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Save Your Project (with this One Weird Trick)!

I have been doing tech projects for years. My first job in technology was driving around New Jersey in 1990 trying to get retailers to carry Windows 3.0. I used to joke that I was so good at my job, the Department of Justice sued Microsoft for being a monopoly just seven years later. I worked on six versions of Microsoft Office, three of IE, and had a hand in producing a number of video games as well.

The benefit of being the old goat is that I’ve been there, done that… many times. The craze that everybody is writing about today will be a faint memory in 18 months. Object-oriented programming was going to change the world in 1993, until Lotus Notes drove it out of the tech journals in 1995. The browser was going to host all user interactions, until mobile devices made the ‘app’ king again – the browser is now just another app. There are some timeless truths in product management, though, that I want to discuss in this blog. Teamwork matters (and how to get it). Measuring is critical (and dangerous). Plans are useless (but make one anyway).

You Have Three Months

The first truth I’ll discuss is: you have three months to save your project. Large or small, strategic or tactical, trans-formative or utilitarian, your project will have half the time and budget they promised you – if that. Your attitude must be: “I have to earn the right every sprint to get another sprint.”

In late 2002, I became General Manager of a team making sports video games for Xbox. Our flagship was NFL Fever, which was going to make people forget about Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL Football, the leading American football simulation game. It was a strategic pillar for Xbox. We had a staff of 80 that we intended to grow by 50% in a year. We had two games in market and another four in planning. It was a happy time.

Still, I was worried. I worried that our next version, NFL Fever 2004, was not differentiated – either from Fever 2003 or from Madden. I argued that we couldn’t succeed by making the same game and not be clearly superior. The Madden team had four times our staff and five times our marketing budget. As I surveyed others, I was counseled to maintain course on Fever 2004 and change the following version. The wisdom was that, “sports games ship every year, so you always have another shot.” Then the fiscal year got tough, so we froze hiring. Our competitors released better games than Fever 2004 that year. By mid-2004, Xbox needed to fund other priorities. I recommended to my execs that we stop making sports games and redeploy the staff. I’ve seen the same dynamic play out again and again over 25 years.

…to Save Your Project

As a product owner/manager, you will be told that your project is the top priority. The budget is This Big and the company wants you to take the time to do it right. You’ll have access to resources and exec support. Don’t fall for it! Act like you have three months to deliver value. Push hard to define the business problems and objectives. Prioritize solving the problem that costs the organization the most or the feature that enables the most revenue growth. Figure out a quick solution and ship it. Start from that core and build out from there. The strategic patience they promised will not endure; someone will need that budget they promised you. When that time comes, what will save your project is showing that your project has already delivered business value (higher revenue/lower cost).

Go forth, product owner/manger, and ship something this sprint that saves or makes your customer real money. I’ll be back soon with another truth!

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