Product management hacks when you have limited resources

By Thomas Schranz

You might be a startup or a product team inside of a larger organization. Everything is super urgent and needs to be finished by yesterday. You are strapped for resources and desperately try to make ends meet. Anxiety kicks in. Motivation turns into pessimism & cynism. Things get worse. Way worse. — Been there done that.

Here are a few lessons learned on what you can do in situations when you find yourself hopelessly strapped for resources & fighting against all odds.

Don’t Panic

Easier said than done — the most important thing is to “don’t panic”. Being stressed out is the worst thing that can happen to you when you need to keep a cool head. It’s never as bad as it seems. Never, ever.

Grab a cup of tea. Go for a walk. Meet fellow product people. Clear your mind. — Clear thought is your main asset.

Embrace Constraints

Everyone is strapped for resources. Let’s repeat that. Everyone. Always. Great ideas come cheap. Resources not so much.

Since everyone is strapped for resources I believe the art rather is to acknowledge that fact and make the best out of it.

“[…] Never found a company that said: We need [to] write down ideas, we probably won’t have any tomorrow or next week.” — Stephan Schmidt

Constraints spur creativity. They enable you to think outside of the box. They can make you identify things that you never would have discovered otherwise. As cheesy as it may sound — Constraints are an opportunity to do the best work of your life. — embrace them.

Focus, Focus, Focus (Limit Work-in-Process)

Ever tried to figure out how introducing a combination of 20 changes to your product will affect user engagement, market positioning, code architecture and user interface? What if some of the changes aren’t finished in the order you imagined?

It’s tough to get a clear understanding even if your team is full of brilliant talent. Don’t make product management even harder than it already is by doing too many things at the same time.

Multitasking is a myth. Especially when it comes to deliver excellent creative work like some of your main product-related efforts (engineering, user experience, marketing, positioning …).

By limiting work in process not only do you ship things faster … you enable your team to do it’s best job. Less is more.

Less context switching, better understanding of what’s important, fewer dependencies, less coordination needed, fewer defects, fewer bad decisions.

Simplicity, focus and execution quality (or lack thereof …) go hand in hand with the number of things you try to do at the same time.

Some Things are more important …

Not every idea that sounds like a great opportunity is worth pursuing. Remember, ideas come cheap. If you have a ton of great ideas but only time to do a few of them … the best thing you can do is pick the right ones … in the right order.

“In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.” — Mike Markkula, Marketing & Angel Investor at Apple

This is the main lever you have to increase value. Get all stakeholders on board and figure out what the cost of delaying a change looks like over time.

For example when you have a real deadline e.g. integrating a billing system before black friday the cost of delay over time might look like this:

If you don’t do it right now, or next week it’s not a big deal, but if you miss the deadline … suddenly the delay becomes very expensive. Other scenarios are rather intangible like upgrading to a new version of Ruby on Rails. It’s probably a good idea. If you don’t do it by next month you won’t be out of business but delaying the upgrade for too long might become very expensive eventually.

That said, it’s not your job to make the perfect decision and get to 100% understanding of the situation. Just make time to think about it. It’s like playing chess against the clock.

Here are a few examples of how the cost of delay might look in various scenarios.

Always bring the Donuts

When you’re stressed out … chances are other people are even more stressed out … like your team or other stakeholders. As product manager you live on the intersection of engineering, marketing, user experience, sales and many other things.

You are a jack of all trades and literally a master of none — yet your responsibility is to orchestrate. In a sense your job often is to do the things no one really is responsible for and no one really knows how to put into words.

“If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Be pro-active. Be optimistic. Create an atmosphere where people can collaborate and do great things. As a product manager you are in the unique position to do what’s right & needs to be done whether it’s requested or not.

Be humble, be empathetic and ready to go the extra mile — bring the donuts.

Buy Information by Delivering early

If you find a way to reduce the time it takes to get something out of the door it can be a big win. This might mean consciously reducing scope, accepting technical debt or splitting a feature into atomic parts that make sense and can get shipped independently.

This is a powerful concept. In a sense you can buy information by delivering early.

Another take on buying information is to build prototypes, paper mockups or playing around with UI concepts in keynote rather than immediately switching into building mode.

As side-effect you’ll get a better feeling for the real complexity of a feature. By delivering early you can dramatically de-risk what you’re currently working on.

Slow & Steady wins the Race

Haste makes waste. Especially in times when everything needs to get done faster make sure to take your time and don’t rush into things. Think through personas, write great user stories, write a readme.

Work like the tortoise, not like the hare.

Look for Low Hanging Fruit

With every product there are small changes you can make that have high impact. Often they are not written down in your master plan, not present in a backlog and no stakeholder ever asked for them.

Finding low hanging fruit feels very similar to bumping into a treasure chest in an RPG. Low effort, instant awesomeness. Create a culture of collecting low hanging fruit. Make time to stop and unlock value if it is low effort. You win by increasing value. Not by compliance to old plans. Don’t miss the forrest for the trees.

Invest where Technical Debt meets Value

Every software project has technical debt. It accumulates over time. Especially in situations where time-to-market is very important.

Technical debt is not inherently bad. It’s a tool. A trade-off. That said, after some time … working on defects might take up a significant portion of your time. Sometimes even more time than new feature development.This is a great opportunity to take a step back.

Try to identify areas of your product where technical debt meets high value. Be bold. Invest time to improve these parts and you’ll regain the ability to move fast in the most important area of your product.

Technical debt in parts of your product that are used a lot can get very expensive very fast. It affects the volume of support requests, perceived quality and the ability to iterate on your core value proposition.

Being “lean & agile” doesn’t help much if working in your code base feels like walking on quicksand.

That said, fighting technical debt in all parts of your code base usually yields dimishing returns very quickly and comes with high opportunity cost. Keep in mind that technical debt has different characteristics compared to financial debt.

Technical debt in parts that no one cares about is ok. It doesn’t necessarily need to be repayed, it might not even increase over time. Sometimes you can just wait a bit and deprecate parts with high technical debt or replace them with a 3rd party library.

Identify one area in your code base where technical debt meets value and try to figure out what could be done to improve the situation.

Define “Why”

The purpose of what you’re doing constantly gets lost in the day-to-day … yet the essence of a great solution is to deeply understand why you are working on it. Whether it’s engineering, marketing, user experience design, selling — people with purpose can move mountains.

As product manager your main job is to understand context, define purpose and to make sure everyone gets it. Everyone. You, your customers, your team, every stakeholder, all the other teams.

Don’t be afraid to over-communicate … and bring the donuts :)

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Posted by Thomas Schranz

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