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Product Deadlines
Product Management

Product deadlines: how to manage and communicate risks

As a product manager (PM), creating reasonable timelines, keeping projects on track, and managing and communicating risk is all part of the job. 

No one loves it when a feature looks like it will miss its deadline, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to communicate these risks–and even better–mitigate them.

As any PM knows, sometimes these things can’t be prevented, but there are a few ways to better manage and mitigate the risk when it does happen. 

In this article, we speak with 4 expert Product Managers about how they identify risk early, mitigate risk, and communicate with stakeholders when things are off-track. 

How product managers can better identify risks early

“In a perfect world, our teams communicate early and often about risks, but that’s not always the case,” says Aidan McColl, Product Manager at LawDepot. So, how do we increase the likelihood that risks will be flagged?

Challenge assumptions

“To identify delivery risks, I focus on identifying and challenging the assumptions being made,” Aidan says. Challenging assumptions is best done during sprint planning discussions or early backlog refinement sessions because “the goal is to minimize the impact of ‘unknown unknowns’ in your planning–things will still come up, but all the most consequential risks should be addressed as early as possible.”

Assume external stakeholder involvement is a risk

Technical challenges aren’t the only risks development teams face: “Getting other teams to prioritize your work is often a challenge. Anytime there is someone outside of the Scrum team that is involved in the project, that is a risk,” says Muhammad Umar, Product Manager at Microsoft. Identifying the risks in your resourcing and who you’re depending on is critical to meeting your deadlines, especially when teams have conflicting priorities. “Ensure they are aware of your timeline and are keeping them accountable,” he advises.

Regular goal reviews 

Keeping team members conscious of milestones and goals helps surface potential roadblocks fast: “To identify risks in project timelines, I employ a proactive approach with regular milestone reviews and KPI monitoring,” says Berk Kansu, Product Management Consultant at GreenLeap.ca. 

Leveraging agile practices is also a great way to surface and prevent further risks: “I encourage open communication in team meetings for early risk identification and use Agile methodologies like sprint retrospectives for continuous assessment.”

What to do when a feature isn’t on track

Okay, so you’ve done everything you can, but the feature just isn’t on track. Now what? Berk was kind enough to give us the checklist of steps he takes when he finds himself in this situation: 

Berk’s Checklist

  1. Conduct a focused retrospective: Quickly organize a retrospective with the team to understand the root causes of the delay. This focuses on identifying specific issues such as scope creep, underestimated tasks, or external dependencies that are impacting the project timeline. 
  2. Re-prioritize the backlog: Work to re-prioritize the backlog, focusing on the most critical features that deliver value to the customer. This often involves negotiating scope to align with the revised timelines and resources.
  3. Implement corrective actions: Based on the insights from the retrospective, implement corrective actions. This may include reallocating resources, breaking down larger tasks into more manageable ones, or adjusting the sprint goals to be more realistic.
  4. Increase communication with stakeholders: Enhance communication with stakeholders to manage expectations and keep them informed about changes and the rationale behind them. This ensures transparency and maintains trust.
  5. Monitor progress closely: After taking these actions, closely monitor the progress in subsequent sprints. Regular check-ins and adjustments are essential to ensure the project gets back on track and stays aligned with the revised objectives.

Communicating with stakeholders when a feature isn’t on track

Depending on who you’re talking to, communicating that a project isn’t in track isn’t always the most fun conversation to have. It is critical, however, particularly when the stakeholders can help alleviate some of the blockers or are dependent on the work you’re doing. 

Regular updates = no surprises

Most of the PMs we interviewed agreed that a feature not being on track should never come as a massive surprise. It’s generally agreed that the best practice is to “have a regular cadence that works with key stakeholders/leadership. It could be a monthly, weekly, or bi-weekly project/product status check-in,” says Ayo Aluko, Product Manager.

On top of the regular cadence, you should give stakeholders visibility that is accessible at any time, without asking: “I like to ensure that there is always the option for leaders to easily gather that information themselves,” says Aidan. Options for this might include something like a live roadmap or a regular Slack channel update. 

Provide context for why it’s not on track

Missed deadlines without context is a recipe for disappointment: “I’ve worked on projects with clients where they weren’t happy with progress. Then, when I became more transparent regarding what was going on and giving regular reports, trust was built. After that, when there was a slip, they were more understanding because they could see what challenges came up,” recalls Muhammad.

Technical challenges happen–every Product Manager knows that. But when clients don’t see progress without the full context, they just assume no one is working on it–not that they’re blocked.

Finding and presenting solutions

Presenting solutions to stakeholders quickly helps move the team from crisis mode to action mode. “In most cases, people don’t want to be told about problems,” says Aidan. “They want to hear about their impact and the potential solutions.” 

However, not every challenge is within a Product Manager’s control: “If there are blockers within my control, I review the scope of the project against resources and timeline and adjust as needed. However, in my experience, external factors (lack of resources, budget constraints) are more likely to impact the timeline of a project,” says Ayo. The takeaway here? Put as much effort as you can to remove the blockers and come up with the solutions that you can. Otherwise, ensure you’re getting the right people together as soon as possible to solve the problems you can’t. 

It’s not all risks and hardships–be public about the wins

Hopefully, most of your time as a Product Manager isn’t all about mitigating risk and facing challenges, though we hope this article helps with that!

Despite the challenges that come up, Aidan reminds us that it’s important not to forget the importance of being vocal and public about the team’s wins: “When sharing good news stories, messages that celebrate the team’s hard work and decision-making wins are always best, either directly to leaders or in more public channels.” BAM–now that’s great advice to end on! 

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Looking for a tool that will help you identify when projects are at risk AND keep your stakeholders informed? Look no further. Book a demo of Zenhub here and let our experts guide you through all its fabulous bells and whistles.

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