How to Run a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting: A Board Meeting for Product

Me, as VP Product at Netflix in 2007 (photo credit Michael Rubin)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
Netflix Overall Product Strategy (circa 2007)
Netflix Swimming Lanes (circa 2007)
Articulation of Netflix Personalization Strategy (circa 2007)
  • 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
  • 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.
  • “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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 CFOs — they appreciate the disciplined, data-driven approach, along with a high-level, four-quarter rolling product plan.)
  • 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 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.

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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/