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.

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Me, as VP Product at Netflix in 2007 (photo credit Michael Rubin)

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

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

  • Use CEO level communication — don’t dumb it down for newbies.

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.

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.

Product strategy:

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.

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Netflix Overall Product Strategy (circa 2007)

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.

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Netflix Swimming Lanes (circa 2007)

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:

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Articulation of Netflix Personalization Strategy (circa 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

The attendees

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

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.

The agenda

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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Many thanks,

Gib

Gibson Biddle

My Other Product Management Articles on Medium:

(Many thanks to Florian Fischetti for his thoughts on an early draft.)

www.gibsonbiddle.com to learn about my talks

https://www.linkedin.com/in/gibsonbiddle/ for my bio

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Written by

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/

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