In recognizing that an important but poorly scoped product initiative was slipping further behind, I decided to push it farther back on the roadmap.
I would argue that our organization is actually quite Agile-minded but we have more work to do before we can start scheduling product releases in units of weeks rather than months. In our current state, we have to treat releases with a bit more care as they don't come around that often. So when we target a major product initiative to be completed and deployed in a future release, it is critical that we drive toward the date. Any slip could delay the feature by a month or more and that can have significant customer implications.
I had recently given one of the PMs on my team a real juicy assignment. We had determined, through some solid customer research, that one of the core features of the platform was in need of an overhaul. In matching up usage data with anecdotal user feedback, we recognized that the problems would require more than a few simple enhancements. This was indeed a large product initiative and was lining up to be one of our strategic product achievements for this year.
One of the core features of the platform was in need of an overhaul.
What drove this decision
We had been wrestling with all the usual challenges of developing a new product feature on a tight schedule. Some requirements required further clarification. Web page and email designs required rounds of tweaking and tuning. Plus the Engineers were being pulled away periodically to troubleshoot and fix other, non-related bugs. And then there was the Operations team who had planned a major infrastructure upgrade that created additional chaos, especially as we depended on those same resources to deploy the new feature.
I could go on, listing distractions and blaming other parties. But the number one reason for the slippage was simply subpar product planning. The PM had not done a good job in decomposing and staging the required work. After a few months, we had created some great new software but no shippable product.
The decision: Drop the feature from the next major product release and reinvest in some proper scoping
About a month before the next big release, it had become increasingly clear that we would not finish developing the feature in time to validate it thoroughly with our users. In our culture, we place a high value on both sticking to our release dates and only shipping product features that are user tested. The first constraint often governs the second.
The decision to drop the feature at this point in the release schedule may have been a bit precarious. But it was really only the first step in a series of related actions that kept the Product and Engineering teams busy for some time.
Plan of attack
As it turned out, our poor product planning had resulted in even more work than you might expect from what seems like a straightforward decision. We desperately needed to put this particular feature back on the right path but there were now some additional tasks that would enter the work stream.
REVERT TO THE OLD FEATURE
So confident had we been in our ability to complete this feature (including functional, performance, and user testing) that the team had started dismantling the legacy functionality.
Now we had to re-mantle it. Or more specifically, we had to back out some of the new enhancements in order to restore the old feature. No self-respecting Engineer enjoys this kind of work and indeed it cost the Product Team dearly in terms of credibility.
ADD A FEATURE TOGGLE
In order to preserve the progress that had been made, we invested some additional time in creating a true feature toggle that would allow us to enable the new version for individual customers. This provided us with the option to conditionally test the new functionality, as soon as it was available, with some of our more curious and perhaps more forgiving users.
RE-SCOPE AND RE-PLAN THE FEATURE
The bulk of the work came from decomposing the originally planned feature into smaller stories and creating a revised, incremental delivery plan that would help us deliver a true MVP first and then, in subsequent iterations, a series of progressive improvements.
I will not use this report to describe the detailed process of scoping a product feature. There are many good discussions around discovering the Minimum Viable Product or MVP. To be sure, it takes practice to learn how to be ruthless. Good PMs find ways to whittle away at a product or feature until there are no nonessential elements remaining.
But it takes a different set of skills to then carefully plan the gradual introduction of those elements over time. It can be tempting to load up on enhancements, especially as product adoption increases among customers and users. Discipline and care are traits to be nurtured and celebrated in your Product Managers.
As I mentioned earlier, this feature, when complete, is intended to make a big splash with customers. In making the decision to postpone its deployment, I now had the delicate task of resetting expectations with our Sales team, with Professional Services and Support teams, and with the few customers and prospects we had been engaging with for testing and research.
The existing customers and new prospects that were pining for this feature were disappointed with the decision to pull and postpone though I believe the blow was cushioned in two ways. First, we notified them of our product decision several weeks ahead of the release instead of only days before or even worse, after the release.
Second, we took care to explain that we did not feel comfortable pushing a significant new product feature without appropriate user testing. Not to say that this relieved all the anxiety but it is more difficult to argue with the choice of product quality over speed to market.
One final note. The Product team did consider moving ahead with a nearly complete version of the new feature and including it in the upcoming release. The thought was that we would have the ability to turn it on for a few, select customers in exchange for some heavy usability testing. I will publish more on that approach in a separate article.