A phrase has been popping into my head at recent client workshops. While emphasizing the need to think ahead, especially in an uncertain world, I find myself saying:
“That’s a surprise we can see coming.”
While our functional/departmental co-workers are stuck in the issue-of-the-day or this week’s sprint backlog or customer escalation #847, there’s a need for someone (often a product manager) to look a few months ahead. To do scenario planning. To apply previous experience. To take the long view.
A few examples:
 Our product management team is currently aligned horizontally, matched against products and engineering teams. We’re not doing a good job of thinking vertically, though. Marketing and Sales want benefits and success stories with industry-specific flavor: online banking benefits for financial customers, Black Friday-related analytics for our etailers, Farm3r Br∅wn stories for robotic agribusiness clients. So we re-organize the product team, shifting from a product focus to a vertical/industry solution focus.
All well and good, but 6-8 months later we’re getting complaints from Engineering that product managers have lost touch with technical details and are no-shows for sprint planning meetings. Aha: the surprise that we can see coming. There isn’t a perfect, costless way to organize the product team: the boundaries we use to divide work create their own conceptual/content gaps. We trade one set of blinders for another.
(Solution: plan for lots of sharing and cross-training where we anticipate narrowed thinking.)
 We have to change the pricing model for one of our online services. For historical reasons, we had been charging for activity (per fax, per stock trade, per GB, per reservation…) and need to shift to a freemium/subscription model (per month, with a “free” option up to 100 units). We have buy-in from our executives, and expect the competition to move there soon. Also, this positions us to upsell other subscription services to our big customers.
The customer base breaks into a few camps. Serious users will find that the new scheme saves them money. Low/moderate volume users may have to pay more. And many customers don’t care enough to notice.
What’s the surprise that we see coming? A handful of users who were paying us $2 per year for occasional activity are up in arms: letters to the CEO, social media rants, accusations of commercial favoritism. Suddenly, folks in our Support and Legal teams are asking whether we should roll back our long-planned price change. In the heat of the PR moment, it’s easy to forget these are outliers rather than core customers.
(Solution: an honest phone call with these frustrated users, a logo coffee mug, maybe an extended free account. They are not your target customers, but are still real people.)
 Our company has a mixed sales model: our direct sales team manages a handful of major accounts, and our resellers handle thousands of other customers — large and small — around the world. Our margin on direct sales is higher, but the channel gives us much more reach than our sell-direct-only competitors. The direct sales team proposes to claim the top 50 accounts worldwide, expanding from the top 5.
If you’ve spent time with channel sales organizations, there should be no surprise here. In most technology segments, vendors have repeatedly screwed over their resellers by incrementally taking back the most profitable customers. When word gets out that your direct team is skimming the cream, your best channel partners will revolt. And will sign up to sell for the competition.
(Solution: we need to get out ahead of this. Pull the VP Channel Sales into the discussion, lobby other execs, find an outside expert to weigh in. While sales models are outside a narrow product management charter, we must help suppress this before rumors reach our resellers.)
 Our major new software release has a serious bug. Development missed it, QA missed, product management missed it, beta users missed it, but the first handful of customers is having trouble upgrading. One of our biggest fans has left voicemail with how-to-reproduce-it details and sorrow about our quality.
The CEO, famous for “shoot the guilty first and find facts later,” is arriving in an hour. Nervous developers are looking for the emergency exits. (Honestly, this is a surprise that no one on the team is surprised about.)
- Stand up on a chair, call the entire team together and tell them it will be OK
- As product manager, you own the problem (regardless of actual cause). Tell folks you doubt you’ll get fired, and will brief the CEO on behalf of the team. Be the (wo)man.
- With the hour you have, spin off some groups to verify the bug, dig into the code, look for quick fixes, and see if we had coverage holes in our automated testing.
- Post to your Support/Community that you have a known bug, and are working on it. You’ll post a fix/solution as soon as you know what it is.
- Leave a message for your loyal fan cum product tester. Thank him and let him know you’re working the issue. (After the fire dies down, send a company t-shirt with “#1 External Tester” on the back, and thank him by name in the company blog. You want to encourage his behavior.)
- During the next hour, pull together a calm appraisal of problem and solution. Have Development and QA read it for correctness and lack of blame. Use the “I” word for shortcomings and the “we” word for solutions. Reserve the soundproof conference room.
- Update online status as you can, and get a patch built ASAP. Save process improvement recommendations for a post mortem or retrospective.
Surprise? Nope. Business as usual? Let’s hope you only need to own small disasters once per quarter.
You can avoid some problems, and shrink others, by looking ahead. By applying your experience and considering a range of reasonable scenarios. By helping your team see the surprises that are coming.