One of the greatest challenges for the Head of Product at a fast-growing startup is to maintain focus on product strategy, to enable good, fast consumer and data-driven decisions, and to pass on learnings across the organization as it grows. It’s easy when the company is a dozen people, but how do you scale the fast decision-making of startups when the company grows beyond fifty or 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 both my “EIR Product” and adviser roles, I try to solve this problem through quarterly product strategy meetings. Think of this meeting as a board meeting for product. 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 many product “pods” each month. The challenge was it felt very “siloed” — there wasn’t enough sharing across teams — and the teams were too engaged in the question — “what will Reed think?” v. focusing on building consumer and shareholder value. 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.
Eventually, I set up quarterly product strategy meetings which were called “Product Review Meetings” at the time. There was some rapid iteration through success and failure of the format, but eventually we got traction through focus on the following goals:
- To provide context through product strategy, tactics and metrics
- To ensure alignment across the entire product organization
- To share key results and learnings
- To articulate key theories and hypotheses for future experiments, and
- To determine what areas to invest in — or not — depending on results and progress in each area.
These 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 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 fifteen people in the room, the meeting becomes less effective. The meeting can include a few key “C” and VP-level leaders, product managers as presenters, plus critical consumer insight, data, design and technology partners. Participation by VP-level folks outside the product organization is evaluated 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 meeting 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. The opposite was true, too.
- 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 leaders who were more effective “builders” to help Netflix scale. And, over time, certain areas needed increasing levels of domain expertise as the company matured. (Some of the product leaders today have Masters in Statistics where in the startup days, only a few had taken a single statistics class.)
- Both of these outcomes meant the quarterly meetings had a direct effect on both the product organization and the overall culture of the company.
Today, as an adviser and “EIR Product” for companies, I find the meeting to be a highly leveraged way to help teams develop into world-class product organizations. I find it an effective tool to help fast-growing startups scale, to build a learning organization, to keep teams aligned, and to stay both data and consumer-focused. And because it happens quarterly, there’s the opportunity to “just keep getting better” through learning and reflection based on each quarter’s work.
Below is my step-by-step thinking on how to execute 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 margin-enhancing, hard-to-copy ways. Your product strategy should define your key 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.
I expect that the first 30 minutes of the Quarterly Product Strategy meeting will reinforce the company’s overall product strategy. Below I outline how these pieces fit together from my early days at Netflix as the company began to navigate the transition from DVD to streaming. (I use Netflix as an example because most people know and understand the product so it’s easier to relate to the articulation of the product strategy and with the passage of time, it’s ok to share these strategies broadly.)
The first section describes the “steps” for Netflix’ planned growth, reinforcing that not everything had to happen at once — the company’s product focus would happen in phases, over many years, and if you look closely, you’ll realize the key product strategies applied to multiple phases — they were good long-term investments.
Product Focus & Phasing:
1. Get big on DVD
2. Lead streaming (called “downloading” at the time)
3. Expand worldwide
Today, I call the above structure the “GLEe” model. (Look carefully at the first word in each step.) The exercise is intended to get product leaders to think about how the company and product might grow in “waves” over time and to force longer-term thinking. The exercise helps product leaders avoid the “one and done” phenomenon articulated by Jeff Kagan, a financial analyst who reflected recently 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.” This model encourages the team to think about “what’s next.”
The next section articulates key hypotheses for how Netflix planned to find the intersection of delighting customers, in margin-enhancing, hard-to-copy ways, along with key projects against these strategies and the metrics the team used to evaluate success or failure of the hypotheses, typically via AB tests.
Topline metric: Monthly retention
- Optimize retention against cost.
Netflix was willing to spend up to $200 for each potential lost customer ($200 = 2 x $100 LTV which recognized the lost customer plus another customer lost due to negative word of mouth.) If an innovation cost more than the retention benefit, it wasn’t implemented.
I started each quarterly product strategy meeting reinforcing the above strategies using a tactic I call “lather, rinse, repeat.” There’s a lot going on as companies scale and I needed to constantly repeat and re-articulate the product strategy as hypotheses failed, or the company grew and took on new challenges. If product leaders on my team couldn’t play back the strategy, I viewed it as a leadership failure on my part — the strategy was either unclear or I failed to deliver it in a memorable, inspiring 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 experience would 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 key hypotheses and tests that will move this metric. The swim lane analogy is used purposely — you can have narrow or wide lanes and can even put multiple swimmers into the same lane to double the pace of experimentation.
Here were the ten Netflix team “swim lanes” circa 2007. Each was led by a product leader and had a “pod” that included engineering, design, and data partners.
I would articulate the high-level product strategy, but expected each product leader on my team to articulate the strategies, tactics, and metrics for their swim lane. At the time, I called the articulated strategy for each swim lane “one-pagers” as they typically fit on one slide or piece of paper. As an example, here’s the one-pager for Netflix’ personalization efforts in 2007:
As in the case of the one-pager for personalization, I asked each product leader to outline their key strategies, metrics and tactics for their swim lane. The work of these collective leaders “rolled up” to contribute to the overall product strategy that I outlined for the entire product organization.
The overall product strategy, together with each swim lane’s one-pager, is the foundation for the quarterly product strategy meetings. At Netflix, the work was shaped and honed via monthly strategy meetings that each team executed on their own.
When I work with fast-growing startups to execute their first quarterly product strategy meeting, there’s typically a few months of preparation required to get each swim lane’s one-pager in order, otherwise I find it’s “shit in, shit out.”
MAKING THE MEETING WORK
Managing the attendees feels a bit like managing the guest list for a wedding — everyone insists that so-and-so really has to be there. It’s a positive sign that the meeting is regarded as important, but too many people in the room substantially diminishes 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 key decisions were made. (A broader audience also wanted to be present for the “blood sport” of watching product leaders present to Reed — he loved to debate and required meaningful data to compel him to agree. He really believed in the “consumer science” of AB testing.)
Typically in the room:
- The CEO
- The Head of Product (who runs the meeting)
- Key product leaders for each major “swim lane.”
- The Research, or consumer insights leader
- The Data leader
- The Design leader
- The Technology leader
- Key tech and design partners in critical swim lanes, and
- To the extent needed, occasional C-level leaders (Marketing or Business).
The danger of including the entire exec team is it can lead to decision-making by consensus and tight “coupling” where the goal state is tightly aligned exec teams around a shared understanding of the company strategy, but only loose “coupling” across functions. You want people to focus and “play their position” without getting overly engaged in other folks’ area of expertise.
There is real tension in managing the attendees. I’ve found myself throwing uninvited guests out of the room at the beginning of the day — you can call them wedding crashers. Too many people in the room turns the meeting into a grandstanding event and reduces meaningful discussion and debate.
Advance work for the meeting
Today, I like to have the 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 participants are expected to read the materials in advance, and to comment online with thoughts or questions. The next day at the meeting, the product leaders present a subset of their published materials with the goal of using half 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. If you want to play, you’ve got to pay.
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 outlines 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 all of the product leaders in the room. Win or lose, there’s an opportunity to pass on the learnings to the rest of the team.
Depending on the size of your product organization, the quarterly product strategy meeting can range from two hours to an all-day meeting — it depends on how many swim lanes your product organization has. Regardless, the agenda looks something like this:
Intro: by the Head of Product (30 minutes)
- Why we’re here (articulating goals of 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 key projects for the next quarter and lightly outlining the further out quarters (longer-term plans will change, based on results and learnings). This product plan is super helpful to me in presenting later at actual board meetings.
Qualitative/Quantitative Research and Insights (30 min)
- “Results That Matter.” A cumulative list of positive test results over the year that demonstrates key 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 (time, as needed, depending on number of pods)
- A specific amount of time is allotted to each product area, with healthy breaks built into the schedule to enable water-cooler conversation and serve as buffer to manage the time.
- The expectation is that each product leader will present about half the time they are given.
- 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” which is a Star Trek reference where most of the officers wearing red are killed.)
- Each product area does not have to participate each quarter. In some instances, especially for long-term projects, there’s simply 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 meeting to outline next steps and timing.
After the meeting
- A secondary effect of the meeting is to help build a strong sense of team. Dinner and a beer together after the meeting 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 meeting better. WARNING: No one loves meetings, so the typical NPS for a highly engaging, productive meeting is in the 40’s, 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 you can typically share a small subset of the meeting’s content at board meetings. (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 — the meeting should not be boring. 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 — think about how effectively Amazon “shrugged off” its mobile phone failure, for instance.
- The product leaders demonstrate a good 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 over time). Typically, three-quarters of the projects are focused on optimization with one-quarter innovations or “big bets.” Without teasing out the optimization v. innovation balance, I find most teams focus too much on optimization and too little on bigger, braver bets. The odds for failure are much higher for innovation and teams need to be pushed to take on this higher level of risk — to enjoy the higher potential for reward.
- Open air debate and conversation. People don’t hold back or resort to political, side conversations. (Growing up, I was trained that “Good fights make good marriages” and have now been married twenty-five years.)
- 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 view 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. This is required to develop a focused, fast-paced, innovative, product organization.
- Over the course of 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. In a way, over time, the product teams effectively “lengthen their stride.”
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. Don’t let this happen!
I work with lots of consumer tech startups today and the key issue for each is their ability to scale — fast. I have arrived at this relatively light process of the quarterly product strategy meeting to help startups stay focused and disciplined, but to do it in a way that I hope doesn’t squeeze the life out of the creative process or the company’s potential for innovation.
Heavy process is anathema to innovative companies. Smart people like to work on hard problems, with other bright people and a minimum of process. For me, strategy, and articulation of that “one 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 these 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 even more important. It’s good to spend a day focused on the “what we are building and why”, along with all the results and learnings you can pass on to others to help teams stay out of the weeds.
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, debateful, 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 product — to help your product and company become a consumer-focused, highly innovative, learning machine.
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