Stop, Continue' is a straightforward exercise to run a retrospective. The requirements are a visual board and sticky notes. The board has 'Start,' 'Stop,' and 'Continue' columns within which the team members write what they observed about a sprint regarding:

  • Start: actions to start taking

  • Stop: actions to eliminate or prevent

  • Continue: actions to continue doing and formalize

The teams write and categorize their cards, and once through, the product manager addresses each while allowing input sharing. Finally, the product manager sets up a vote to select the top three items that become the area of focus in the next sprint. The team reviews the three areas at the start of the next retrospective to measure success and incorporate any feedback into the subsequent "Start, Stop, Continue" board.

The agile retrospectives exercise

The agile retrospective is a more in-depth approach for development teams and product managers to reflect on the last sprint and how to improve it. Below are the stages of an agile retrospective:

Set the stage

This stage involves grooming the team for discussion. The first few minutes of the meeting should establish an informal tone where the team members feel comfortable bringing up ideas and sharing their thoughts or topics they want to discuss later.  

Collect data

The product manager can ask each team member to list their observations about the sprint on cards, just like in the 'Start, Stop, Continue' exercise. 

Get insights

Generate insights by laying out all the cards from the team and organizing them by similarities. Some cards may share similar points and thus aren't worth addressing. But if all cards appear to relate to a particular stage in development, it is time to pay attention to repetitive patterns, themes, and issues that might lead to one another. 

Choose an action

Brainstorm solutions and plan how to actualize the best ideas. 

Close the meeting

Close the ceremony on a high note with a summary of findings and applaud things done well. 

The 'Good, Bad, Better, Best' approach

This approach encourages the team members to work together instead of relying too much on the project manager or scrum master. It starts like a 'Start, Stop, Continue' approach. However, the data-gathering process resembles that of the agile retrospectives exercise. Team members write down their observations on separate cards, each discussing one card per turn. 

The cards are placed on the board and discussed as a whole with items categorized as:

  • Good

Areas where the team did well

  • Bad

Areas where the team failed to meet expectations

  • Better

Ways to improve

  • Best

Outstanding performances that deserve recognition

Basically, this approach differs from the others since the project manager, or scrum master, does not editorialize, summarize, or comment on the discussions but serves as an observer and facilitator. 

Tips for holding better retrospective meetings

A retrospective is an excellent opportunity for a team to come together and critically discuss previous cycles as they celebrate successes and learn from mistakes. But for that to happen, the retrospectives meetings must be effective. 

Below are tips for holding effective and efficient retrospectives:

Ensure the environment is safe

Project managers must create an environment where team members aren't afraid to air their concerns and frustrations. Consider having a short attendee list that excludes people such as managers and executives whose presence may make the product team clam up. 

Hold retrospectives regularly

It may feel like there isn't much to discuss, but every time the team comes into a room, a lot will come up. Therefore, managers should establish a cadence for the retrospectives and stick to them.  

Consider the positives too

Retrospectives should review all aspects of recent work. Don't focus too much on finding ways to improve and forget to discuss the small wins. Set some time to mention what the product team already does well.

Find a new environment

Take retrospectives to a new environment. It helps promote deeper thinking and fuel creativity. Further, new surroundings add fun to the entire process. Consider an outdoor area near the organization or a new brunch spot in the city.

Consider backup

Retrospective meetings need a facilitator to guide conversations and ensure the participants do not deviate from the set agenda. You may consider someone within the team who is willing and capable of facilitating the meeting. However, you may also consider inviting someone outside of the team as a designated facilitator.

Effective retrospectives benefit your product team

Retrospectives are crucial tools for product teams to review their past performance and determine areas that need improvement. Making the meetings a priority, encouraging honesty and openness, focusing on actions, and monitoring progress can ensure they are effective and productive. When retrospectives are effective, the product team gets the most out of them.

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