How You Can Avoid the Painful Part of Building Products

Ryan Seamons | Reading time: 4 minutes

I recently saw a question from a fellow pm:

As I see there are two parts to building products.

Part 1: river rapids.

Part 2: cleaning the deck with a toothbrush.

How do you make part 2 suck less?

Part 2 does suck. It’s all the small details that hide and make life miserable. It’s a tax that you pay after the fun part (the easy, dream-state ideation and definition at the beginning). The good news is you can control how much tax you pay by how you build and launch products.

Here are 3 ways I encourage PMs to make the toothbrush part suck less:

1. Break stories down

Smaller stories have fewer places for small, annoying details to lurk.

Make sure prep includes details, not just fun, sweeping platitudes of stories.

Building your own checklist for your stories can be very helpful. Here are two I’ve used in the past (both with more mature products, a brand new product would have a different list):

Have we considered impact to:

  • Mobile app
  • Mobile web
  • Admin flow
  • Marketing
  • Customer support
  • New/Existing metrics

Have I gotten feedback from:

  • Enterprise buyer
  • Enterprise user
  • Dev lead
  • Designer
  • Customer support
  • Sales

These checklists aren’t required for every story, but are good gut checks to help teams consider details up front vs getting caught half-way through a sprint with your pants down.

2. Fewer things, done better

Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism has a perfect illustration of why this concept helps you avoid pain.

Image result for essentialism

The lines on both diagrams add up to the same distance, but it’s obvious you get further with the right. Fewer things, done better.

I had a front-row seat to how one great leader does this well. Jeff Weiner (CEO of LinkedIn) navigated the natural desire to do everything as LinkedIn was on a rocket ship trajectory just after the IPO.

It’s natural for successful businesses and people to take on more. Jeff would both remind us as a company that our goal was “fewer things, done better”. And then he actually did that. I remember multiple products and features that were cut, even late in the development process, because it was clear to him as our leader that it wasn’t going to serve us well long term.

One way to better do this as a PM is to face the reality of all the work that happens after devs have built.

The “last 5%” ends up taking about 80% of the time. The secret here is easy to say and hard to do: BUILD LESS.

Great PMs are always thinking about what they don’t have to build. (tweet this)

The best way I know to help teams align around building less is to be clear about why you’re building a product and what outcomes you are planning to achieve. Having a strategic roadmap that isn’t just a project plan or Gantt chart helps a team define and make visible these plans. Check out my guide to building a clear and compelling strategic roadmap.

3. When you do build, don’t underestimate the work

One way to break down the stages of building products is:

Prep (roadmap, backlog) Build (current & next sprint) Launch (measurement, marketing, change management, etc.)

Launch is HUGE. It will eat you alive and junior PMs consistently underestimate the size of launch stage required for impact, especially . It’s easy to toss features over the fence to build and launch stages and move on to prep the next exciting thing.

But that is a mistake. Handing off and moving on is exactly how you fall into the build trap.

Balancing the time spend on these stages helps you:

  1. Come to grips with reality of the work required for any feature
  2. Allocate more time to launch stage so you can measure impact and inform the next build process.

Setting timing expectations drastically changes the suckiness of the toothbrush stage, since you’ll reduce rework and increase impact for every feature you build.

Often work is hard. Sometimes you have to do not fun things. But a sure way to increase the mind-numbingness of work as a product manager is to build lots of stuff in big chunks without thinking through details and poorly settings expectations for the time it will take.

While that sounds ridiculous to say in a single sentence, too many teams don’t have a process set up to do work in a better way.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up. By changing some key team habits you can reduce the toothbrush tax.

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