How to Run a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting: A Board Meeting for Product
A key challenge for the Head of Product at a fast-growing startup is to maintain focus on product strategy to enable fast decisions and then pass on learnings across the organization as it grows. It’s easy when the company is a dozen people, but how do you replicate the fast pace of startups when the company expands to a hundred people?
I grew up as the VP Product at Netflix, then became the Chief Product Officer at Chegg, and now I am an Executive-in-Residence and Adviser for many fast-growing consumer tech startups. As part of my EIR Product and adviser roles, I solve this problem through quarterly product strategy meetings. The meeting evolved from my early days at Netflix.
HOW THE MEETING GOT STARTED & THE VALUE, IT BRINGS
I joined Netflix in 2005, and at that point, Reed Hastings, the CEO, still met with many product “pods” each month. The challenge was it felt very “siloed” — there wasn’t enough sharing across teams. And the teams spent too much time asking, “what will Reed think?” and not enough time asking, “what will customers think?” The irony was that as much as Reed wanted to let go of critical decisions, he set up a dynamic where folks felt they needed to present work to him before making a decision.
Over time, I set up quarterly product strategy meetings. There was some iteration, but eventually, we got traction through a focus on the following goals:
- To provide context through product strategy, tactics, and metrics
- To ensure alignment across the entire product organization
- To share critical results and learnings
- To articulate theories and hypotheses for future experiments, and
- To determine what areas to invest in — or not — depending on results and learning in each product area.
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.
- You can use slides, but don’t bother to “pretty up” your slides. The meeting is about the crisp articulation of strategy, tactics, metrics, and key learnings to help nurture a fast-paced learning environment. It’s not a forum to “show off.”
- Limit attendance. Once you have more than twenty people in the room, the meeting becomes less effective. Include a few key “C” and VP-level leaders, product managers as presenters, plus critical consumer insight, data, design, and technology partners. I evaluated participation by VP-level folks outside the product organization on a case-by-case basis. It’s helpful to include the CEO, especially if he or she is product, data, or engineering-focused, to add “heat.”
- It’s NOT a decision-making meeting. If product leaders have successful AB test results, for instance, launch the new experience before the meeting. The point of the forum is to encourage fast-paced decision-making — not slow it down.
At Netflix, there were three indirect results of the meeting:
- A very results-focused organization. If your product area got results and moved metrics in meaningful ways, it got more resources.
- You began to learn which product leaders were strong, and over time, which leaders’ skills were not scaling as the company grew. In the case of Netflix, some product leaders were strong “starters,” but as the company got bigger, it needed “builders” to help Netflix scale. And, over time, certain areas required increasing levels of domain expertise as the company matured. (Some of the product leaders at Netflix today have Masters in Statistics; in the early startup days, only a few had taken a statistics course.)
- Both of these outcomes meant the quarterly meetings had a direct effect on both the product organization and the company’s culture.
Today, as an adviser and EIR Product for companies, I find the meeting a highly leveraged technique to help teams develop into world-class product organizations. It’s a handy tool to help fast-growing startups scale, to build a learning organization, to keep groups aligned, and to stay both data and consumer-focused. And because it happens quarterly, there’s an opportunity to improve through iteration.
Below is my step-by-step approach to setting up the meeting.
HOW TO EXECUTE THE QUARTERLY PRODUCT STRATEGY MEETING
Start with strategy
I think the most important job of a product leader is to outline a cohesive product strategy, along with metrics and tactics against these strategies. The way I define the product leader’s job is to delight customers, in hard to copy, margin-enhancing ways. Your product strategy should define your hypotheses about how you plan to deliver on these three dimensions. The metrics are how you measure your progress, and the tactics are simply projects or experiments against each of your key strategies.
In the first 30 minutes of the Quarterly Product Strategy meeting, I reinforce the company’s overall product strategy. Below I outline how these pieces fit together from my early days at Netflix as the company navigated the transition from DVD to streaming.
The first section describes the “steps” for Netflix’s planned growth, reinforcing that not everything had to happen at once — the company’s product focus would shift in phases, over multiple decades.
Product Focus & Phasing:
1. Get big on DVD
2. Lead streaming
3. Expand worldwide
Today, I call the above structure the “GLEe” model. (Note the first letter in each step.) The exercise forces product leaders to think about how the company and product might grow in “waves” and force longer-term thinking. The exercise also helps product leaders avoid the “one and done” phenomenon articulated by Jeff Kagan, a financial analyst who reflected on Yahoo! ‘s demise: “Every successful company rides the growth wave until it crests and falls. The secret is to create the next growth wave before the first one collapses.” The GLEe model encouraged the team to think about “what’s next.”
The next section articulates key hypotheses for how Netflix hoped to delight customers, in margin-enhancing, hard-to-copy ways. It also included projects against these strategies and the metrics the team used to evaluate success or failure of the hypotheses, typically via AB tests.
High-level engagement metric: Monthly retention
When Netflix first started its subscription service, nearly 10% of its members canceled each month. In 2005, the monthly cancelation was 5%. Today, it’s 2%.
Below are the key product strategies in 2007. The intent of each strategy was to delight customers in hard to copy, margin-enhancing ways, as measured by retention.
I started each quarterly product strategy meeting by reinforcing the strategies using a tactic I call “lather, rinse, repeat.” As the company grew, I constantly re-articulated the product strategies as hypotheses failed, or the company took on new challenges. If product leaders on my team couldn’t remember the strategy, I viewed it as a leadership failure on my part. I was unclear or failed to communicate the strategy in a memorable, inspired way.
Note: there were failed strategies — or high-level hypotheses that I have chosen not to publish. One example is our social strategy, or “Friends,” which we killed in 2009. Another was a theory that a more entertaining merchandising experience would significantly improve retention — it didn’t.
Organize the product teams into meaningful “swim lanes.”
One of the ways to develop the fast-paced decision-making and execution of a startup is to break down organizations into smaller teams. At Netflix, we organized the product teams into different “swim lanes.” The expectation is that each product leader can outline their one key metric — “the one they will move or I will kill them (ha!)” — and can define the strategies and tactics, as well as hypotheses and tests that will move this metric.
Here were the ten Netflix team “swim lanes” circa 2007. Each product leader had a “pod” that included engineering, design, and data partners.
I would articulate the high-level product strategy. In turn, I required each product leader on my team to define their strategies, tactics, and metrics for their swim lane. At the time, I called these “one-pagers” as they typically fit on one slide or piece of paper. As an example, here’s the one-pager for Netflix’ personalization effort in 2007:
There was a one-pager for each swim lane. The overall product strategy, together with each swim lane’s one-pager, is the foundation for the quarterly product strategy meetings.
When I work with fast-growing startups to execute their first quarterly product strategy meeting, I start with monthly strategy meetings in each area, then bring all the teams together later in a quarterly product strategy meeting.
MAKING THE MEETING WORK
Managing the attendees feels like debating the guestlist for a wedding — everyone insists that so-and-so has to be there. It’s a positive sign that the meeting is regarded as important, but too many people in the room substantially diminish the goal of having fast-paced discussion and debate. At Netflix, lots of folks wanted to be in the meeting as they mistakenly believed this is where we made all decisions. A broader audience also wanted to attend for the “blood sport” of watching product leaders present to Reed — he loved to debate and required meaningful data to compel him to agree.
Typically in the room:
- The CEO
- The Head of Product (who runs the meeting)
- The product leader for each major swim lane
- The Research, or consumer insights leader
- The Data leader
- The Design leader
- The Technology leader
- Tech and design partners from critical swim lanes
What about the exec team? I handle this on a case by case basis. The danger of inviting the entire exec team is it leads to a consensus-based approach. The goal of the meeting is to enable teams to become tightly aligned and loosely coupled. You seek high-level alignment against the overall strategy. But leaders don’t need to consult multiple groups to make every decision — that’s tight coupling. You want people to focus, to “play their position,” and not meddle in other leaders’ areas.
Advance work for the meeting
Today, I like to have product leaders publish their work the day before the meeting. The Product leaders typically use Google Docs or Slides to share their best thinking, and all participants read the materials in advance and to comment online with thoughts and questions. The next day at the meeting, the product leaders present a subset of their work, informed by the comments. Product leaders use half of their allotted time for presentation and half for discussion and debate.
The expectation is that all attendees will participate aggressively via both the pre-reading and during the meeting itself. There’s no room for bystanders.
Again, the pre-work articulates each swim lane’s one-pager, but also shares key results, learnings, and outlines future theories and hypotheses for research or testing. From time to time, the material describes key roadblocks or dependencies the product leader has outside their area. I find the best materials are both data and design rich and show well-presented results and the ability to move key metrics within the product leader’s area. And in the case of future tests, the product leader is clear about their hypotheses, the test design for these hypotheses, and how the design will come to life in the consumer’s eyes. And whether the tests are a success or failure, the results inevitably add to the collective wisdom of the product organization.
Depending on the size of your product organization, the quarterly product strategy meeting can range from two hours to an all-day session. The length depends on how many swim lanes your product organization has. Regardless, the schedule looks something like this:
Intro: by the Head of Product (30 minutes)
- Why we’re here (articulating goals of the meeting)
- Overall product strategy, metrics, and tactics
- Key issues to focus on today (abstracted from the pre-read)
- A rolling four-quarter product plan, by swim lane, emphasizing projects for the next quarter and lightly outlining the further out quarters.
Qualitative/Quantitative Research and Insights (30 min)
- “Results That Matter.” A cumulative list of positive test results over the year demonstrates progress against critical metrics and helps reinforce a strong results focus.
- Any high-level research or learnings that reach across multiple lanes.
Individual swim lanes
I allot time to each product area, with healthy breaks built into the schedule to enable water-cooler conversation and serve as a buffer to manage the time.
- The expectation is that each product leader will present about half the time and lead a discussion or debate for the remainder.
- Given you may not get through all the material in a day, it’s helpful to put the non-critical product areas at the end of the meeting. (I refer to this as “red-shirting” — a Star Trek reference where most of the officers wearing red shirts die.)
- Each product area does not have to present each quarter. In some instances, especially for long-term projects, there are no critical issues or learnings to share.
So-What’s and Go-Do’s (30–60 minutes)
- It’s helpful to keep a running list of open issues during the meeting and to save an hour at the end of the session to outline the next steps and timing.
After the meeting
- A secondary effect of the meeting is to help build a strong sense of team. Dinner and beer together at the end of the day is a good habit.
- I use SurveyMonkey to implement a Net Promoter Score for the meeting and to generate ideas about how to make the next session better. WARNING: No one loves meetings, so the typical NPS for a highly engaging, productive meeting is in the 40s, although I have seen one meeting with an NPS of 100.
- I encourage the product leader to share some of the key results or insights at future company meetings. I use this as a tactic to rationalize NOT including too many folks in the meeting. Instead, we’ll let folks know about the results at the next all-hands meeting and share a small subset of the meeting’s content at the next board meeting. (Most of the board members are CFO’s and they appreciate the disciplined, data-driven approach, along with a high-level, four-quarter rolling product plan.)
WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
Quarterly Product Strategy Meetings: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
A good meeting is like a movie — there should be conflict, debate, and eventual resolution. Here are some of the things I look for in successful quarterly product strategy meetings:
- Strong preparation and engagement before the meeting.
- Product leaders stay focused on their key hypotheses (their strategies), and their work is both data and design rich. They show their work through their customers’ eyes.
- Product leaders don’t share everything. They stay focused on the things that matter.
- The room sees value in both successful and failed tests as an opportunity to learn, and to pass on learnings from one swim lane to another. The more innovative companies I work with have a remarkable tolerance for failure.
- The product leaders demonstrate a mix of optimization (tests that can move key metrics by five to twenty percent) and innovation (things that can potentially double, 10x, or 100x performance). Typically, three-quarters of the projects focus on optimization with a one-quarter focus on “big bets.” Without teasing out the optimization v. innovation balance, I find most teams focus too much on optimization and too little on big bets. The odds for failure are much higher for innovation, and product leaders need encouragement to take on this higher level of risk — to enjoy the higher potential for reward.
- Open debate and conversation. People don’t hold back or resort to political, side conversations.
- Many Quarterly Product Strategy meetings reveal “diving catches” where work in one product area is dependent on unplanned work in another. While many view this as a mistake, I see it positively. For me, these diving catches are consistent with the notion of tightly aligned, loosely coupled organizations. I’d much rather have an occasional diving catch than lots of planning and coordination meetings between disparate teams. The diving catch means teams are moving fast, without spending too much time coordinating with each other.
- Over many quarters, the cadence of each product area substantially increases — they can execute more tests, to generate more learning, which continually fine-tunes instincts about what, in the long-term, will build both consumer and shareholder value. Over time, the product teams effectively “lengthen their stride” and are willing to take on more risk.
On the flip side, ineffective product strategy meetings have the wrong people in the room, have too many people, don’t focus sufficiently on data and metrics, and devolve into Powerpoint beauty shows with too many political, “sidebar” conversations. Yuck.
I work with lots of consumer tech startups today, and the critical issue for each is their ability to scale — fast. I utilize this relatively lightweight process to help startups stay focused and disciplined. But I’m careful not to engage in a heavy-handed way that can potentially squeeze the life out of the creative process or the company’s potential for innovation.
The heavy-handed process is anathema to innovative companies. Smart people like to work on challenging problems, with other bright people and a minimum of process. For me, strategy, and articulation of that “one key metric” and how you are going to move it, coupled with high cadence testing and learning, is the key to delivering both consumer and shareholder value. The other benefit of having clearly described strategies and metrics is that it makes it easier to say “no” to stuff, which is the main benefit of strategy — defining what you won’t do. I often remind my partners, ‘we can do anything, we just can’t do everything.’
The other benefit of quarterly product strategy meetings is their focus on the “what” we will build. I find companies get too engaged in the “how we build stuff,” which is necessary, but the “what we will build” — defined by the strategy and measured by the metrics — is more important. It’s good to spend a day focused on “what we are building and why.”
As for Netflix today, the “Product Review Meeting” continues, but typical of Netflix, it has evolved dramatically. Todd Yellin, now VP of Product at Netflix, runs the quarterly meeting and says, “The meeting has changed almost beyond recognition. It has evolved more into a discussion about hot business and customer-centric issues and, yes, Reed still attends.”
Please let me know if this is helpful to you and if I can help you to frame and develop a light process like this — a board meeting for the product — to help your product and company become a consumer-focused, highly innovative, learning machine.
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My Other Product Management Articles on Medium:
- My First Podcast: I interview Todd Yellin, VP Product at Netflix
- Netflix’s Customer Obsession
- Branding for Builders
- Hacking Your Product Management Career
- Leaders Lead
- How to Find a Great Job
- What Your Next Head of Product Looks Like
- Six Tips for Making Wicked Hard Decisions
(Many thanks to Florian Fischetti for his thoughts on an early draft.)
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