I read a lot of articles about product management. And recently I noticed a curious concept: the notion that product managers should do away with release dates. People suggest that the modern product manager should create roadmaps focused on showing "what's coming" or "what's next" since there are too many factors to control when setting fixed dates for deliverables.
Sorry, but I find this absolutely crazy.
As the CEO of Aha! I am fortunate to be able to speak with hundreds of product managers a month at companies from small startups to large Fortune 500 organizations. I have worked with companies ranging from super agile continuous deployment shops to heavyweight annual or semi-annual releases following strict waterfall processes.
One thing is clear from all these conversations. For every organization, no matter what people want to say on the surface, dates are not just important -- they are imperative. Dates are more than abstract end points. They are how we show commitment to ourselves, our organizations, and our end users. Our work and lives are finite -- so time is an important variable.
An oft-cited reasoning behind this "dates-are-bad-for-product-managers" logic is the notion that product managers and engineers have too many factors beyond their control when setting dates on a product roadmap. So, product managers worry that if a release is late, they -- as well as the engineers -- get blamed. And when you do get blamed, the natural feeling is to wish you had never made a commitment in the first place.
I've been there -- product management is a tough job. You have a lot of people to please, and at times it can feel like you are not doing anything right. But if you, as the product manager, will not work with your team on what can be done by a certain time, your ability to impact the business will suffer.
That's why I believe choosing not to use dates will quickly wreck your career.
This is why the product managers I speak with each month consider time an important variable that they must grapple with. It allows them to:
Set meaningful goals
Goals are fundamental to product strategy. And a goal typically has two key attributes -- what you want to achieve (a metric) and when you want to achieve it (a date). Without dates, it is almost impossible to set meaningful goals. If you cannot link your team's work back to business goals and initiatives, they will lose faith in your leadership.
Communicate with stakeholders
I believe that a big reason for the "dates don't matter" mindset is confusion about how to use dates for different stakeholders. The truth is that there can be different types of dates: internal and external. And knowing the difference between these two types of dates has a drastic impact on how you lead product.
Internal dates allow you to communicate specific dates to your own team. These are most effective for times when launching on a particular date has a cross-functional impact (will discuss this more later).
External dates help you commit to time frames for customers or other outside stakeholders such as weeks, months, or quarters. This lets your customers know when they can expect the new features they want -- without setting unrealistic expectations.
Work with cross-functional teams
As the product manager, you lead your cross-functional team to build, market, sell, and support a specific product. Every person on that team -- whether they work in Marketing or Engineering -- relies heavily on dates. If they do not know what they should be building -- and when it is due -- how can you expect them to support it?
As your product's champion, you own -- or at least influence -- all deliverables for that product. So, you owe each person on your product team a clear strategy for what they should build, why it matters for the product, and when their pieces of the puzzle will be due. Any confusion about those things rolls back up to you.
Lead with conviction
The frequent elevator pitch for the job of a product manager is that they are "the CEO of their product." It is humorous to imagine a CEO going into a board meeting and letting the board members know that the next big product enhancement is coming "sometime in the future."
We all know what would happen to that CEO -- they would not have their title for much longer. And just like a product manager, a CEO has plenty of factors beyond of their control. Customers, employees, and investors still hold them accountable -- as they should.
Instead of being stressed about dates, you should take pride in them. There is no better feeling than delivering what you promise.
So, the next time you are tempted to lead product based on "what is coming," stop and ask yourself why the date in front of you feels unattainable. Then, adjust your strategy so that you do less or add time.
You should always be able to hold firm to the importance of dates and negotiate what gets done in the interest of the business and the team.
How do you lead product using dates?