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 Optimized Matrix Gate (OMG) – but not both.

WMD is a productivity enhancement feature that your customers have been clamoring 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 that 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 prioritizing 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?

 

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No actively commenting on this but a wonderful Idea. Would love to see more of these in a situational hands on workshop for product managers – and where pms can raise their own dilemmas and have them worked through and get recommendations from experienced product managers and designers as applicable. So actively learning. More please.

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This is actually one of the problems I see a lot in our organization and I’m sad to say Option 4 – pander to your biggest / loudest customer – usually wins out by default, without true consideration. Agreed neither scenario is goo but too often, I see too many releases compromised in favor for the “favorite” or “big” customer. With those “big” customers one typically has a broad relationship / partnership with them, so a Product Team should not be shy about a dialog with them to understand their flexibility in absorbing a delay to their schedule. It’s easy to say that the sales guys can find workarounds but if they’ve teed up business around an enhancement you’ve promised, and those opportunities are contingent on you having that feature within a specified time, a workaround isn’t necessarily going to be good enough and the sales guys are at risk of losing that business to your competitor. 3 months is a full business quarter so I would weigh up the financial impact of the decision that’s being made here too. Keeping customers happy is important – as is keeping the business funded. I think Option 6 is to consult with your Sales and Account Managers, and your Big Customer and determine the true impact of the decision before flipping a coin on 4 or 5.

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That’s good advice, @Anonymous! I worked in one company where two big customers drove the roadmap and there was very little support for sales initiatives and market opportunities. In other companies I have seen an all-powerful sales team setting the agenda. In both cases, the product roadmap can easily become unstable, and development unproductive, as the customer’s / sales team’s priorities can change on a whim. The important thing is for product management to be able to take a leadership position, helping to shape the customers’ long term vision and setting a clear mission for the sales team to sell what you are building (rather than having to build whatever the sales team sells).

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Preferable to delay OMG as WMD is about broader market share and a wider base; at least check if BigCo’s plans which depend on OMG are still on track – if they’ve slipped then OMG can too. Option 6 – release a beta version of WMD on the planned date to a wider audience to give confidence it’s real and is just undergoing last tweaks; a beta of OMG could also be provided in the same window to BigCo so they can start testing against their own needs.

Great idea to send out the problem and look for comments.

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Suggestion (6) could be to start breaking down the work. But before that can be done, priority has to be set. In this case, more generally OMG will win because it is directly impacting the customers. WMD is a feature which will definitely enhance the product but it’s not like a customer is going down because of it. So, at least in terms of priority OMG is higher than WMD. Next step would be to break down the work into critical (mandatory) and non-critical. Remember that all stakeholders have to be kept happy. So, once the work is broken down and individual piece is prioritised & categorised between critical & non-critical, one may be in a position to deliver both OMG & WMD in the same release. Here important terms comes into play – minimum viable product. So, may be by delivering 60% of OMG and 40% WMD we can keep all stakeholder happy as long as rest of the features are aligned in the delivery engine. People are more pissed off when nothing gets delivered. But if we deliver the critical items & provide assurance that rest of the items will be coming along in the next release, people are more accommodating. There can be several other options in the similar manner but end goal should be clear – keep everyone aligned & happy even if it means giving piece meal stuff. Hope it helps.

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Comment from Valentin Randon

First of all, between taking any of the 6 options, I’d take a look at the data:

1. Which KPIs would WMD affect, and how do they translate into potential increase in revenue (current customers willing to pay more for the service, or acquisition of new customers who were waiting for this feature to accept the deal, or even in the case of a startup what amount of investment this would potentially bring us). Look at all the impact and consequences affecting all possible KPIs. This always helps in Dilemma situations.

2. Similarly, take a look at what risks would be a consequence of delaying OMG, in terms of data: how much is paying BigCo, and if our reputation is affected, how so: how big would be the impact on other current customers and on potential new ones if our relationship with BigCo deteriorates because of this feature.

Because they affect different KPIs, both features will have a different impact on revenue and on reputation

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Finish the one feature that yields the best return after 12 months from release and provide a scaled back “must-have” patch for the other feature and negotiate the smaller delay to achieve these.

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It is strongly depending on the culture you´re in.
Being in a huge listed company here are my answers and alternatives:

1.Call a Product Steering Committee meeting (i.e. your stakeholders), brief the committee on the situation and ask for their guidance? => Not possible to do it without hard facts (cost/benefit)

2.Email the Product Steering Committee to tell them the release has slipped by 3 months? => Should also not be emailed without hard facts (cost/benefit) but informed quickly about upcoming decision appointment.

3.Ask the CFO for more budget? If his “no” helps… 🙂

4&5 are preferred solutions to me after talking to the product launch responsilbe at BigCo to see what they would say. Then check cost/benefit ratio and decide.

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A regular dilemma – I would strongly advocate option 5 as it directly benefits the market rather than one client.

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