Discover more from Gibson Biddle's "Ask Gib" Product Newsletter
Ask Gib: "Other than 1:1s & quarterly strategy meetings, what tactics do you recommend to ensure Product/Design are aligned, on-track & thinking strategically?"
Short answer: Experiment to see what works for you, but here's my management system to ensure high-level alignment and crisp execution across the product/design organization.
Note: “Ask Gib” just crossed 2,500 subscribers in its first two months, so I’m excited. If you’re checking out the newsletter, I would love you to join (it’s free):
I’d also love it if you would share the newsletter with friends and colleagues. The more subscribers we have, the more questions and upvotes, which means I have a stronger clue about the critical questions product leaders face today. So please share this newsletter — it helps me to compose more relevant answers:
My Management System
The easiest way to answer your question is to describe my management system along with three provisos:
This essay is from the perspective of a “Head of Product”
It is pre-COVID
Management is very context-sensitive. Everyone has a different style, and this one reflects mine. Different stage/size of companies have different needs, too.
Note to new subscribers: I was VP Product at Netflix starting in 2005, then became CPO of Chegg in 2010. My management systems were also battle-tested over the last five years as the Interim Head of Product at Life360, Metromile, and Nerdwallet — each about a year at a time as we searched for a full-time product leader. I learned to be cruelly efficient with my and other’s time, given I only worked three days/week.
My description of management is “systems and processes to deliver results.” I manage meetings aggressively, so there’s always a prioritized agenda visible to all. The focus is enabling shared context (strategy, results, learning) and crisp execution (clarity about priorities, the right resources, removing roadblocks).
A good meeting is like a movie. There’s a script (pre-reading, agenda), conflict, debate, and a denouement when everyone comes together at the end. By the end of each meeting, I require a list of decisions, next steps, and agreement about the concise “story” we’ll share outside the room. Focusing on the output helps evaluate the extent to which the meeting was helpful or even needed.
One on One Meeting
Typically, 6-10 product managers report to me, plus the design and data/analytics leader. I grew up as a product manager and love helping PMs to advance their careers. I can help data and design leaders grow as leaders, too, but I’m not very helpful to individual contributors within their teams. I don’t manage technology — I partner with the head of technology.
My one-on-one meeting is 30-60 minutes long. I schedule weekly meetings, but it’s ok to cancel them if we don’t feel we need a meeting that week.
I encourage my report to have 3-5 prioritized bullet points ready to discuss. I also have 3-5 agenda items in the back of my mind, and they often intersect.
How to be helpful in the meeting:
Nudge folks to do essential things they don’t want to do. Help them focus and re-prioritize— this is the main reason we need bosses.
Provide ongoing feedback. What you are doing well and could do better. (I also ask my report what I am doing well/poorly to build a mutual feedback system.)
Think/talk about learning/career opportunities in the long-term.
Problem-solve and provide thought partnership.
Stay in touch with each other. Understand personal/work challenges to build trust, but also to ensure no surprises.
The meeting is future-oriented— I don’t want to spend too much time evaluating how the person has done against specific projects in the past few weeks. This can turn into micromanagement pretty quickly.
I want both of us to look forward to the meeting, so if this isn’t happening, debug and modify, as necessary. If you dread the meeting — whether you are the boss or the report — for a sustained time period, then something’s wrong. In the worst-case scenario, it may be time for a new boss or report.
Weekly Team Meeting
This is the team’s meeting, not mine. Generally, attendees include all who work directly for me, but we occasionally invite individual contributors from the design or data team. Sometimes, these skip-level reports attend to share a critical project or because their boss is out that week.
The team prioritizes what they want to talk about, which generally includes:
Prioritization of critical projects across the product, data, and design teams
Key learning and results from qualitative or quantitative research
Danger projects that need extra help from me or the exec team
Decisions that the exec team or I need to make because we are slowing things down
Questions the team has for me or the broader exec team.
There are often brief presentations in this meeting — learning from recent qualitative, a new design system, or impressive AB test results relevant to all in the room.
We typically spend a few minutes looking at current metrics and debugging any surprises or things we don’t understand. This weekly data readout is one of my tactics to ensure vital metrics focus within an organization.
This meeting intends to make folks comfortable bringing up problems/challenges so they can problem-solve together. In rare cases, I help address broader issues that those in the room can’t solve. The meeting enables us to remove any blockers, problem-solve and build trust between product, data, and design.
Note: The meeting happens, even if I am not able to attend. Again, it’s the team’s meeting, not mine.
Monthly Strategy Meetings for each Swimlane
The product leader owns these meetings and, together with their tech, design, and research partners, determines the agenda and attendees— there are typically a dozen folks in the room. I love to attend these meetings, which are are 1-2 hours.
Strategy meetings are higher-level meetings than design sprints or backlog grooming. Each team reiterates their swimlane’s strategy and talks about test design, execution, and results. This meeting is critical for maintaining a team’s strategic focus and builds a strong foundation for quarterly strategy meetings.
I make sure each swimlane product strategy meeting is going well before bringing all the teams together in a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting.
Quarterly Product Strategy Meetings
I have written about this meeting extensively, and provide a link to my Medium essay at the bottom of this essay.
This meeting includes the CEO and a few critical execs from other company functions, plus the product leader/tech leader for each swimlane. This meeting brings forward the best/most exciting content from each area’s monthly product strategy meetings.
The focus of the meeting:
Articulation of overall product strategy and the strategy for each swimlane
Key results and learning via qualitative and quantitative
Key hypotheses/future projects
How much to invest in each swimlane (often a post-meeting discussion)
This meeting is full of hardball questions, rich debate, and lots of learning. I work hard to keep the attendance at around twenty, so it doesn’t become a “Powerpoint Parade.”
Over time, this meeting became a mechanism for Netflix culture: participants learned to behave in ways consistent with Netflix’s values in the meeting. It was an important meeting that everyone wanted to attend, which is an indicator of a great session. Imagine leading meetings that folks are dying to attend — that’s the gold standard.
Quarterly All-Hands Meeting
The focus is cross-functional alignment. I re-share the high-level product strategy, along with its proxy metrics and critical projects. I also share an updated four-quarter rolling roadmap plus an executive summary of key learning, decisions, and next steps from the Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting.
We highlight the critical projects that product and tech plan to deliver that quarter. The intent is to signal which projects folks should expedite when they cross their desk.
Quarterly Business Results
As companies get bigger, there’s an even higher need for cross-functional alignment. At Netflix, all Directors and above attended Quarterly Business Reviews, which were always offsite, typically for a day and a half. Each department re-iterated its strategy, talked about crucial learning, but there was also lots of time to get to know each other.
At Netflix, this is the forum where we edited the Netflix Culture deck for four years. Activities like these built cross-functional alignment so folks could do their jobs with a minimum of check-ins with other functions. This reinforced the notion of “tightly-aligned, loosely coupled,” which guards against dreaded “tight coupling” — the time-consuming requirement that each function checks in with each other for every decision.
The Netflix QBR meeting was one of the main reasons managers wanted to be promoted to Director. In 2005, there were about 40 execs at the meeting; by 2010, there were 200. (I’m not sure what the meeting looks like today.)
Every 3-6 month Qualitative Offsite with the Product Team
I often take a subset of the product/design team offsite to spend time with customers via focus groups in different areas of the country, typically for two days. Not only do we develop consumer insight, but it’s an effective way to build a team united in serving its customers.
When we’re done, we do something fun together. This means a ski weekend or time on the beach at my family place in Stonington, CT. (Folks are always suspicious of the locations I choose, but Boulder, Colorado, and Providence, RI have lots of non-Silicon Valley Freaks.)
Topic de Semaine
I often point out that the best way to learn something is to teach it. For the past 30 years, I executed a monthly meeting called “Topic de Semaine.” (Yes, I know “Semaine” means “week” in French — it’s a bad joke mocking my poor foreign language skills.) This is where I developed my teaching and presentation skills. Lots of other folks share their best thinking, too. The meeting is a lot of fun and only happens when someone is up for the challenge. Attendance is anyone interested in the topic.
If I have time, I drop in on design, data, or tech meetings to ensure folks aren’t wasting each other’s time and to signal that the work they do is important. I also do casual skip-level meetings — we go out to lunch together. What I’m really doing: trying to understand if anyone who works for me is incredibly effective at “managing up” to me but does a poor job managing their reports. I’m also on the look-out for bright “up and comers.”
A lot of this is context-sensitive. I know some engineering managers at Google who maintain an intensely flat organization — 40 direct engineering reports. In this case, they largely manage “exceptions” — focusing most of their time on the engineers who are behind the eight-ball.
No one management system works for all. I have experimented with different management tactics over decades, and this is what works for me. Experiment to see what works for you.
With COVID, the key question is, “Do we really need a meeting?” A lot of work can be achieved asynchronously through shared Google Docs and occasional check-ins via Slack. And when you do have a Zoom meeting, it’s harder to achieve that “A good meeting is like a movie” standard, but it’s worthwhile when you pull it off — keep trying!
As always, I’d love your feedback on this essay:
You can also ask and upvote questions here:
PS. Here’s the link to my Medium essay, “How to Run a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting: A Board Meeting for Product.” The essay has 6K claps and an NPS in the 70’s, so it’s quite good.