A product managers most important meeting

Photo by You X Ventures

There is one meeting that you don't want to miss.

You might have guessed it… It's the agile retrospective. Aka, the retro!

Retro's are where you and your team get together and reflect on what worked, what didn't and why. Teams run them at a different cadence, but it's common bi-weekly or after completing a product milestone.

When I started as a product manager, retro's were not high on my must-attend hit list. However, I've discovered it should be the one meeting I do not miss. I'll come back to this article to remind myself when I have a clash!

Here are a few reasons I've come to realise this.

1. The source of team improvement

You will naturally spend the majority of your time in 'execution mode' rather than looking back. Daily stand-ups, refinement meetings, user research sessions, test analysis meetings etc., are all forward-looking activities. Without looking back at your team recent work, you miss the opportunity to improve the way the team operates in the future.

A team that just continuously executes can't learn, adapt and improve. You will underperform over the long run, even if you think you are operating at an optimal level.

The power of compound improvements applies to product management just as much as it works for finance. If your team gets better 1% each day for one year, your team will be thirty-seven times better by the end of the year! Marginal gains get overlooked as they are harder to identify, but they underpin a team's overall success. It's worth paying attention to the small details as they add up over time!

2. Holistic assessment of team health

The single most significant indicator of a successful, productive team is a happy team. More importantly, how people feel matters, and you, as a product manager, are responsible for ensuring nothing you are directly doing is adversely impacting this.

Empathy is a muscle that you should be using for your customers, but it's also an emotion you should exercise with your team on a regular basis. In a remote word where coffee chats and corridor conversations are not happening, you need to double down on building this.

Being in tune with the team's sentiment will help you adapt your style to work. Maybe everyone is feeling burnt out? Perhaps they lack the context of the product vision. Or the number of bugs and tech debt is causing frustration. You won't know unless you attend, and it's far better to hear it directly than in a backdoor way.

Once you know the issue, you can course correct. These small corrections often don't require as much effort as you think and will have a far more significant impact than you could imagine.

3. Reduces the chances of significant issues

Chinese water torture is so effective as it's continuous, and it strikes the exact same place every time.

Now imagine working in a team where the same annoying thing happens over and over again. That's what you will get if you don't have this meeting. Issues at the surface level might seem manageable, but small underlying issues below the surface level can build up to significant problems.  

Retros act as the decompression tool allowing you to get rid of all the surface level tension and avoid a build-up. Just like a diver, you want to have regular chances to decompress on your journey, avoiding situations where you climb too fast to the surface. These stops are retros. Without them, you might get decompression sickness—Aka the bends.  

Issues should be slowly and deliberately addressed throughout the weeks rather than once you reach the end of your project. It will be too late by then. The best way to ensure this happens is to have action items coming out of discussions and to check that they are acted on.

4. Builds trust and ownership

Trust and ownership are earned through shared experiences. Retro's act as a critical facilitator to help team members share their perspective and feelings.  This is particularly important for introverted members who might not naturally share as much.

The added benefit is that the act of speaking and sharing is like doing a rep in the gym. You slowly grow that muscle. The more team members speak within a retro environment, the more comfortable they become doing it outside of retros. This translates into significant benefits for the entire team. A good product team partnership with engineering and design is always a two-way conversation - Having an environment that cultivates this improves a teams chance of future success.

5. A chance to acknowledge progress

Retro's are also essential to celebrate recent success within the team. This can be highlighting individual achievements, positive teamwork, milestones, customer feedback or anything else that showcases progress forward and positive behaviour.

It's honestly so easy to get swept up in the day to day activities without pausing to acknowledge the progress your team has made. It's often far more than you might realise and is vital to recognise. I often find myself writing status updates, only noticing at the end how much has been achieved after.

You and your team will be motivated by progress.  When you see progress on a regular basis, it becomes self-fulfilling for further actions and progress in the future. At some instinctive level, we need feedback that indicates we are moving in the right direction, validating our everyday activities. Without this, we can quickly become demotivated.

Creative projects will be full of rollercoasters of emotions. There will be moments you're practically planting a pole in Mount Everest, but there are also times where you're caught in a sudden avalanche of doubt.  When things get tough, you and your team will need past evidence of past success, giving you little nudges to get you over the next ridge.

So when you see progress, highlight it, celebrate it and make it part of your team culture.