Business Planning Is MIA

By John Milburn November 06, 2019

To anyone who has been a company founder or sat in a C-suite office, I ask you: How often have you been allowed to fund or run your business without some form of visionary business plan?

Effective product managers are accountable to their leadership and investors for documenting the business justification and projections for their products and services. In the past decade, we’ve all watched teams move from monolithic, waterfall development processes to lean and agile development. In the transition, they did away with antiquated MRDs, PRDs, PERT and Gantt charts, and detailed design specs. Most would agree these have been positive and necessary shifts.

However, in the zeal to lighten the documentation load, many teams have also done away with any form of business-planning documentation. They’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. And in the process, they’ve created a discontinuity in their end-to-end process by eliminating the documentation that

  • Documents the market problems to solve and why they are best positioned to solve them
  • Explains the business reason for why they are developing the product
  • Communicates the reason to team(s)
  • Regularly tracks and updates projects for accuracy and completeness

Most agile teams I work with are getting better on the front end of their product planning process (gathering market data). They’re also doing much better on the back end (building and delivering the product). However, there is a gap in the middle where, before, there was a bridge between market data and product data.

To emphasize the point, I recently saw a website that listed the tools product managers use. Product management activities were grouped into eight categories

Front End

  • Strategy and roadmapping
  • Analytics
  • Customer feedback

 Back End

  • Design
  • User experience testing
  • Onboarding
  • Collaboration
  • Project/task management

What about the middle stuff?

The form that business planning documentation takes varies widely. The Lean and Business Model Canvas templates are succinct, single-page ways to document business planning data. Companies that have more structured funding processes—with multiple products and teams—often define short, four- to five-page presentation templates that summarize their plans. Online tools are emerging on the market to guide and track business planning data. And, though it’s not a best practice, other companies still require large documents or presentation decks and follow arduous processes to fund and track projects.

Regardless of your company’s culture or management style, product managers should strive to develop agile planning documentation that is manageable, predictable, complete and current. If you’re wondering why high-quality, agile and dynamic business planning still matters in today’s fast-paced technology development process, consider the following reasons.

Secure Your Institutional Knowledge

Product managers have a vast amount of product and market knowledge that they carry in their heads, their inboxes and their Slack conversations. They understand market problems, personas, competitors and competitive strategies, risks and assumptions, portfolio fit, inter- and intra-product commitments and strategic, long-term vision.

What happens when product managers move on to other jobs or leave the company? That in-depth understanding usually leaves with them, creating a single point of failure. Who picks up the pieces, and how long does it take to rebuild this knowledge?

 

Secure the Resources You Need

There will always be contention between projects for the single source of development resources. Trade-offs and priority decisions must be made be among products at the group level based on objective and common metrics. This often is one of the hardest parts of a manager’s job—deciding which projects to fund and which to delay or kill.

Consistent business-planning documentation, which includes metrics such as ROI, profit, revenue, market share, portfolio fit, segmentation and current KPIs is necessary for making sound, management-level decisions.

 

Secure Your Position

Company CEOs don’t last long if they mislead their boards of directors about the current or projected state of the business. Similarly, product managers and their leadership owe it to their “board of directors” to truthfully assess the status, progress and direction of the business of their product. Product managers should be held accountable for communicating up and across the organization as market conditions or the product (time/scope/cost) changes. And gathering and communicating this data should not take days to complete.

 

Secure Your Reputation as a Product Professional

Without a business compass that directs the team in the right business direction, most product managers become technology driven rather than market driven. In this case, the product manager becomes the product expert who can communicate the schedule, product features, sprint plans, backlog status, user stories and epics. At the same time, they often can’t answer simple, business-oriented questions like, “What is the business impact if we cancel or delay this project?” or “Why is this project a better investment than another one?”

A product manager’s job is diverse and, at times, complicated to define. Regardless of the company’s development processes or the individual’s exact title, product management has an obligation—and a responsibility—to document and manage the business value of their product. Business planning must remain a critical part of the role.

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John Milburn

John Milburn

John Milburn is CEO of Practical Growth Strategies LLC, where he and his team help companies to apply and implement market-driven principles. Prior to this, he was an instructor at Pragmatic Institute and has held executive and individual contributor roles in development, sales, and product management from startups to Fortune 100 companies.

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