Let me guess: right now, as you read this, you’re procrastinating on putting together your 2020 budget.
Capital plans, operating budgets, and midyear performance reports are cluttering your inbox, along with invites to the last of summer BBQs and baseball games. And for product teams, there is likely increasing pressure to accurately forecast exactly what you’ll be delivering 6, 9, 12, or even 18 months out.
I don’t know a single product manager that doesn’t bristle at that request. Sure, in a perfect world, our backlogs are refined 2–3 quarters in advance, maybe more, with a modicum of confidence. But the further out you go, the more fuzzy and directional the roadmap becomes. Putting a fixed size or price tag on anything more than that is pure fantasy masquerading as a plan.
For many organizations, this annual cycle is as predictable as the sun setting in the west. For product teams, the frustration that comes with it is equally predictable. Finance and executive leadership teams are looking to push and pull all the available levers to manage costs and margins. And product teams are looking for a predictable cadence against which they can plan and measure their work.
Is there any middle ground here?
Yes. If executive, finance, and product teams can come together with mutual trust and understanding of the myriad of pressures affecting each group, there is indeed a middle ground to be found.
Leaders, understand that your product people are not being insubordinate or intentionally obtuse when they hesitate to give you an 18-month forecast on releases. They are working hard to focus on delivering the highest value work (for the company and the customer) every week, month and quarter. Whenever possible, give them some latitude on adjusting how they present their future plans and resource needs. Work with them to evaluate their team’s past performance against a given burn rate — and you can decide if their successes against value metrics support increased, flat, or reduced budget as you move forward.
Product teams, understand the way you think and work is challenging to legacy budget and planning processes. The executives that are setting your budgets are working hard to adjust to the changes to their world that come with a product mindset and framework. Those executives need to feel you’re not just looking for an endless spigot of cash, left to run unchecked, and that you are working hard to mitigate the risks presented by your burn rate and release planning uncertainties.
Together, you can work to reach an agreement on what these metrics look like by tracking the what (features planned vs delivered), the why (the value of those features to the audience and/or business) and the how (the burn rate it took you to deliver the features) together into a single report. Once established, these KPIs can help show the impact of investment over a rolling +/-2 or 3 quarter timeframe.
This approach ensures everyone is aligned on:
- The prioritized deliverables for a given time period
- The audience/business value associated with these features
- The capacity of the team based on the structure and burn rate
- The real-world velocity of the team to deliver those enhancements
A Note on “Value”
Product team members: remember that velocity and points delivered are NOT the same thing as value. Value is about the benefit delivered — what has improved for the conversion funnel, for the customer experience, for the support team, for site performance, etc. after you have released those features?
Execs, if you’re uncomfortable at with a certain set of deliverables are slated for 2 or 3 quarters out, then you have only two options — reprioritize work to pull it forward (which means deprioritizing other work), or increase the budgeted burn rate to increase the team’s capacity. I wish there was another way, but there are only so many levers to pull to get the desired results.
Don’t wait. Start now.
Here’s the best news: You don’t have to wait until the next fiscal year to start operating this way — begin now before the year is out. Take your remaining budget dollars for 2019 and assign the team a fixed burn rate to see how a predictable team velocity helps them plan, predict and knock out their work. Train your executive partners to look at your progress through a new “value delivered/to be delivered” lens now, as you are putting the 2020 budgets into place.
The original version of this story appears on jenswanson.net.