The things that are visionary take a lot of time to think through, design, and have the team come to agreement on. Everyone hopes it can get done as quickly as possible, but the reality is that proper product innovation can take months of tireless work from across the company. So what happens when the market shifts or a big new client comes in and suddenly everyone’s priorities have changed and you’re working on an entirely new set of features?

While there’s a lot that’s unpredictable in life, there are a couple scenarios that happen in a company and set the stage for unexpected shifts in a PMs day-to-day life. In this post, we’ll quickly run through those expected unexpected’s, then cover our tried-and-true strategies for dealing with and mitigating those situations.

Potential Unexpected Shifts

Again, life is pretty unpredictable in general (hey, global pandemic), but there are some probable scenarios you’ll come across in your career as a PM that will shift the trajectory of your product and your company. Let’s take a quick look at two more extreme scenarios that can occur to shift a product roadmap.

Bringing on a new strategic account

Product teams don’t live in their own bubble. If sales brings in a massive client (in an ideal world a multi-million dollar deal) your manager is probably going to come in and shift the entire roadmap and all priorities to fit this new client that could be game changing for the overall company. While exciting, it can be nerve wracking for product to try and re-conceptualize an entire aspect of the product. Not to mention customer success which now has to go out and tactfully tell customers that the features they requested are suddenly being sidelined because the entire roadmap has changed. Suddenly teams are scrambling to push out new features while backtracking to keep existing customers happy and prevent them from churning.

Losing a strategic account

On the other side of that equation, sometimes strategic accounts who are important to the business churn. This could be an account that had previously received a lot of attention from the product team who invested massive energy into pushing customized feature functionality for them. If they churn and suddenly go to a competitor the company has suddenly lost revenue, and what’s more, your team has also lost time they can’t get back on creating features that don’t serve the larger user population. Now you’re down a major customer and have a backlogged of needs you need to address as soon as possible to prevent the next group of accounts from leaving as well.

Now that all the more extreme scenarios are out on the table, let’s shift gears and focus on what can be done to actually help in those situations.

Understand Priority

Not all users are created equal. Awkward to write (and I wouldn’t recommend saying it to users either) but it’s an honest truth. Every company, big or small, knows that different users and accounts hold different value. It’s part of a PM’s considerations when validating customer feedback and determining priority of new functionality. PMs are constantly asking questions: Who are these people? What do they want me to build? How long and how much effort is required? Which users is this going to impact? How does this feature align with the roadmap and broader product vision? And last, but by no means least, how much revenue is associated with building this new feature? All of this information and more has to be considered, especially with larger accounts.

As in the example above, with big accounts you often have to go out of your way a bit more to make them happy because they’re important to the success of the company. The balance lies in not investing too many resources into securing one particular client or one specific customizations for an existing client. This holds especially true if the features aren’t built with the greater product vision and general user population in mind. You wouldn’t want a potential contract to fall through after investing time and resources and be left with functionality that doesn’t benefit the wider user base. The goal is to put in enough effort to keep the strategic customers, but ensure that what you build for them aligns with the greater product vision.

Develop Flexible Plans

Product folks develop their roadmap and love to stick to it no matter what, but the best PMs realize that plans change and that they need to be flexible. But at the end of the day you’re tied to business goals and those goals are the things keeping the lights on. So it’s essential not to get too tied down to any particular feature or product plan. So how do you be more flexible with your roadmap and product? Have a clear understanding of requirements for new functionality and create a system that quickly introduces new information to the decision making process.

One of the first things product teams have to do during the product development process is determine the pain they’re solving for, who it will affect, and set the requirements (specifications) for the project. A major priority for this process is understanding the expected timeline for development and potential risks that could impact the release process. This ties directly into the ability to introduce new information into the decision making process. When teams spend the time breaking down the requirements for a feature it means they know every step needed to push it to release. So if a new customer rolls up and a manager is asking to shift the roadmap, you may decide that your feature’s functionality can be broken down into different stages for release so customers get a first pass, but engineering has time to code the more intensive feature for that new customer.

Communicate Effectively

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: communication is key. With shifting priorities and a need to quickly introduce new information, it’s important to keep in contact with teammates about progress updates and potential roadblocks. Whether you’re remote or in-office, being able to communicate updates quickly across product and the whole company means that everyone is in the loop and driving towards the same end goal. This helps prevent individuals from breaking off onto other side projects or losing sight of immediate needs.

There are some things to be aware of balancing when trying to maintain team or company communication; AKA it’s easy to fall into the trap of being too heads-down and not paying attention to other teams, OR falling into too many meetings and not enough time for actual work. The key here is just to ensure that your schedule is balanced with enough time blocked off for focused work.

Effective communication is important not just internally, but especially with customers. They’re giving feedback on new releases and requesting new functionality and submitting support tickets and answering survey, on and on. Customers are the ones keeping a company alive. So developing communication practices with them, whether it’s announcements, emails, or product previews helps keep customers feeling valued. What good is being able to quickly shift priorities to launch new features if customers know their requests have been delayed or released and decide to hop ship? That’s why you have to manage expectations.

Manage Expectations

Another great thing about understanding potential risks in the development process and learning to communicate effectively is that it all helps with managing expectations. The more proactive you are in uncovering potential risks in development, the more you can manage stakeholder expectations. Because product lies at the center of the company, the work of the product team has an impact on all other teams. Whether is customer success needing to update customers that new features are released or sales needs feature specifications for a potential client, transparency into the roadmap is critical. Internal company alignment of expectations helps teams know what to expect of the product in the future and how to manage their own interactions with customers.

At the end of the day, what customers want is predictability. Failure to deliver on requests can quickly create distrust with customers. Repeated failures can have a long-term effect on the relationship between you, the customer, and their perception of your company—potentially enough that they churn. To manage customer expectations is important openly and honestly discuss the needs they want addressed and where it falls into the existing product roadmap. Providing a clear timeline with regular updates helps customers maintain trust in your team and creates a sense of loyalty because they feel like a partner in the development of the company.

Conclusion

Every PM has day-to-day features they’re designing and building, with the goal of address the broader product vision and increasing the success of company. But sometime external market shocks kick in you’re left with a complete change to the product roadmap. At the end of the day, everything you do as a PM should have the general user population in mind. Developing flexible product plans that are based on effective communication and account for prioritization metrics helps manage peoples expectations, both for teams and customers. This help ensure shocks to the market or the company that impact existing customers won’t have a detrimental impact to them or the overall company.

For more info on how to react to unexpected situations as a PM, check out our podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/dealing-with-unexpected-situations-as-a-pm/id1503231746?i=1000469548413