A Step-By-Step Guide to Quarterly Product Planning

Quarterly product planning, or rather Quarterly Alignment, is an integral part of a responsive organization to connect OKRs with execution. Quarterly planning has become even more critical in today’s distributed environment to align teams to row in the same direction, as highlighted in the “The Cadence” Medium post from David Sacks, the first PayPal COO, founder of Yammer and Craft Venture.

The key driver for Quarterly Alignment (or bi/monthly for fast-moving companies) is the evolving product focus responsive to business needs. Goals such as conversion, retention, or market expansion are almost always present but vary in importance at different times. Additionally, this variation requires adjusting prioritization frameworks and associated resource plans. This is done via Quarterly Alignment where product teams align on the next phase of focus, both internally and with stakeholders.

How do you perform quarterly product planning/ roadmap alignment?

Follow these 4 (+2) lightweight steps.

  1. Define key goals for the upcoming quarter and their respective resource allocation.
  2. Brainstorm and prioritize product ideas against these goals.
  3. Create a high-level estimate to identify resourcing needs or bottlenecks.
  4. “Break the pod to work or bring the work to pod”.

Steps 2 & 3 may happen iteratively (back and forth continuously).

Plus these 2 ongoing steps

  1. Communicate.
  2. Check-in and adjust.

Let’s look at these steps in more detail below.

1. Define your key goals and metrics for the coming quarter

Smart companies change focus from one bottleneck area to the next set of challenges due to diminishing return on investment in previous areas. Data from your business review is a good starting point in identifying goals for the next quarter.

Here are the common questions to ask when setting goals

  • What are the most pressing needs for the upcoming period?
  • Which long term goals should we not forget to start?
  • What are the must-have goals vs stretch goals?
  • How much are we willing to invest in each goal, e.g. 50%, 30%, 20%? A goal without resource allocation will not succeed.

Once your product goals are defined, it’s time to prioritize.

2. Brainstorm, align, and prioritize ideas to these goals

This is the time to pull your ideas out from “backlog storage” to planning. Prioritizing ideas may follow multiple dimensions. Alignment to goals should be one of them, as it is bespoke. Everyone should have the context of why a certain initiative or feature is ranked higher than others, at least on the dimension of goals. What are some other dimensions? For one, look to MoAR — metric over available resources, a more tangible proxy for ROI.

When prioritizing ideas, evaluate constraints such as commitment to client on X feature to hit revenue/ reduce churn. Although it’s not generally the best practice to commit features by date, it’s a fact of life we often face. Having these ideas “out of place” in prioritization is a good learning tool for future behavior changes.

3. Collect a high-level estimate to identify resourcing needs or bottlenecks

Detailed estimation is a waste of time at this stage, if not at any stage. But high-level estimation, in the unit of sprints or weeks, has a few key benefits:

  • Prevent major misalignment/ understanding between product and engineering.
  • Identify needs (or bottlenecks) from within your team, other teams (including other scrum teams), UX teams, and marketing teams to secure support.

Having only part of the feature completed does not deliver value. If there is not enough support from all teams required to bring the idea to market, consider switching to a different idea that does not require bottleneck resources. Prioritize ideas using the MoAR method to further prioritize those competing for the same resources.

Providing estimates allows you to check your plan against your goal allocation. This is critical, but how often do we actually do it when using spreadsheets?

4. Create a high-level portfolio roadmap plan that may “Break the pod to work or bring work to the pod”

Once we have the priority and estimate, we can put together a high-level roadmap. It can be a good idea to create a few Roadmap Scenarios to compare side by side or share with stakeholders for alignment.

What if we have a resource shortage or imbalance? Then one pod (scrum team) may end up with more work and another pod will have fewer roadmap items.

Normally, business-demands fluctuate for each engineering pod (one or a few scrum teams supporting a product roadmap area).

There are 3 potential solutions:
  1. Each pod prioritizes work within their area — but this does not create the best value at the portfolio level due to local optimization.
  2. Break up the pods to meet the fluctuating demand — this works in theory but usually negatively impacts team dynamics and velocity.
  3. Quoting a VPE friend — “don’t break the pod to work, bring the work to the pod.” The same pod may work on different areas periodically based on needs, which is a compromise between the 2 options above.

If the planning is slightly long-term, e.g 6 months or more, a high-level plan also helps prioritize hiring or tap into on-demand resource partners if appropriate.

Now you’ve completed the first 4 steps of Quarterly Alignment – the next 2 steps are:

Confirm and share your plan with your team (and link it to your team execution tools, e,g. Jira, Github Issues, Pivotal) so you can gain visibility on the state of execution.

Check-in monthly (or bi-weekly) to prepare for the all-too-common last-minute demands, changes in the state of execution (delay or scope increase), or losing resources for one reason or another. The adjustment can fall between 2–4, performing a few what-if scenarios in step 3, to re-align and update your roadmap, team, and stakeholders.

If you are still using spreadsheets and slides to perform quarterly alignment and progress tracking, give dragonboat a try. Purpose-built by portfolio managers for product and engineering leaders.

Becky Flint

Becky Flint

Becky is a product and tech executive based in the Silicon Valley. She has built and scaled product and engineering teams globally for both startups and Fortune 500 companies. Currently Becky is the founder and CEO of dragonboat with a mission to empower responsive leaders and their teams to build better product fasters. Prior to founding dragonboat, Becky has held executive roles at Feedzai, Bigcommerce, Tinyprints/ Shutterfly, and PayPal.

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