Creating planning principles in product development

Creating planning principles in product development

In this blog, Lead Product Manager Jane Kelly shares how our planning principles have improved how we develop products and services at Shelter.

Planning across organisations can have its challenges, regardless of the approach you adopt. Whether you follow a waterfall or agile model for project management, or a hybrid model combining many different methodologies like Scrum, Kanban, Service Design, Lean UX etc – there is no easy way to plan complex work.

At Shelter, it’s no different. So, as Lead Product Manager, I wanted to look at how we can explore the ‘why’ behind our planning processes and understand the problem space from a product perspective.

To do this, we conducted conversations and further research across teams and found several common challenges, including:

  • a lack of knowledge on ways of working across teams
  • conflicting priorities and lack of knowledge on how to prioritise
  • rejection of requests due to capacity, even if they have merit
  • a lack of clarity on the ‘why’ or goal of the work
  • a lack of evidence to inform why the work is a good idea
  • assumptions about resource and effort required to deliver work
  • teams not given autonomy on ‘how’ to deliver the work
  • hard deadlines given with little lead time, affecting the quality of the work
  • the right experts not involved from the start of a project
  • hand-offs rather than collaboration
  • external contractual dependencies

I’m sure these challenges are common to many people and organisations. The conditions that bring about these issues are often complex and somewhat institutionalised. True collaboration is never easy. I would recommend Tobias Mayer’s Collaborative Scrum course to get a deeper understanding of this area. The facilitated sessions really helped me understand my own biases in this space and are something I often reflect on.

I worked with my product teams to unpick how we could approach this more holistically when rethinking our roadmap planning, always ensuring there was alignment with Shelter’s digital framework. I wanted teams to have the autonomy to define this within their own practice in an inclusive and fair way, but I was responsible for providing guidance and direction. I involved key stakeholders in conversations and interactive sessions to develop and agree the following principles, which could be applied across our work and communicated easily.

Our planning principles

  1. Opportunity selection is based on evidence of the problem space, insights and user needs, and strategic alignment.
  2. Shelter is transparent and communicates why work has been prioritised and how decisions have been made. There is an understanding of the impact and dependencies on other product work or services and operational plans.
  3. Product teams have clarity on what is in scope, with outcomes defined and agreed in collaboration with teams and stakeholders, so work is ready, even if the ‘how’ is unknown.
  4. Every core team has the expertise, tools and capacity to commit to the roadmap priorities in order to deliver value to users and Shelter effectively.
  5. Planning is a part of every digital life cycle phase, so decision points and sense checking are needed before prioritising the next steps.
  6. There are feedback mechanisms to assess metrics for success against objectives and support decision-making.

Each principle has a subset of activities that the team can align with Shelter’s digital life cycle. They’re not prescriptive and won’t apply in all contexts, but they offer a guide. I piloted this approach within the housing advice area of product teams to see if it could help improve the planning process.

What next?

The principles have become more intuitive for the housing advice services product teams, and they guide the conversations we have with stakeholders when thinking about how we plan and prioritise work.

Some of the principles are idealistic and need effort to be achievable, so I facilitated a prioritisation session with the teams to agree on what areas of the principles we want to work on improving. For example, taking an evidence-informed approach requires you to have all the mechanisms in place to do so. Some teams have weaved this into their roadmap and are continuously sharing their learnings through sprint reviews and show and tells.

Since trialling using these principles in our practice, we have seen many improvements to how we work with our colleagues and stakeholders. Here are just a few highlights:

  • We have successfully tested different approaches to dynamic re-teaming, ensuring each quarter we plan together and have the right people to support the work we’ve committed to. This also gives people with less experience in each area the chance to join a team and learn something new.
  • We have scoped out a prioritised ‘wish list’ of opportunities that we don’t have the capacity to deliver, but which align with our principles. We review this on a regular basis.
  • We have built a good relationship with our income generation and business development teams to match our wish list with funding opportunities. This helps the teams to develop relationships with funders who align with our user and strategic goals.
  • We always commit a small percentage of time each quarter on the roadmap to optimisation work, so stakeholders have the space to request work alongside our bigger commitments. This ensures we have a fair and flexible approach that aligns with our principles.
  • We have seen a significant decrease in ‘reactive’ requests for work.
  • We’ve seen an increase in attendance of around 40% over the last year at our show and tells. I facilitate these monthly sessions with service owners, who share content enhancements alongside our product work.

The main driver of success for this approach is having support from the business owner, who has enabled the team to prioritise and implement the principles, and has championed the team to define this work autonomously. Having a senior leader trusting the team in this way has been a game changer in cultivating less hierarchical relationships and getting value from outcome-based planning.

There are still many gaps in realising the principles, but we are much more engaged with stakeholders, which has enabled us to start to build trust and create space to have open and fair conversations. Subject matter experts are so essential to creating the right service or product, so we have embedded people into the co-design process to allow a shared understanding of how we work in practice.

Interested in finding out more about how we develop products and services at Shelter? See our digital framework.