Go faster: driving delivery performance with product thinking
Strong teams use retros and other rituals to turbo-charge continuous improvement and achieve better outcomes. Make them an engine for success by leveraging product techniques.
The effectiveness of retrospectives is often symptomatic of a team’s performance. Too often, they are a tick box exercise: a ‘ceremony’ that individuals endure because that’s what best practice dictates, with little of value said or decided. But it doesn’t need to be this way. By applying product mindsets and techniques to our retros and other rituals, we can drive team performance. Let’s look at how a few simple changes can transform stultifying routine into an engine of continuous improvement.
Set the goals: team vision and metrics
How does your team define excellence? Setting a shared vision and connecting it to measurable performance indicators is central to the core product principle of ‘Outcome over Outputs’. You can take the same approach to your team too, while enhancing your focus on excellence for your users and organisation.
For example, let’s imagine you’re part of a team, Speedway. You’re responsible for the checkout functionality on a retail app, focusing on product metrics such as conversion rates and stability. But your company has historically been slow to ship. In response, you might set your team-level vision as ‘Drive continuous delivery excellence at company X’, with goals balancing DORA metrics (e.g. ‘Release at least once a sprint’), psychological safety (e.g. ‘Weekly team temperature check no lower than Good’) and impact on the wider organisation (e.g. ‘Positive feedback on collaboration and technical leadership from related teams’).
Establishing this framework creates a common frame of reference and a collective understanding of brilliance. Your platform is now set.
Stop, Start, Continue; the Sailboat; the 4Ls. It’s important that colleagues can express how they feel - whether happy, sad or glad - in retros. They should be a safe space. But too many teams stop there. By applying a product lens to the discussion, we can focus energy on learning and progress. Let’s return to our retail team, Speedway, for an example:
At the Speedway fortnightly retro, team members use the Speed Car framework to structure their thoughts. After a silent grouping and scoring exercise, the top 5 items are discussed. In parallel, a team member defines and refines what they hear as Problems/ Opportunities on stickies. The team turns their attention to these items in an Opportunity-Solution Tree ideation session, prioritising those areas that most closely relate to the product vision. After a few minutes, new ideas for team improvement have been discovered.
I’ve found the Opportunity-Solution Trees to work particularly well because they are proudly scrappy and low-tech. They can also be refined sprint-on-sprint (their continuous nature is often overlooked). But whatever approach you use, harnessing the open flow of a good retro with the discipline of product strategy is key.
We have our vision, our problems and our corresponding solutions. What next?
The best teams I’ve worked on have explicitly moved key actions into the backlog, for prioritisation alongside user stories, spikes and other tasks. Having played around with the formatting of this Continuous Improvement work, I’ve realised that the simplest approach is best: just place your items in a long-running epic and pull them in around other items.
As with any item on your board, try to follow the principles of INVEST (Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small and Testable). You might even wish to informally size your tickets - though, as these are items to make your team go faster (as opposed to directly impacting product performance), you may wish to exclude this work from progress reports.
It might sometimes feel impossible to find the time, but looking at ways to carve out space for go-faster work is crucial. Otherwise, retros are meaningless - and, more importantly, your team is stuck. But even at the craziest of times, simply placing this work in your collective line of sight emphasises its importance.
Bringing it all back home
Finally, no product team would be complete without a feedback loop. Use your retros and other planning sessions to look at whether you’ve made progress towards your team vision and review whether you are allocating enough time to continuous improvement. Consider going even more meta and discuss how your retros could be more effective. The key thing is to get the flywheel of continuous improvement spinning.
It’s simple. Let’s do it
A few weeks ago, my 7 year old son asked me to explain what I did at work. Avoiding the minefield of describing ‘Product Management’, I showed him my team’s backlog. After discussing ideas like tasks, story points and velocity charts, he pointed at an item and said, ‘Why doesn’t that one have any points?’ I started to describe it and he stepped in, ‘Oh, that’s one that helps you go faster.’
By harnessing all the techniques we’ve learnt and applying them to our teams, we can get better and go faster. It really is as simple as that.
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