The job of the product manager is somewhat of an anomaly in the working world.  Unlike the role of, say, an engineer, or a sales person, the role of the product manager can be completely different at one company vs. the next.  It all depends on the company’s product and markets.  Similarly, there is no one universally accepted way to do product planning.  One company may do it annually, while another might do it iteratively, never actually creating a long-term plan at all.

Since transitioning about a year ago to product management, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about product planning and want to share some of my thoughts here.

Andrew’s Guide to Product Planning

1) Timing and Scheduling:

The first thing you need to worry about when running a product planning exercise is timing and scheduling.  How long do you have to create a plan, how far forward should your plan look, and what meetings do you need to schedule to get the job done?

If I had to guess, I’d say that most product planning exercises take about one month, look forward about one year, and consist of about 6-12 meetings.  This can work fine if you’re dealing with a mature product, but in my opinion, it is far too slow for any fast moving high-tech environment.

My suggestion is that the ideal planning process should last only one week, look forward only one quarter, and consists of only three meetings.

2) The Planning Team

The next think you need to think about is your planning team.  Who are the people who are going to create the plan?  This group needs to be between three and eight people and should probably include a mixture of product management, product marketing, engineering and company executives.  You need to be a little bit disciplined about the size of the team here.  Planning teams with fewer than three people generally will not have the diversity of thought to produce a well-crafted plan, while teams larger than eight will not be able to move quickly enough to keep pace with the planning schedule.

3) The Planning Meetings

The ideal product planning process is only three meetings and can be accomplished over the course of about one week.

Session 1:

The first planning meeting is a very high level discussion – almost a brainstorming session – about what you want the product to be.  This session should last about 120 minutes and be a relaxed, almost casual atmosphere.  I find that it’s best to do these meetings over lunch or – my personal favorite – over pizza in the evening.  Make sure you have the food brought in about ½ of the way though the meeting (if you introduce the food too early, people will start to get sleepy toward the end of the meeting).  Use the pizza as an opportunity to break the discussion and summarize what you’ve talked about so far.

The key to making this discussion a success is to ignore what’s possible and just think about where you want to go.  The sky is the limit.  Draw pictures. Experiment.  Debate.  Go down a few rabbit holes, and just collectively chew on ideas.  As the meeting comes to a close, you don’t need to come away with hard next steps, you just need to get agreement on the three to five rough categories of things you want to do.

For example, the Session 1 planning meeting for Microsoft Word may come away with the following categories 1) Better integration with email 2) Cloud/web-based version 3) Real-time collaboration tools.  These aren’t specific projects – they’re just rough, high level categories.

Session 2:

While in session one, you thought about the product from a “top down” perspective – thinking about where you want to go in the future – session two should be a “bottoms up” session where you start by thinking about where you are today.  The second meeting should be about two days after the first and last about 90 minutes.

To set up the meeting draw horizontal swim lanes across a large whiteboard and place each of your three to five categories from session one in its own lane.  On the left hand side of the board write down where you are today as it pertains to each of the categories.  Then, on the right hand size of the board put a reminder of where you want to go.

Now, start the discussion by filling in the middle of the whiteboard.  What projects/features/tasks do you need to get from current state to target state?  In this discussion, do not worry about resource constraints or how much work your current team can take on at once.  Just pretend like you’re going to do everything to get to your desired state.

By the end of session two, you should have a rough idea of where you are today and what you have to do to get to your desired state.

Session 3:

The last meeting is the prioritization meeting.  It should be roughly two days after session two and it should last 90 minutes.  To set up the meeting recreate the picture of your horizontal swim lanes from session two.  Start the meeting by simply talking about the “must dos”.  Which tasks/projects/features do you absolutely need to achieve your desired success?  What features absolutely need to be built?  Which projects absolutely have to get done?  Label these projects with a specific color on the whiteboard and place them into the “must do” bucket.

Next, talk about everything else.  When discussing features and projects outside the “must do” bucket you can simply prioritize them in stack rank order according to which features or projects are most valuable.

Once you have assembled your “must do” bucket and your stack ranked list of everything else, it’s then time to talk about what resources you have today.

Start by matching your current resources to your “must do” projects and work down from there.  Throughout the process be sure to consider build/buy/partner as an option for all of the items on the list.  By the end of the meeting it’s important to come to a conclusion on which projects your current team will be tackling in the next quarter and which projects need additional build/buy/partner diligence.

4) Creating the Plan Document:

After you’ve had all three planning sessions, take all of the whiteboard drawings and notes and create the official plan document.  You can use whatever format works best, but I typically use PowerPoint.  The plan should contain details about product strategy (what customer problems are you solving?) as well as the projects the team is going to work on in the next three months.  Don’t worry about making the plan absolutely perfect – remember, because you’re doing quarterly planning this plan only lives for three months.  You’ll have a chance to throw it out and start over again in just 12 weeks.

This is now your strategic plan.  It only took one week and three meetings.  Now tell the team to get to work.

Product Planning in One Week
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