Ah, a free exchange of ideas. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Until you’ve got five stakeholders sitting in an enclosed space spitting out “Must Haves” like watermelon seeds in a county fair contest. Ideas are great, but a strategy everyone can agree on is better. How can you get from one extreme to the other? How can you improve your product strategy meetings?
Well, it’s a lot like this, but with fewer horses.
Successful product strategy meetings don’t happen by accident — they require planning and expert execution. So here’s a 5-step formula to help make your meetings run more smoothly and effectively, and round up those maverick cats.
Step 1: Set one objective — just one — no cheating
Because a product strategy meeting is generally a high-level discussion, you can expect your attendees to come ready to brainstorm, pontificate, philosophize — even argue. This is all okay, even beneficial, as long as the discussion does not stray from your meeting’s single strategic objective.
Without an ultimate strategic focus, these meetings can quickly devolve from productive discussions about planning your product roadmap to heated debates about a specific feature. Or worse, they can devolve into several simultaneous arguments across the room, with attendees debating features, colors, deadlines, budgets and other non-strategic details.
This is why it’s a good idea to set a single strategic objective for your meeting. Here are a few examples:
- Achieving a specific revenue target for your product in the next fiscal year.
- Increasing the number of users (including free-trial users) over the next 6 months.
- Maintaining your current market position for the next two fiscal quarters.
Notice that these are “SMART” goals — specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.
Now, as soon as you open the meeting, you will want to communicate this objective with your attendees — and get their buy-in.
Establishing this strategic objective at the outset of the meeting will help ensure that you and the other attendees are able to quickly identify the moment the meeting gets off-topic, so you can steer it back on-track.
And if your meeting does drift from its single strategic objective, you’ll be ready with Step 2…
Step 2: Pave paradise, and put up a parking lot for off-topic ideas
In a free-flowing stakeholder discussion about your product’s future, it is almost inevitable that the conversation will lead to ideas and suggestions that are valuable, but not relevant to your single strategic objective. What then?
These are the moments when you want to be able to say, “That’s a great idea… but a bit off-topic. Let’s park it for later.”
And the best way to do this is to actually have an idea parking lot on which you can jot down the idea and the person who proposed it.
Your idea parking lot can be a whiteboard on the wall or a freestanding flip board in the meeting room. You could also simply keep a piece of paper in front of you during the meeting — but ideally the parking lot will be visible to everyone in the room at all times. Often if a person sees their idea captured in a visible place, with their name written beside it, they will feel validated as being heard.
Step 3: Leave your egos at the door, along with sharp objects and tuna fish sandwiches
Often a product strategy discussion will drift into controversial subjects…
“Should we even keep focusing on this part of the product? Our competitors have this segment of the market already.”
“Do any of our customers actually care about this functionality anymore? We’re spending a lot of development cycles on it, and no one seems to be using it.”
Addressing difficult topics like these can be invaluable to the long-term success of your product. But sometimes the participants in your meeting who have firsthand knowledge or data about these issues are uncomfortable sharing them in a meeting full of executives who outrank them, product managers who obviously care about the product, and developers who’ve built it.
This is why it’s a great idea to encourage open discussion about the product in these meetings — from anyone. Your product strategy meetings are by nature typically positive, forward-looking conversations. But you need to use these meetings to air everything related to your single strategic objective — good, bad and ugly.
One great way to set this open discussion for your meeting culture is with a sign on the door — “You are entering an ego-free zone.”
Step 4: Be ready to defend your strategy with data
Of course, this culture that you want to create for your product strategy meetings — where everyone is encouraged to offer their thoughts, good or bad — does not mean that every opinion itself should be treated equally.
If you want to propose a specific strategic plan, you should be prepared to back up that plan with evidence — not merely your gut instinct.
A product strategy meeting can easily turn into a battle of opinions. And in a meeting where many of the attendees are executives who outrank you, it can be difficult to have the confidence to stand behind your strategic ideas if you can’t back them up with hard evidence.
Furthermore, executives often have a bias for data because they know that every decision represents a risk — and people are often more comfortable with risk if it has hard evidence supporting it.
Step 5: Communicate your agreed-upon strategy after the meeting
When you have achieved the ultimate goal of your meeting — an agreed-upon product strategy for you to begin driving — you will want to take one more step before digging into the execution.
Because people often hear things differently in meetings like these, it is a good idea to recap for everyone who participated exactly what the team agreed would be the product strategy.
And the best way to do this will be with a clear, plain-language recap — accompanied, ideally, by an early draft of your visual product roadmap.
Nobody trips and falls into successful product strategy meetings — you have to create them on purpose
If this formula doesn’t jive with your company culture, feel free to deviate and iterate. My problem-solving method of choice is to make a list of everything that might happen and what I’d like to have happen, and draw up plans beforehand. As with everything, planning ahead is the key to success, even with challenges like competing ideas, strong opinions and limited resources. You can still unite your stakeholders around a single strategic objective, and go from there.