What is GIST planning?
GIST stands for Goals, Ideas, Step-Projects, and Tasks. GIST planning is a lightweight approach to product planning, with the goal of reducing management overhead, increasing velocity, and producing products that better meet the needs of the market.
The intended purpose of GIST is to only build products and solutions with the objectives of the organization in mind. GIST adherents also praise its ability to capture and prioritize every idea and task during the planning process, instead of solely focusing on a few “big ticket” items.
GIST was created by Itamar Gilad during his time at Google and he evolved it over time by incorporating concepts from Lean and Agile methodologies.
The GIST planning process
GIST stands for Goals, Ideas, Step-Projects, and Tasks, and requires its users to work through the process in that order. By doing so, everything starts with a goal and ends with a specific item that helps achieve that goal versus retroactively categorizing a specific task into a particular aspect of the overall strategy.
Goals are the top-level objectives for the company and provide the reason and rationale for any action taken. While they may change over time, they are relatively static and part of a coherent company strategy.
Any good goal is measurable. Most goals are large enough to require a significant amount of time for them to be reached. Their start dates and completion targets are often staggered due to varied importance and priority.
Goal-setting typically occurs on an annual basis and can span for multiple years. But to ensure their continued relevance, they should be reevaluated periodically.
With the goals defined, next up, the teams need to decide on the potential ways to achieve them. This is an “anything goes” part of the process as many ideas will be considered as a possible means of reaching the desired objectives.
All ideas remain valid contenders to eventually be implemented. Until they’re being actively developed, ideas reside in an “Idea Bank,” ready to be plucked and explored.
To determine which ideas should be worked on first, teams can employ one of the many scoring models available for prioritization (such as RICE, ICE, Opportunity, Weighted and KANO). While this prioritization will rank the ideas, GIST planning doesn’t declare them guaranteed winners at this stage. It is used as the order for deciding which ideas should be tested out first.
Many teams conduct an initial brainstorming session for ideas after the completion of goal setting. Ideas can be generated at any time and deposited into the Idea Bank for future consideration and prioritization.
The step-projects concept is based on a belief that all too often companies have an idea they’re convinced will be a huge difference-maker. Then with that certainty and momentum, these large-scale projects have so much inertia that they’re rarely sanity checked during the implementation process and their effectiveness isn’t evaluated until lots of time and resources have been spent on them.
Borrowing from the MVP mindset, step-projects break down ideas into a series of smaller experiments with a maximum capped timespan of 10 weeks.
For thoroughness, each step-project gets evaluated multiple times. Early-stage usability sessions, beta testing, and reviews are all assessed to measure merits for further step-project development.
For this process to work, there must be clear and measurable goals for each step-project that indicate whether the company is on the right path for the entire idea in question. If the step-project’s results don’t pan out, then instead of continuing to invest more on that particular idea, return to the Idea Bank and select another approach to meeting the product’s goals.
When organizations “fail fast”, they can ditch the unsuccessful ideas early, and can more effectively use their bandwidth towards another path.
Tasks are the most granular level of the GIST process and are probably familiar to those accustomed to Agile. Step-projects’ tasks, in this case, are product features and enhancements that are broken down into smaller bits that can be taken and finished off by members of the product development team as quickly as possible.
How is GIST planning used?
Much like its fellow methods for planning and prioritization, GIST planning takes the organization’s goals and whittles those objectives down into completable tasks. While the original intent of GIST planning was to use the process in lieu of creating a product roadmap, it can instead be a part of the roadmapping process.
At its core, GIST planning is all about avoiding rigid, long-range plans at the expense of interim experimentation and testing.
Pros and cons of GIST planning
Although its underlying concepts aren’t groundbreaking, there are some key tenets of GIST planning that have clear benefits for product organizations:
- Continual acceptance, evaluation, and prioritization of ideas—Good ideas don’t follow a schedule, so tabling one for months or years just because it didn’t get into the consideration queue by a particular date doesn’t make much sense. GIST gets organizations out of arbitrarily assigning cut-offs for new concepts and is more receptive to trying new things that were previously not on the radar, bumping other ideas if they score higher rather than patiently for months or years for their turn.
- Ongoing experimentation and evaluation—Instead of getting locked in and committed to long-term projects with little insight into their eventual merit, GIST creates a culture of continual judgment. By checking in on an idea’s effectiveness early and often, losers can be shelved in favor of trying something else. Egos aren’t bruised and feelings aren’t hurt when every idea is on the chopping block.
- Goal-driven development—GIST ensures every project is based on an idea that is assumed to further a company goal. This shifts resource allocation to projects that are aligned with big-picture objectives.
However, solely relying on the GIST planning model has its share of drawbacks:
- Roadmaps aren’t Gantt charts—GIST planning was developed under the misconception that most product roadmaps are completely inflexible, process-oriented and tied to waterfall product development approaches. This is a very narrow, incorrect view of how roadmaps are developed and the various formats available. There is a wide range of options available that marry the strength of roadmaps (long-term planning and visual presentation of those concepts and ideas) with flexibility and dynamism.
- Long-term plans serve a useful purpose—Full adoption of GIST planning means organizations aren’t committing to anything more specific than goals beyond the next quarter or so. While this allows an organization to be very nimble and dynamic, it undermines its ability to work on larger-scale initiatives that have multiple phases and last much longer. These might include enterprise system integrations, technology upgrades, or customer commitments.
- Resource and capacity planning is more challenging—When an organization doesn’t know what the future holds, it’s difficult to get things in place to support those efforts. A firm grasp of what’s coming down the pike gets sacrificed in a GIST planning environment.
Relevance to product management
Product management can take a few principles from GIST planning and apply them to their own product planning and prioritization processes.
- Break down large ideas into smaller, testable bites—Instead of requiring the full buildout of a feature for “Version 1.0”, product managers can instead create mini-MVPs for their features to vet their effectiveness and viability. This can both increase velocity (as they’ll get to market sooner) and optimize resource allocation (as ideas that don’t work can be set aside earlier in the process).
- Ongoing consideration of new ideas—Some product managers fall prey to the habit of putting off anything “new” until they get through a particular set of projects. Giving new ideas a fair shake and letting them “cut the line” if they’re deemed truly worthy could benefit everyone.
- Goal-driven roadmaps—Keeping goals front-and-center during the roadmapping process should always happen, but it can sometimes be derailed during the day-to-day realities of product planning. Call out goals in roadmaps and tie each underlying item to one of the goals.
Getting the GIST of it
GIST planning is another way to “skin the cat” of figuring out what product managers should build and when. It does a great job of focusing on the “why” first and the “what,” “when” and “how” after that, which maintains the focus on top-level corporate objectives and eliminates building features or products just for the sake of building them.
Using GIST planning as an input to the roadmapping process may work in some organizations, but these concepts don’t preclude leveraging a proper product roadmap. Despite some naysayers, Agile and roadmapping can coexist and roadmaps based around themes and OKRs are quite common.
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