Why Product Managers Should Learn to Love Deadlines

Introduction

Product managers and deadlines have a complicated relationship for a wide variety of reasons.  We often hate them because of the constraints that they put on us, the pressure that they exert on our development teams, and the oversight (sometimes verging on micromanagement) that comes along with them.  Yet we accept them as a necessary evil, an imposition of the real world on our blue sky thinking and planning that would change the world if only reality would back off for a few moments (or months, or years).  Truthfully, though, we should not take such a critical view of deadlines — in fact, the very issues that we find with them and their impacts on us are actually the strengths that they provide us.

Constraints Drive Creativity

Deadlines are a great forcing function — whether you’re a procrastinator who waits until the last minute to start work, an overachiever who likes to have a wide berth between completion and the target date, or just an ordinary person who likes to get things done on a consistent schedule.  And, as a forcing function, it has several clear benefits — one of which is driving creativity and innovation.

One of these results is something I’ve coined the “Twitter Effect” — which has less to do with the social aspects of the platform and more to do with the limited character space that was the hallmark of the product for so long.  Simply put, people did amazing things trying to encapsulate complex ideas and messages into a limited, 140-character space. Similar things happen when you’re running against a known deadline — you don’t have the luxury of protracted analysis and deep examination of each option, you simply have to pick an option and run with it.  And as the situation changes, you’re stuck with the time that you have — forcing you to come up with creative solutions of your own within the time and resources available to you!

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Another aspect of creativity that is honed when working against a deadline is the fact that it forces us to make prioritization decisions.  If we determine that we can’t have everything that we want within the time allotted, we’re forced to make ranking and prioritization decisions in order to at least ensure that we get the most important things done within the time that we have.  Such forced-choice exercises provide us with opportunities to reassess those decisions as more information becomes available — and rather than a death march of unending feature creep, we wind up with a clear picture of what’s important, and what’s not.

The last effect that deadlines have on our creativity lies in the urgency that we wind up feeling as we get nearer and nearer to the date.  This sense of urgency, of the impending end of all our hard work, can have wide-ranging effects, but most acute is that we can often be more willing to make hard choices when faced with an urgent need than with an open-ended target.  We can be more ruthless in cutting scope, more objective in assessing risk, and more accurate in our status reporting as the deadline nears and the urgency increases both within the team and outside it.

Regular Delivery Delights Customers

It’s impossible to deny that it’s a “SaaSy” world that we all live in today, almost regardless of what product you may be actually working on — the convergence to the cloud impacts companies and products of all shapes and sizes.  And this has major impacts on customer expectations with regard to the frequency and content of updates. While it used to be just fine to release new product every 12-18 months, customers today expect much more rapid delivery, and much more constricted timelines.  Setting deadlines for release on a regular, compressed schedule helps us as product managers because it allows us to focus on small, impactful product changes and not gigantic, risky bets that might take months or years to pay off.

In addition to simply meeting customer expectations, more rapid and regular delivery of product improvements drives customer engagement — rapid improvements create a variable reward that drives the customer to come back more often to see what’s new and improved.  We can create the same type of habit that drives engagement on social sites like Facebook and Twitter by carefully and regularly providing valuable updates to our customers, which they are free to discover as they engage frequently with the product itself.

The other benefit that setting tight deadlines for regular product improvements is that quick iteration provides us with opportunities for quick fixes to issues that our customers may encounter with our product.  Nobody is perfect, and no software ever ships without bugs of some form — either edge cases that weren’t fully tested or simply use “in the wild” that couldn’t be easily predicted. In a world without deadlines, we may not push out such fixes fast enough or regularly enough to delight our customers, and isn’t that what we all want?

Your Reputation Precedes You

Perhaps the most important reason why product managers need to learn to love deadlines is that the primary purpose of our role in the organization is to get things done.  We’re expected to manage our teams’ efforts to deliver value to our customers, and one way to demonstrate our ability to do so is to hit our deadlines with efficiency and precision.  If you’re known in your company and your industry as someone who ships product that delights your customers, you’re going to find life significantly better in the long term.

Because of the pressure that deadlines put on us and the choices that it forces us to make, it provides us with the opportunity to exercise one of the hallmarks of a great product manager: relentless focus on MVP.  It’s not enough to just ship on-time, a great product manager builds their name and their reputation by delivering as much value in as small a package as possible, and the primary way we do that is through our focus on MVP.

Lastly, setting and meeting deadlines, particularly those on a regular and compressed schedule allows us to take more swings at the plate; and the more opportunities we have to take those swings, the more likely we are to get a hit — or a home run.  And, the more we hit, the better we are perceived both within the organization that we work with and outside it. That’s a huge win/win situation for us — a small amount of effort with an exceptionally large payoff in the end. Without the forcing function of the deadlines, we might take fewer opportunities, which limits the number of successes that we can demonstrate.

Love the Deadline, Live the Dream

Deadlines should be viewed by product managers as a net positive, not an impediment to their success.  They drive our creativity, provide regular opportunities to delight our customers, and most importantly give us a yardstick by which to measure ourselves.  While a world devoid of deadlines might sound somewhat appealing on first glance, the truth of that universe would be the constant risk of analysis paralysis, constant changes in scope resetting our development clocks, and populated by teams consistently engaged in fruitless death marches of product development.  We should embrace our deadlines, and use them to optimize our processes, our products, and our careers.

About the Author

Cliff Gilley
Cliff Gilley has been a Product Manager for nearly 12 years, working in a variety of industries and company sizes. He has assisted several of these companies in their transitions to Agile development and Scrum methods, and is a firm believer that agility is a value you must have, not something you just do. He currently blogs and consults as The Clever PM, providing providing tips, tricks, and hacks to make people better, more clever Product Managers.

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