A ritual for surfacing critical conversations

How a simple tool helped our team more effectively launch better products.

Punit Shah

Product Manager at Coda

Blog > Product teams · 7 min read
Launch was just weeks away. We’d been working for nearly a year to build Coda’s Pack Studio—a platform for anyone to discover, build, and even sell extensions on Coda. There was a lot left to do, and emotions were running hot. My normally patient, collegial team members would occasionally become curt in meetings, and I sensed unacknowledged tensions. The other leads clearly cared deeply about our success, but as project leader, I found myself asking: "Is this all going to work? What did we miss?" Even worse, I felt isolated in my concerns. If you work in person, you’ll probably have the chance to process those feelings with a colleague. You might walk out to get coffee and confide: "I felt kind of weird about that meeting. What did you think about it?” If you’re leading the effort, it’s hard to share frustrations or worries with your team. It’s especially difficult to make space for this type of communication in a remote work environment.
Processing frustrations and tough emotions is important—it provides project leaders with early warning signals for issues to come and can prevent failures and resentments later on.
After one particularly tense meeting, my co-lead Helena Jaramillo and I realized that we needed a strategy to encourage authentic, vulnerable communication so that we could engage with the critical conversations that were sitting below the surface. To facilitate this, we created a ritual called “Fears & Magic Wand.” Here’s how it helped us—and how your team can replicate our approach. Fears & Magic Wand is a simple ritual designed to guide open and vulnerable conversations among leadership teams during standing meetings. It consists of three primary questions:
  1. What’s your overall sentiment?
  2. What are your top fears?
  3. What would you wave a magic wand to solve?
When implemented well, this ritual helps teams uncover issues that otherwise take weeks to bubble up. For our team, it created a space for productive discussion of issues that we previously hadn’t been able to surface on the leadership team. As soon as we started using Fears & Magic Wand, we uncovered anxieties and requests for help that our team hadn’t felt able to share remotely.
  • Strategic anxieties - Is anyone going to build on our platform?
  • Interpersonal anxieties - Why isn’t Angela getting the designs done? I feel that’s lagging and blocking everything else.
  • Tactical anxieties - Do we have the right entry point for Pack creation?
Once these issues were on the table, we were able to prioritize them and work collaboratively towards solutions. This ritual also helped to surface critical work gaps in a timely manner. For example, in discussing entry points, we realized there wasn’t an obvious way to get started from the public website. We quickly regrouped and built a landing page days prior to launch. Without the ritual, we wouldn’t have identified this gap until it was too late. Most importantly, this ritual helped us build a healthy, productive team. Hearing others’ fears encouraged our team members to embrace a curious mindset, to listen, and to validate others. Sharing sentiment helped us level-set on intensity-of-feeling. And the magic wand moved us to collaborate as a team, in it together, with nothing left unsaid and everybody eager to solve problems and offer support. Here’s a step-by-step guide to implementing the ritual in your own work and five tips that can help you succeed.
  1. Copy the template or add it to the top of the Coda doc you use to take meeting notes.
  2. In each meeting, give everyone five minutes to silently add responses, read what other people have written, and indicate what responses resonate most. When finished, have participants click the “ready to discuss” button.
  3. As a team, discuss the items you surfaced, beginning with those that recurred or resonated broadly. Continue through the ongoing topics tracker.

Using the Fears & Magic Wand ritual in Coda to help our team launch better products.

Tip 1: Use smaller groups to encourage openness.

This activity is particularly useful with small groups of three to five participants. Many people find it easier to open up in small group settings, so it's more likely that folks will surface critical issues and provide constructive feedback in meetings of this size. This also allows more time to discuss each contribution.

Tip 2: Model authenticity and vulnerability.

I’ve used this ritual on multiple teams since the Packs project. When I present it, I share stories about how making space for a bit of vulnerability with a trusted group has helped projects in the past go so much better—and how I feel so much more supported while going through it. These examples tend to resonate with my colleagues and increase their enthusiasm for using the ritual. Being open about my experience gives me a chance to model the behavior and attitude I’m encouraging: curiosity, validation, vulnerability, and productive problem-solving. And that continues into how we answer the questions. I encourage folks to not inflate their sentiment ratings, to not shy from sharing low-level fears—often some of the most fruitful—to see if there’s anything there to explore together, and to use the “this resonates” button to share some validation. You can also tap into team spirit to frame the effort: “If anybody is going to get this done, it is going to be us, so it's important we be open with each other.”

Tip #3: Leave enough time.

Vulnerable thinking takes time, so give your team the space they need for internal digging. Sharing thoughts in writing allows team members to choose their words carefully, which can make them feel more comfortable sharing, but it also requires additional time. Our team found that we needed at least three to five minutes of quiet writing time per session, and sometimes more.

Tip #4: Embrace the parking lot.

Once you’ve created a space to air and address concerns, keep track of them. While you may not solve every issue right away, track them in the doc and check in on the progress as the project continues. This doc can double up as a way to collect agenda items throughout the week, keeping deeper discussions out of Slack where they can be harder to have.

Tip #5: Adapt the ritual to your company culture.

Most company cultures encourage certain blind spots. After you use the ritual a few times, adapt the prompts according to yours. For example, some teams have a very “nice” culture. On these teams, it’s easy to be supportive, affirming, and celebratory, and harder to provide critical feedback. You may need to expand the “fears” section of the template to encourage constructive criticism. If your company culture prizes direct feedback but struggles to make space in which individuals can take ownership of problems, you might add a prompt that encourages participants to name issues that seem to be lacking clear follow-up or ownership. This ritual, built with Coda, is just one way that we help teams stay in sync while making better decisions. It helped the Packs team launch a whole new business for our company. Thank you to Helena Jaramillo for being game to experiment and for developing this ritual with me as we launched Packs. Learn more about rituals to help your team thrive.

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