What Would You Do? Try this dilemma…

Product management problem

A typical product management problem … what would you do with this launch dilemma?

This blog has been written for us by Andy Tiller, who has 25 years’ of B2B product marketing and product management experience in several different industries, most recently with Chinese telecom BSS leader, AsiaInfo.

You can reach Andy at https://www.linkedin.com/in/andytiller/

How would you handle this product management problem?

Disaster has struck. Due to unforeseen issues, the development team no longer has sufficient resources to deliver both of the headline features in your next release (unless you want to slip the schedule by 3 months). They’re telling you it’s either the Workflow Module Designer (WMD) or the Optimised Matrix Gate (OMG) – but not both.

WMD is a productivity enhancement feature which your customers have been clamouring for. Your top competitor already has it, the sales team is on your back to deliver it, and you have already announced it publicly.

OMG is also important: one of your key customers, BigCo, is depending on it for their new product launch, and any delay to your schedule will cause a direct knock-on impact to their launch date.

As product manager, how do you handle this product management problem? Your first thought is to sit down with the head of product development and discuss possible workarounds, such as reassigning resources from less important projects. However, it becomes clear that there is a direct conflict for critical skills between WMD and OMG, and there is no workaround without bringing in extra resources (at a cost which would need executive approval).

Figuring out your options is the easy part:

  • Delay the release by 3 months and deliver both WMD and OMG
  • Request extra budget and attempt to deliver both features on time
  • Keep to the schedule, but delay WMD to the next release in 3 months’ time
  • Keep to schedule, but delay OMG by 3 months

The harder part is deciding what you should do, so here comes the logic puzzle… Do you:

  1. Call a Product Steering Committee meeting (i.e. your stakeholders), brief the committee on the situation and ask for their guidance?
  2. Email the Product Steering Committee to tell them the release has slipped by 3 months?
  3. Ask the CFO for more budget?
  4. Call a Product Steering Committee meeting where you advise them of the situation, present your analysis, and recommend delaying WMD?
  5. As option 4, but your recommendation is to delay OMG?
  6. Something else?

There is not necessarily a right answer to this conundrum, but there is certainly a wrong one. Option 1 is an abdication of responsibility which would undermine confidence in your ownership of the product. You should always make a recommendation based on careful analysis and logic – never ask the stakeholders to do your job for you. If you can’t decide, seek others’ views offline but make sure to pick one option as your recommendation. It’s your job to have an opinion, even though you remain open to other ideas.

Equally, I would argue that options 2 and 3 are bad moves. Changes to the schedule or budget should be a Big Deal, and you need to show the stakeholders that you take them very seriously. The last thing you want is to encourage a culture where it’s easy to slip the schedule or overrun on costs. If you are going to recommend one of these options, at the very least you need to explain in person to all the stakeholders why you think it’s absolutely necessary (preferably going through the argument individually with those who are directly affected before ratifying the decision formally with the Product Steering Committee).

Personally, I would go for option 4. It might be highly embarrassing to delay WMD, but I would recommend prioritising OMG to support BigCo’s product launch. It’s better to maintain your reputation by meeting a critical customer commitment, even if it upsets the sales team and risks some continuing competitive disadvantage. WMD is a productivity enhancer, so there will be workarounds if you don’t have it, and perhaps you can showcase a demo version to give potential customers confidence that you’ll deliver WMD in the next release.

If the Product Steering Committee unanimously prefers option 5 you should accept it. If they are divided on the issue, this then gives you an opportunity to suggest that you explore the option of a budget increase as an alternative way forward, without any suggestion that you are happy to allow a cost overrun as a first resort.

If the Product Steering Committee prefers to slip the release date, I suggest you should argue strongly that it is better to deliver one objective on time rather than two objectives late (thereby upsetting both BigCo and the WMD proponents). Hopefully this logic would be enough to carry the day, but it’s up to you whether you are willing to ‘die on that hill’ (see https://www.productfocus.com/buzzwords-do-you-use-them/).

In the meantime, I’d be really interested to explore Option 6.  Any suggestions?