Product quarterly planning that creates focus and speed

I want to give a specific, proven recipe that product leaders can follow to get product squads clear and aligned quickly, so they can focus on delivering great results fast.
This post gives the core ingredients and principles. 
In the next post, I give some step-by-step instructions and templates.

Nutrition facts
AI-generated content in this article: None.
Where this pattern applies: Software scale-ups, 100-200 people. But it may apply more broadly.
Warning: Applying the wrong technique/pattern for a given context will cause negative effects.

We dream of speed

“I’m back working on a tiny startup again. You can go so fast!  Because everyone is aligned and focussed on the goal.  If only we could keep that as we get bigger.” — S, a product-manager friend

“We’ve pretty much lost a whole quarter. The squad is hearing one set of instructions from one stakeholder and the opposite from another. They don’t know what to do.” — M, another product-manager friend

Speed is the number one capability that enables success for any digital business. [1]

Software squads that go fast rely on clear context and sensible, unambiguous goals.  If your squads don’t have that, then they can’t go fast.

The Art of Action

To get that clarity, and unlock the speed, you can use a recipe based on mission command. It’s an approach invented by Prussian general Von Moltke in the 19th century, and proven ever since[2].  Most people in the digital product space have heard of it. But most don’t know how to apply it well. Marty Cagan is a big proponent, but fellow fans I have spoken to all say “Empowered is good, but it’s a bit vague”.[3]  

The Art of Action [4] is a classic book which explains the reasoning behind mission command, and why it’s effective. That makes easier to apply it with sanity and conviction. After reading the book, and applying it with some success, I’m all fired up.

Axiom: In a scale-up, too much freedom slows you down

Von Moltke’s military campaigns and scale-ups have a lot in common: They need to move fast, but there’s too much information for everybody to know everything. You need coordination to make sure that people with limited information don’t bump into each other or do irrelevant things. 

If squads are spending their time on trying to identify, debate and select strategic problems to solve, they are gonna be spinning their wheels a lot. Instead, squads need to focus their effort on actually solving strategic problems that have been defined clearly by product and business leaders.

Then squads will have time and bandwidth to craft awesome solutions that work for customers, and make business win.

“The team is given a small number of problems to solve…”


5 rules of the quarterly planning game

Rule 1: Senior leaders need to define context and strategic intent

Context means they need a coherent company mission, company strategy, product strategy and product vision for everyone. The artefacts in this stack [9] should be clear, high quality, available and understood. Squads will not do well if they are expected to just take a guess. If you don’t have a comprehensible product vision, for example, then squads can’t align to it.

Product strategy is about identifying the right problems for product to solve, and framing those as clear objectives that people can deliver. It needs to be created by a small group of senior leaders, who go ask their teams when they need important information. It can’t be done “by everyone” or it will take forever.

Product strategy will typically include problems and solutions, or objectives and results. Conceptually, these take the form of trees. Going down the tree is “how”, going up is “why”. 

Objectives / problems come in trees. For any given thing you’re doing, a “what”, the reason why is answered by the layer above. And the “how” is explained on the layer below.

“The strategic context provided by the company mission, company scorecard, company objectives, product vision and principles, and product strategy is meant to apply to all product teams in the company.”


Rule 2: Give squads autonomy by providing a clear what-and-why, then letting them define the how

Write one short product objective briefing document for each major objective your squads need to deliver. Include the what (objective), the why (objectives two layers up, at most), and the missions you believe they might need to tackle (a starting point for how). Your goal is to give the product squad control of all the how below that point.

A brief should also contain boundaries: what not to do, how much to spend, how long we’ve got…. I’ll share a format in the next post.

With this framework, a squad knows the boundaries of trust they have with senior management. They can innovate safely within those boundaries and demonstrate what Von Moltke’s people called “independent thinking obedience”.[5]

“[As a manager] it is up to me to create a context in which I can trust you. The framework of strategy briefing allows me to do this.”

The Art of Action

Rule 3: Make your product objective briefs seriously brief

Von Moltke could direct an entire army to decisive victory in 250 words or less. Seriously. He sweated hard to make orders clear, complete and short. Can you manage an Amazon-style 2-pager? No more than a 6-pager. [6]

Long documents are easy to misunderstand. Only include what a team needs to know to get the job done. Too much context is confusing. Short documents are more likely to get read and understood.

“Clarity of thinking and clarity of expression go hand in hand” which means writing good, short briefs is hard. Respect the challenge.

UI concept sketches make product briefs easier to understand. But you need to continually remind everyone that the pictures are jumping-off points, not specifications.

“What matters about creating alignment around a strategy is not the volume of communication, but its quality and precision. In order for something to be clear, it must first be made simple.”

The Art of Action

Rule 4: Eliminate the mess with the “back-brief” process

Squads need to write a response (the “back brief”) to the briefing they get, saying how they will deliver the objective. Or how much of it they can deliver and what resources they would need to be able to fully deliver it.

Leaders can then spot misunderstandings, which are guaranteed to occur because humans are involved.

They can also learn what’s possible and what’s not. And ask questions about compromises, approaches, assumptions. They can inspect the sum total of responses from squads and understand what the overall strategic impact will be from all the squad’s work.

Leaders can revise their objectives and with finite amounts of negotiation, reach a written agreement with each squad about value the squad will deliver, and by when.

“Every order which can be misunderstood will be misunderstood”

Jakob Meckel, Prussian Army General

Rule 5: Create “artificial certainty” to boost clarity and status updates

Building software contains a lot of unknowns and is infamously hard to predict.  Predicting how much software value you can deliver at the start of the quarter, before you’ve had a chance to do much discovery, is extra hard.

But when teams have certainty about what needs to be done by when, they can focus, push hard and achieve more.

So here’s the hack: 

  1. Explicit definitions: Set a firm deadline, define a firm scope, and a firm statement of the expected ROI even though you are uncertain. Just make the call, and remove the uncertainty. 
  2. Treated in good faith: Consider your decisions completely as if they are facts. Behave accordingly.
  3. Explicitly revised: When solid new information appears that affects scope or deadline, change the scope or deadline. Define an organisational standard that says there is no shame in it. Squads must just commit that they will communicate and agree to material changes with senior leaders.

This takes some getting used to, for many teams. But it’s hugely liberating. It gets you psychological safety and focus in one.

“When we’re acting with sufficient certainty, our brain senses patterns, successfully predicts next steps, and operates much more efficiently. But when we lack certainty and can’t predict what will happen next, the brain must use dramatically more resources, involving the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex, to process moment-to-moment experience.” 

Ed Batista and David Rock, Neuroscience, Leadership and David Rock’s SCARF Model [7]

How to make it happen

Before you can install a new approach to quarterly planning you have to explain the rules to everyone affected, make sure they understand, and get agreement.  Some people will not like the rules when they first hear them. They seem a bit strange. It will help a lot if you explain the thinking and get people to engage with Empowered and Art of Action.  

But when people have tried it for a while, they will probably be surprised at how much more time they have, and start to like it.

Next post,  I’ll make it practical and give some war stories.

Thanks to: Malan and Philip Joubert, Gys Muller.

I’d love to hear your feedback. Get in touch.


[1] Speed is the number 1 capability? What about craft? What about customer centricity? What about…? Calm down. Speed is necessary but not sufficient. However going fast enables you to deliver more value for customers than going slowly. And it lets you explore more alternatives, to discover things that really delight and engage customers – more instructive failures, more surprising discoveries. That’s all. Read: Speed as a habit.
[2] If you haven’t heard of mission command, or are wondering why I am talking about Prussian generals, try here or here.
[3] Empowered by Marty Cagan. 4.34 on Goodreads. Impressive.
[4] The Art of Action, by Stephen Bungay. 4.33 on Goodreads. Also impressive.
[5] AKA “Directed opportunism” or “Disciplined initiative”. Some of the military terminology in this book can feel weird. But get over it. Bungay contextualises words like “command” and “obedience” and they make sense. Imagine if everyone in your org was disobedient all the time. Would anything get done? But imagine if they were always completely obedient? Terrible things would happen then, too.
[6] Yep. Written documents. Amazon style. They work well in remote and async contexts. They act as stand-alone reference, people can go back to whenever they need to. They force you to get your thoughts in order. They provide lots of information quickly. They make meetings better. Quick overview.
[7] Neuroscience, leadership and David Rock’s SCARF model
[8] The one-page strategic plan from Scaling Up is a good place to start.
[9] Nice one, Reforge: The product strategy stack

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