High-integrity commitments

High-integrity commitments
Photo by Alexander Suhorucov

What are they and why should you pay attention.

If you are in a typical, feature-team based product organisation, it is likely that you're regularly being asked by a project manager, a program manager or other stakeholders to provide dates and estimates of when you believe a work increment is going to be shipped.

This happens because people need clarity in their respective areas on what can be done and when it can be done. E.g. some B2B SaaS companies with complex sales cycles need their sales people to be able to start selling a product 2-3 quarters ahead of it being available. This is also true of marketing teams, finance teams and many more departments within the organisation.

Can those who have witnessed this before please raise their hands?

Photo by Luis Quintero.

That's what I thought! :)

In most situations, you're being asked to commit to a shipping date, release date, go live date for a piece of work you are yet to unpack and around which the level of uncertainty is likely high.

At this point, you might not have had time and space to do a feasibility study, run a product discovery activity, look at internal and external insights or even just run some desk research on the matter at hand. Yet, you are being asked to provide a date at which the work increment will be shipped.

Does this sound normal to you?

Don't get me wrong, there is a place for project and program management in certain companies. Deadlines and commitments are needed. However, for these to work, there needs to be a contract that enables the right behaviours. Like most things in life, this requires a bit of give-and-take.

A better practice would be to take the time needed to raise the level of understanding of a problem across the product team (product, design, engineering) before committing to any specific solution with a delivery date.

“The key is to understand that the root cause of all this grief about commitments is when these commitments are made. They are made too early. They are made before we know whether we can deliver on this obligation, and even more important, whether what we deliver will solve the problem for the customer.”
Marty Cagan, INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love

This is where product discovery plays a crucial role to play. The whole aim of discovery is to raise the level of understanding of a problem and evaluate it under different risks (value, viability, usability, feasibility).

Once the team has a good grasp of the problem at play, the strategic context, the technical challenges, they can provide an informed view of a delivery date for the first work increment or thin slice addressing that problem.
This is about confidence level, not about accuracy.
As a member of the product team, your role is to expose the situation to your stakeholders and explain that the team is going to need some time to evaluate risks before any delivery date can be given.

This is called a high-integrity commitment.
While it is not strictly binding, it is important in the role the product team plays and its relationship with other business functions.
High-integrity commitments help contribute to an environment where there is transparency, clarity and trust.

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