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The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future for Product Managers

Posted by Janna Bastow
December 23, 2020

As we approach Christmas, teams everywhere are getting into the festive feeling. But for many product people out there, the three ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future are coming to visit in the guise of tech debt, bad incentives, and timeline roadmaps. Each one comes with a cautionary tale as we enter the new year, and having banished our own ghosts here at ProdPad, we come with tips on how you can banish yours.

The first ghost of Christmas to visit is a ghost from the past: your insidious, shadowy tech debt

The Ghost of Christmas Past – Tech Debt

Tech debt is like any other sort of debt, even financial debt. It’s a fact of life, and you’re always going to have some. But like financial debt, it gets out of hand if you keep stacking it up and never making the effort to pay it off. 

Now, this might seem obvious to anyone with a shred of financial sense, yet it’s often the status quo for how we run our development teams. We give a fixed amount of time for an engineering job to be done, and set expectations on the scope and acceptance criteria. 

Because time is fickle and hard to estimate, we’re always up against a deadline crunch. Parkinson’s Law, which everyone’s very familiar with at least in concept, if not by name, states that work always expands to fill the time given. Scope creeps and procrastination always happens, purely by nature. 

That deadline crunch puts pressure on the developer, and if they’re given a hard choice between making it look like it meets all the criteria (scope ✅) versus making it work as well as it really should (quality ✅), scope usually wins out. After all, it’s the more visible of the criteria, and it’s what the end clients and other stakeholders see. Oftentimes, the missing quality is ‘just’ that the code isn’t as elegant or scalable or reusable as it could have been, or that documentation, tests, or commenting is left out. 

Very often, these are things that aren’t even flagged, and so the project is marked as complete, and work moves on to the next thing, where there’s inevitably another deadline crunch coming. Crunch after crunch like this stacks up tech debt, and it also stresses out your developers, who never get a chance to build to the quality they perceive as good, and never get a breather. 

Over time, your codebase has racked up so much tech debt it needs a full refactor, and your developers have all left for greener pastures. This pattern is doomed to repeat itself, like a ghost from the past, echoing around the hallways. 

To banish tech debt, you need to look it in the eye, and say ‘no more’. No more deadline crunches that force our developers to trade off quality, time and time again. No more building up of the cobwebs in the corner. Once you’ve cornered one of the main sources of tech debt, you’ve got to make it part of your plan to pay it off. If your company aspires to have a product that’s stable and maintainable, and a team that releases frequently and smoothly, you’ll need to make tackling tech debt a strategic objective, and bake it into your new year plans. In practice, this means giving the engineering team some extra slack to dive into problem areas and untangle old code that was previously rushed out the door to make it more stable and reusable. This usually translates into giving some sort of percentage of time towards bug and code maintenance. Tackling tech debt means measuring and acknowledging what you have already, and carving out enough time to pay down the existing problems, while improving processes so that new debt doesn’t rack up in the meantime.

Your ghost of Christmas past might seem scary now, but tech debt can be banished and kept at bay.

Now listen, dear readers, as there are still two ghosts to come. 

As Christmas approaches, the joy jingles in the air. But for some product people, the ghost of Christmas present is creeping around the corner masked as bad incentives. 

The Ghost of Christmas Present – Bad Incentives

Bad incentives are at the core of just about every disagreement and dysfunction you can find in an organization. 

Incentives are what drive people to work. Sometimes these are tangible, and sometimes they are less so. The problems stem from the fact that people have different motivators, and sometimes there are different types of incentives set up for different sets of people within an organization. This leads to all manner of chaos and arguments at worst, or ineffective work at best. 

Sometimes these bad incentives can be traced to the business model itself. Have you ever worked for a company that’s operating more as an agency than a product company, even though you’ve been given a product management role? You’ll sometimes spot these as companies who end up doing lots of custom development work, always that ‘one feature’ that needs to be done in order to complete the sale or retain a customer. You’re the product manager, and yet the sales team is driving the roadmap. In these cases, the business is being incentivized to, and is falling for, short term cash, in lieu of opportunities to build long term value.  

To get out of this agency trap, it’s important to face this ghost head on, and acknowledge the gap between what the company’s goals are (to build a long term, high value product for a wide market) and its actions (selling its people’s time for short term revenue gains). Oftentimes, this problem can be eased by separating the agency side of the business from the product side, allowing agency work to be priced and marketed accordingly, and giving the product team room to spend on discovery, casting a wide net to find and solve the chunkier, more lucrative problems found in the market. Over time, you can decrease your company’s dependence on project-related work, and get rid of this ghost altogether.

The ghost of bad incentives has more than one face, however, and is often seen in our more day-to-day work too. When you’ve got a stressful deadline or project in play, you’ll often see team tension. Very often, you’ll see two people clash. Commonly, you’ll see a developer or product person who’s advocating for quality, and a business person who’s asking for something to be done on time and on budget. These people aren’t clashing because of personal tensions – in fact, they’ll almost certainly share a drink and a laugh together at the holiday party! – they are clashing over misaligned incentives. The development team is measured and incentivized to create high quality work, while the business side is incentivized to control costs while maximizing revenue. Or in the case of a clash with sales, the sales division is under high pressure to close deals by certain dates, and looks to the development team to deliver! Both parties are under pressure to give something up that goes against what they are incentivized to do, and this creates the tension. 

This pressure can be relieved by aligning incentives across the business, up front, before projects kick off, and keeping open communication about what trade-offs can and can’t be made to get to the end goal. Perhaps agreements around only selling what’s currently available can be reached, in exchange for time put towards limited scope experiments that can be used by customer-facing team members to help validate that the right problems are being solved, while showing progress in the right direction. Everyone in the business has the same ultimate goals, but these often get obscured when broken down into individual or team motivations. Getting these out in the open and talking about what levers can be moved and pulled allows everyone to find happy middle grounds that work for the business and for the business, and ultimately, helps your team banish the ghost of bad incentives to the ether. 

Christmas and New Years comes around every year, and with it, comes our final ghost, the ghost of Christmas future: The Timeline Roadmap.

The Ghost of Christmas Future – The Timeline Roadmap

Here we are, standing at the precipice of another year. Another year that countless product people faithfully line up their work to be done, quarter by quarter, month by month, on what looks to be beautiful and visually appealing product roadmaps, their timelines stretching off into the future. 

But these timeline roadmaps are going to come back to haunt them. 

The problem with the timeline roadmap sits within its very core, the format, and that insistent timeline at the top, that’s always marching forward. It means that everything you put on your roadmap automatically has a date and a deadline, whether you explicitly mean to give it one or not. 

No matter how big of a caveat you give, shouting in all caps from the sidebar of your Powerpoint that these dates are not final, these are almost always taken as promises that you don’t want to have to keep.

The problem with making and keeping promises of what you’ll build for the year ahead is that it assumes you know what’s best for your product already, and that nothing is going to change that. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we should be ready for anything. Each item tied to a timeline is delivery work, and it’s carved out of your time that you could be spending in discovery. Discovery is where the magic happens. Discovery is where you cast a net wide, and find the most interesting problems to solve, and figure out how your team can solve them in a way that’s profitable for your company. If you’re constantly busy delivering on what you thought was a good idea at the beginning of the year, you’ll never get a chance to look outside and figure out what more interesting problems could be solved. You’ll end up missing market opportunities and building the wrong thing! 

What’s more, timeline roadmap planning is tedious, and results in slower work! For each item you’ve had to put on there, you’ve had to gather estimates of how big it might be, and how long it might take. To be on the safe side, you’ve added a little bit of buffer, so there’s some extra room to fix it up and make it right if you come up short on time. But this is where Parkinson’s Law comes into play again. That extra time given is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because you gave it extra time, the work actually takes longer than it should! This is why, no matter how much time you give, you always seem to be up against a deadline crunch.  And a timeline roadmap never has one deadline. It’s chock-full of them, one after the other. So wave after wave of deadlines come crashing down. It might be okay in the short term, but the further into your year you go, the more ghastly you realise this timeline roadmap actually is. Every year, this ghost of Christmas future sneaks up on us, and yet every year, we get lured into the trap of creating a beautiful looking roadmap that’s full of promise, but empty on potential. This is the year you can break that cycle. 2021 is the year you can move to a truly lean approach, where you prioritize at the problem level, and focus your attention on hitting your business objectives above all else. At the end of 2021 you’ll look back on the year and see that you completed an enormous number of experiments and solved countless problems, though it wasn’t done by standing at the front of 2021 and drawing an exact timeline map of what that looked like. Your lean, experimentation process is what allows you to banish the final ghost of Christmas future, the timeline roadmap, for good.

Listen to the christmas ghosts and try an outcome focused roadmap to help you solve the right product problems
Try an outcome-focused roadmap to help you solve the right product problems.

The Ghosts Have Spoken

Fortunately, our team of product experts can talk you through these points in even greater detail and inform you how ProdPad can help you bring your product management A-game in 2021. If you’d like to learn a little more, then book a demo. If you feel that the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future have said enough, then put  what they’ve said into action by starting a free trial today. 

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