5 Questions Every Frustrated Product Manager Should Ask When Dates Slip
Busy is not always better. I have written before about the difference between busy work and meaningful work. Our time is finite, so it is important to be purposeful about where we put our effort. This is especially true if you are a product manager striving to provide real value to customers. But what if, despite your best efforts and plenty of busy days, you are not delivering new features on time?
You are in the business of building — you have the honor of making things that create value for your company and your customers.
But you also know that if delayed launches become the norm, customers will stop getting the value they need from your product. This can damage the long-term health of your product and its position in the market. It will negatively impact cross-functional teammates. And you will certainly feel miserable as well. You need to understand why deadlines are not being met and what your role is in that tardiness, so you can work towards a solution.
Let’s assume that confusion and dysfunction is not the cause. Your company has specific goals in place and you have built a strategic roadmap that you are confident in. It just seems like delivery keeps getting delayed, despite your best efforts. You chase down teammates and probe for status updates in the product team meeting, but you fear that the launch may be at risk.
Missing delivery dates is frustrating — but how you respond is entirely in your control. Here are five questions you should ask yourself right away:
Are you bogged down by scope creep? If it seems like you are busy but not getting anywhere, it may be that your release is bloated with extra work. A burndown chart is helpful here. Plot out all of the features (denoting ones added post-planning), when you want to deliver, and how much is actually done. You will quickly see if you are on pace or need additional resources. Or you may remove some features entirely.
Were you overzealous in ballparking the team’s capacity? Like most ambitious product managers, you probably want to move as quickly as possible against aggressive plans. The best you can do is to work with other teams to estimate how long what you have defined will take to build. And you may have gotten it wrong — which means you will need to score and prioritize your features to understand what is an absolute must and what you can shelve for the future.
Is the workflow stagnating in certain places? Okay, let’s say the answer to those two questions is “No.” If the work is achievable in the time frame allotted, it may be that the team is getting stuck in a particular step. Time to look for patterns. Maybe things seem to lag “in review” for too long. You can work with the team to understand why there is not urgency to complete review cycles. Or it could be that everything goes smoothly until it is time to bring in the design team…
Are dependencies causing the backup? You know that your release is the right size and that the team is pacing well. At least, where they can. But did another team miss a deadline, creating a domino effect? A release is at its essence a cross-functional effort, which requires dynamic collaboration. We use our own dependency report at Aha! to visualize interconnected work, as well as a Gantt chart to see the downstream impact of go-to-market delays.
How are other products progressing? If you work in a sprawling organization with many dependent products, it is likely that the issue is cultural. Try to get a view of how the overall portfolio is doing — how each release in the entire product line is progressing. Even if you are not a senior leader, you can be a part of rallying the rest of the product managers in your company and leading by example. Find ways to set shared success metrics and hold recurring meetings to review progress.
Asking these questions is just the first step — next you must take action to actually solve the problem.
When dates start to slip, the onus is on you to figure out how to recover and recalibrate. Talk to your teammates and ask questions to identify potential solutions. You might need to reallocate resources if one team is over capacity or find ways to make workflows more efficient. Act with urgency because the rest of the team is taking their cue from you.
How do you ensure that the product team maintains momentum?
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