Getting in Shape for 2018: Product Management Best Practices

Dana Solomon

Dana Solomon
Marketing at ProductPlan

Can you believe it’s already 2018? Did last year’s product roadmap deliver value? Did you meet all your goals? How does your backlog look? As we begin the new year, now is the best time to take a step back and do some strategic thinking about this year’s goals and priorities.

The Product Stack recently hosted a webinar called Getting in Shape for 2018: Product Management Best Practices, that focused on some important activities to jumpstart the planning process for next year. The webinar featured speakers from ProductPlan, Pivotal Tracker, and Notion, and addressed a number of topics and questions around 2018 planning. If you’re interested in starting the year off in the right direction, watch the entire webinar or check out some of the highlights below.

 

What’s the best way to approach planning and prioritization for the upcoming year?

Given that there are a good amount of product managers that plan their roadmap on an annual basis, it’s no surprise there’s a lot of interest in planning and prioritization around the end of the year. For the best chances of success, we recommend not only looking ahead to strategic goals for 2018, but also performing a retrospective analysis of 2017.

The end of the year is an excellent opportunity to look back on the prior year and take stock of how your previous planning played out. What went better than expected? What did you not anticipate? What were your assumptions going into 2018? What worked in terms of execution? What didn’t? Are those insights going to play a big role in helping to guide your assumptions for 2018? (Hint: They definitely should!) This is a great opportunity to compare forecasted performance numbers and expectations around market behavior with how things actually turned out.

The most important thing is to understand why these things did or didn’t behave as expected. Understanding the “why” here will help you plan for next year and help you do more of what worked and less of what didn’t. If you can eliminate what turned out to be some faulty assumptions from this year’s planning process, you’ll be in much better shape.

It’s critical at this point in the year to give yourself some room to breathe and think strategically. Product managers know how easy it is to get bogged down in daily activities, but if you can adjust your planning and prioritization this year based on past performance, you’re going to set yourself up for a more successful 2018.

How do you involve your 2017 KPIs and product roadmap in 2018 planning?

This is also a great moment to take a step back and look at your product-focused KPIs. Are there any broad trends in the data or in your predictions? For example, do you regularly over- or underestimate usage numbers? Are you overestimating how much work can be done in a sprint? Checking these assumptions at the end of the year is a good way to shore up your current planning.

If your development velocity has been faster than expected, maybe you can prioritize those new features you’ve been considering. If you were constantly dealing with overpacked sprints and barely getting things done, maybe 2018 should focus more on the backlog and maintenance activities. The retrospective is less about judging how successful or unsuccessful things were last year, and more about gleaning insights from past experience to leave you more informed for next year.

At ProductPlan, we do this type of exercise while looking at our prior year’s roadmap. The visual reference makes it easy to look at what we set out to do and what we actually accomplished. From there, we have a better, more objective sense of our development velocity to inform our decisions for the coming year.

On the other hand, the end of the year is also a great time to set your roadmap aside entirely and do some some situational planning. What would you do today if you could do anything? Check the market, assess your product, and see if you’re actually headed where you want to go. Did anything come out of situational planning that might cause a shift in prioritization? Should you continue on the trend you’re on, or should you make a strategic decision to explore a new direction or market space? Take some time to be aspirational! What’s the customer benefit you really want to deliver this year?

As a product manager, you’re constantly defining the “why” behind your roadmap, and clear product aspirations can help make the “why” more concrete to you and the rest of your organization. Having a concrete sense of your aspirations for your product can have real effects on your prioritization process now and throughout 2018. When you’re planning and making tough decisions about what is a must-have or where you might compromise, having those aspirations as touchstones will help you choose a direction and garner buy-in from stakeholders and your team.

Bonus tip: Use the legend on your roadmap to include these aspirations and strategic goals to help categorize the work different teams are doing and ensure every project is aligned with the big picture. Ideally, at the end of your retrospective you should end up with an updated roadmap with some aspirational goals, a clear sense of customer benefits and business objectives for 2018, and a solid prioritization framework for the year to come.

How do you prioritize backlog items from 2017 when there are already high-priority items established for 2018?

This is a question that every product manager faces at the end of the year. Your leadership team has handed you some high-priority items for the new year, but you know there’s some work that will carry over from last year. So, what do you do?

We recommend setting everything aside from your backlog and really looking at what needs to be accomplished in the coming year. Set up your roadmap for 2018 with the new high-priority items and get rid of any of the previous year’s items that don’t rollover and support the upcoming objectives.

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When you’re looking at the business goals for the new year, try to come up with the two or three product-related objectives that will be key to supporting those new goals. There also needs to be some agreement between you and leadership regarding the ratio between work that directly supports the new priorities and work related to business-as-usual activities, maintenance work, and technical debt.

Maybe there’s technical debt that needs to be addressed before you can even start development on features that support the broader goals for 2018. You’ll need to work with leadership and engineering teams to assess how much maintenance work there is before you commit to a plan for the new year.

If you can determine what you want to accomplish, what you are willing to compromise on, and how much work it will take to achieve those goals while addressing maintenance activities, you should have a good sense of your priorities for the new year.

Beyond planning and prioritizing around your product, do you have any advice for planning a product management career move in the new year?

The end of the year is a great time to think about your career in product management. You’re already talking to your boss a lot because of product planning activities, so why not also set aside some time to take stock of your own performance.

Now is a good time to think about how well you set your performance expectations for 2017. Did you meet your personal goals? How well did you do in terms of meeting product KPIs? What would you do differently in the new year? What are three ways you’ll measure your success next year? Reflecting on your past performance and setting new goals for yourself is a solid way to set yourself up for success in 2018.

Apart from evaluating your personal performance, it’s definitely a good time to think about whether you’re happy in your current role. Are you still challenged? Do you feel you’ve outgrown it? Maybe you’re ready to step up to the next level on the product management career path. If you’re thinking of going after a promotion, you’ll want to ensure you’re meeting or exceeding expectations for your current role. That’s where the KPIs we mentioned above can come in handy. You can use those success metrics to advocate for your own advancement in the same way you use them to get buy-in on your product strategy.

If you’re looking outside your company for a new job, be sure to research prospective employers so you can ask good questions during the interview. If you do land a new product role in 2018, you’ll also want to make sure you set yourself up for success in your first 30 days.


Have more tips for product managers dealing with end of year planning? Please share them in the comments!