Product Marty Cagan

Top-Down Dates

In my last article, I discussed how we manage public commitments in an Agile, Dual-Track environment.  In that article I talked about those public commitments that are needed to run a business, such as when a customer can count on getting some capability, or when a development partner can plan on testing, or determine what will be available for the upcoming holiday season.

But several people wrote in and asked me about a different type of date.  Namely, what about those situation where your management puts a stake in the ground and says “we really, really need to have X live by this date.”

Common examples of this might be getting ready for a big industry trade show where you have an opportunity to debut your product and get much more attention than you would otherwise.  Or, maybe you are a startup, and there is the very real possibility that you will run out of money before you have demonstrated product/market fit.

This is of course a very different situation than the normal public commitments where the team is asked for a date.  In this situation, the date comes from above, and the product team is asked to do whatever they possibly can to deliver.

There are many people that just say, “Don’t do that!”  Agile teams may be hearing the sounds of a death march approaching.

However, anyone that has worked in our industry for any significant amount of time has witnessed the power of deadlines.  If you’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a strong team, these occasional mad scrambles may very likely represent some of your favorite professional experiences.  I know that’s true for me and for many of my friends.

In spite of the downsides, it is hard to argue that productive output is evenly distributed over a year.  It’s not.  There are times when a team moves at a dramatically faster pace and achieves some pretty amazing results.

To me, what’s important to realize here is that the key issue is not really the sense of urgency that comes from the deadline itself, although that contributes.  It is really about the clear sense of purpose that the entire product team has when this situation is managed well.

If you literally have to tell your team they must work longer hours, you’ve typically lost the battle before it’s even started. This is not about forcing people to work harder (euphemistically known as the “salary continuation plan”).  Rather, this is about sharing the business context with the team, explaining the opportunity and the need, and asking every single person on the team to help figure out how to succeed so that they can achieve something significant together.

I have long argued that the winning combination for a product team is a powerful and compelling product vision, and an Agile team that can rapidly discover and deliver value.  The compelling product vision provides that sense of purpose.

So while acknowledging the power of the sense of purpose and the sense of urgency that these top-down deadlines can provide, I also need to point out that I often see these top-down dates abused to the point of causing real harm to the team, usually because the best people leave.

I work with a great many product managers, engineers and designers, and when they leave, they will often tell me afterwards that they left because of their management.

I have long believed in the old adage, “people join a company but they leave their manager.”  They usually join the company because they find the vision compelling, but they usually leave because they lose faith in their managers.

So it is critical that we use the tools of motivation appropriately and intelligently.  If people think they’re being manipulated, or if they feel like the leader is just crying wolf again, or worse, if they think the leader is clueless, then they will either leave the company or ignore those leaders.

However, if used appropriately, deadlines can be a powerful and positive force in bringing a team together to accomplish something meaningful.