GIPHY Product Spotlight: How to Run a Personal Retro

We’re launching a new series of product blog posts as an open space for our Product Managers and Designers to share ideas, projects, and product concepts we’ve tried at GIPHY. It’s going to be informative, helpful, fun, quirky. We hope it will provide inspiration for other Product people out there to try within their own organizations. This month’s post is by GIPHY Product Manager, Ashley Chen.

At GIPHY, Product Owners are responsible for holding regular retrospectives (“retros”) with our engineering teams. The format may differ from team to team, but at a high level, we structure our retros by starting with celebrations and team wins, followed by not-so-great moments, then wrap up the meeting by identifying key areas of improvement our team can try to focus on in our upcoming sprints. This format allows us to take a step back from our day-to-day and re-center ourselves in a positive way. We work really hard and deserve to celebrate ourselves, but we also know we aren’t perfect. Retros are how we commit to finding real ways to change and continuously improve.

As a Product Owner, I find most of my energy is spent on managing the teams, stakeholders, and roadmaps that ladder up to a larger company goal. I’m equipped with tools, like retros, to make sure each of these audiences understands how we can reach our goals through consistent product changes. Recently, I’ve started to apply the retro framework I’ve picked up as a PM at GIPHY and apply it to myself and my own career. I’ve found personal retros are a great way to celebrate my own personal/career growth while figuring out where and how I want to continue to improve.

Here are some tips on how you can get started on your own personal retros (and retros in general!):

1. Set an achievable cadence — Bi-weekly or monthly retros for teams are a good cadence to identify small areas of improvements based on projects that were developed or delivered within that time frame. I’ve also been on teams that will run an additional retro after a large product launch, especially if multiple teams were involved. I recommend doing a little bit of both for your personal retros. Set a realistic cadence for a small personal retro, and do a deeper dive on any large initiatives that you were involved in. Note that your takeaways from each retro will differ based on the cadence and type of retro you run for yourself.

2. Always start with the positive — Starting on a positive note gives the retro a celebratory mood, and there is always something to celebrate or be thankful for! If you or your team is building or iterating on something, there is always something to identify as a win, no matter how small. Similarly, as PMs we are always focused on improving our product, thinking about the future, and giving credit to the larger team. Your personal contributions and improvements are just as important as the features your team ships — take some time to celebrate them!

3. Be specific with things that did not go well — Retros have a bad habit of veering into the world of complaining and despair when teams review projects that did not go well. When you’re reviewing yourself, it’s even easier to focus on negative outcomes or situations outside of your control. Detailing the specific aspect of a situation helps keep the retro focused on the issue at hand, and ultimately helps you focus on improvements you can change.

Bad example:
We’re working on things that we don’t care about, and it sucks.
My manager won’t stop micromanaging me.
I didn’t get that promotion even though I’ve been working my butt off.

Good example:
Project X’s business justification didn’t make sense to our team.
My manager’s style doesn’t align with the way I like to be managed.
My projects don’t seem to be getting the recognition that I think they deserve from upper management.

4. Prioritize and pick one thing to improve — Just like you can’t fix every single bug, it’s impossible to be able to make every single improvement that comes out of a retro. I like to bucket the things that did not go well and have the team vote on a specific area of improvement they most want to improve. For my personal retros, I ask myself a couple of these questions to help me prioritize:

  • Is this within my control?
  • Do I have the mental and emotional space to make this change in my life right now?
  • How important is it to me to focus on this area of improvement as it relates to my personal and/or career development? Does this help me build towards a version of myself that I want?

If you ever feel stuck or have a hard time prioritizing improvements, reach out to your extended network of mentors, peers, friends, and family to get an additional outside perspective. You’d be surprised at how seemingly big areas of improvement are actually aspects of yourself that others appreciate. And that feedback is especially needed at this stage.

Once you’ve picked an area of improvement, set specific and measurable goals that you think can be reasonably accomplished within a period of time. You’re way more likely to see improvement if you can break down your goals into smaller, more digestible chunks.

Bad Example:
I will bring my priority concerns to the department head.
I’ll give my manager feedback on how I like to be managed.
I’m going to speak up in meetings more often so my work gets recognized.

Good Example:
I will set up a meeting with my department head next week to align on the priorities that my team is working on.
In each 1–1 I have with my manager I will share one thing that they did well and one thing that they could improve on so that I communicate how I like to be managed.
I will ask at least one question in every department meeting that I am a part of.

5. Be Kind — This is the most important thing! Product Owners (myself included) tend to be the hardest on themselves, so keep that in mind when you work on these personal retros. We are all human and are balancing work, friends, family, and personal happiness all at the same time. People (and teams) are always inherently changing, and it is unreasonable to expect that you can make multiple impactful changes to yourself overnight. What matters most is that you’re trying your best, and that’s all anyone can ask.

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