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What Do You Do If A Product Cannot Be Launched On Time?

Posted by Andrea Saez
January 20, 2016

The cold, hard truth is that if you’re a product manager, you will miss your deadlines. It happens all the time to product managers everywhere. No matter how you try to avoid it, issues will arise, priorities will change, and unforeseen circumstances and issues will squash your plans.

And yet, this is still one of the most common questions product managers ask us,  “But what do I do when we realize we’re not going to be able to launch on time?”

First of all, there is no reason to panic. This is the unknown territory you were hired to manage. If the variables have changed, so can your plans.  You have every right to change the launch date. You can even change your mind about priorities if that’s what you’ve realized is best for your product.

But you can’t do any of that if you’ve promised too much, too early. This is the problem many of the PMs run into – they put themselves in a box and then they can’t get out.

You don’t have to do this to yourself.

You were hired to manage unknown territory. If the variables have changed, so can your plans. -@dreasaez Click To Tweet

If you successfully build enough space around your plans today, you can negotiate the specifics later.

The wiggle room you create for yourself now puts an incredible amount of power and confidence back in your hands. You don’t have to commit to anything anymore!

If you successfully build enough space around your plans today, you can negotiate specifics later. -@dreasaez Click To Tweet

Communicate themes, don’t promise features

If you’re promising features, you’re going to HAVE to deliver on them – and you will get a lot of grief when you go back on your word.

So don’t promise anyone anything. Communicate with themes instead.

For example, a theme could be: “Awesome reviewer experience”, “User story management” or “Custom reporting” – each with a short description as to what your goal is, why you’re building it, and what your goals are tying it back to your product canvas.  (By the way, I’m lifting these straight out of ProdPad’s public roadmap.)

We are always clear and transparent with our themes so our stakeholders know what to expect from us – but we also want to leave ourselves room to adjust when and how we do it.

If you work with themes, you get to control how you solve a problem rather than getting stuck solving pieces of a problem. It’s also much easier to communicate changes using a theme-based roadmap because you haven’t tied yourself down to a specific feature or release date.

Just think – if you cancel a feature you’ve already promised, you’re going to have to do a lot of damage control.

Instead, if you’ve communicated the overall themes you are going to tackle in the current term, you can easily shuffle your priorities around. Maybe instead of 1-2-3, you go 2-3-1. Or 3-2-1. The important thing is you’ve already communicated your priorities to everyone, so nothing will come as a surprise.

Hear that? That’s the sound of freedom.

Don’t promise anyone anything. Communicate with themes instead. -@dreasaez Click To Tweet

Hand over release planning to your dev team/project managers

You’re a product manager, you’re not a project manager – you shouldn’t be working two jobs. (Unless you’ve been somehow been roped into doing both, my condolences to you.)

When you’ve decided on a set of priorities, send them over to your dev leads or project managers. They can evaluate the specs, allocate resources and come back to you with time estimates. At the end of the day, they know and understand the resources at their disposal better.

If you’ve spec’d out things properly (which hopefully, you have), then anyone from the lead dev to the junior dev can pick up something at any point and work on it. Let them dictate the order and speed in which they knock out their tasks, so you can adjust your priorities against them.  

Other benefits that come with keeping your product and project management separate:

  • You get to keep your strategic plans (product roadmap) separate from your tactical plans (release plan). When one changes, you can adjust the other.
  • If you do have the unfortunate double role of product and project manager, you can keep the two distinct roles separate by using two different apps. You will have the work nicely organized for the day you hand over one of the roles to someone else.

It’s been proven plenty of times that project management tools are not meant for product management!

Prioritize realistically

Why wait until the worst thing happens? The best product managers know that the worst thing IS going to happen. Know where the cracks might be and have a backup plan ready.

Get some help from your other teams here, especially your client-facing colleagues. Sales, support and marketing have useful insights, but you have to dig for them early and often. Ask yourself and your teams questions like these to help you identify an alternative course of action:

  • Is this feature all that important?
  • Do we have any quick wins?
  • Will launching or not launching it really make a difference?
  • How pissed off will clients be if we re-prioritize?
  • Is this big priority worth putting all our resources in this one basket?
  • Should we kill the project altogether?

On that last note, sometimes you do have to kill the project. It’s better to realize that than continue to spend time launching something that no longer makes sense.

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Krishna Sankar
January 26, 2016 6:42 am

Andrea,
Good insights, especially on themes vs. features. Timely because, I have a couple of occasions this week to use the wisdom – a class project st Stanford and a presentation to the business.
Cheers

Jim Black
February 11, 2016 9:40 am

Excellent article, but the big challenge I see is that in more mature products, the sales teams want specific features to help close deals, ie this really important customer/prospect needs this feature (and of course if the feature is added then that salesperson will sell lots more). I do like the idea of themes and have used them in product roadmaps with mixed success not withstanding that need to be more specific.

Cat
Cat
February 14, 2016 8:04 pm

Hi Andrea. I have been doing Project and Product management for quite a long time. I usually work on very small start-ups that don’t have the resources to hire both and what I have been noticing is that on a positive side it puts me much closer to the dev team and I end up having a great relationship with them. If I have to separate the both I would have a hard time nowadays to understand clearly where one role ends and the other one starts. Could you help me out? I predict this will happen soon, so I… Read more »