Something I certainly have experienced far too often is something I like to call faith based product development.
It is not religion, per se, but it has a lot of similarities. Mostly, it is a combination of unrealistic expectations from senior management (like: It will be done in July, and we will be shipping in volume by September) mismatched with the reality on the ground (hence: ohmygod, we can’t solve this killerproblem, and unless we do, we won’t sell any of them). This impedance mismatch would be funny if it wasn’t so painful.
There are plenty of symptoms:
The engineering team is way off schedule: Usually the first manifestation of this ill is the complete blow out of the schedule. You start missing milestones. Delays are factored in, and the backpedaling starts in earnest.
Senior Management is head in the clouds: Never expect senior management to be too close to the problem (because you really don’t want their interference). They get updated in staff meetings and program reviews. Unfortunately, this usually means that people are managing up to them, and not completely telling the truth, or setting expectations. Can’t blame people for this, it is what management in a modern mid – large company is all about.
The poor schmoes in Product Management: We usually sweat the bullets. We try to manage up, but alas, there is often a layer of management between us and the real brass. Regardless of how engaged you are with that sandwich of management above you, and how sympathetic they are to your troubles, you can’t rely on them covering your ass. Suddenly you are feeling awfully isolated in raising the flag.
Add to this Sales usually getting a whiff that something new is around the corner, and the pressure to launch becomes unbearable. Sales training is scheduled, product demos are requested, and customers are promised stuff that is still in proof of concept.
Faith based product development, where the belief that the force of personality of the senior leader is enough to pull the rest of the team along. Until it all comes crashing down.
In the real world, technical hurdles appear and need to be negotiated. Perhaps some invention is required (breakthroughs are notoriously difficult to schedule), and some things are just not possible.
How to combat?
Tough one. First you need a management layer above you that will go to bat with senior management. They have to be not afraid to tell the truth, and to lay out the repercussions.
Second, you need to have the confidence to approach 2 levels up of management. A good idea in general, and product managers should have this ability baked in. But this requires a serious gut check, and some potential fallout.
Third, you need management aircover to get angry with the engineering team. If they are being slapdash with their execution, if they are over committing and under delivering, if they hit a roadblock, get in their face (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, but sometimes you need to break some eggs to get 'it' done). It probably isn’t entirely their fault, but they own the development, and the deliverables. Don’t just watch them flounder until it is a catastrophe. Get in the game earlier rather than later.
And if you ever feel yourself about to say; “that’s not my job” sit down, and re-evaluate your priorities. Because when it all falls apart, I can assure you that you will be holding the hot potato, and it is your job.
I call this “faith based” because in top heavy, disconnected organizations, the chasm between what is happening, and what the powers that be think is happening requires a leap of faith to cross.