What Product Planning Framework Should You Use? 🗺️

Lessons from Airbnb, Netflix, Dropbox, Amazon, and Intercom.

As a founder, or anyone in a product leadership position, one of the most pressing questions you regularly face is: "what should you be working on?"

Product decisions, famously, can make or break companies. This is true for companies of any size, the only difference being the speed at which such decisions have an impact. For a startup, a product mistake might slow down growth, jeopardize the next funding round, and do irreparable damage within a few months. For a bigger company, the same may happen within a few years.

Optimizing your workflow for making fast, good product decisions, and do this consistently, is one of the best investments you can make for your team.

The Three Stages 3️⃣

To make good decisions in the long run, you need planning. And for the sake of reasoning, I find it useful to divide any product planning process in three stages:

  1. 💡 Coming up with new ideas

  2. ⚖️ Evaluating such ideas

  3. 🔨 Creating a plan for executing them

These steps might not be strictly sequential, or isolated from one another, but they always exist at least at a conceptual level.

They are like meta-steps.

Whatever your process is, be it very standard or something custom you have refined over the years, you can always ask: am I covering these steps properly? Is there a reliable, repeatable procedure in place for all of them?

Frameworks 🧩

To answer such questions, enter frameworks.

Frameworks exist to provide structure to your process. They introduce abstractions that allow you to arrive to a better output, with less work.

Once these abstractions are in place, in fact, you don't have to spend time and energy to rediscover them every time, and you can focus all of your effort on the actual work, instead of the meta-work.

In a product context, several frameworks exist. Though they look similar, they often serve different purposes. And just as you can use the three stages to assess your process, you can use them to understand what's the purpose of the framework you are looking at, to evaluate if it is a good fit for your team.

So, let's have a look at these steps and the frameworks that may help with them.

Coming up with new ideas 💡

This is an often overlooked space. A good process for this should blend two elements:

  • ⛰️ Top-down strategy: a good amount of initiatives should spawn from your company strategy and long-term plan. Strategy provides directions, and projects should be proposed to move forward in those directions.

  • 📣 Bottom-up discoveries: strategy doesn't capture all the things. Customer requests, secondary metrics and feedback from your team are channels that often bring in initiatives with terrific ROI. Creating space for them serves as a reality check for your strategy, and allows your product to stay grounded.

Among frameworks dealing with this, I am particularly fond of DHM, by Gibson Biddle from Netflix. DHM asks three questions, that correspond to three separate buckets you can use to generate ideas:

  • ❤️ How can the product delight customers?

  • 🏰 What can we make the product hard to copy?

  • 💰 How can we enhance margins?

These are such good questions! By answering to all three, you have pretty much covered everything you need to cover. They make you think strategically, keep customers in mind, and stay healthy by looking at revenues.

👆 A visual representation of the DHM Model. There are strategic elements (examples in red) of your product and business that may contribute to multiple categories. Of course, the more the better!

You can also check out The Three Feature Buckets by Adam Nash, from Dropbox, which is equally memorable and contains similar themes.

Evaluating ideas ⚖️

This is a crowded space instead. Several frameworks exist that provide ways to evaluate new ideas, and they typically approach this task from two different angles:

  • Quantitative approach: computing costs vs benefits, usually with some twist. They are the most useful down the line in the planning process, when ideas are discussed at a more granular level.

  • Qualitative approach: focus on describing the impact on the customer. They are more useful at a strategic level, before quantitative discussions takes place. They are also typically more abstract.

Examples of quantitative approach include:

  • 🍚 RICE, by Intercom, which is probably the most popular prioritization framework today. The acronym stands for Reach, Impact, Confidence and Effort, and it suggests that features are ranked through a unified score taking into account these four qualities.

  • ❄️ ICE, by Sean Ellis, from which RICE is inspired. ICE is a simpler version of RICE, that considers Reach + Impact as a single entity (called just Impact).

Examples of qualitative approaches include:

  • 🇯🇵 The Kano model, from the 80s, which is still very popular today. This model is very interesting as it doesn't only bucket features based on their impact, it also describes how features naturally move between such categories over time.

  • 🇷🇺 The MoSCoW method, which creates simple categories based on feature impact. (Must-have, Should-have, Could-have, Won't-have)

Creating a plan for executing ideas 🔨

Finally, having sorted out the two other stages, it's time to execute! This means creating a concrete plan, getting buy-in from stakeholders, and getting to work.

Again, that there isn't a strict boundary between this stage and those of ideating and evaluating ideas. For example you could say—and you would be right—that evaluating ideas is already "making the plan".

However, it's undeniable that there is a part of product planning that is distinctively dedicated to make it happen. A part that is not addressed by prioritization frameworks or feature categories, and that deals with your team workflow and how the work is actually structured.

Among sensible approaches for this, I can list:

  • 📚 The W Framework by Lenny Rachitsky and Nels Gilbreth, respectively from Airbnb and Evenbrite. This detailed article is a very comprehensive look at how to do proper product planning inside any company that goes from mid-size (anything that includes multiple teams) to big corporate. It is full of great insights and explains the process clearly, step by step.

  • 🍀 The Four Types of Work, by me 😅 I wrote this practical take on how you can organize product and engineering work in a small team, balancing long-term items and short-term opportunities.

  • 💬 This great answer on Quora by Ian McAllister, a former Director at Amazon and Airbnb. It dives into several topics, with great insights that go from prioritization to cutting down to the essential.

Conclusion 🏁

Planning product work is hard! And it can be a very different job based on the size and structure of your company.

Several frameworks exist and they can help you in the various stages of this work — from ideation, to evaluating solutions with stakeholders, to actually planning for them.

Make sure to pick the one that feels better for your team, and don't be afraid to customize it for your needs.

Is there any framework that I missed and should be mentioned instead? Are you using some interesting variation over these? Let me know in the comments or via email 👇

Hey, I am Luca 👋 thank you for reading this through!

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