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Trust and Product

Why is there such conflict in product planning? It’s not a lack of skills; it’s a lack of trust.

Executives and salespeople commit the team to deliver something for a special client in addition to their already overcommitted backlog.

And yes, many product managers make delivery commitments without validating those estimates with the people doing the work.

As a result, developers build 20% to 50% to 100% (and sometimes more) slack in their schedules so they can take on these new commitments.

It’s not a lack of skills;

it’s a lack of trust.

I’m reminded of a scene in almost every action movie where the lead character asks someone, “Do you trust me?”

In the 2015 James Bond movie, SPECTRE, James rescues Madeleine in the abandoned MI-6 office space that’s set to be demolished. He brings her over to a big hole in the floor and says, “Do you trust me?” And of course, it’s a movie, so she says “yes” (actually, in this case, she says, "Do I have a choice?"). But come on! He’s done literally nothing in the entire movie to suggest that he can be trusted. Happily, it all works out—they jump into the hole which turns out to have a net at the bottom, and they escape by boat just as the building collapses.

When I watch those scenes, I know I’d be shouting, “No, of course not. I don’t trust you. Why would I? Why should I?”

And there’s the problem.

I think most of the conflicts for product managers are due to a lack of trust—both ways. Executives make commitments the product team can’t keep. Product managers make commitments knowing they cannot be met with existing resources. Salespeople make commitments to customers for capabilities that are frequently deferred or discarded due to more pressing priorities.

Product managers often share roadmaps that mix the known and unknown. We are working on this and we hope we’ll work on that. Then priorities change and the roadmap changes. But for other teams, this seems untrustworthy. They see a roadmap as a committed plan. They assume any changes to the plan will be additions without any deletions.

I was once pressed to commit a delivery schedule to the sales team. I finally said, “Okay, sure. I can guarantee we’ll do this, and nothing else.” And then the fight broke out. Because they wanted a commitment of this plan plus everything else they thought might close deals.

In the end, you can have this or the other things but not both.

Here’s the rule: Under-commit; over-deliver.

Here’s the other rule: Stick to the truth; it’s easier to remember.

Trust is earned, not given.

Earn their trust by making commitments you can keep.


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