Blending the Best of Product and Project Management (Part Two)

Companies of all sizes are well-versed in agile: 97 percent of businesses are using it to varying extents. Some are being agile, others are doing agile, latecomers are still using a blend of agile and waterfall, and some are still running waterfall alone. In our blog series, we explore how Product and Project Management come together in this shifting and mixed landscape. In the first part of our series, we continue to explore opportunities for greater value from the Product and Project Manager partnership.

Failing Fast: Rethinking the Cliché

Project Management need to orchestrate and facilitate the streamlining of delivery to provide a safe environment where products can embody the coveted cliché of “fail fast.” This is especially key when organisations are in competitive or disrupted markets. A recent presentation1 shared at Gartner’s 2019 Program & Portfolio Management Summit illuminated the changing ownership of PPM roles from the Traditional Project Manager role towards Project Coordinators (financial, reporting, governance support), “Two-in-a-Box” Type PMs (Protector PM, Navigator), Product Owner, and Scrum Master/Project Manager. We believe that product teams must have the ability to pivot, react, and re-prioritise quickly as they uncover challenges and gain feedback. 

Some questions a Project Manager within a traditional PMO should be asking when setting up fail fast mechanisms are:

  • Are funding mechanisms in place that enable the release of cash quickly as direction changes?
  • How can we configure our resource model so it is ready to pivot and adapt?
  • How do we keep elements of the solution that are successful or are showing promise (For example doing a retrospective and distributing lessons learned across the enterprise)?

When the time comes to retire a product or idea, you shouldn’t be asking:

  • How much time have we spent on this?
  • But didn’t so-and-so like it?

By adopting a fail fast mindset, fewer resources are wasted exploring ideas or products that aren’t going anywhere. Project Managers should work with delivery/product teams to ensure they are using funds and resources wisely to achieve this aim.

Stage gates can provide decision-points and KPIs can be used to assess the success of ideas. Make sure to frame any KPIs within the context of the overall goal and keep it front and centre during stage gates. Failure can be masked by gaming KPIs if your team are not motivated by achieving the vision of the product. Avoid falling into the trap of making snap decisions about your KPIs. They are at the centre of this process, success or failure hangs on them, and you will be relying on them to prove the success of your efforts – so pick carefully!

Choose measures:

  • That your concept can most directly affect, so success isn’t diluted or attributed to other factors
  • That have a clear link to valuable business outcomes

Product and Project Managers as Trusted Partners

Finally, Project Managers should serve as a partner to challenge and support Product Managers to make decisions with imperfect information, in order to move quickly keep up the overall pace. Momentum is a powerful force when setting up a new product, and Product teams get frustrated when their momentum is killed by “jumping through hoops.” If you can be flexible in your processes and actively encourage your delivery team to take sensible risks, you can flip this perception on its head. A couple of tips in this area:

  • Proving things beyond doubt is a time-consuming process that can kill progress or first mover advantage. At stage gates, ask specific questions and leave flexibility in the hands of people outside the team to make decisions based on the team’s ability to provide evidence to answer those questions. Floating these as hypotheses to disprove can be an easier ask, as disproving is cognitively simpler than proving.
  • Apply a risk-based approach to decisions. You can’t explore every assumption that underpins a product, so call them out and agree with the team on those they have the most and least confidence in, as well as which pose the greatest risk to success.

Project Managers can use their position as neutral observers to support Product Managers to make the tough calls on failure here, ultimately saving time and effort on low-potential but well-liked ideas. Imperfect information can be an effective camouflage for these ideas, and Project Managers should avoid being too cut-throat. Nonetheless, their scrutiny will help the team see through their own attachment and call time when necessary.

It’s no surprise that this arrangement works best when the Product and Project Managers have a solid working relationship, are truly aligned on the goal, and communicate clearly. Spelling out the dynamic of the relationship at the outset and reinforcing that any success or failure will be shared, makes everything else much easier.

In our eyes, the relationship between Product and Project Manager should be like that between a coach and a player. The coach’s job is to provide the right environment for the player to perform at his or her best and continuously improve. If this is handled correctly, the player and coach can achieve their shared goal of success.