If you want to be a bad product manager, plan for far advance into the future. Your product will of course be a success, so you need to have every possible detail figured out now to ensure it will continue to be a success for years to come. It’s just as important to plan for an issue that will likely come up tomorrow as it is to plan for an issue that could possibly come up a few years from now. If things go really well — or really poorly — you want to be prepared “just in case,” no matter how unlikely that may be.
If you want to be a good product manager, plan for now and the likely future. Understanding the long-term implications of decisions is important, though possibilities well into the future should not overshadow more pressing short-term decisions.
Too often, good ideas are rejected because they will not hold true “if” lots of things happen. For example, a good design for a database holding 10,000 records may be overruled because it will not scale to 1 million records — despite the fact that only one in a million potential customers would ever have that many entries. Or, some will insist on expending substantial effort to automate a simple manual process which takes 2 minutes to complete and is performed only on occasion, using the argument that if the process ever occurs more frequently (which would be several years into the future, at best), the automated version will be more efficient.
Planning for too far into the future often happens because people are in search of the “perfect” solution. (Surprise — there is never one!) A “good enough” solution might perform well for several months or years; unfortunately, those looking for the “perfect” answer will reject what is “good enough” and insist on a solution that is usually more complicated, more complex, and more expensive.
Another danger in planning ahead too much is that the farther into the future you try to look, the more likely you are that your predictions will be wrong. Anything beyond what is known at this moment is speculation. Sure, some areas are easier to predict than others, though in many aspects of product development, predictions may be little more than educated guesses combined with wild optimism.
Speaking of optimism, the reason for long-term thinking is often that product development teams assume wild success and plan accordingly. Yes, it would be great if you get a million sign ups for your social network in the first week. Sure, you hope that your brilliant marketing campaign drives demand for your entire 12-month inventory in 3 months. What if things do not turn out as well? Unfortunately, most of the too-future thinking is intertwined with extreme optimism (or, in some cases, pessimism). Product managers need to be reasonable and rational in their assumptions and expectations. There is a need to balance hope and positive thinking with reality, and too often product managers and product development teams end up on one end of the spectrum or the other.
As 37signals describes in Optimize for now!:
One of the easiest ways to shoot down good ideas, interesting policies, or worthwhile experiments is by injecting the assumption that whatever you’re doing needs to last forever and ever. … The best way to get to the point of needing more is by optimizing for today. Use the strengths of your current situation instead of being so eager to adopt the hassles of tomorrow.
Rather than planning for the far future, product managers need to plan for what is known and what is reasonable to expect for the future. When ideas are rejected because they will not “scale” to unreasonable levels or due to the fact that they will “only” last for a certain reasonable period of time, the product manager needs to remind the product development team to keep the issues in perspective. Clarify requirements and objectives, understand trade-offs, prioritize appropriately, and make smart decisions based on what is logical today and what is most likely in the future.