If you want to be a bad product manager, insist on arbitrary and inflexible release dates. It’s vitally important that you get this product out in the market as soon as possible. The sooner you launch the sooner you can start making money. It also doesn’t hurt that the release date is a few weeks before that big vacation you’ve scheduled. And you told senior management that you would have it released by then and don’t want to look bad in front of them. And you’re hoping to show it off at that conference coming up — of course, no sales will come out of that conference and there’s another similar conference a few months later, but you’d still like to be able to show it there. Hold firm to your release date — if you start budging now then it will show weakness and you’ll never be able to get a firm date for any progress on the project.
If you want to be a good product manager, be realistic about the necessity of meeting release dates. In almost all cases you want to launch a new product or product enhancement sooner rather than later. There are many benefits to the team, the organization, and to your customers. But how often is a release date really firm?
There are some times when you really need to stick to a release date. If you’re creating a web site allowing people to pick out teams in the NCAA March Madness brackets, you need to have the site set up before the tournament games begin. Tax software for U.S. customers needs to be available well in advance of April 15 — miss that release date and you’ve lost all potential sales for the year. Products that tie in to certain holidays or events have a very limited range of time during which they can be introduced and sold.
For most products, though, you will not face such strict time constraints. Yes, you may want to release a product or a new version on a certain date, but is there a strong business case for not changing that date? For the examples above, missing the target release date could eliminate all potential revenue. Your product likely will not face such an extreme drop-off in sales if it is a few weeks or months behind schedule.
Most products can be a few months off the original schedule and still sell well. It may not be what management wants, it may miss a conference or not coincide great with customers’ budgetary cycles, but it likely will still sell. When thinking about the trade offs and balancing of priorities as you are developing your product, think about the necessity of the release dates you are choosing. Would you lose revenue if you were a day late? A week late? A month late? Obviously, you do not want to intentionally delay the project, but having a true understanding of the drivers for release targets and making sure the team understands the priorities will help as you make trade offs along the way.
One of the necessary evils of product management is announcing you have pushed a release date back. It’s something that no one looks forward to. However, if you have a good understanding of the business drivers and various other factors behind the choice of date, it is much easier to explain it internally and externally. In the end, the product manager is responsible for establishing the priorities among conflicting elements — time, resources, scope, and quality. Good product managers can balance those trade offs and then set release dates that are in the best interest of the organization and its customers given those constraints.