Stepping Stones: The product blog by Obo

4 min read

When "Is it ready?" Is a Hard Question

Jun 10, 2020 10:25:50 AM

Product Managers, you spend a ton of time reporting to your stakeholders on progress toward milestones like major releases. But answering seemingly simple questions like "is it ready yet?" and "will it be done on time?" can be really hard. So what can you do to make it easier?

"We committed to customers that we'd have a much-requested feature in the next major release of our software. I thought we were on track, but at the last minute we realized it wasn't going to make it. It was really painful because that feature was pretty much done, but the interface was missing the button to actually use it," a product leader explained with frustration. 

One of the toughest aspects of product management is reporting progress to the many different stakeholders eagerly awaiting the next big release. That's because all too frequently answers to seemingly straightforward questions like Is it ready yet? Will it be done in time? and Will feature X make it? depend on many factors that depend on many other factors. 

What makes it hard? The four Ds:

  • Dependencies
  • Definition of done
  • Delivery risks
  • Delay updating tracking systems

Let's dive into each to identify ways to address them that make it easier for product managers to understand and report on progress toward milestones.

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"Dependencies kick our butts everyday," a senior product leader told us. If you work on complex products that multiple teams are building, the pieces each team builds need to come together to create a whole, working solution. 

Managing complex, cross-team, cross-organization products and ensuring that all the pieces come together and work can be extremely hard. Product Managers may not discover all dependencies until late in the game.

No wonder that our research of over 380 Product Managers revealed that "being blindsided" is their #1 challenge! Read more in the Obo Insights Report.

Snags and snafus can be painful and expensive, as Airbus learned. Many corporate IT departments have war stories of multi-million-dollar enterprise software projects that were shelved because they couldn't untangle dependencies and configuration, as CIO magazine reported last March.

Definition of done

The answer to "are we done yet" depends on the definition of done, which can be a moving target. The more complex the product and its features, the more risk there is of discovering issues late in the game that cause delays and change scope.

Even when products aren't complex, engineering resources may be pulled in other directions, so you end up with fewer resources than expected working toward your milestones. That may require reducing scope or moving items out for completion later, which causes ripple effects on dependencies.

Different individuals and teams have different definitions of done. My done may not be yours. The Product Manager has to translate what she knows and communicate it in the language of done for the people she's talking to. There's done with my work. There's done with this sub-feature of a larger feature. There's done for a User Story versus done for an Epic (and is an Epic done if most of its User Stories are done?). And there's done for a major release, initiative, or even an entire product.  

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Delivery risks

It's a risky world out there, and predicting when product milestones will be done is fraught with risks. There's technology risk (will our solution work?), resource risk (what if my key players get sick or pulled onto other projects?), market risk (does our solution solve the market need?), marketing risk (are we targeting the right market segments and selling in the most effective way?), and more.

Delivery risk is compounded by definition of done and dependencies, and risk is hard to assess and communicate. Even if you put a number on it, you tell sales "there's an 80% chance that your feature will be in the Fall Release," they hear "The feature will be in the Fall Release!"

Delay updating tracking systems

Keeping Jira and other engineering tracking systems up to date is not fun, and many busy engineering teams aren't particularly disciplined about updating them. That makes Product Managers' job of determining release status a bigger challenge, especially when you have to piece together status from multiple teams and systems.

When you can't depend on a system of record to indicate progress, you have to ask in person, sometimes every person. That takes time, and by the time you've asked everyone, things may have changed (delivery risks!).

Agile and agile-ish approaches that break down larger features and functionality into sprint-size chunks can compound the issue, as Obo CEO Pete Sinclair explained in his Forbes article Why Is Agile So Awkward, And What Can You Do About It?

See the big picture and the details

As a Product Managers, you are a negotiator, ambassador, and translator between diverse stakeholders with different perspectives and needs. Understanding and communicating product progress and status requires the skills for all of these roles and more. You need to understand the nitty gritty details and be able to put them together into the big picture that's relevant to each particular audience you communicate with.

You also need to know as soon as possible if minor delays could have painful ripple effects that cause major delays.

Is there a solution? Why yes...

Is there any solution on the horizon? We think so! Check out Obo Tracker and other Obo Power Tools for rockstar Product Managers. We think we've made answering questions like "are we done" and "will the release be done in time" much easier to answer.

Jackie Holen
Written by Jackie Holen

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