Even in small companies, getting decisions made is often time-consuming and frustrating. Every product company needs a mechanism to get the key stakeholders and decision makers together to make timely and informed product decisions.

My favorite way to ensure this is to establish a Product Council.

In general, I really am not a fan of committees or even most meetings. But I have found Product Councils to be very useful, and overall speeds up the product development process considerably. This is because the key product decision makers are all available with the express purpose of making those decisions the product organization needs to get products to market.

The challenge is to do this in a way that provides the visibility and oversight that management needs and is responsible for, without the micro-managing (and disempowerment) that comes with company executives trying to design products.

Many companies have some variations of this, but I credit the origin of the concept as described here to Maynard Webb, the former COO of eBay. I’ve worked with several companies since then to refine and streamline the specific responsibilities.

Purpose:

The purpose of the product council is to set the strategic product direction, allocate product resources and investments, and provide a level of oversight of the company’s product efforts. This group is not trying to set the company’s business strategy, but rather, given the business strategy, come up with a product strategy that will meet the needs of the business. The decisions this group makes will directly impact the success of the business.

Membership:

The Product Council is typically comprised of the cross-functional set of managers responsible for product development. Every company has it’s own considerations, but an example might be:

– CEO, COO or Division GM
– VP/Director of Product Management
– VP/Director of User Experience/Design
– VP/Director of Marketing
– VP/Director of Engineering
– VP/Director of Site Operations
– VP/Director of Customer Service

As with any such group, the effectiveness of the meetings will largely be a function of the meeting skills of the leader. The leader needs to be good at staying on task, framing issues and driving to decisions. Usually, the leader of the product council is either the head of product, or for smaller companies, the head of the company.

As to the size of the council, make sure you have representation from the key areas, but try to keep the group at 10 or less, or else meetings will go too long. If more people want to be members (they will) make sure they each know who is there to represent their views. For example, the VP Sales might use the VP Marketing, and the head of QA might use the VP Engineering.

Specific Responsibilities:

This is not a group to design or build products. This group should oversee the flow of products through the product development process, and make the key decisions required.

For each product effort, there are four major milestones for product council review and decision making:

Milestone 1: Review proposed product strategies and product roadmaps; initiate Opportunity Assessments for specific product release

Milestone 2: Review Opportunity Assessment and recommendation; issue go/no-go decision to begin creating spec

Milestone 3: Review product prototype, user testing results and detailed cost estimate; issue go/no-go decision to begin engineering

Milestone 4: Review final product, QA status, launch plans, and community impact assessments; issue go/no-go decision to launch

Additional Notes:

– There is no need to review minor updates or fixes in this process; there should be an expedited process for the minor changes needed to run the business (which are typically more content related).

– These are not product design sessions; if there are issues with the product then the team should work on them and return to the council when they have been addressed.

– While you will often have a very preliminary sense of estimated cost at milestone 2, nobody should take that estimate very seriously as the solution has not yet been outlined, so anything beyond “small, medium or large” effort is not fair to engineering. However, the estimate of time and cost at milestone 3 should be detailed and something the full product team is prepared to commit to.

– Encourage your employees to bring their product ideas to the product council, even if they have not been specifically requested by this group. These organic product ideas are often the best kind.

– You will need to decide if this group will also address issues of policy (such as product end-of-life policy, privacy policies, etc.) Often this group does discuss this, but these topics can become long unstructured discussions if not managed, so make sure policy discussions don’t delay the product oversight responsibilities.

– The frequency of the meetings depends on the number of product efforts going on. You may only need to meet for one hour a month, or this may turn into two hours a week.

– It is also often useful for the product council to review the business performance of the products that have launched. The product council may request a presentation on the business results of the product launch typically 3-6 months post-launch. This sort of accountability will help the council learn which investments and decisions they made were good ones and why.

– The product manager should present his product to the product council. His manager should help him prepare for this presentation, to ensure that he has done his homework and the recommendations are sound. The smart product manager will have individually briefed the members of the product council prior to his presentation to learn of any issues and resolve them, so he’s not caught by surprise.

If you find your product organization taking too long to make decisions, consider instituting a product council. Hopefully you’ll find that this one meeting eliminates countless others and makes the decision process informed, transparent and timely.

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