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Bystander effect

The Bystander effect or Bystander apathy is a well known social psychological theory that indicates that people are less likely to intervene in a crime or in a crisis if there are more witnesses of the crime. All of them seem to be thinking: “Someone else will call the police, for sure”, but nobody does.

This also applies to product management. When we trust only in documentation and processes, we all think someone else is having a look and will take charge of the hurdle, but nobody does. Meanwhile the issue grows endlessly. Focus should be on our product and not in the process (better if we got one, but it is not our main goal).

Tasks should always have someone assigned who will feel in charge of their delivery and have a clear deadline to avoid the blurring of the responsibility. Besides that, the Product Owner or Product Manager will be concerned of any difficulty we might be facing. The product is their ultimate duty.

We don’t know what we want

Mercedes Benz made some surveys among their potential customers and they said they wanted smaller cars with less gas consumption per mile. They created the Smart. Meanwhile, cities were crowded with 4×4 vehicles as big as an airplane.

You don’t know what people want. They don’t know it either. You think you know but you don’t have a clue (me neither). Choose a reasonable option, test it, fail soon and fail cheaply. Learn from it and try a different thing. Keep as many options open as a small budget allows you.

But above all, avoid the Sunk Cost fallacy and insisting on a failure as “market wasn’t ready”. Nobody likes admitting they were totally wrong, but there won’t be more opportunities if you sink with the ship (or the department, the project, the product).

Illusion of Control

You have been working in chronograms, Gantt diagrams, risks and resource management, more graphics specifying who reports to whom, dreamed plans, and the name of the people who should be blamed in case of not meeting a deadline. You are probably thinking everything is under control, but nobody reads those documents, skimming them at best. 

When you see paperwork like that one, you might be thinking “What a great project manager I am. Every single detail has been captured”, but it might be only an Illusion of Control. What are you doing to help the team to be more productive? How do you plan to overcome Parkinson or Hofstadter’s laws? Other than getting everyone nervous when a deadline is getting closer, have you helped them to remove obstacles? Are you sure the team is delivering value? Ticking a checkbox for every completed task is not getting you any closer to the objectives if the outcome is faulty or doesn’t provide any utility.

Theory of Constraints (TOC)

It’s based on the search of bottlenecks and critical paths in your operations, so you can improve the process as a whole as any improvement in that point will enhance the total outcome. The idea comes from factory lines where a machine or an activity is delaying the whole line and preventing you from manufacturing more tomato soap cans. 

Your team probably (I hope) follows a sequence of actions: First user story is refined, then developed, tested, reviewed by colleagues, after that a pull request is triggered, software is merged, then tested in an integration environment, and finally reviewed and approved by Product Owner. What is constraining you from delivering more value at the end each iteration? Maybe your refinement session is not long or frequent enough to get all the stories refined, or perhaps Tech Lead is too busy for the huge amount of pull requests she is receiving, and they start to pile up in the repository tool. Do you need another pull request approver? 

Analyze the series of steps your team follows. Try to tweak your proceedings a little bit every time. You’ll make significant progress in your cycle time.

When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority

I remember when I read the book “Prioritizing the Product Backlog” by Roman Pichler. He wrote: “I’ll never forget the day when I suggested to the product manager of a new health-care product to prioritize the use case pile in front of her. She looked at me, her eyes widening, and replied, ‘I can’t. They are all high-priority’”.

Quoting to Karen Martin: “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority”. I have faced this issue too. I tried to solve it by telling the manager that the team couldn’t be working on five tasks at the same time and asked her what she wanted to obtain first. She didn’t hesitate a second and pointed to one of the user stories. “No doubt,” she said, “this one, definitively”.


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