My company works with firms seeking to bring a digital product or software solution to market. Whenever we begin a new business relationship, we ask our client what their budget is for the software or digital product they have in mind. However, we rarely get a straight answer. Typically, our clients have often been burned in the past and are wary of being too transparent with a third party. Most of them are likely are assuming that whatever they state their budget to be, that’s what they will be charged regardless of the work, or they worry their budget expectations are too low.
I’ve been there, both on the client and vendor side of the relationship. The reason organizations are cagey about sharing their budget constraints is because money is a real, tangible asset. Other important assets that product teams care about include protected data, intellectual property (such as patients, blueprints, etc.), and internal artifacts (such as a product roadmap). You wouldn’t openly share your roadmap with just anyone, would you?
Time as an Asset
But what about time? Arguably, time is the most valuable asset a product team has. However, many businesses don’t think about it in this way. When I ask my clients about the time frame over which they want their projects to be completed, they’re nowhere near as hesitant as they are when it comes to the budget question.
In his book “Outwitting the Devil,” author Napoleon Hill states that “One’s dominating desires can be crystallized into their physical equivalents through definiteness of purpose backed by the definiteness of plans with the aid of hypnotic rhythm and the asset of time.” In other words, the recipe for reaching one’s goals is a combination of having a purpose, a plan, a set of clear milestones, and of course, time.
When you think about time as an asset, then you better organize and care for it. If you do, it will produce dividends. If you don’t, you will drift. Your team will use its time inefficiently. Like your budget, your time needs to be allocated with care.
Organizing the Time Asset
So, how do you get started? One thing that has worked well for my team is to start all the way from a year-long timeframe, then work our way into smaller units of time. We organize our time starting from the concept of years, asking: “What are our goals and what is the theme for this year?” Then, it’s pretty easy to subdivide that work into quarters. From the first quarter, you can easily divide that into two six-week units, called cycles. And within each six-week cycle are three two-week sprints. And sprints are something every product team is familiar with. Each of these units of time, from the full year to the two-week sprint, should have goals and themes. In addition, these goals should be tied to actual numbers. They should constantly steer with insights derived from measuring outcomes and gathering real customer feedback.
Product managers should subdivide these goals and themes into two categories. One is shovel-ready work that needs to be passed on to other teams. The second is look-ahead planning. With the piles of tasks that the average PM is responsible on a day-to-day basis, it can be difficult to move beyond the tactical and into the strategic. And that’s why giving the asset of time to this aspect of their work is so valuable.
Of course, no product team is perfect. It’s not always easy nor does it always make sense to keep all of this together and aligned perfectly to every unit of time. The key is to focus on rhythm and flow. Most likely, your team will struggle initially, but this is the first step in the process of getting to flow. But once your team is in the flow, they will perform at an extremely high level and the path to success will emerge.
That is the basic formula we use to organize our time as an asset, and it works. We recommend starting with a six-week bet as written about by Ryan Singer from Basecamp. As your team finds its own flow and discovers what works for them, they might discover a better methodology for their own needs and goals.