When I first got started in product development, a colleague joked “welcome to being caught between a rock and a hard place.” Your champion users want you to build x, y & z features asap – which may or may not align with your strategic roadmap to increase your company’s Total Addressable Market (TAM). Project Managers are constantly balancing business pressures to ship product releases fast while delivering quality products that offer real value. And don’t forget, you will also have to manage your team’s availability in conjunction with the pace of your business. Sounds a bit challenging to balance all these pressures, right?
For me, and most product managers, this pressure isn’t paralyzing – it is an unending set of invigorating problems to solve every day you come to work. I’ve found that project management and prioritization skills are absolutely critical in product development. I derive great pride in helping product teams focus on shipping the most important things without missing deadline after deadline or burning out, and I look forward to helping you achieve the same.
Here are 4 ways to improve your product development process to ship the right products on time to avoid being stuck between that proverbial rock and a hard place.
1. Identify your product’s True North
In today’s competitive landscape, there are countless products and applications promising solutions to almost every problem and need out there. When customers have so many choices, product managers must ask these questions to identify a True North, or set of guiding principles, that can steer their product development strategy:
- Why does your product exist in the marketplace?
- How does it uniquely offer value to customers?
- What are the things that your company can be best in the world at?
If you try to build everything for everyone, you’re likely to end up with a complex and beautifully layered onion as a product that is hard to learn and only scratches the surface of value. By taking time to identify and articulate your True North and leveraging it to inform the product development strategy, you can build deep and differentiated value that helps your product stand out against the competition.
When you focus the product design process and your development team’s time on work that aligns with a clear True North, you can stop sweating the small stuff and avoid being distracted by the shiny object of the month. Alignment on your product’s True North helps everyone in the company understand product decisions and roadmap priorities. It gives teams permission to say no to projects that are less important, and it drives prioritization decisions with every product release.
2. Factor uncertainty into the schedule
The product development process has so many moving parts that it can feel impossible to predict timelines accurately. Uncertainty is inherent when delivering new features, troubleshooting bugs, and managing daily tasks to ship a product release to customers. Product roadmaps and customer expectations can be completely derailed if a key project team member or department can’t meet their deadlines, even for just one component of a release.
The best way to manage the inherent uncertainty in product development is to recognize it and build it into your project plans from the start. Most teams estimate work in fixed durations – for example, it will take 1 hour or 2 days or 4 weeks to complete this task. But, how often have things not gone according to plan? How often has a task or project taken much longer than expected? Variability in effort, complexity and scope are certainties in product development, and the only way to capture this is through ranged estimation.
Asking your development team for best-case and worst-case effort ranges instead of fixed estimates almost always yields more accuracy. Well-intentioned team members can be overly optimistic, especially if an important deadline looms. Others might have their reasons to pad the timeline estimates, which makes it hard to manage the product development process. Using best-case and worst-case estimates allows product managers to model scenarios and confront the brutal facts of how long something might really take early on – avoiding surprises and letting down stakeholders.
At LiquidPlanner, we use our product to build and optimize our project management platform. It is the foundation for managing new product development. Ranged estimates feed the LiquidPlanner scheduling engine and, as a result, the earliest possible finish dates and the latest possible finish dates are calculated automatically. As the product owner, this saves me from getting stuck between that rock and a hard place, as I can see best-case and worst-case scenarios before I even set a release deadline.
3. Continuously monitor team workload
When I first stage a release, everything is estimated and fully load balanced. Assignments are evenly distributed across each frontend, backend, and full stack developer, and the schedule looks as close to perfect as it is going to get. But as the release progresses, scope inevitably creeps, new priority work is identified and some items are deprioritized to the next release. Within just a matter of days, workload can naturally shift such that a key member of the team becomes a bottleneck and schedule risk appears. Dependencies may also emerge resulting in certain team members waiting for some work to advance before they can begin their part.
Staying on top of this change, understanding the impact to the release, and mitigating it appropriately to balance workload is essential to keeping your release on track. And, importantly, it prevents individuals from carrying the lion’s share of work and burning out – so it keeps team culture healthy along with the schedule.
As the product owner at LiquidPlanner, the Workload View is crucial to helping me ship releases on time. It shows the real-time capacity of every team member and quickly surfaces bottleneck risk early on, as well as opportunities to go faster. With Workload View, I have confidence the right people are doing the right work and have data to support workload balancing decisions that optimize the product development process. Perhaps most importantly, I can ensure the leadership team that we will hit our release targets and do so without overloading the team.
4. Focus on quality
Don’t forget that quality is king. Success revolves around whether your product satisfies customer needs and delivers differentiated value to the market. You can have a strong True North product development strategy, embrace and account for uncertainty, and have a balanced workload to ship regularly and with precision. But how do you know if you’ve actually launched something that delivers value?
Without usage data and talking to your customers about how new features are being used, your product decisions are just shots in the dark. The old-school mentality of “build a product and they will come” has long passed. Talk to your users every chance you get – before and after you build! Let their feedback be the measure of quality.
It is easy to prioritize new features and optimizations over bugs and technology investments, but this will negatively impact the user experience. Ignoring issues causing user friction will eventually lead to failed adoption, lagging utilization and customer churn. Be sure to make room in each product release to fix bugs and don’t let your backlog of technology debt and low-impact bugs grow too large.
If your product is slow, too buggy or simply doesn’t deliver what the user expects – your product development strategy needs to be calibrated. Always keeping quality top of mind will help you stay on the right path.
Product development is full of complexities, resource constraints, and stressful deadlines. It can feel as though there are pressures from every angle as you work to satisfy customer requests and balance business needs. Setting a True North product strategy, building uncertainty into the schedule, balancing workload, and keeping a high quality bar are all tips that have helped me avoid feeling like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Cheers to it doing the same for you!
About the Author
Jen Morrisey, Vice President of Product at LiquidPlanner, is an experienced project leader and self-proclaimed True North Evangelist. For the past 4 years, she has led new product development at LiquidPlanner and focuses on shipping high value to users while building a seamless customer experience. Jen has a background in project management consulting, and has been a long-time advocate of the customer and of using advanced tools to help project teams reach their goals.