The 3 Most Important Questions for Product Managers

The fastest way to burn out as a PM is to treat all incoming work as high-priority and throw yourself at it indiscriminately. To ground yourself, ask these core questions when considering new work.
Headshot of author Olivia Belitsky
Olivia Belitsky
Expert Contributor
February 25, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author Olivia Belitsky
Olivia Belitsky
Expert Contributor
February 25, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021

Product, engineering and design pods form the central engine at any e-commerce or SaaS company.

They are responsible for defining and measuring success, prioritizing the most necessary work to be done and building what your users need. There is so much work that could be done, and about a dozen teams are competing for engineering attention at any given time.

This is why product management is so critical to a successful product pod — we hedge against chaos. We sit at the front lines and handle intake for each idea, shift in strategy, bug and nice-to-have enhancement. At times, it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to give every idea the attention and vetting it needs.

The fastest way to burn out as a PM is to treat all incoming work with the same high priority and throw yourself at it indiscriminately. I have fallen victim to this myself — and when I’m overwhelmed by intake, I’m not able to do my job well. To ground myself, I always ask three core questions when considering new work.

 

1. Is This a Problem?

One of the most important tenets of product management is that users do not seek products, they seek solutions. Some of the biggest failures in the business world occur because the company did not solve an actual user problemAsk yourself: “Will this feature solve a real user’s problem?” Or, “Is there something that is broken?”

If you answered yes, then you have successfully identified a problem. If you answered no, but you still feel like you have a problem, then you’re probably also hearing one of two things:

  1. Our competitor has this feature, which means we must build it too!
     
  2. Stakeholders or leadership are really pushing for this feature, so we have to do it.

These are not good reasons alone to build something. A competitor’s feature is only worth replicating if you share the same user base with the same problems. Even in this case, it probably makes more sense for your product to implement a different solution that leverages your product’s core competencies rather than copying what a competitor built.

The second scenario is the more difficult situation to work through. The most difficult conversations in my career have come from pushing back against the popular opinion within my organization. The reality is: If the product, stakeholder and leadership teams are all in alignment with why users use the product and what success means, you shouldn’t have this problem. These conflicts occur when there are internal politics beyond your control — or there is misalignment within the broader organization regarding what success means. You will need to work with the relevant leaders to resolve this issue before you can competently prioritize work.

 

2. Is This a Problem That Needs to Be Solved?

Anyone can identify a problem, but it takes an adept product manager to decide if it’s a problem worth solving. If you spend engineering hours solving a low-severity problem, you face the opportunity cost of not solving more important problems. All the while, your customers may leave you for a competitor who can provide solutions to the problems that really matter to them.

To determine if you have a problem worth solving, consider the following:

  • For Feature Work: Will this feature open us up to a new market or customer base? Is this a feature that a significant portion of our existing user base will use? Will this feature improve our north-star metric or other success metrics?
     
  • For Bugs: Is this a high-impact or high-severity bug?
     
  • For Tech Debt: Will this improve our ability to scale? Is there a legal or security threat? Will this significantly improve performance?

 

3. What Is the Best Solution to This Problem?

Once you’ve identified a pertinent problem, it’s time to brainstorm! Even when there is an obvious or popular solution within your organization, I still encourage you to consider every possible solution, including the solutions that a different team would work on. Publicize your problem across the organization and encourage suggestions from anyone. Once, I set up in my company’s cafeteria during lunch with a sign that said, “Help us fix our clunky enrollment process!” I asked my colleagues to test the experience and give me their feedback and ideas.

Keep in mind that there might be short-term and long-term solutions — or a simple MVP with a series of enhancements. List out every solution from the least amount of effort to the most amount of effort. Use your best product judgment to nail down one to three good solutions by yourself. Then, speak to engineering and stakeholders for their feedback. I usually default to the lowest effort, medium- or high-impact solution to the problem in the interest of speed, but sometimes a more elegant solution is required depending on the size and severity of the problem.

 

Here’s an Example to Walk Through

The problem: A decreased bottom-of-funnel conversion rate last quarter has led to lower revenue per session.

Is this a problem that needs to be solved? Yes, this decreased revenue per session has led to a major financial loss for the company. Increasing it by even 5 percent would lead to an increase of $3 million next quarter.

What are all of the possible solutions to this problem?

  1. Fix a bug that sometimes prevents users from entering their shipping address.
     
  2. Test removing distractions, like upgrades and recommendation carousels.
     
  3. Change our credential policies to never sign users out of the website, so they don’t have to worry about logging in when they reach the cart.
     
  4. Integrate PayPal or Visa Checkout into the cart page to reduce friction.
     
  5. Invest in performance upgrades to improve cart-page load-times on the mobile app.
     
  6. Test removing the $50 minimum for free shipping.

The solution you ultimately decide to go with will depend on feedback from engineers, designers, stakeholders and leadership. While a test removing the $50 minimum for free shipping may seem like a quick solution, this would likely require sign-off from a whole host of strategy and leadership teams, because the $50 minimum is a cost-saving incentive so the company doesn’t lose money on shipping low-value packages.

Similarly, integrations with PayPal or Visa Checkout could take months of legal review and site integration, which won’t be a speedy solution to your current revenue per sessions problem. This is why, in my experience, it is best to start with the smaller efforts your team can implement quickly while you, the product manager, work on securing some of the larger solutions with wider groups.

This whole process requires some finesse and judgment calls. For instance, your colleague may think a decrease in enrollments by 7 percent is a problem that needs to be solved, but you disagree because you’ve made the enrollment process more tailored to a specific customer segment. Or you may want to start with the low-effort, medium-impact solution, but leadership would rather you start with the high-effort, swing-for-the-fences solution. There are no right answers here, just well-informed and well-vetted ones. Use these three questions as a guide to help you prioritize the right solutions to your most important user problems.

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