Product managers are often described as the "mini-CEO" or "quarterback" of a team. While this may sound great in a job description, in reality product management is a constant battle of time management, resource management, and aligning expectations. You can have the most well thought out roadmap, only to have it fall apart once the quarter begins. In this post, I will offer some best practices that have worked well at Button and hope that it may prove useful to others.
This may sound obvious, but the further you're able to plan ahead, the bigger the buffer you create when the unexpected happens. For my team, this means getting a head start on gathering requirements and keeping us one project ahead at all times. Once a project is kicked off and engineering work begins, I'll start talking to stakeholders and putting together a preliminary product spec for the next project on my roadmap.
Since we operate on 2-week sprints, in practice, once the spec is finalized and the project is kicked-off, design will aim to have a rough wireframe ready for review by the end of the first week with the goal of a final design review by the end of the sprint. In parallel, engineering is tasked with putting together a technical design doc and will begin work on any preliminary tasks deemed non-controversial. Once the project is off to the races, I'll begin discovery and planning for the next project. We've found that this enables us to deliver and iterate at a much faster pace. Since requirements are clearly defined early on we tend not to have scope creep. If we do get derailed, we have more buffer to take a step back and reassess the vision of the product and determine what the appropriate tradeoffs are for the project.
I'd like to call out that "planning ahead" doesn't mean executing one project and moving on to the next. As a PM, it's critical to always remember the bigger picture. There's a difference between a project and an actual product. Execution is only one step of the development process. After launch, it's important to revisit the data and determine whether the project was a success and iterate, or to roll it back and learn from any mistakes. Ultimately, it's the PM's job to build towards a medium/long-term vision that align with company goals/KPIs.
Let's face it, no project ever goes smoothly. The usual suspects are scope creep, a dependency that was unaccounted for, or an inaccurate estimate on level of effort.
"I guarantee you that at some point, everything's gonna go south on you...
Now you can either accept that... or you can get to work.
You solve one problem.
And then you solve the next one, and then the next.
And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home."
— Mark Watney in The Martian
It's easy to get overwhelmed when things blow up in your face. Instead of getting overwhelmed, I find it helpful to compartmentalize the problem and tackle them in smaller chunks. Think about what you're trying to solve for and what the MVP is. You may find that certain features are just nice-to-haves and can be descoped. There's no shame in descoping a project. It's easy to fall into the trap of taking too long to launch a fully polished product vs an MVP with fast follow-up iterations.
With all that said, sometimes you try to work the problem only to realize there are too many blockers. In this situation, it's the product manager's job to re-assess and redefine the team's goals. Regardless of whether it was an unforeseen issue or bad planning, it's critical to communicate any changes immediately to stakeholders and leadership. I've seen PM's try to hide their mistake and hope that things can be fixed without anyone noticing. Needless to say, this rarely pans out. Everyone makes mistakes, it's much more beneficial to the company if you just own up to them. By communicating the problem immediately, stakeholders are able to realign their expectations and get started on any damage control sooner rather than later.
A colleague once described product management to me as "herding cats". That said, good product managers are masochists who enjoy solving and troubleshooting the unexpected. When it feels like everything is on fire, take a step back, reassess, work the problem, and most importantly, communicate effectively.
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