There are many things to do after a product or feature launch: celebrate, catch up on sleep, obsess over early metrics, start working on your next feature…the list goes on and on. One of the best things to do after a product launch (or other major project) is to schedule a retrospective meeting to assess how things went.
There are many ways to approach a retrospective meeting, from simply having everyone involved send an email or fill out a survey, to arranging formal facilitator-led exercises, so rather than declare a definitive method, I’ve gathered several tips and tricks from others that you can use or borrow from to ensure your next launch post-mortem meeting or project debrief meeting is a productive and (mostly) painless process.
Pro Tips: Effective Retrospective Meetings
If you can, schedule your retrospective (or at least start thinking about it) before the launch itself. The sooner you get onto people’s calendars the better. Furthermore, give folks time to reflect on the process before the meeting. Make sure everyone comes fully prepared by sending out an outline in advance. “Send out an email prior to the meeting with the key questions that you want to cover,” suggests Kevin Lee, CEO of Didit, “To encourage participation, you might find it helpful to require team members to send you responses to the questions prior to the meeting.”
Start with an Agenda…and Stick to it
At Tech Affect, the team sticks to a strict structure to keep things on track. “One of the key mistakes debrief leaders make is in opening up the floor as a “free for all” on what went wrong. Instead, create a setting where each person can jot down the answers to three key questions:
- What Worked
- What Needs Improvement
- Next Steps.
You’ll find that each member of the team can then write down their private thoughts, without being swayed by the group. One interesting way I’ve seen this done is using post its, where at the end of the time team members post them on the wall to see what literally, ‘sticks.’”
Josh Elman of Greylock Partners recommends the following whiteboard-driven process to structure the meeting around: “Create 3 lists on the board – “awesome, ok, not-so-good” and let each team member write things under each list for what went well or not well. Go through the lists and talk about them – pat yourselves on the back for what went well, come up with actionable steps on the areas you can improve. Take actions on the agreed upon improvements quickly for the next project/cycle.”
Facilitate Constructive Feedback
A launch post-mortem meeting will only be productive if people are willing to chime in with honest feedback and not hold back important details. Jim Holland of H&W Computer Systems thinks it is important to set the stage and “let everyone know you’re here to share, learn, listen and provide constructive feedback, as well as receive it. Look for ways to improve relationships.” From there, give everyone two or three minutes to share their thoughts and then focus on collecting the insights by asking why things happened the way they did.
One way to set the tone is to follow the advice of Norm Keith from his book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available and the situation at hand.”
Review the Entire Launch Process
Launching a product or shipping a new feature involves countless to-dos and is (most often) not an overnight process. As launch day approaches, stress levels tend to be at their highest. No matter how well you’ve planned out a release, there will be some amount of tension leading up to launch day. This tension is exactly why focusing on the entirety of a given release is key, says Jen Mozen of Table XI:
“For a product company, your timeline might start with a product manager researching new features. It’s important to rewind all the way back to the beginning to make sure people are thinking about the big picture, and aren’t fixated on the last 2-3 weeks worth of work that may be freshest in their minds. It’s also helpful to build a shared understanding among everyone in the group, since some team members may have joined or left the project at different times and not be aware of the complete picture.”
Don’t Forget your Product Manager Hat
In some cases, you’ll want to have someone who wasn’t involved in your launch at all run your retrospective meetings, but sometimes you’ll be facilitating the meeting and guiding the conversation. Steve Johnson of Under 10 Consulting recommends you keep your product management hat on if you’re leading these sessions: “You’ve learned how to gather requirements from your customers; now use those techniques to gather requirements from your colleagues. What worked; what didn’t; what recommendations do they have to make it better? What problems occurred in the roll-out that could be prevented in the future.”
Also, much like you would (hopefully) never scoff at or ignore a customer’s feedback, you’ll want to put any judgment of input into the parking lot. Take every comment and piece of feedback and put it on a whiteboard, on a sticky note, or in a Google Doc and save critique and filtering for later on. If someone feels like their input is being discounted or ignored, they’re going to check-out early or disregard the meeting’s findings altogether.
Agree on Action Items
No retrospective meeting should end without a clear set of “next steps” and action items. Participants should all receive a copy of the minutes or notes and a deadline should be set for when the final recommendations will be shared. If necessary, a second meeting can be held to review those recommendations or to assign owners to make sure they are actually implemented for the next go-round.
Embrace Both Failure and Success
Most importantly, retrospectives aren’t about assigning blame, shame, or embarrassment. “It’s not a weakness to make mistakes; it’s weak to hide mistakes. Debriefing provides an appropriate means of putting the past behind us, learning and growing from it, and moving on. And, when debriefing is performed regularly, it keeps the organization focused on the present and the future rather than the past,” says James Murphy and Will Duke of Afterburner. “It helps us to continually revise our assumptions about the market, economy, and world.”