GIST Planning is a New Way to Manage Products Successfully
A product roadmap is a must-have strategic tool for any product manager. Are there alternatives?
Itamar Gilad, an experienced product management consultant and the advanced speaker that helps companies to produce successful products has his own view on this subject. He has held senior management positions in Google and Microsoft.
He fiercely defends the value and benefits of GIST-planning and proposes product managers to apply it to work instead of classic roadmaps. So many people, so many minds, but this post is about GIST from the perspective of Itamar’s view.
The plans quickly go out of sync with reality — the longer they are the more they are wrong. It took some time to understand that the fancy roadmaps and Gantt charts were already outdated the day he published them.
As product roadmaps allow only for a few big projects to be funded you have to prioritize and kill many potentially good ideas upfront. Winning ideas come from management in top-down companies, in bottom-up companies getting your idea to win became a very big deal. That’s why pitching, salesmanship, and hype are now mandatory product management skills.
What’s the alternative to classic roadmaps?
All about GIST planning
Itamar Gilad started using GIST while working at Google and further adapted over the years based on the principles of Lean Startup and Agile Development. Then he introduced it to multiple companies and the results were rather consistent: lightweight plans, lower management overhead, improved team velocity and ultimately better products and solutions.
GIST is called after its main building blocks:
Each block may use different tools to track, but together they constitute all the core planning any company and team needs to do.
Let’s dive into the overview.
Most strategic plans specify solutions rather than goals (to use a specific technology, to collaborate with a specific company, to launch a specific country).
This method requires less managerial overhead and it is far more robust — solutions may come and go based on the situation in the field, but the objectives stay the same.
Goals describe the company strategy in terms of desired outcomes: where we want to be, by when, and how will we know that we got there. Whenever anyone in the company is wondering “Why are we doing this project?” a goal should give the answer.
Ideas describe hypothetical ways to achieve their goals. Why hypothetical? There can be many ideas on how to achieve a given objective, but at most 1 in 3 ideas will deliver a positive result. The ideas of product managers or team leaders don’t have a better success ratio than the average.
According to GIST, product managers never kill ideas upfront and put them into a prioritization deathmatch. Instead they:
- Collect all ideas in an Idea Bank. All ideas are welcome and the bank can hold hundreds of ideas indefinitely.
- Prioritize with evidence. For example – ICE scoring or other prioritization methods.
- Put as many ideas as possible to the test in order of priority.
Now it’s high time to tell about Step-projects.
It is a common mistake to pick a promising idea, turn it into a 9– 18-month project, and start executing. This looks very costly: spending much time on a yet unproven idea is likely throwing good money in the bin because most ideas just aren’t worth the investment.
According to GIST, the bigger project behind the idea is broken into small step-projects, each no more than 10 weeks long. For example:
Mockup → Prototype → MVP → Dogfood → Beta → Launch
Each step-project is like an experiment that tests the idea.
The end product is profoundly better than the one we imagined initially.
Product managers avoid all the nasty side effects of long projects because step-projects are small. Ideas that don’t work get dropped early, ideas that work get more investment. No need for pitching or politics. The ability come up with an idea and see it come to life and tested in a matter of weeks is incredibly liberating and enjoyable for everyone involved.
Every step-project is broken down into bite-size tasks. This part of the system is well covered by agile planning tools, Kanban boards, and other modern development project management techniques.
There is nothing to change at this level. The only difference is that the layers above are now agile as well and ready for the change.
How does the planning cycle work?
GIST is the iterative and multi-tiered system:
- Goals are usually set for one or more years and are defined at the beginning of the year. They should be evaluated and adjusted every quarter.
- Ideas are constantly collected and prioritized.
- Step-projects are defined at the beginning of the quarter. The team picks the goals and ideas it wishes to pursue this quarter and defines step-projects accordingly.
- Tasks are planned in 1– 2-week iterations per the teams’ preferred development method.
GIST is not a radical new idea. It is the combination of ideas and methods that have been around for years but often live in separation. GIST creates a living plan that is built for change.
Here are the key principles of GIST planning:
- All ideas happen concurrently all the time without a split.
- Goals instead of solutions or vague strategy statements.
- Idea banks instead of product backlogs.
- Short step-projects instead of long multi-quarter projects.
- No betting on just a few big ideas that take forever to implement.
- Iterations with revisiting every part of the plan regularly and systematically.
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