I, like most product professionals, have chuckled at the programming humor “code today, deliver yesterday and think tomorrow.” That was until I was presented with THE most intense project of my 14-year product management career, which has ranged from warp-speed startups to Fortune 5 giants.
Just what was so special about this initiative? Allow me.
This project had an absolutely outrageous deadline of less than one year and a gargantuan, highly fluid amount of work—the scope of which had never before been attempted by the 330+ employees at our 15-year-old company. To help you fully appreciate the outrageousness of this initiative, let’s break it down.
I’m talking about a 125,000-man-hour project that:
- Built or modified 14 different internal applications
- Developed and deployed multiple APIs for use by eight separate integration partners who had to change and—in some cases—gut their products on this same short deadline (without any accompanying revenue)
- Created a complex dynamic pricing engine in an industry where none existed before n Inherited the workload of exiting software partners with no change in deadline
This initiative challenged me to find ways to deliver yesterday. I wasn’t chuckling anymore.
Making Chaos My Friend
Anyone who has been in product development over the last five years knows that today’s software environment is turning into survival of the fittest, especially for product teams. Teams that survive and thrive are the ones that embrace chaos as the norm, live to relish the changing priority of the day, bow down to agile—and every other lean software development process—and leverage the fact that partners are competitors and competitors are partners.
I embraced the chaos and succeeded. Now I’m sharing some of my survival tactics for managing the anarchy, corralling the troops, embracing seemingly unachievable deadlines and delivering a product the customer wants the first time out of the gate.
These tidbits worked for me, and they can work for you too. So read on as I tip my Red Bull to your similar project success and personal survival.
Lead Like the CEO of a Do-or-Die Startup
Coming from a do-or-die startup, I had a leg up on this one. Essentially, you have to lead the project as if it’s the deciding factor in your firm’s success (or demise). This means seeing the big picture of the role your project plays in the company’s and customers’ strategy and then ingraining a sense-of-urgency mentality and work culture throughout the organization.
This project was for the world’s second-largest automaker and our company’s largest customer. Not only did it deliver significant product cred by changing the industry’s pricing paradigm, it also established broad market awareness of our company as the go-to provider of dynamic pricing engines. How’s that for a high-profile project?
Failure wasn’t an option, so I surveyed the project landscape, quickly secured resources (up to one-third of our 330-person organization) and partnered with a technical manager who became my new best friend and primary collaborator. I created frequent, brief communication touchpoints to sustain motivation and momentum, showed ruthless resolve in time management (my own and everyone else’s) and mandated that every meeting (yes, we still had them) have a set purpose and measurable outcome.
This commander-in-chief approach wasn’t always easy, but it’s exactly what this project—and most of today’s high-profile projects—require to get quality product to market in record time. Granted, I was fortunate to have top management’s support behind me and a top-notch technical manager as my co-conspirator. But trust me: If you command your projects as a results-oriented, deadline-driven CEO, you too will attract the attention and support of management.
Communicate Like It’s a TEDx Event
I found out firsthand that the Gorilla Glue to all of this was swift, tough and clear communication. Collaboration is still critical, but at the end of the day, the product manager has to make the decision and clearly communicate that decision. This was not always easy, especially with almost 100 people on the project.
Here’s what I did: I created frequent, connected, brief conversations across the company. Think small increments in daily doses. For instance, I mandated (nicely, of course) daily cross-functional scrum of scrums, daily stand-up training for customer support that included role-playing scenarios, and weekly all-departmental report-outs. Are you getting the communication connection here?
Frequent targeted conversations that are focused on challenges, next steps, big-picture importance and relevant updates will go further than you can imagine in inspiring people to do their best and deliver solutions that innovate on a technical, market and deadline level.
Play Outside Your Sandbox
You know the old quandary of buy, build or partner? Well, this project involved all three. The real challenge was trying to determine which pieces we needed to buy, build or find a partner for.
API integration was a critical component that we needed yesterday to meet our deadline. Since we were virtual novices in the API world, it became a foregone conclusion to purchase best-in-class API management software. This single decision immediately replaced a roadblock with an accelerator. Our finite staff redirected their programming focus to simultaneously build multiple market interfaces for use with no fewer than eight integration partners who had agendas and timelines that rarely matched ours.
This brings up another challenge. We needed to convince these same companies to partner with us to deliver the best streamlined solution for our mutual customers. They owned market share we couldn’t begin to parallel. And we owned pricing data vital to making their products relevant. The WIIFM factor—or what’s in it for me—took some negotiation, but we got there.
Bottom line: By making these decisions, we provided integration partners with 24/7 support, established our technology as premier within the industry and jump-started a new portfolio of services. Yep, it cost money, but we met the deadline and reaped far greater rewards for the next outrageous project. These were results the actual CEO understood.
KISS With a Passion
Don’t go blushing on me now. KISS, or keep it simple stupid, has never had a more profound application than in delivering products that the market wants and can use the first time out of the gate. We all know that nothing destroys a project timeline, or successful market launch, faster than a faulty understanding of the user experience or doing anything half-baked. Yet it’s tempting to skip vital steps, such as customer involvement or heavy functional and performance testing, simply because it takes time. But if we do, it will come back to bite us in the patootie.
Spend the time up front to thoroughly understand user personas and workflow, while testing your solutions hardcore in the early phases of the project. Then apply KISS, not only to product design but also to communication, training, documentation and market promotion. Think agile on steroids in doling out the right amount of product, information and everything else required to gain rapid market adoption. In our case, KISS was our lifeline as we launched a bodacious amount of code on the same day: enhancements to 14 internal applications and new API integrations with eight separate companies. What were we thinking? Fortunately, the KISS mantra prevailed and we nailed it.
Dream Out Loud
In our dreams, we do the impossible or improbable while defying man-made limitations. Why not apply this same thinking to innovation and overcoming barriers in product design, partner collaboration, market implementation and just about everything that stands between you and your deadline? Play hardball to find and use time-saving shortcuts; force CliffsNotes-style requirements, training and documentation; and focus more on results than on protocol.
When deadlines are jeopardized, don’t hesitate to pick your battle and do everything you can to win it. You’re fighting for your product, your company, your customer and your end user. Follow these few tidbits and you can meet yesterday’s deadline. More important, you and your company will be better positioned to streamline time-to-market while upping your competitive game. And that, folks, is what it’s all about.