How to Avoid a Product Manager’s Worst Nightmare – Part 1

BY DANIEL ELIZALDE ON AUGUST 12, 2015

Imagine that the product you’ve been working on for months or years implodes on its first day of life – a product manager’s worst nightmare. Unfortunately, this story happens too often in the software world. This two-part article covers what you can do to prevent it.

Failed-300x225A failed launch is that terrible situation in which your product starts breaking or misbehaving as soon as it is launched into production. You and your team have spent the past few months planning and executing on the requirements, but the day you launch to production, something goes wrong.

Users can’t access the software. Errors appear all over the place. The site is non-responsive. And this is all happening while your marketing team is working at full steam letting the world know about your grand new product release. Indeed, this is a product manager’s worst nightmare.

So as a product manager, what can you do to mitigate these risks? In this post, I share some of the precautions you can take to minimize the risk of a failed launch. With strategy, planning, hard work, and a bit of good luck, you can avoid these failed situations.

Define an MVP That Fits Realistically into Your Timeframe

In any product release, no matter how low or high the stakes, it is very important to have a clear understanding of the requirements, and to propose an MVP (minimum viable product) that is doable within that timeframe.

Overall, it’s better to release something that has limited functionality but is very stable than to release extra bells and whistles at the expense of reliability.

Remember that software is always a work in progress. The only certainty after a successful “version 1.0” release party is that the following Monday, you’re back to work on version 1.1.

Related articleThe Simple Rule for Feature Prioritization.

Be Realistic About Your Team’s Capabilities

As you create the product roadmap and pitch it to executives, it is important to be honest about the capabilities of your team. We often fall prey to the “halo effect” and believe that since we have a great team of back-end developers, they can tackle any other area, such as mobile, UI, etc. However, software disciplines are very specialized these days. For example, in SaaS software teams, it’s common to find specialists for services, database, networking, front-end, security, mobile and more.

Make sure you work with engineering leaders to understand what it will take to build the product. If your product is very complex, needs high availability, or has very tight deadlines, be realistic about whether your existing team is sufficient to meet those needs. You might need to change scope or convince the executive team to hire the resources you need. Otherwise, it’ll be almost impossible to deliver on the product promise you are making.

Don’t Forget to Include a Project Manager

Agile zealots might not agree with the idea of having a project manager. After all, the product owner should be able to handle it all, right? I don’t think so. This approach might work for small products with a handful of developers, but when the scope grows, this model doesn’t hold.

Complex products will have multiple teams working on related items, and there needs to be people dedicated to making sure everything fits together. Scrum of scrums can help, but in my experience it is better to have people dedicated to tracking progress and timelines, and making sure everything is advancing in the right way. This need is accentuated if your product includes both hardware and software.

A strong project manager can own the day-to-day operations, keep track of the goals vs. the schedule, and keep everybody on the same page — vendors, Engineering, and other departments. This person can be the central point of communication for reporting status and risks.

A note of caution: The fact that PRODUCT Managers often have a PROJECT background doesn’t mean we should take on both roles at the same time. The more we can offload those responsibilities to a dedicated project manager, the more risk we mitigate and the more time we’ll have to focus on key product needs. If you find yourself doing more PROJECT than PRODUCT management, then you are probably not adding all the value you could be.

Related article: How to Hire Great Software Project Managers

Agile Development Can Reduce Risk

Agile provides a framework for minimizing risk by implementing iterations that produce working software. It is not a silver bullet, but it does help a lot. It provides us with a framework for continuous improvement, one sprint at a time.

Each iteration is self-contained, meaning that it includes design, development, and testing. Therefore, the code on every single iteration is tested to ensure it meets the desired levels of quality.

Now, making sure the development team implements the right delivery processes is not the responsibility of the product manager. It is the responsibility of the delivery team, and their engineering leaders, to make sure that their execution process yields good results. But in many companies, especially at small startups, these processes are often not in place.

Since the product launch is your responsibility, I recommend doing some investigation to ensure all the right processes are in place. If they are not, then it’s okay to start conversations with development leaders and begin shepherding the creation of those processes. Otherwise, your chances of success will be greatly diminished.

Related articles:

Part One Summary

There are numerous pressure points that can contribute to a product failure, but by adopting a prepared, realistic and agile approach, product managers can help to avoid their worst nightmare.

In Part 2 of this article I’ll be talking about some of the further ways to minimize product risks – in the meantime I’d love to see your comments on your own experiences and tips for avoiding failure.

About DANIEL ELIZALDE

Enterprise software Product Manager. Author of TechProductManagement.com A real-world guide to IoT Product Management. Twitter: @delizalde

  • Hi Daniel,

    thanks for the insight. I particularly agree with you in distinguishing between product managers and project managers (which is often not done) and that development project of increasing size need a project manager (or dedicated product managers).

    I would like to link this post on my blog http://inspiredproductmanager.wordpress.com if you don’t mind.

    • Daniel Elizalde

      Hi,
      I agree. Product and Project managers often get confused. But it’s getting better as our discipline continues to gain traction.

      I’m happy for your to post the link to your blog. Thank you for the consideration!

      -Daniel

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