Breakthrough Insights

How Product Managers Can Avoid Crunch Time in Development Projects

With ever-looming deadlines and high expectations, it’s possible that software developers at some point in their careers will be subject to “crunch time” — weeks or even months of intense pressure that requires many extra hours to deliver a product on time.

These extended workdays, fueled by caffeine and cortisol, can wreak havoc on the health and mental well-being of those involved, and nobody does their best work under those conditions.

Product managers have a responsibility to their team members to plan and execute development projects in such a way that mitigates the need for such soul-crushing marathon sessions, and the successful delivery of a project may depend on taking those steps.

Failing to plan to avoid the need for crunch time can lead to team member flameout, and somewhat ironically, jeopardize a project’s timeline.

Planning and Communication Beforehand

Communication is a central component to fostering a development environment where developers’ resources are put to efficient use, limiting redundant efforts wherever possible and clearly enumerating every team member’s responsibilities.

Ernesto Mosquera, President at Global & Sustainable Products Consulting, emphasized this point in an interview, highlighting not only the importance of communication and planning in navigating a complex product development project, but also the key step of getting input from workers on the ground.

“For an on-time delivery it is essential that preliminary planning of the project is done in detail and involving all key resources,” Mosquera says. “In this phase, a realistic scope and timeline for the project is created that matches the requirements of the product management.

“My experience has shown me that if in this phase you do good and accurate work communicating with the team members and involving their input, you create the right foundation for a successful and on-time delivery.”

Staying on Track

Part of this involves setting realistic expectations from the outset and building in extra time for any complex development project that could result in excessive crunch time.

Establishing this time buffer allows team members to work at a sane, healthy pace, and can avoid last-minute time crunches that are all-too-often necessary elements of many development projects.

Of course, sometimes projects are thrown off track by unforeseen problems or changes. But the earlier and clearer those changes are communicated down the chain of command, the less likely they will lead to a potentially project-killing situation.

In these cases, using an effective product development platform that provides end-to-end traceability can also prove advantageous. With full traceability, teams can accurately assess the impact of changes up and downstream while making time to ensure full coverage for priorities and keeping everyone aligned throughout development.

Product Manager’s Responsibility

Lance Ellisor, Chief Growth Officer at Journyx, said he favors an approach where a product manager creates clarity and ruthlessly prioritizes throughout the process, which hedges against zero-hour panic and frustration as key team members realize they’ve been working from an out-of-date set of instructions.

“The product manager’s most important responsibility is to ensure utter clarity — of both scope and timing — between the stakeholders (customers/market) and the team delivering the work,” Ellisor writes in an email.

“Not only does this clarity avoid last-minute changes, it also optimizes project costs by frontloading any changes such that they have the least cost and the most impact on the project success.

“This means involving stakeholders (and the team) in clarifying needs, reviewing the proposed design, interacting with prototypes, test-driving the solution throughout as it’s being built, and affirming the candidates for release.”

Staying Afloat

The responsibility for building a foundation of clarity of purpose falls squarely on the product manager. Prioritization of project goals and deadlines must be understood and communicated to the stakeholders, and it’s not always an easy decision to make, according to Ellisor.

“The product manager must prioritize the needs with vigorous discipline, and frequently throughout the project as realities unfold and the time gets short,” Ellisor writes. “This is where a product manager quintessentially proves her mettle, as she’ll have to make some very tough tradeoff decisions — informed by both stakeholder needs and engineering constraints — to ensure a timely delivery of a solution that has the most value.

“It’s akin to having to throw some supplies off the boat in order to keep it from sinking; not a fun responsibility, but heroic.”

By meticulously planning each phase of a project, including budgeting time for the unexpected, and above all continuously communicating changes and expectations to your support staff, you can greatly reduce the odds of those long, miserable hours of crunch time.

Learn how to overcome more development challenges with our white paper, “Top Three Frustrations of Product Managers and Tips to Avoid Them.”