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Joining the Dots: Managing Strategic Dependencies

May 20, 2020

Product Leadership

As Chief Customer Officer at ProdPad, I spend a lot of time advising PMs on how to structure their portfolios and their roadmaps. One of the questions I’m frequently asked is how to show dependencies, where changes to one product could affect other products.

What are strategic dependencies?

It’s easy to conjure up images of project plans and Gantt charts when we hear the term dependency. However, product managers need to think about dependencies which are strategic. A dependency is strategic if poor planning affects the ability to solve the customer problem.

Time-based dependencies

We’ve written a lot about how PMs should avoid having timelines on their roadmaps. However, there are situations where a date on your roadmap adds value. That’s when the date is strategic, such as when you’re solving a problem arising from regulatory or legal compliance. The enforcement of GDPR regulations in 2018, which led to a deadline that most companies had to work to, is a great example of a time-based strategic dependency.

Regulate when a deadline is needed
 Regulatory deadlines might mean you need to add a strategic deadline to your roadmap

If the value of the work is dependent upon the time then it’s important to know that when planning. Do you need to deliver something in time for an industry conference? Late delivery would result in reduced value – therefore the dependency is strategic.

Sometimes late delivery is not an option
Some features are most valuable if they’re delivered at the right time

You can be lean, reactive to your market, and able to pivot with a product roadmap. You have the flexibility to change your plans and solve problems instead of being a feature factory. Below, the roadmap card is communicating a strategic time dependency. The externally driven date is what makes it strategic.

This roadmap is communicating a strategic dependency
Remember, not all roadmap initiatives need dates

When using dates is not ok

Dates added because of sales, or demands from the CEO are not strategic. It’s best to follow that time-tested approach of asking “why.” If the date ensures short-term gain from additional sales opportunities, consider highlighting the long-term pain which will come from a “Frankenstein product”. Does the request for a date come from senior leadership (or investors) who need to feel in control? Then you should highlight how a robust discovery process involving lean, iterative development reduces risk. If there is a genuine need to plan ongoing activities for marketing or sales, or to inform resource planning, work with the delivery team to create a release plan. 

By treating internal requests for dates seriously and offering a better proposal for solving the underlying problem, you’re exercising those PM muscles for more than just the development of customer solutions. You’re helping your stakeholders understand the value of good product culture. 

Where it’s all about the platform

Platform products provide value by enabling other products to exist, or by introducing standards and consistency. They often provide support for multiple modalities and have reusable components like search, filtering, and security.

Product platforms provide value by letting other products exist.
Changes to a platform need to be aligned across multiple product components

There are a few different types of platforms (as outlined in a recent Mind the Product talk by Brandon Chu), but the biggest product management issues appear where platform changes affect other products in the business (or vice versa). Developer platforms face the biggest hurdles. They often focus on APIs and other technical solutions that user-facing products rely on for success.

Where experience matters

It doesn’t take much investigation to identify examples of product lines that need a common, unified experience. In media, fintech, healthcare, or e-commerce, changes need to be rolled out in a way that ensures a consistent experience for the user. Think about these examples, where the user experience has to be recognizable, regardless of the device used.

Content publishing

Products like Apple TV, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+ all need to work on multiple devices and operating systems. Each device has a different screen size and user interface.

Product suites 

Consider Microsoft Office, or Apple’s productivity tools; the products within the suite all solve different problems on the surface. But, the way they manage search, filtering, and logging in and out all have to be the same. This ensures the user has a frictionless experience of common functions.

How do I handle strategic dependencies on my portfolio roadmap?

A solid approach is to separate strategy from execution. Build a strategic roadmap which is based on end user value. Are you building something new that involves work from multiple teams? No problem! Define your initiative, including ideas that relate to all the separate moving parts. Stop trying to juggle different roadmaps for different delivery teams. Focus on a single initiative and determine what’s needed to deliver it.

Defining your changes in this way makes it much easier to understand what’s needed to deliver end-user value. The method of execution is irrelevant. It’s easier to reprioritize, too. If you move an initiative forward or backward in your priorities, all the associated component changes go with it. Separating teams (with team-specific releases) can manage the execution and resource planning. If your organization goes through a detailed budget approval process, it’s much easier to see what’s required and what funding is needed.

Strategy first is the way to go

When working with dependencies, it’s important to put strategy first. Working with a lean roadmap inspires strategic conversations. It helps your stakeholders focus on the problems they are solving, rather than how they will execute the strategy. Using this approach makes it easier to plan, prioritize, and adapt, especially when the moving parts are complex. 

Simplify the way you structure your product portfolio. Be sure to base it around value rather than the codebase. You will then find that:

  • Your product portfolio will be more straightforward
  • You’ll have a more streamlined approach to planning
  • Risk when planning will reduce

It seems like a no-brainer. Book a demo with one of our product experts for more information. They’ll show you how ProdPad can support you when aligning teams and stakeholders with your product strategy.

Liz Love is our Chief Customer Officer. Having worked in software development since 2001, including 10 years experience in product management, Liz knows the day-to-day struggles of product managers all too well. She’s passionate about helping others to be successful in product management, whether that’s process improvement, mentoring or helping with best practices.

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