#10 How to Run A Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting

That’s me, many years ago at the end of a Netflix Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting. (Photo: Michael Rubin.)

As companies grow, one of the critical challenges is to keep everyone aligned. Product strategy helps folks to stay on the same page, but I’ve learned to overcommunicate to ensure the strategy is fully understood and remembered. My peers describe my communication style as “Lather, Rinse, Repeat,” which is a fair assessment.

At Netflix, I began with monthly product strategy meetings for each swimlane, then evolved to a Quarterly Product Strategy meeting. Over time, this meeting became a mechanism for the Netflix culture. The meeting was one of the places we learned to behave in ways that were consistent with the Netflix values. (You can read the Netflix Culture Deck here.)

An essential part of the Netflix culture is to enable teams to become highly aligned and loosely coupled. “Highly aligned” means each group understands the overall product strategy and how they contribute to the company’s success. “Loosely coupled” means teams occasionally check in with each other but avoid the trap of ‘tight coupling’ — consulting multiple teams for every decision they make.

Another Netflix principle is “context, not control.” The intent is to provide context through strategy so that focused teams make decisions without rules or heavy-handed process.

To provide both context and high-level alignment, I brought the leaders of each swimlane together for quarterly product strategy meetings. The goals of this meeting were to:

  • provide context through product strategy, metrics, and tactics
  • ensure alignment across the entire product organization
  • share results and learnings
  • articulate theories and hypotheses for the future, and
  • determine the level of investment in each swimlane

There was also a set of guiding principles, consistent with the Netflix culture:

  • Use CEO level communication — don’t “dumb it down” for newbies.
  • Engage in lively debate.
  • Use slides, but don’t polish them. Slides are a good conversation starter, but you don’t want “death by Powerpoint.” The goal is to deliver crisp articulation of your strategy along with test results that inspire debate.
  • Limit attendance. Once you have more than fifteen people in the room, meetings become less effective. The session can include a few key “C” and VP-level leaders, product managers, plus critical consumer insight, data, design, and technology partners. To discourage tight coupling, minimize the number of participants outside the product and tech organization.
  • It’s NOT a decision-making meeting. If product leaders have successful A/B test results, encourage them to launch the new experience before the meeting. The goal is to enable fast-paced decision-making, not slow it down.

At Netflix, there were three indirect results of the quarterly product strategy meeting:

  • The meeting became a mechanism for the company’s culture. By participating in the meeting, leaders learned the skills, behaviors, and values that embodied Netflix’s culture.
  • The meeting created a results-focused organization. If your product area moved its proxy metrics, it got more resources. The opposite was true, too.
  • You began to learn which product leaders were effective, and over time, which leaders’ skills were not scaling as the company grew.

All three of these outcomes meant the quarterly meetings had a direct effect on the overall culture of the company.

How Quarterly Product Strategy meetings work today

From time to time, I help companies prepare and execute Quarterly Product Strategy meetings. The head of product owns the meeting, determines its attendees, and manages the schedule.

The day before the meeting, the head of product shares the following materials, using Google Slides or Docs:

  • A re-articulation of the overall product strategy, including the product vision (GLEe), product strategy lock-up (Strategy/metrics/tactics), high-level priorities (GEM), and the rolling four-quarter roadmap.
  • Key projects for the upcoming quarter — projects that require cross-functional coordination.
  • Insights relevant to the entire product team — usually shared by the leader of the customer research, design, or data teams.

In turn, the product leaders for each swimlane share these materials in advance:

  • The product strategy for their swimlane, including their strategy lock-up and rolling four-quarter roadmap.
  • Results and learning from the past quarter. These materials are both design and data-rich. You can see A/B test designs through the eyes of customers, along with data-rich test results.
  • Key hypotheses for the next quarter and how the product leader will evaluate success/failure — often through a progression from existing data, to qualitative, and A/B test results. As before, the work is both design and data-rich.

Sharing the materials the day before enables broad participation. The expectation is that everyone will read the documents, then ask questions and make comments within the shared docs. My message to the team is, “If you want to play, you’ve got to pay.”

Crafting the agenda

Here is a rough outline for your first quarterly product strategy meeting:

  • Articulation of the high-level strategy by the head of the product team. Key team members can also share insights relevant to everyone in the room. (30–60 minutes.)
  • The strategy for each swimlane, presented by each product leader. Rather than present all materials shared the day before, each leader shares a subset of materials, informed by the questions and comments from the shared docs. The goal is a 50/50 balance of presentation and discussion. (I allocate 30 to 60 minutes per swimlane, depending on the number of lanes.)
  • A wrap-up at the end of the session. This time provides an opportunity for general discussion, to debate unresolved issues, and to frame which information should be shared broadly outside the room. (60 minutes.)
  • I include meaningful breaks throughout the day. Occasionally we skip these breaks if the teams get behind schedule. (4 x 15-minute breaks, plus a 30 to a 60-minute lunch break.)

Post-meeting:

  • I have participants complete a Net Promoter Score survey to understand what went well and what could be better. The intent is to make each meeting better than the one before.
  • It’s good to have all the participants share a meal afterward. You need time to rebuild relationships after a heated debate.
  • Sometimes it’s hard to sort out all the issues in real-time. There’s often a short-list of topics that require discussion with a smaller team.
  • It’s an excellent habit to summarize the events of the day — especially results and learning, changes in direction, or other decisions that will impact the company. You can share this list at an upcoming company, board, or executive meeting. It’s also good to reference this list at the next quarterly product strategy meeting to reinforce progress.

Minor details: I find it helpful to meet offsite to minimize distraction. It’s also okay for a product leader of one swimlane not to present if there aren’t meaningful results or topics in his or her area. Generally, I schedule these swimlanes towards the end of the day in case an earlier team runs over its allotted time. Putting these product leaders at the tail-end of the schedule is called “redshirting” — a nod to the Star Trek officers who wear red shirts and are routinely killed.

Conclusions

A good meeting is like a movie. There’s a script, good & bad surprises, drama, and a denouement (that old-fashioned movie scene when a couple smokes a cigarette in bed). We always got together for dinner and beers.

At Netflix, the Quarterly Product Strategy meeting became a cultural mechanism. It:

  • reinforced the company’s values of intellectual curiosity, courage, and candor,
  • provided a means to enhance context through strategy,
  • and enabled fast-paced decision-making by individuals expert in their areas.

But please don’t “cut and paste” the Netflix culture or how we executed the Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting. Experiment to discover what works best for you.

In the next essay, I’ll share how I applied the product strategy tools and frameworks at my next startup, Chegg.

Essay #11: A Case Study: Netflix 2020

I hope you find this series of essays helpful. If you choose not to read the last essays, I’d love it if you would give me feedback on this 13-part product strategy essay. Your feedback is incredibly helpful to me:

Click here to give feedback — it only takes one minute!

Best,

Gib

Gibson Biddle

www.gibsonbiddle.com

PS. Here’s an index of all the articles in this series:

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Gibson Biddle

Gibson Biddle

Former VP/CPO at Netflix/Chegg. Now speaker, teacher, & workshop host. Learn more here: www.gibsonbiddle.com or here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gibsonbiddle/