One of the most basic capabilities that great Product Managers bring to the table is the ability to understand, manage, and balance out the short-term needs of the product, the company, and the teams with the longer-term vision that everyone is trying to achieve. There are pressures from all directions that push us in a variety of directions, almost like a sailboat on the ocean being driven this way and that by the prevailing winds. But, just like nearly every sailboat has a backup diesel engine to keep going during the doldrums, every Product Manager needs to develop their own methods for ensuring that they can survive the buffeting demands from all directions and end up moving everything in the right direction at the end of the day.
There are several common approaches that a good Product Manager can take to ensure that you’re achieving that balance that satisfies your stakeholders’ daily wants and needs, but that pushes you forward toward the vision of the future that you all should share. In my years as a Product Manager, I’ve found the following steps to be essential to maintaining that balance.
“An excellent product manager is keeping in mind the long-term vision while driving short term results, has the customer intuition to get there, and has the authority/integrity to lead the team along the way—very much a mini CEO when it’s done right.”
– Nabeel Hyatt, Spark Capital
First, Focus on Your Vision
By far, the single most important thing to do when considering how to balance your short-term needs and long-term goals is to look to your vision and strategy. I like to ask myself the following questions:
- How does the thing that we’re considering move the needle toward the envisioned future?
- What elements of this short-term work can be leveraged in the future, if needed?
- Is there some aspect of this short-term need that threatens our ability to continue to achieve our vision?
The first two questions are fundamental to understanding whether this short-term work is a “one-and-done” project or whether it lays some foundation for future work. It’s often the case when looking at and assessing short-term work that if we shift our perspective even just a little bit, we can find that it’s either something we were considering doing later, or that it lays some foundations that we can ensure get leveraged into something bigger and better in the future.
This isn’t to say that “one-and-done” is always a bad thing; rather it’s simply important to understand and quantify the effects that the work we’re considering is going to have — both on the customers that we’re doing the work for and the customers whose needs we’re de-prioritizing by making the decision to do this “one-and-done” work. I generally view this type of work as something to be avoided, but that’s simply not always the case, which is often where that last question comes into play.
The last question focuses on the opposite side of the coin — is this short-term need something that is a one-off, but still needs urgent attention? Is there a massive customer that’s relying on some capability that isn’t going to lead anywhere, but without it you’ll risk a quarter of your annual revenue? Is there a technical risk that cannot be ignored due to the danger that it poses to your ongoing operations? Is there some tactical business relationship that you need to engage in to fend off some other market forces? These situations do arise, and when they do, we need to be ready and willing to shift our resources and adjust our plans to accommodate them.
When we do so, however, we need to approach the problem, the solution, and the delivery just as we would any other set of product improvements. We need to build requirements around them, we need to do some level of design and validation, and we need to ensure that the cost of them is calculated, understood, and communicated clearly. One of the biggest mistaken beliefs that we as Product Managers must take head-on is the assumption in some stakeholders’ minds that they can sneak in multiple “small” pieces of work and not negatively impact the longer-term goals of the product or the company. As Product Managers, we know this isn’t the case — we know that everything that we want to do will have a cost; it’s our job to assess, report, and repeat this cost as we make the decision to perform this short-term work.
Your vision serves as the north star for every action taken to enhance the product; if adding a feature will not help your product achieve its vision, then the value of that feature should be diminished.
Assess Your Reality
Once you’ve taken some time to bounce your short-term needs against your long-term vision and strategy, you’re ready to start looking at the reality of what’s before you. Taking time to seriously assess the reality that you’re faced with, and ensuring that what you’re considering actually makes sense in the face of both objective and subjective data is extremely important.
First and foremost, as Product Managers we need to separate the emotional wants and desires from the rational needs that apply more broadly than a single customer. Far too much short-term feature and support work is focused on an emotional response rather than a rational one — for example, a customer has contacted their sales team and complained (often loudly) about some functional deficiency in your product. This raises the hackles of the sales team, and being the revenue drivers that they are, they bend the ear of your CEO, who starts to worry about the bottom line. And this means that what is objectively a relatively small “problem” instantly becomes a subjectively big deal.
And this is where we step in as Product Managers — we need to collect the data about the short-term work that’s being asked of us, so that we can properly position its importance as objective fact and not subjective feeling. We need to understand how many customers would be affected by this short-term work, what the downside is to not doing it, and what the upside is to doing it. We need to collect and present this data in as clear and crisp a fashion as possible — if only one customer would benefit, then everyone who decides the next step needs to internalize this fact when they make their decision. It might be that this one customer is worth spending $50,000 of development time on — but it’s likely not the case.
Track Your Progress
Just addressing these short-term asks on a one-off basis is rarely enough. The reality is, these one-off projects come up all of the time, and they can very quickly wind up taking up our entire backlog of work, if we’re not careful and diligent. We need to make sure that we’re watching our backlogs carefully and ensuring that things are clearly marked and noted as being short-term work (the “one-off” work), medium-term work (toward the next planned release), and long-term work (architecture and other work laying foundations for the envisioned future). Every product backlog should have a good, strong mix of this work, and the goal of any Product Manager also acting as a Product Owner for an agile team is to ensure that the teams are taking on a good mix of this work, preferably in every iteration but at worst in alternating iterations.
By tracking these projects, and by tagging the requirements, we can build dashboards and reports around them. This allows us to keep an eye on the balance and ensure that we’re not sacrificing short-term wins in the name of a two-year future, nor jeopardizing that envisioned future by trying to fit in too much short-term work. And when we have these dashboards and reports, we can more easily socialize the reality to those around us — we no longer engage in conversations about what is wanted but rather about what is realistic for us to achieve. We can talk in terms of cost and return, in terms of ROI, and in terms of future impacts, which often puts us in a stronger position of negotiation than those who are bringing only subjective data and opinions with them. As Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape, once said, “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” Good Product Managers don’t trade in opinions; we trade in data — that’s why we win.
“Good product managers know the market, the product, the product line and the competition extremely well and operate from a strong basis of knowledge and confidence…They are responsible for right product/right time and all that entails.”
– Ben Horowitz, “Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager”
There’s been a lot of talk here about analysis and data collection and requirements definition, which is all extremely important. But the time horizon that we have to accomplish what we need to is often an extremely close one — we rarely have the luxury of doing a full end-to-end analysis of some of the short-term asks that come across our desk. So, while we’re in the process of balancing out our short- and long-term priorities, we also need to balance out the amount of data gathering with the need to make things happen. We need to keep in mind that “In the end, great product managers make things happen,” as Adam Nash of Wealthfront has said. We can’t risk being seen as obstructive, and we can’t succumb to analysis paralysis, especially when we’re faced with short-term asks. Rather, we need to approach these requests for short term work and their requirements with a strong bias toward action — whether that action is doing them or postponing them. We need to be willing to take an informed position, based on the data available to us, and execute based on that position.
Often this means we have to pick our battles. If you always say no, your stakeholders may come to expect it and not take your vetoes seriously, but if you’re able to concede some points at the right times and for the right reasons, a firm “no” will have much greater impact. This doesn’t mean that we just bend over backward — we still need to make sure that there’s some level of due diligence that’s being performed. But it also means that we need to ensure that we’re not wasting time doing too much research on something that we’ll never do, or on something that’s a done deal regardless of what the outcome of our research is. We need to ensure that people are making informed decisions, but that sometimes means making decisions based on incomplete information. But at the same time we can’t make reckless choices — we have to ensure that we have some reasonable basis upon which we build our decisions.
Leadership requires conviction that you are right and defending your position—while still being able to change your viewpoint if you’re presented with new data or a new perspective.
– Masimba Sagwete, “Leadership and How a Product Manager Has to ‘Manage”
Understand, Assess, Decide, Act, and Adjust
It’s always helpful as a Product Manager to have a plan that you can drop into place when and where you need it. To that end, here’s a step-by-step overview that you can apply whenever you’re struggling with finding that perfect balance of competing short-term and long-term priorities.
1. Understand what’s being asked and how it fits into the world around you.
Take the time that’s needed to ensure that you know what’s actually being asked, and not just what’s being relayed to you by one or more people without the full context of the situation. Perform whatever level of discovery you can in whatever time you have — make sure that you approach the problem like a Product Manager, and drive to the underlying need, not just the expressed desire.
2. Assess the impact of what it would take to solve the short-term problem.
Do the necessary due diligence to understand a high-level scope and impact for what’s being asked of you and the team; weigh that against the effects that this is likely to have on achieving longer-term goals. Make sure you eye the short-term with a lens on how it might be used to accelerate your long-term goals, not just how it might slow you down.
3. Make a decision based on the best likely outcome.
Realize that you’ll never have enough information to make a “perfect” decision, but the perfect is always the enemy of the good. Make a decision based on the data that you have available to you, when you have sufficient information to make that informed choice between possible outcomes. Make sure that you stick to that decision as much as you can — support it with the data that you’ve collected and deliver the message as a done deal, not one that’s open to interpretation and argument. We want to ensure that we’re leading decisively, but that we’re open to change and adjustment as necessary.
4. Take appropriate action based on your decision.
It’s never enough to just make a decision; we have to then take action on that decision, quickly and reasonably. Whatever decision we’ve made, whatever priority we’ve decided needs to happen, the next step is to make it happen. Especially if we’ve decided to divert resources from our longer-term strategy to short-term tactical needs — the sooner we get through the tactical, the faster we can get back to the strategic. Equally important is communicating to those who are doing the work the reasons for the change, so that they don’t view the choice as randomization but rather as incremental progress toward a goal. Open and clear communication in the face of change is essential to maintaining the morale of the teams you’re working with and depending on to succeed — don’t leave them in the dark when changing directions.
5. Adjust your plans as new information becomes available.
As always, making a decision is important, but so is being open to new information as circumstances change. It could be that something that starts off as an obvious “one-and-done” for a low-end, non-strategic customer slowly grows into something more ominous and important for your customer base. We need to keep an eye on those things that we choose not to do, so that we can be aware of them if they become more important. Similarly, we need to be cognizant of those things that we’ve decided to do as short-term fixes so that if they start to expand (as they sometimes do), we can reassess that decision as we learn more about their potential impacts to our strategic goals.
If we take a structured, informed approach to achieving balance, we can not only be successful in establishing a baseline of balance between short- and long-term needs, but we can build a process that allows us to collect and analyze data, and switch the perspective of the entire culture from a “fire-fighting,” emotionally reactive environment to one that values data, diligence, and makes decisions based on the right amount of objective data.
Be stubborn on vision, but flexible on details.
– Jeff Bezos