The Secret to Product Planning

Annie Dunham
Former VP of Product Management at ProductPlan


The secret to product planning starts with “why.” In some cases, product planning focuses on what we’re building, completing, and what’s up next. The rationale for all that activity isn’t simply to cross things off the list or pump out new functionality. It’s about turning a vision into reality.

But connecting the dots between the activities of a particular product development team and the overarching corporate vision can be a bit of a stretch for those not steeped in the strategic exercises occurring at the top of the organization. How a particular widget maps back to a  vision of “transforming the world of peer-to-peer finance” or “unlocking the potential of idle computing power” or whatever can be a heavy lift. To unlock the secret to product planning, product professionals need to develop a clear product vision.

Putting Vision into Context

In an ideal world, everyone should understand the organization’s overall vision.  It’s beneficial to take a top-down approach. Breaking that vision down into smaller pieces becomes more relevant to different parts of the business. It’s not always easy to map the contents of an individual sprint. However, a high-level strategy for an entire company remains possible.

The significance of each element of the strategy increases stakeholder alignment. Alignment creates motivation and enthusiasm amongst the teams. They can now realize how their contributions impact the big picture. This increased fidelity must begin at the planning stages, creating the platform for ongoing alignment and teamwork.

At ProductPlan, each engineering team has a vision. That aligns with the product vision, which in turn aligns with the company vision. Though there is no one secret to product planning, this concept comes close. It enables engineering teams to understand how the world looks different if they’re successful.

Planning for Outcomes While Preserving Accountability

Each squad understands its purpose and objectives. The squads remain grounded on a shared understanding of what success looks like to them. Boiling down grand sweeping statements and visions to something tangible is key to bridging that gap.

Each member should answer the question: “What will our customers be able to do tomorrow that they can’t do today?” This very concrete, specific ideal guides their actions without being too prescriptive.

For example, it might be that customers can now automate more of their daily updates. The update doesn’t spell out precisely what that might look like or how it will get built. However, the vision is crystal clear. The product manager can then fill in more details. Consequently, delivering value is more important than a list of features.

That value must also be measurable to ensure the team achieves its goal of executing its vision. Alignment around how we know our customers’ lives got better is just as crucial as intending to improve things. That shared definition of success keeps everyone pointed in the same direction. Moreover, it creates a benchmark for ongoing, measurable refinement.

Finding the Sweet Spot

While strategic thinking and keeping everything in perspective are product managers’ strong suits, that’s not always the forte for everyone in the organization. They may not have the impetus or motivation to do so, and they may also lack the information and context even if they did.

Therefore it’s up to product managers to determine the right level of vision required to give everyone enough autonomy to move forward without overwhelming them. This task only becomes more difficult as the scale of the vision expands thanks to growth.

Creating a shared vision

For example, at ProductPlan, our vision is to help companies accelerate product outcomes.

By presenting a shared vision and securing buy-in, the product calibrates the squad to be on the same page. Presenting roadmaps tailored to the audience in question provides a helpful resource to paint this picture as well.

That’s why we keep narrowing things down. We know this team in particular’s contribution to accelerating product outcomes centers on collaboration within the application. We briefly explain how collaboration contributes to the vision, giving product development further insight into the purpose of their work and not just the “what.”

Shrinking the view and scope of things isn’t typically how the product discusses vision, but departing from grand narratives and concentrating on specifics is what the implementation teams need to succeed. Like with IMPACT, it conveys what’s meaningful about the work, giving the team a better picture of how their individual and team efforts plug into the larger strategic objectives and customer experience. It turns abstract platitudes into concrete action plans and tasks.

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Planning for the Future Without Becoming a Feature Factory

Company missions rarely change. Visions for the business typically extend five or ten years into the future. And strategies tend to cover the next year or two. Things get more specific the closer they are to the present.

But while missions and visions are vague, strategies and roadmaps tend to get more detailed out of necessity. Things can’t remain fuzzy once it’s time to build stuff, and that granularity helps teams plan accordingly and deliver functionality that adds customer value.

However, one shouldn’t confuse increased specificity with rigidity. The secret to product planning is to remain vision-driven and customer-centric. Product teams should stay flexible at every stage of the product planning process. Our product vision gets more precise as we continually learn more about our customers, their needs, and the overall market dynamics.

That’s where a roadmap based on themes versus specific features comes in. We’re all aligned about what areas we’re focusing on and our goals for each effort, but there’s still plenty of wiggle room on the details right up until implementation kicks off.

Maintaining Excitement and Energy.

Building products is still a job, and work remains an obligation versus a choice for most. However, imbuing the team with a sense of purpose can elevate the team above the daily grind and get them pumped up for what they can achieve.

By continuing to build what customers need and not just the promises in an outdated vision, strategy, or roadmap, we keep that joy of delighting customers close to the surface. We know we’re prioritizing what matters and spending our cycles on enhancements to the product experience that genuinely make a positive difference. And we won’t just build things because months or years ago, we happened to say we would.

The process only works well with the suitable structures in place. A foundation built on increasingly relevant visions grounds the work in its purpose. Visual roadmaps tie each project, task, and sprint back to each level.

This transparency builds trust and alignment while leaving room for flexibility as situations change and conditions evolve. It doesn’t happen overnight, and each stakeholder might warm up and embrace this approach on their timeline. By creating a solid understanding of the process and delivering a relevant vision for each team member, the team has established a product plan everyone can get behind. The secret to product planning will continuously evolve.

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