John F. Kennedy said, “The only unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable”.
Uncertainty and the inevitability of unplanned work present unique challenges for Product Managers. Unplanned work can:
- Impact the ability to deliver on our roadmap.
- Present communication challenges to Product Teams and stakeholders.
- Be unpredictable.
- Be unsustainable if it is adding to the workload.
The idea of plans being disrupted has a negative connotation but full-fledged Product initiatives can arise from unplanned work. Iterative value delivery, one of the core characteristics of a Product approach, means we are continuously learning and adapting our plans.
Unplanned work arises from two root sources, incidents and ideas:
- Incidents- where something fails and needs to be addressed.
- Ideas- a direct request from customers or input from any stakeholders.
Whether it is an idea for a new feature or internal housekeeping tasks, Product teams must decide how to handle unplanned work. Since it is inevitable, the way they approach unplanned work should be proactive and well thought out. Key considerations include prioritization, visibility and mitigation strategies.
Is the unplanned work important enough to address immediately, squeeze into the current sprint or given priority in the backlog? The work should be prioritized using a framework systematically rooted in some sort of business outcome-based prioritization metrics. Product Management prioritization frameworks like RICE scoring, Kano Modeling or Value vs. Effort scoring are useful in prioritizing and addressing unplanned work.
While prioritizing, be careful not to overemphasize frameworks. They can communicate a misleading impression of certainty when reality is uncertain. The numbers and measures that are initially input into any frameworks are estimates based on assumptions that need to be validated going forward. Where prioritization frameworks add value is by giving structure to conversations and establishing shared understanding across stakeholders.
Unplanned work that gets prioritized over planned work represents trade-offs that are important for Product Teams and stakeholders to clearly understand. An important part of the Product Manager’s role in prioritizing unplanned work is guiding stakeholders through the process, getting feedback and engaging with customers. Constant communication is crucial in managing stakeholder expectations so they realize that when focus is shifted to a new priority it impacts delivering on other priorities.
Communicating shifts and reprioritizations is important to ensure that no stakeholders fall out of the loop. The value of adopting systemic frameworks for both prioritization of unplanned work and communication is that they promote shared understanding and provide a touch point for all stakeholders.
Sound mitigation strategies can reduce the time and effort spent on handling low priority or unnecessary unplanned work. It can be useful to take inventory of time spent on unplanned work to identify recurring issues that can be proactively addressed.
For example, unplanned work can be recurring customer support questions or escalation of tickets. Product Managers are often gatekeepers of information that resolves and addresses these issues. Time spent responding to recurring issues can be reduced or eliminated by creating shared, visible reference resources and FAQs.
As the John F. Kennedy quote above implies, you must plan for the unplanned, especially when using a Product approach. A Product culture of customer focused continuous discovery and iterative value delivery is driven by new findings and feedback. However, if unplanned work arises that is repeatedly a distraction or low priority/unnecessary, it can be a symptom that your Product Team has work to do in terms of establishing and aligning with a collective Product Vision.
Ideally, frameworks for the prioritization of unplanned work that are clearly and narrowly focused on a few key customer and business objectives will help you effectively manage unplanned work. The key objectives should be built on a shared Product Vision and driven by a deep understanding of the customer and their problem.