Wait… What Are We Doing Here Really?

Birds are fighting to get food from a table

On effectively combating chaos.

During my weekly routine, I have the opportunity to talk to quite a few product managers. Either as a mentor in one of the programs I’m participating in, or as part of catching up with PMs I used to work with.

One of the issues that is raised quite often is that fact the day2day routine is very chaotic. The people I talk to often feel as if there is no concrete plan that is guiding everything and they are constantly investing their time in ad-hoc prioritization of features without a consistent prioritization scheme which makes it feel as if it’s all random.

They describe a reality in which the sprint planning feels like a circus where the people who are yelling louder manage to get their features into the sprint. With a lack of a clear roadmap and priorities key – they are left with just a pile of features and sprint planning becomes a nightmare full of power games. 

Such a reality makes them feel as if they are losing control on what’s happening and they fail to make the impact they desire to do. Eventually, it has a very negative effect on their motivation to come to work every day.

 

It always makes me sad to hear such stories. The people I talk to are really awesome people with a big desire to make the world a better place by releasing great products. They are also willing to work hard to change this reality, but they are simply clueless as for where to start and how to approach this.

If you feel the same – this post is for you!

 

I posted not long ago a post that covers a somewhat similar reality. You can find it here and I recommend reading it as background materials for this post.

In today’s post I’ll be providing some pragmatic advice for the pain I described at the beginning, but first it’s important to understand what’s the difference between these two scenarios.

 

What’s the difference in the realities described in both posts?

In the post I quoted above I was describing a somewhat similar reality but there is one big difference and it’s the self awareness of what’s happening.

In the post I published a few weeks ago I’m describing a reality where everyone is very busy and yet – they are unaware of the fact that they are working hard on things that are not moving the needle.

In today’s post I’m addressing a reality where (at least) the PMs involved are aware that the processes are broken and they are very interested in changing it. They simply don’t know how.

 

Not knowing how to fix a problem can make you feel bad about yourself, but you’re actually in a better place than those who are unaware of what is actually going on. By acknowledging that there is a problem you made your first step towards finding a solution.

 

Fine. So what needs to be done in order to replace chaos with a reality that makes sense?

Before I answer – let’s provide some relevant background and then explain why the chaos is created in the first place. It will allow us to understand what needs to be done in order to eliminate it.

In this post, I described the ‘Product management spheres of responsibilities’. It’s a key post for understanding my way of thinking, and for understanding what needs to be done for solving the problem described here. By reading it you will already have half of the solution in your hands. So if you haven’t done so – read it.

Essentially – in that post I’m describing a pyramid which outlines the various areas of responsibilities product managers need to deal with. I call it ‘spheres’. Going from the top of the pyramid to its bottom – you have:

  • The company’s mission 
  • The north star
  • The product strategy
  • The product roadmap
  • The quarterly planning
  • The hands on aspects of the job

I claim in this post that each sphere of the pyramid frames and aligns the sphere below it.

 

Why companies drifts into chaotic reality

What’s common to all the scenarios described by the PMs I talked to who complain about their chaotic reality is the fact that no one bothered to properly define all the spheres of the pyramid.

What do I mean by that?

 

Very often I see that the product managers/leaders of a company are tasked with defining a product roadmap, even though there is no north star and no product strategy in place

If you don’t have a north star defined – then why are you so surprised that you are struggling with defining a product strategy? After all – you can’t say for sure what would be the main goal of such a strategy… (which in most cases is to push the north star up as fast as possible).

If you don’t have a product strategy in place – why are you so surprised that there are too many possibilities and options for you to focus on when you work on your roadmap? How can you define a roadmap if you are unsure where you’re headed?

And if you don’t have a clear roadmap – why are you surprised that your quarterly planning is just a random collage of features?

And if that’s the case – how can you possibly defend these features when planning your sprints, when the account managers, customer support and sales demand that you push in different features than originally planned? What’s the rationale you can stick to when defending your plan?

The answer is that you can’t defend your plan, because your plan is not based on a consistent and a well agreed prioritization key.

With the lack of a clear, consistent and agreed upon prioritization key – the decision point of why a feature should be pushed into the sprint usually drills down to which customer is suffering more, or what feature was asked the most.

 

If you want your product to reach success and obtain a meaningful market share then certainly this is not how things should work. 

 

How to change this

By now you can probably guess what I’m about to suggest:

Start building the pyramid from the top to the bottom

 

Instead of jumping straight to the middle of the pyramid and start working on the roadmap, for example, understand that you need to define a north star and a product strategy first.

 

[I devoted this post to the topic of how to define a north star. And you can read this post to learn more about the basics of product strategy.

If you want to better understand the basics of how to start planning a roadmap you can read this post, and if you are concerned with the quarterly planning then this post can help you with the basics.]

 

Now, among all of the spheres – my personal opinion is that defining the north star is the most important thing to do. Why?

Defining the north star (and getting a buy-in from it from the management) will provide you with the ultimate prioritization key. Assuming you did get the buy-in of the CEO for this north star (because if you didn’t – it’s meaningless) – then it’s much easier to win arguments when trying to decide between two features. The main question that should be asked is: “which feature will have more positive impact on the north star?

Of course, having a prioritization key on which all the internal stakeholders are aligned is a very good start. It solves many immediate problems. However, for the mid and long terms – it’s not enough. You need to understand where you’re headed with your product. And for that you need the product strategy and afterwards the roadmap.

 

What you will find out is that once the pyramid is properly built something miraculous is happening – the chaos is starting to diminish, or even completely gone (ok.. Well.. every company has a built-in element of chaos in it; You can’t get rid of it completely). You will notice that:

  • There are much less arguments during the sprint planning, and the sprint planning itself is much shorter
  • The quarterly planning is much more straightforward, and much less of a hassle
  • The roadmap planning is much clearer and the resulting roadmap finally makes sense and easily defensible

 

And why is that? Because finally everyone understands what matters and what’s not. Everyone understands where the company is headed and what it will take to get there. Much less arguments, much less debates.

For instance – the CSM representative wants to shove a feature to a sprint? – ok… can they show how it positively affects the north star? Can they explain why it’s aligned with the product strategy?

Because if they can’t – they can’t also act surprised if their request is getting a low priority.

 

This is my experience from the companies I’ve been working with, and this is why I’m focused on getting the pyramid straight when I land in a new place, or when I consult fellow PMs who are trying to combat chaos.

 

But wait… I’m not senior enough to have a direct dialog with the CEO about the north star or the product strategy. What can I do?

You should do the same. It will just be harder, because you’ll have to first get the buy-ins of everyone above you in the hierarchy.

For example, if defining the product strategy is not on you, then who owns it in your company? Someone above you, right? Are they working on the product strategy? If they do – great. Then be patient, and ask to be involved. If they don’t – then ask them why. If you are unhappy with their answer – make an attempt to do it yourself, and then present it to them and try to get their buy-in. At the bare minimum ignite the discussion.

Look, I won’t lie to you – if you don’t own the ‘high spheres’ then it’s more challenging. But you need to understand that there is no other option. This is the only method that I’m aware of for effectively combating chaos. Therefore, become the responsible adult and make it happen.

 

That wraps up the post for today.

If you found this post/series useful – let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

 

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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