Product Reviews (PRs) are dreaded by nearly every product manager we know.
It’s intimidating to go into the bullring with executives and make your case while trying to stay grounded if a fiery debate erupts.
And it’s difficult to know what is and isn’t an effective use of time for 10 people with varying degrees of context.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
With the right ingredients and intention from every participant, PRs can become discussions you actually look forward to.
As ICs, both of us have made a lot of mistakes running our own product reviews because product managers rarely have direct examples or mentors they can model from.
Tom was primarily interested in defending his own positioning, using the time to convince others about his thesis rather than stress-testing his thinking.
Natalie over-indexed on agreement in the room versus improvement through healthy debate.
Fortunately, these experiences helped both of us to turn around a lot of bad PRs during our experiences at Opendoor, Coursera, Netflix, Khan Academy, and Quizlet.
If you’re interested in assessing or improving product reviews at your organization, this post is for you.
We’ll walk through our own missteps and the most common failure modes that we’ve seen. Then, we’ll share our FRAME framework that can be used to help both PMs and executives turn the tide, and give you an easy rubric to evaluate and improve the health of your PRs today.
Let’s dive in.
About the Authors
Tom is a former Executive in Residence at Reforge and was previously Opendoor’s Chief Product Officer. Prior to Opendoor, he was Chief Product Officer at Coursera, where he helped to scale the company from $1 million to $100 million in revenue. He also led product teams at Netflix as VP of Product.Learn More
Natalie Rothfels is an Operator in Residence at Reforge and runs a leadership coaching practice. She has held product leadership roles at Quizlet and Khan Academy and was a classroom teacher before that.Learn More
Why Product Teams Struggle with Product Reviews
A good product review is a tool to drive innovation and strategic alignment by fostering debate, curiosity, and rigorous thinking.
But very few product-oriented companies keep it that simple. Without this clear purpose, product reviews become a messy forum full of ambiguity.
It’s a choose-your-own-adventure that falls victim to some common failure modes:
- Performative gestures. Product Managers view product reviews as face-time with leadership that they can’t cancel, reverting to bloated status updates or performative gestures to look smart rather than drive results.
- Decision-making urgency. Teams want to get unblocked as soon as possible so they bring big decisions into product reviews, even if they don’t yet have the right inputs in place to make a good call.
- Execution-oriented. Rather than focusing on big-picture alignments, the spotlight is put on details for how to make execution faster.
It should come as no surprise that these are anxiety-provoking meetings for many PMs. Without a template, discussion methodology, or clear rules of engagement, PMs are left to their own devices to figure out what to do.
“I have never received any guidance about how to run a PR at all,” says one of our Director-level Reforge members. “It has all been a learn-as-you-go, try-and-fail, and watch-and-learn experience.”
We’ve heard this from many product operators. Sarah, another Reforge Member, mentioned that she received no training or guidance when she first took her PM job.
“My training/preparation consisted just of watching my product designer lead one. They had been doing them for 5 months before the team had a PM.
Outside of that, no one really told me what they needed to be or what I needed to bring. When I followed up with my boss about it, I didn’t get much from that conversation regarding guidelines, so I just moved along with what I think they should be.”
Brittany Cheng Betten, Product Lead at Seesaw Learning, agrees that learning usually comes in the form of insider tips from someone else on the team who has been there longer.
“It’s an interesting dilemma — Product Leads could learn a lot from observing each other’s reviews, but often the only structured opportunity to do that is when you join a new team.”
As your product team grows, the problem compounds as new employees assimilate to existing cultural norms around how these meetings are run.
But it’s not just individual PMs who struggle.
Executives are surprisingly bad at knowing what their role in the affair is, too.
Rather than making product reviews a team sport where everyone is helping each other succeed, leaders fall into their own bad patterns.
- Prone to exec’s opinions. Leaders go off on tangents unrelated to the agenda the PM has set.
- Kitchen sink feedback. Feedback from each exec is often competing but never synthesized, making it hard for the PM to sift through whose opinions matter most and what’s an opinion versus an action item.
- Accountability-oriented They use product reviews as an accountability tool rather than a discussion forum for sharing best practices and improving product quality.
“The key is to develop a culture where lots of feedback can be offered to the presenting team, and the team is then actually free to leverage whatever feedback makes the most sense to them.
What often goes wrong is that these reviews become gates for product launches, leading teams to try to objection-handle any feedback as opposed to truly listening to it and trying to make the product better.”
These six problems are all solvable, but it takes intentionality to shift the culture of how product reviews work at your organization.
Let’s dive into how to do that.
How to FRAME a Better Product Review
If you don’t have a clear understanding of what should and should not happen in a product review, you’ll find yourself in the wild west of asking for open-ended feedback and then having no idea how to parse or act upon it.
So what should happen in this meeting? Great product reviews have:
- A clearly defined scope
- Parameters for discussion that can be contained within the timeframe allotted for the meeting
- An advance agreement among all participating parties about what the purpose of the meeting is
- A commitment to lively, honest debate (where no final decisions will be made) and a wrap period where next steps are clearly outlined
- A cadence that aligns with the different stages of product development (rather than too late in the game)
How do you get there? Your goal is to FRAME your product review more effectively by focusing on five key elements:
- Focus — the objective, what you’re trying to do
- Rules of engagement — the agreed-upon ways of interacting
- Attendees — the people, and what’s expected of them
- Memo — the content of what’s getting presented
- Event — the cadence of discussions
Let’s walk through each.
Lacking a clear focus is the first step that will lead to a bad product review. But clarifying your focus is easier said than done.
Brittany and other PMs we spoke with say they commonly struggle with the right level of detail to go into, especially if members of the discussion have different levels of existing context on whatever the discussion is.
Get really clear on what the product review is for. Choose one, two at the max, of these dimensions at a time:
- Customer problems to be solved, or Jobs to be done. PMs don’t spend enough time on the problem space and instead tend to focus on solutions. Solutions are more fun but as Einstein supposedly said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” The same should be true of product reviews. We should focus them on the key customer problems to be solved and drive debate and alignment around that.
- Hypotheses you have for solving the problem. Once we’ve defined the problem space, it is important to then explore the range of hypotheses for why a particular solution might solve the problems you’ve identified or Jobs to be done. Hypotheses are typically if-then statements. For example, if we build XYZ then ABC will happen and should be mapped to the core problems already identified.
- Strategic alignment and differentiation. The PM needs to show why this particular problem/solution is worth spending resources on at this time given all the other competing priorities. Also, explain how solving this problem will further differentiate the company and product from competitors, if at all.
- Phase of the project you are talking about. There are multiple phases to a project from early to late stage and can be thought of on a spectrum from the “Understand/Define stage” to the “Explore stage” and finally the “Refine/Ship stage.” Each of these stages requires different feedback from different stakeholders. You can learn more about these in the Product Management Foundations Reforge course.
- Key success metrics. It is critical to explain how you will know if the project is successful, and importantly, what is planned next given a few different possible outcomes.
VP of Product Irem Metin has implemented product reviews at companies both big and small. She shared that focusing on project phasing and core customer problems is the key to any good review.
“On my teams, we always dedicate the first review of a new product or feature to the customer problem and definition of success. That’s because we need to put the why before the what. Reserving time for this creates alignment and buy-in on prioritization before we ever dive into the solution space.”
The first mistake people make is that they think of the product review as a venue where final decisions are made in the room.
We discourage this for a handful of reasons.
First, product review meetings are often larger than decision-making meetings and tend to be more focused on context sharing and discussion. Decision-making meetings are about presenting to and hearing from an empowered decision-maker. Those modes require different things from participants and thus drive different outcomes.
Second, product review meetings should be about fostering debate and rigorous thinking. This type of thinking can easily be stifled when an exec is really digging in to make a decision, or when a PM feels that a decision must be made within the hour.
Lastly — and perhaps most importantly — relegating decision-making to product reviews makes it “very likely that they’re significantly slowing down your execution because the chance that they’re scheduled at exactly the right time for a particular decision is extremely low.” according to Nick Allardice, CEO at Change.org.
Without a clear focus, the natural state of any meeting is chaos. With focus, it’s less chaotic.
Rather than thinking about PRs as decision-making forums, use them as checkpoints in the product development cycle. Early product reviews may focus on problem statements to solve while later ones may result in important decisions being made about feature-level tradeoffs.
For that reason, we've put PR's on a timeline and we can think about them very differently depending on the product creation phase.
2. Rules of Engagement
Creating a culture where debate, curiosity, and rigorous product thinking are valued is not easy.
Far too often product reviews can:
- Grow heated →Making it difficult for attendees to voice their true options.
- Get unwieldy → Creating a scenario where the loudest voice in the room wins.
- Take on a sport-like environment → Where people try to win a conversation rather than engage in meaningful conversation.
Product reviews are not a place to earn points by giving the perfect presentation. They’re also not intended to be places where we simply tout our accomplishments with the expectations of blanket praise.
So it’s a tough balance to strike. We find that it can help to reframe things as a team sport where everyone has a role to play.
Here are a few tips for how to run product reviews to get the most out of them:
As an Exec, it’s important to set the tone in the meetings that the PM is the decision maker, not you. Your job is to provide input, ask questions, ensure the team is solving the right problem, and most importantly to empower your PM. It is appropriate to state your opinion, especially if it is a dissenting one, but also make it clear that the PM has the final call and you will support their decision.
In the event that you, as a leader, share a dissenting opinion that proves to be incorrect, it’s enormously valuable to moral and team growth to call out your mistake. This signals to PMs that they’re allowed to make informed, potentially risky bets with the right level of conviction. This will allow others to feel safe doing the same.
Bob Baxley, SVP of Design at Thougtspot puts it nicely:
“The team should experience product reviews more as a weekly newscast than a blockbuster movie. This will reduce the pressure on any given meeting and lower everyone’s stress level since a bad show one week can be easily remedied the next.
Incremental week-by-week progress also makes it easier for everyone to be brought along and stay integrated with the team. And it points to a single fundamental cultural value: the exec team should be thought of as collaborators rather than approvers. ”
As a cross-functional partner, your job is to consider and debate the hypotheses from your unique vantage point. We recommend positioning yourself not as a blocker (e.g. “I wouldn’t do that”) but instead as someone who opens up new ways of thinking (e.g, “How might we think about this more …” or “Have you considered XYZ?”) Your job is to help the team presenting, so they need to hear you while not feeling threatened.
As a core team member, your job is to help clarify when questions come up. Take notes and support your PM partner in exploring the topic at hand. If you hear someone with a dissenting opinion, dig in to learn more. Don’t shy away from dissenters, they’re a gold mine full of new insights and might highlight a blindspot.
As a PM, your job is to facilitate the meeting and effectively drive the discussion. You’re the ultimate decision maker with regards to which parts of the feedback you should allow to change your approach vs. which parts will not.
The most effective way to do this is to ask questions, especially challenging questions, and focus on making it a safe place for people to deliver the right feedback by:
- Stating your recommendation clearly, and articulating why you are making the recommendation
- Ask a few open-ended (tough) questions to make it clear you are open to people challenging your assumptions
- Stating the areas where you are most interested in getting feedback, and guiding the discussion back to these points frequently
After the meeting, you should synthesize what you heard and clarify what next steps are coming out of the discussion. The mindset you should have going into a product review is one of high conviction but a willingness to be convinced that you are wrong or at least partially off-course.
You’d rather learn that now than after you spend the time and effort to launch whatever it is you are planning.
You might have different rules of engagement, but the important thing is to have some and make them explicit. In the absence of that, it’s hard for both facilitator and participant to stay on track and have the sense of psychological safety to have a meaningful discussion.
As we stated above, the leader of the meeting should be the PM running the project. They also determine what team members should be in the meeting.
The general guidance is to keep meeting attendance to the folks that are actively working on the project and those who serve as key stakeholders in its success. All attendees should be active participants and there really shouldn’t be more than 10-12 people in each meeting.
- Required: Key Eng, Product, and Design leaders
- Optional: Cross-functional leaders
The team should determine the rest of the attendees, which will vary per meeting.
Cross-functional folks often want to be included in product reviews if it becomes a forum where decisions get made because most people want a seat at the table.
But discussions and debates often get diluted to the point where there are too many people in the room.
Keep decision-making out of product reviews, and ensure that PMs share their memos, top takeaways from the meeting, and next steps. That will solve the problem of too many people wanting to attend.
Tom has found success by adopting Amazon’s memo format. Natalie has been part of organizations where the document of choice has been slide decks.
But both have learned that the process of writing and then circulating your thoughts in either format dramatically helps to clarify them, and has the side benefit of making it easier for others to quickly adopt your mental model.
You’ll know if your memo or artifact has succeeded when everyone in the room understands the information and why a discussion is needed.
On the other hand, you’ll know when it’s failed if you’re just asking for reactions or feedback but no one knows what to do with all that information.
A good memo has a clear audience, structured thinking, and the right scaffolding or asks that help your audience know how to engage. Start with the following:
- Customer problems to be solved. Follow Einstein’s wisdom: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” The same should be true of product reviews. Focus on customer problems to be solved and drive debate and alignment around that.
- Hypotheses you have for solving the problem. Once you’ve defined the problem space, it’s important to then explore the range of hypotheses for why a particular solution might solve the problems you’ve identified.
- Strategic alignment and differentiation. PMs need to show why a particular solution is worth spending time on given all the other competing priorities and possibilities. Explain how solving this problem will further differentiate the company and product from competitors where relevant.
- Phase of the project. Product Reviews discussions should be different for different stages of development. Articulate whether you’re at the definition stage, the exploration stage, the execution stage, or the iteration/refinement stage. Each of these stages require different feedback from different stakeholders.
- Key success metrics. It is critical to explain how you will know if the project is successful, and what you’ll plan next given different possible outcomes.
If you need help getting started on generating your memo, we’ve got you covered. Start with these two Reforge posts:
We’re being more prescriptive about what content to include and how to communicate it not because there’s one correct way to do it, but because we’ve seen PMs spend way too much time prepping for these discussions by creating beautiful presentations only to get thrown off because they don’t know what the core issue is that needs discussion. Start there, instead.
Product review meetings should happen at least 2x per month, or on a cadence that makes sense with how often you ship new products. At Quizlet, Natalie’s team found it useful to map out a rough sketch of product review topics for an entire quarter as a forcing function to think through the major milestones that would need review.
They should happen prior to initiatives launching or being tested or after a team has initial results/learnings and is deciding on what to do next (e.g. scale, continue to iterate, etc.).
In addition, product reviews can be used during quarterly or yearly planning as a way to vet the higher-level product strategy of each team.
We have found that it’s best to have a set time for product reviews, and Thursdays tend to be a great day. Having it later in the week allows for prep time and still gives you a day to debrief on Friday.
Hopefully, this approach will help you run smoother product reviews! Here is the FRAME process one more time:
The 9 Failure Modes of Product Reviews
To help you evaluate the health of your product reviews, we’ve aggregated nine common failure modes below that came from our discussions with a range of product operators.
We know about these issues because we’ve both fallen prey to them.
Early in her PM career, Natalie was actually scared of debate happening in the room, seeing disagreements as arguments that needed immediate resolution.
Sometimes, she asked for too little feedback in an attempt to avoid debate entirely. Other times, she felt the need to know the answers in an attempt to resolve perceived conflict. Neither helped better product decisions get made.
When Tom stepped into a leadership role he either provided too little feedback, leaving the team wondering about his opinion or too much feedback, making the team feel like he was dictating what he wanted them to do. Both extremes are wrong and neither one is empowering of the product manager and team leading the meeting.
For each failure mode, we shared a diagnosis of what’s likely to be happening behind the scenes and offered some corrective actions to help you get back on track.
1: Too much feedback
- Why this happens: People may be responding to overly broad discussion questions. Alternatively, people may think they are the decision-makers or want to be more involved in the decisions.
- What to do instead: If you need to course correct mid-meeting, it can help to name who the decider is, and have that person name what additional information they need to to inform their future decision. Ask if the comment or idea is a Do, Try, or Consider piece of feedback
2: Too little feedback
- Why this happens: There are a few reasons why you will get not enough feedback.Attendees may lack sufficient context to engage, already agree with everything you’re saying, or may disagree but not feel comfortable saying so.
- What to do instead: Identify if the topic is right for a product review. Before the review, try to surface the tradeoffs and areas of potential disagreement that you see in order to foster better debate
3: Feedback you didn’t ask for
- Why this happens: People are unsure what feedback you’re looking for, .so they end up giving highly general opinions just to be useful. This can result in the meeting going off the rails and opening up new issues that are out of the scope of the PR.
- What to do instead: Clarify what conversation you’re trying to have, and what specifically you need feedback on. Ask for the explicit type of feedback you’re hoping to receive.
4: Feedback too late in the process
- Why this happens: There hasn’t been sufficient alignment on the problems to be solved, their relative importance, or what the big conceptual decisions are to be made in the solution. This leaves teams feeling like they have to heavily defend their decisions rather than inspire discussion.
- What to do instead: Schedule a product review very early in the project’s life that only focuses on the problem statements and the “why now.”
5: Rambling, meandering discussion
- Why this happens: People are unclear on what the main objective or goal is, or forget about it. Leadership gets super tactical or stays too high level, leaving teams to wonder what commentary needs to be addressed and how.
- What to do instead: Make your agenda or focus clear, obvious, and front of mind so you can return to it easily. Don’t bury the lede. State your main hypothesis clearly. If you’re confused, someone else may well be, too. Ask to slow down and re-articulate the main threads of import. Put strict time limits on each section and appointment someone else to keep track of time. Take the initiative to state that you sense the meeting may be getting derailed, and see if others agree. Sometimes just simply calling it out helps the people derailing the meeting realize they should stop.
6:Arguing not debating
- Why this happens: This commonly happens whenparticipants aren’t feeling heard, are struggling to professionally navigate differences of opinion, or don’t have experience being part of non-threatening debate-focused discussions.
- What to do instead: Articulate the points that each participant is making, ask if they have to add to that point, and then move on to the next agenda item. Yes, you are cutting someone off, but it’s a better use of everyone’s time. Be sure to acknowledge that you’re interrupting for a reason.
7: Overselling your point of view
- Why this happens: PM trying to get approval instead of fostering good discussions. This is a fine line for both PMs and executives to walk. It’s hard to find the balance between advocating for a path forward and being open to different opinions.
- What to do instead: Loosen the reins on the attachment to your own recommendations. Instead, focus on getting to the best collective thinking through discussion. Recognize that your job as a PM is to help leaders make the right decisions for customers and the business, you being right isn’t always in service to that.
8: Giving smart answers
- Why this happens: When participants start asking a ton of questions that you can’t answer, it’s usually a signal that they’re trying to piece together the right mental model because something isn’t clear to them.
- What to do instead: Rather than aiming to answer the questions, try to clarify what’s unclear first so that you can get to the same mental model as quickly as possible. Your memo should clarify what you know, what you don’t know, and what you need support on. If a question seems unrelated to your goal for the meeting, seek to understand how it’s related. If it’s not, politely move on.
#9: What happens in PR stays in PR
- Why this happens: Action items and any decisions that are made aren’t documented. The next steps aren’t clear.
- What to do instead: Share the memo or main artifact more broadly. PMs should also share their top takeaways from the meeting and next steps more broadly too.
These nine failure modes are so common, so don’t beat yourself up if they apply to you. We got better by gaining more experience, getting faster at pattern matching, and then being able to course-correct in real time. Pick one or two you want to work on and take a small step to improve things each quarter.
How To Improve the Health of Your Product Reviews
Ultimately, the best way to determine if your Product Review is successful is if you, the PM, walk away from the meeting with actionable feedback on the areas you identified as needing support.
A good PR should increase your sense of clarity, confidence, camaraderie, or commitment. Or ideally all of them!
The inverse is also true: a bad PR will usually lack all four, and PMs will be left feeling more stuck or confused than before the meeting started.
To improve the health of your product reviews, you need to FRAME them well.
- Focus less on performative gestures of progress and more on improving rigorous thinking skills
- Set expectations and rules of engagement as a team sport where everyone has a role to play (rather than as lecture from the PM)
- Invest less on the format and more on the concision and clarity of what needs discussion.
- Avoid using product reviews as a pure accountability forum, or at something that only happens near the launch of a new product or feature. Instead, integrate it with regularity early and often so that folks have continuous context on the problem and solution spaces, leading them to be more effective discussion participants.
- Strive for continuous improvement! There’s no perfect product review. Focus on progress.
Once you’ve managed to shift your product review cultures from bullrings to meaningful discussions, you’ll know you’re on the right track to making better product decisions for customers and your business.