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  • Writer's pictureShai Yallin

Shift-Left and The Pitfalls of Overplanning

Imagine you're a chef tasked with creating a new dish. 

Would you spend weeks perfecting the recipe, measuring out each ingredient to the milligram, and documenting every step in excruciating detail - all before ever setting foot in the kitchen? Of course not. 

You'd start with a rough idea, gather some quality ingredients, and then iterate, tasting and adjusting as you go until you've created something delicious. 

Yet, in the world of software development, we often fall into the trap of overplanning. Product managers and UX designers spend weeks crafting detailed specifications, pixel-perfect mockups, and elaborate user flows, all before a single line of code is written. 

A cook with a covid mask can't taste what he cooks

The problem with this approach is that it assumes we can predict every aspect of the feature before we start building it. We're often solving novel problems, and until we start coding, we don't know what challenges we'll face. By the time engineering starts building, weeks have passed, and the original assumptions may no longer hold true. 

Engineering feedback in the early stages of product ideation could save time - for instance, we could develop 80% of the feature in 20% of the time, deliver it to users, and gather feedback in the time it takes the PM to finalize the specification document.

The solution is to embrace the principles of Agile development and Lean Startup. 

Instead of detailed plans, we need short, coarse-grained outlines that allow for rapid iteration and feedback. 

In contemporary terms, we can call this “shift-left product management”.

Shift-left product management is about bringing engineering into the conversation early and often. The product manager creates a lightweight skeleton of the feature, which serves as a starting point for discussion with the engineering team. Developers comment on and affect these early plans, providing quick feedback on technical feasibility, potential roadblocks, and alternative approaches. 

This rapid feedback loop ensures that we're building the right thing, in the right way, from the very beginning. It's like having the sous chefs in the room as we're designing the menu, making sure that the dishes can actually be executed in the kitchen with the available ingredients and equipment.

As we start building and gathering user feedback, the product manager continuously refines and expands the feature. Developers implement these changes iteratively, allowing for a tight feedback loop between customer needs and software delivery. To enable this collaborative approach, we need to rethink our deliverables. Instead of detailed Figma mockups, product managers should focus on lightweight wireframes, perhaps referencing existing components from our design system or off-the-shelf UI library. This allows developers to quickly translate the designs into working software, using their judgment to select the most appropriate components - somewhat like providing the kitchen staff with a rough sketch of the plating and a set of standard ingredients, trusting in their expertise to create something delicious.

Shift-left product management requires a cultural shift. It demands close collaboration, rapid experimentation, and a willingness to learn from failures. It's not about perfect planning, but about continuous improvement. Just like in a kitchen, sometimes a dish doesn't quite work, or a new ingredient becomes available. But by working together and iterating quickly, we can create something amazing.

In essence, shift-left product management is about applying the principles of Agile and Lean to the entire software development process. It's about recognizing that the best products are built through close collaboration, rapid feedback loops, and a focus on delivering value to users. So let's ditch detailed planning and specifications, embrace the uncertainty, and start building products that truly meet our users' needs. Just like in cooking, the most incredible creations come from experimentation, iteration, and a willingness to think outside the recipe.

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