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How “product therapy” made our team happier and more effective

A man prepares his kite to fly during an international kite festival in Alcochete, near Lisbon, Portugal, Sunday, June 28, 2015.
All together now.
  • Justin Goff
By Justin Goff

Senior product operations manager, Duolingo

It was 2019, and the product team at Duolingo was killing it. User engagement and revenue were both growing fast, we’d just launched some of our most impactful experiments ever, and a couple of big new bets were starting to show signs of product-market fit. Everywhere we looked, we saw the signs that our hard work was paying off.

Then we got the results from our company-wide employee engagement survey.

The engagement score for Duolingo’s product function was about 12% lower than the rest of the company, and about 10% lower than our top peer companies. Worse, only about 50% of our team responded that they rarely thought about looking for a job at another company.

Today, the product team is still killing it, and we’ve cut the engagement gap with the rest of the company in half. Compared to a peer group of similar companies, our team’s engagement score is among the highest, according to employee-feedback platform Culture Amp. On our last engagement survey, 80% of the team said that they rarely think about looking for a job at another company. And sure enough, we haven’t lost a single team member since 2019.

How did we get from there to here? The secret is a little thing we like to call product therapy.

Where product therapy came from

Product therapy began with the realization that when it came to getting feedback from the product team, our regular meetings and one-on-ones simply weren’t getting the job done.

Our engagement survey results forced us to confront the fact a lot of team members were self-censoring because they weren’t comfortable being vulnerable with their role managers or in front of the team. This limited the range of problems we could discuss and the set of solutions we could consider, which led to even more self-censorship, as it gave the impression that only certain problems were important to leadership or were common across the team.

To break out of this cycle, we knew we needed to give each team member a safe, confidential, and supportive space to talk about their problems at work and to start identifying some solutions. Only then could we bring the unspoken problems we were facing out into the open where they could be solved.

Our first step was a simple one-on-one listening tour to help us understand our engagement survey results. Over time, this evolved into a quarterly ritual—and when a few team members started joking that it felt kind of like therapy, the name stuck.

How product therapy works

Product therapy is based on a set of regular one-on-one interviews with a “product therapist.”

The product therapist is a trusted and experienced member of the team who doesn’t directly manage any of the team members being interviewed and who doesn’t do performance reviews or make promotion decisions. Their job is to listen well, ask good questions, surface insights, and advocate for solutions, all while keeping individual discussions confidential and making sure every team member feels heard.

For our team, the task fell to our senior product operations manager.

(Plot twist: that person is me!)

The interviews themselves are a lot like an exit interview, but for employees who we hope aren’t leaving, and with a big dash of research thrown in. They rely on open-ended questions meant to get people talking about the problems they’re facing at work. For example:

  • Of all of your work related activities and responsibilities, what do you wish you could spend less time on? Why? What do you wish you could spend more time on? Why?
  • Imagine your best friend is thinking about applying for a job like yours at Duolingo. What do you tell them to expect? What are the biggest pros? The biggest cons?
  • Let’s say you get a letter from your future self one year from now and they’ve started a new job at a new company. What does the letter say about why you left Duolingo?

After each round of product therapy sessions, the product therapist pulls key findings together into a report, shares it with the team to validate the findings, and kicks off a set of conversations about how to start tackling the problems that have surfaced.

How product therapy helped us

Product therapy has helped our team in a variety of ways. The most obvious is that it has driven awareness and alignment around the team’s biggest problems, and generated actionable ideas for solving them.

For example, thanks to product therapy, we’ve changed the format and frequency of our team meetings, we’ve developed new design guidelines to make product decisions easier, and we’ve started hiring contractors to help team members with data entry and administrative tasks. We’re also working on some ongoing improvements to how we evaluate team members, how we give team members feedback, and how our product decision-making processes evolve as we scale. All of these are big problems that were hard for us to identify or talk about outside of product therapy.

But product therapy has helped us in subtler, and maybe more important, ways, too.

Right from the start, it helped improve team morale by making every team member feel heard and cared for. Where it had previously been tough to talk about big issues, team members now had a no-risk channel for getting feedback directly to leadership, and the existence of product therapy itself was a strong signal that the team’s leadership was committed to listening and acting on what they heard.

Even better, product therapy has helped improve our sense of psychological safety and our willingness to be vulnerable with our colleagues on the team. In our product therapy sessions, different people kept talking about the same unspoken problems. When those problems were brought to light, it made each of us feel less alone in the problems we were facing and more comfortable discussing those problems openly. This has helped us build a culture where it’s okay to have problems and to talk about them. As a result, even outside of product therapy, we’re a lot better at being both candid and kind.

How to get started with team therapy at your company

So! Let’s say you’ve found yourself where we were in 2019: signs of big unspoken problems that you can’t seem to get at by the regular means.

Here’s how you can start:

Describe the problem to your team. Acknowledge there are problems and that you need to do a better job of understanding them and how to fix them. Talk about why your regular feedback processes aren’t working.

  1. Recruit a team therapist. Make sure this is someone people can talk to comfortably and with zero social or professional risk.
  2. Announce the plan to your team. You don’t need to use the word “therapy”—you can just say that you’ve asked so-and-so to do a listening tour to get a better understanding of the problems facing the team.
  3. Do the first round of interviews. Have the “therapist” take confidential notes, synthesize them, and highlight key findings and themes.
  4. Validate the results. Share the key findings and themes with the people who were interviewed. Let them help you get the language right and make sure you haven’t missed anything. Then, ask them to help prioritize the problems you’ve found (through an anonymous survey, for example) and help brainstorm potential solutions.

This should result in a list of concrete, high-impact problems to solve for your team. Most of the time, it will also give you a set of new questions to explore or new problems to try to understand. That’s great! Just feed these into the next round of one-on-one interviews and lather, rinse, repeat.

In our case, we’ve settled into a quarterly schedule: We conduct interviews around the middle of each quarter, which we use to shape our goals for the next quarter and our questions for the next round of interviews. The result? A happier and more effective team that always knows what it needs to do to improve.

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