#PMSkillsAreLifeSkills: Plan for the Unexpected and De-escalate like a Ninja
Editor’s note: When you spend a good chunk of your working day doing Product Management work, it only seems natural that you’d start applying PM skills and techniques in other areas of life as well. This week, Stephanie Muxfeld and Vidya Venkatesh share their takes on the hashtag #PMSkillsAreLifeSkills.
Answer from Stephanie Muxfeld
There are a lot of similarities between product management and parenting. Don’t get me wrong; I know plenty of people who do one role without the other and they are wonderful at it. I do believe, however, that there is a special advantage to be gained by those who have both roles and know how to leverage the lessons learned in one role when they work on the other. In other words, I believe that PM skills are life skills.
Aside from the obvious parts of both roles — such as taking care of your family/team and setting them up for success — many of the highest-value activities we handle as product managers are also vitally important as parents. To explain what I mean, I’ll use the remainder of this article to talk about why people react poorly when their expectations aren’t met, how to set appropriate expectations, and what the task of determining value looks like. I’ll also share a tried-and-tested technique to de-escalate situations when it becomes apparent that expectations have been missed.
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.
As a parent, I’ve had to learn how to manage expectations. When my daughter was a toddler, it seemed like my entire life revolved around managing expectations. When we entered a store, I’d need to explain that we were there for groceries, not toys. When we went to grandma’s house, I’d need to prepare her for the fact that we’d be leaving later that day and not spending the night. The practice of setting clear expectations didn’t always prevent the toddler tantrums that every parent dreads, but they sure reduced them. Those toddler years taught me the importance of clear communication, and that taking the time to explain what was to come was essential to create a smooth experience.
At work, the same principle applies. Our stakeholders expect our software to be in production when we tell them it will be ready today. A Sales Manager expects a polished sales presentation when someone on their team pitches a proposal to a client. And yes, we expect our stellar contributions at work to be recognized and rewarded by our boss through a glowing performance review, a bonus, or a promotion.
Clearly, the better we are at setting expectations, the more likely it is that we will establish and maintain great relationships, both at home and at work.
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.
Consequently, we product managers need to understand the factors that affect the likelihood that we will meet our commitments. The better we understand them, the better we’ll be at setting the appropriate expectations.
The primary factors include:
- 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.
There are other factors that affect delivery outcomes for both PMs and parents (think sick days!), but the ones that I’ve outlined above are good places to start. By getting a handle on these considerations, you can formulate an estimate that will help you set realistic expectations. It takes practice to create quality estimates, so don’t be disappointed if things get off to a rocky start. It will get easier over time as you and your team do it more frequently.
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.
In software development, a focus on value means working with your business partners to understand the value of each feature. Then, together, you’d prioritize the features based on their value. If you do this, your team will always know what to work on next. No one ever needs to ask, “What should I work on now?” because the entire team is aligned around value.
In parenting, you make value-based decisions when you know what’s important to you and your family, and you make choices based on those values. It also means saying “no” to activities, invitations, and time-wasters that don’t align with your values. This approach allows you the freedom to pivot amongst your priorities as needed, without feeling any guilt about missing out on things that really don’t matter. But to have that freedom, you need to get clear about what your values are.
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!
When you’re faced with one of these difficult situations, consider giving these tips a try:
- 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.
I’ve found that, in some cases, it can take several attempts until you find a point of agreement that your stakeholders will respond to while they are upset. Once you do, however, it’s usually enough to de-escalate the situation. Keep looking for points of agreement until you can turn the conversation into a collaboration and all the parties involved can work together to find a solution that will be agreeable to everyone.
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
Product Management and Parenting have many parallels. In both roles, we manage stakeholders‘ expectations, face constant pressure to perform under uncertain circumstances, and work to get everyone’s buy-in to drive to a successful outcome — just to name a few similarities. As a mom of 8-year-old twin boys and a product management leader, I am very grateful that I can learn valuable lessons in one domain that helps me do better in the other and raise my overall productivity. In this era where work-life balance has evolved into work-life integration, corporate lessons learned at the crib have come in handy as I switch between my roles as a mom and a product manager.
The road to parenting, and as well, that of product management, are fraught with uncertainty. While diligent planning surely helps to de-risk outcomes and helps drive to a successful outcome, we still need to be skilled at handling the curveballs that are inevitable in life and work. Let us dive deeper on how both of these scenarios play out in this mixed-mode world of work+life — planning for the unexpected, and successfully de-escalating when our Best Laid Plans go awry.
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.
Like many other parents, I learned this lesson the hard way on family outings, where kids have felt too cold at the beach or were upset while being stuck in traffic. I’ve since made it a habit to routinely pack extra jackets, socks, snacks, water, etc. to make the outings more enjoyable for everyone involved, no matter the situation.
Similarly, I build a buffer for projects by leaning on colleagues who have worked on similar projects before. A 30-minute meeting with an experienced colleague can surface potential issues that you would have otherwise overlooked at the planning stage, thus giving you a chance to build a buffer into your schedule.
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.
One fall, I had planned an apple-picking outing for the family. I’d chosen a beautiful farm, packed a picnic lunch, got the kids dressed, and we arrived at the farm, only to find that it had started to rain heavily, with no sign of the downpour letting up anytime soon! After the initial surprise, we came up with an alternative plan and found a local beach where we could hang out, with a cafe close by. Overall, it turned out to be a fun day, and the fact that Plan A didn’t pan out was quickly forgotten. This experience taught me that, while we didn’t execute on Plan A, we still ended up having a wonderful family outing — which was our big-picture goal. We just bought a crate of apples at a local farm!
Frequently, in the midst of a product development cycle, we will learn about a competing play or a new technology option that just recently became available. When new information comes to light, we can accelerate our journey to success by evolving our original plans without feeling frustrated about the changes needed. While it’s not always that trivial to switch up plans in the business world, we need to stay focused on the big picture. If we can better achieve the overarching goals through an alternate path, we should be willing to change our approach, especially when the original plan is at risk. A change in plans doesn’t make our success any less sweet if we deliver on the big-picture goal.
A flexible mindset allows us to evolve and pivot as new information becomes available, makes us more successful professionals, and honestly, just more fun people to be around. This skill is critical for product managers, with our quintessential requirement of being able to influence without authority! The better we get at this skill, the more likely we are to be happy and experience personal and professional growth.
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.
In many cases, my kids’ tantrums are due to hunger or exhaustion, even though on the surface it may look like today’s upset is due to the fact that the museum had closed down their favorite exhibit. In reality, the loss of the exhibit is something they can get over — once they are fed and rested!
Similarly, when a stakeholder at work is upset, we should seek to understand the root cause of the emotion. Is revenue at risk? Have they committed something to someone and are worried about their credibility? Are they feeling ignored or dismissed? Is it something else altogether? It’s much easier to resolve the problem at hand when you invest the time and effort to understand the roots of the emotion.
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.
As a parent, I’ve learned that choosing to hire help for certain tasks, such as organizing my meals and periodically organizing my home, has made me happier and more effective overall.
Similarly, at work, securing a resource, either through a consultant or from a different team, can help you and your team resolve a blocker more quickly and with less pain. When faced with a need that has you stumped — be it a technical issue, a messy process, or a problem in team dynamics — or even if you just want a fresh, objective perspective or an additional pair of hands, consider getting reinforcements to perform a targeted intervention.
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.
When challenges do occur, take an emotionally intelligent approach to identify and manage emotions, bring in reinforcements to help, and be willing to redefine scope to get the project back on track.
As parents, we will inevitably have many opportunities to develop life skills at home that we can learn to apply in work situations as product managers — and vice versa.
Thank you to Terhi Hänninen for editing this piece.
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