#PMSkillsAreLifeSkills: Plan for the Unexpected and De-escalate like a Ninja

Photo by @socialroby via Twenty20

Answer from Stephanie Muxfeld

Stephanie Muxfeld is a Delivery Leadership Consultant at Slalom. You can find her on Twitter at @stephmuxfeld.

Life is full of expectations

We expect our coffee to be ready when we’ve mobile-ordered it. We expect our package to arrive on the day it’s scheduled to arrive. And we expect our car to start when we turn the key or push the engine button. In our minds, we’ve already determined how things will go — that is our expectation. Any deviation from what we’ve already decided in our minds causes us discomfort.

Set the appropriate expectations

The most effective way to avoid missed expectations is to be careful about setting them to begin with. Most product managers don’t have the luxury of keeping their commitments open and flexible. Often, we will be asked to commit to a scope of work, state our target delivery date, and then plan backwards from it.

  • Elapsed time until the team is finished. When we estimate our delivery dates, we should pay careful attention to how far into the future our delivery is expected to occur. If it’s only a few weeks from now, we can likely make an estimate to within a day or two. But if we’re talking about a delivery that is months into the future, it’s difficult to accurately estimate completion down to a single date. Delivery estimates are a question of probability. As you get closer to the end, you’ll be in a better position to refine your estimate and make it narrower based on the information you have. The same is true for planning in your personal life — planning events far into the future creates risk. You can mitigate that risk by planning to revisit your progress closer to the actual date.
  • Scope changes. How solid is your scope? As we start development and begin iterating, we will often discover something that had not been previously accounted for. How likely is that to happen in your situation? The same question applies to parenting; things are always coming up — someone gets sick, someone is grumpy, playdate plans change. When the kids are still young, the potential for scope change is especially high.
  • Maturity of the team. Experience matters when it comes to estimation, so more mature teams generally make better estimates. if your team is newly-formed, their estimates will be less accurate. With parenting, as your child matures, they become better at planning and being accountable for themselves. They can also better estimate how long things like homework or instrument practice will take. Trust me when I tell you it gets easier as they get older!
  • Interruptions. How often is your team interrupted during a sprint? Are they frequently moving away from committed sprint work to focus on production outages or other emergencies? If so, you should consider building a buffer into your sprint capacity to deal with interruptions. The same is true for parenting; when the kids are young, you need more interrupt buffer. I’ve long since learned to use time ranges (“We’ll be there between 2 and 2:30 PM”) to account for last-minute diaper changes and tantrums. I still remember a few solid years as a new parent where I couldn’t eat, much less finish, a hot meal. Mealtimes were constantly interrupted and it’s just a part of the job.

Choose your work based on the value

So much to do; so little time! As a product manager and as a parent, I advocate for value-based decision-making when it comes to defining your scope of work. This approach works in software and in real life! If we are working on the highest value item at any given point in time, we know we’re focusing on the correct thing. And when priorities inevitably change, there is no guilt because all decisions are informed by value.

De-escalate when you must

Inevitably there will be circumstances where, as a product manager or as a parent, you’re faced with a situation that’s gotten out of control and you must de-escalate. These situations are often tricky because your stakeholders can be disappointed, frustrated, or angry. This is true whether you’re wearing your product manager hat or your parent hat!

  • Stay calm. It’s important that you remain the calm voice in the room. If you get emotional or angry, there is almost no hope of resolving the situation in a healthy and productive manner. Delay the conversation, if you can, until you’re ready to tackle it.
  • Start by agreeing. Get the conversation to a good start by focusing on a point that you and your stakeholders have in common. In your product manager role, this step may mean expressing agreement that the features which have been delayed are valuable to the customer and that you, like your stakeholders, want these features in the product as soon as possible. As a parent, it might be that you agree that broccoli isn’t the best-tasting vegetable.
  • Acknowledge their point of view. After you have established common ground, focus on acknowledging the other person’s point of view. Even if you don’t agree with them, people find comfort and validation in being heard.


There are a lot of similarities between product management and parenting. The skills and experiences you gain in one role can absolutely be to your advantage in the other. By setting the appropriate expectations, you can reduce the risk of stakeholder frustration and disappointment. Doing estimates in ranges gives you and your team flexibility and peace of mind to handle unexpected circumstances. And when you make decisions about your scope and time based on value, you can rest easy knowing that you are always working on the most important activities. If you have to, employ de-escalation tactics and take away whatever lessons you can for the next time!


Answer from Vidya Venkatesh

Vidya Venkatesh is Director of Product Lifecycle Management at Genomic Health. You can find her on Twitter at @vidav

Planning for the unexpected

Anticipate risks and plan accordingly

We all like to believe that our well-thought-out plans — with timelines, schedules, and budget allocations — will lead us to success. However, things rarely go exactly as planned, so we need to spend some time thinking through all the potential risks, their likely impact, and possible mitigation strategies to greatly enhance the probability of success.

Be flexible while focusing on the big picture

When we make plans, we do so because we want to achieve a goal and our plan represents the path we will take to get there. Once the plan exists, however, it’s all too easy to focus entirely on the plan, to the point that we lose sight of the original goal. At times like these, it’s good to re-focus on the big picture and remind ourselves that the plan is just the means to an end. The goal is what really matters.

When all else fails, fall back on de-escalation techniques

Focus on the root cause of emotions

It is normal to feel upset and frustrated when plans are derailed, be it at home or in the corporate world. When someone is upset, take the time to understand why they are reacting or behaving negatively. Sometimes, the cause may not be what you think it is.

Bring in reinforcements

Sometimes, the resolution to a project challenge is to bring in a different kind of skill set that helps the team to get past a roadblock. Reinforcements can also be people who are able to take on known and well-scoped tasks off your plate so you are able to work on the things that need your personal attention.

In Summary

To plan for success, we need to carefully examine the potential risks and create mitigation strategies for each, and develop a flexible mindset to evolve plans as needed while not losing sight of the big picture.



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