When I was first promoted as a product manager, I was given a role description. Specifically, there was one sentence that still sticks with me, “release stuff that matters to us and our customers while keeping your teammates in the zone.” That simple sentence told me as much about what it means to be a product manager as the numerous blogs I have read on the subject.
I had a few early successes in shipping some important features. However, somewhere along the way, I started to notice that our team was burning out. We had plenty of opportunities to give feedback and address organizational problems (retros, 1-1s, OKRs, etc.). I was still noticing though that our team wasn’t really operating at its best. Additionally, when I was looking at feedback over time it was challenging to quickly grasp how the team was feeling over the course of a few sprints. All the feedback was qualitative and I couldn’t tell if any of the adjustments we were making were having an impact. Additionally, on the human side, I cared about my colleagues and wanted to do what I could to make their work more enjoyable and productive. It was frustrating to see the slow transition into team burnout and not feel like I had the right tools to address it.
I started to do some research to see ways to address the burnout we were facing as a team. What I found ultimately became a quick way to check-in on your team and a great supplement to any sprint retrospective. Here was what I learned.
Happiness ≠ Morale
The first way I was looking at this problem wrong was that I was thinking about my team in terms of their happiness. I wanted my team to say they felt happy about their work. Happiness though is fleeting and subjective. Any amount of external factors can impact a person’s happiness at any given moment. Asking your team “if they feel happy” and have them all constantly respond positively is a Sisyphean Task. You’ll never win that one. This isn’t to say that happiness isn’t important, it is just not something a product manager has great control over.
What matters more is a team’s morale. Morale is the team’s collective confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline. It is the more precise way to think about your team’s effectiveness. A team member can have high morale and at the same might say they are unhappy. Unlike happiness, increasing your team’s confidence, making them more enthusiastic, and keeping everyone focused on why what your building matters is something more within a product manager’s ability to influence.
When you rely on the brainpower of a lot of smart people to solve problems with software, you have to consider how productive they feel. Things like a team member’s physical working space, what hours of the workday they do their best work, and the amount of context switching and distractions all contribute to productivity. To me “keeping your team members in the zone” is all about creating an environment for them to do their best work.
Productivity is another area where I was also seeing negative feedback during retros. The problems weren’t coming up all at once. Rather, they were spread throughout our retros over the quarter. Also, not every team member felt comfortable talking about why they didn’t feel productive in the larger sprint retro environment. They didn’t want to come across as being a complainer or wanting to justify why they may or may not be productive. It seemed like the team was not finding the tools and communication process we had in place helpful.
How to Measure Morale and Productivity
Taking what I learned about morale and productivity, I created a simple survey. I maximized for speed to not add another burdensome task for them to complete every week. I created the survey using Google Forms and would export the answers to Google Sheets for analysis. The survey was sent out midday every Friday and we would go over the results at every sprint retro. It made it easy to see if our morale and productivity was starting to dip or improve.
Below are the questions I would ask my team every week. Team members would answer the questions on a scale between 1 (low) and 7 (high) with how much they agreed with the statements.
We want to make sure that we are focused on meeting our KRs but need to ensure we feel capable of meeting our objectives.
I am enthusiastic about the work that I do for my team
Not Very 1 – 7 Very
I find the work that I do for my team to have meaning and purpose
Not Very 1 – 7 Very
I am proud of the work that I do for my team
Not Very 1 – 7 Very
In my team, I feel fit and strong
Not Very 1 – 7 Very
How productive did you feel this week?
This week, the amount of people that interrupted my work was minimal
You kiddin me?! 1 – 7 Lazer focused
My physical space enables me to be productive
Hardly 1 – 7 Absolutely Yes!
The amount of context switching I had to do this week was…
Like every 5 minutes 1 – 7 Got to focus on one single thing
Additional Thoughts (Optional)
Feel free to share whatever is on your mind.
(free form text response)
How to do the analysis
After getting the submissions each week, here are the simple steps I took to start to quantify and report on the results:
- Take each individual’s numbered responses in both the morale and productivity sections and average them to get an individual’s score for each area.
- Take an average of each team member’s scores to get a cumulative team average for morale and productivity. The highest possible cumulative average you can get is 7
- Show and report on these scores every 2 weeks
- We decided if the cumulative average dropped below 5 we should start to investigate what might be causing the issue. A perfect score of 7 in either morale and productivity is unrealistic. Just stay focused on keeping it an acceptable level determined by your team.
I am no organizational management guru and this survey is no magic bullet to improve your team’s morale and productivity. It does though give you a way to measure these sentiments and start to collaborate with your team on ways to improve them. I also believe that since the results were shared anonymously and as a score it did a good job of allowing people to feel more comfortable about collaborating on ways we could improve as a team without an individual feeling called out.
Simple solutions are sometimes the most effective. Don’t over complicate things with extensive surveys and analysis. Stay focused on releasing features that matter to your customers. To do that you need your team to have high morale and feel like they are being productive.
This article was my inspiration for focusing on morale and creating the survey:
Here are some helpful articles on productivity drains