March 12

Managing the Unexpected

The following insights were gleaned from a presentation at INDUSTRY given by John Vars of Varo Money @JohnV. Download Product Management TACTICS eBook for more.

Life changes fast. This is true for us as humans, but as well as the products that we manage. It’s all well and good to have a plan, but as Mike Tyson says, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.”

Product people run into roadblocks constantly.  When the roadmap changes, team conflict arises, or any other sort of chaos ensues, how do you approach it?  Do you address it right away?  Or wait a bit to see if things can work themselves out?  If you find yourself pausing, recognize that and think about how can you be more decisive. Run at the problem even faster. Execute in the face of chaos.

Of course, while we can’t control that chaos — we can control the decisions we make when it’s happening.  When managing change, never surprise your boss or manager. When things slip or risk enters the project, talk about it. Keep it on their radar.  You’ll need your manager’s support throughout and the best way to get that support is to have them work through things with you.

And while we can’t control everything, we can reduce risk for the unexpected happening.  Oftentimes, delays in releasing a product or feature could be one source of pain.  Spend more time in estimation. Track your project and products closely. Make sure that processes are in place and being followed.  It won’t protect you completely, but it certainly reduces the chance for things going awry.  Expect that some things will slip, and anticipate it early. Have people in place who can handle that — both in terms of how to manage things, but also communicate accordingly.

Create a culture where people can be vulnerable or speak truth to power and provide feedback. Sometimes, things go haywire when they didn’t have to — but the people who saw it coming don’t speak up because they feel that they’re not empowered to do so.  Do what you can to change that, and make sure that everybody knows that they’re not only permitted to speak up, but are expected to.

Sometimes, these unexpected negative events happen purely because of pride.  Somebody so close to the feature or product falls in love with it, and when they see things happening that might lead one to believe that changes need to happen — they don’t speak up because it may hurt their product or feature.  Reinforce that nobody should fall in love with features or the product itself — but instead, to fall in love with the mission. Keep everyone focused on that north star.

To view John’s full presentation, visit:

Paul McAvinchey

About the author

For over 20 years, Paul has been building and collaborating on digital products with fast-growing startups and global brands, including AOL and WMS Gaming. Currently, he's a co-founder of Product Collective, a worldwide community of product people. Members collaborate on in the exclusive Member Hub, meet at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, listen to, learn at Product Interviews and get a weekly newsletters that includes best practices in product management. In recent years he led business development at DXY, a leading product design firm in the Midwest, and product innovation at MedCity Media, a publishing startup acquired by Breaking Media in 2015.


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