In doing product work, I often think on a quote from Eugene Gendlin, a psychotherapist most famous for the “Focusing” technique. The “Litany of Gendlin”:
What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.
And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn't there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.
Part of a product manager's job is to give the team a vision— a North Star, a destination. But equally important is to show the team, and everybody with a stake in the project, where they are right now. A good product manager is a clear mirror, reflecting where the project is with all its flaws and challenges— even when that reality isn't what a stakeholder wants to see.
The Gendlin quote helps me remember that in product, there’s never a better time to share out new information than right after you get it (or perhaps right after you've verified its accuracy). Expectations never get easier to manage down the line. People make assumptions and plans based on the most current information they have, and the further that information diverges from reality, the more costly that gap is to reconcile.
This doesn't excuse being mindful of time, place, and tone. Often you need to present a united front with others in the business. Sometimes what's possible is a matter of mindset rather than math, and sometimes a team just needs some cheerleading to succeed.
But there's a difference between positivity and wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is lethal in product, and it's easy to burn your credibility with the team and others in the business by being unrealistically bullish on dates or velocity.
Every time I’ve succeeded in product development, I can point to times I’ve confronted unrealistic expectations early and compassionately. Every time I’ve failed, I can find a place where I ignored that nagging feeling that stakeholders' needs or models of the world were in conflict. While it's disappointing to hear that your feature won't make the release or that the timeline has slipped, the earlier you learn that, the earlier you can adjust your plans to compensate.
What is true is already so. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.