Product managers (PdM) are responsible for helping companies make better decisions consistently over time.
In a previous article, I talked about how wide-ranging the job can be. Product managers do a lot, but the most effective thing a PdM can do is focus on raising the decision-making capabilities of those around her.
After writing that article, I heard from a few folks who wanted me to expand on the idea that “PdM’s have no discrete outputs, and to focus on them is a waste of time.” On the surface, this statement is about outputs over outcomes. Outputs don’t tell us much about how to make better decisions, whereas mapping outcomes over time tell us a lot about who we are as a team. Focusing on shipping code or designs as a PdM may feel good short term, but in the long term, it doesn’t really help the team.
I wanted to take a step back and add another point: Focusing on responding is a choice that has an immense impact on how PdMs spend their time. You own your time as much, if not more than anyone else you work with. You aren’t attached to the deadlines that other disciplines have. For example, an engineer needs to ship code on time, or the sales person needs to close the deal. A PdM’s time is more fluid since deadlines are much more ambiguous. The catch, however, is everyone else feels like they own your time too.
Your time management directly impacts your ability to manage the job as a whole. Without finding space to learn how to respond instead of just reacting, you won’t be able to manage what happens around you.
What do I mean by that?
Let’s spend some time dissecting PdM time management. We’ll examine how time management impacts responding over reacting and how focusing on outcomes is your most important job.
The Product of Product Management
Product Management Is Time Management
There’s always a demand on your time, isn’t there? If there’s one thing that PdM’s won’t ever run out of, it’s requests. These ceaseless requests are why time management is important. You’re expected to raise the level of decision-making while managing an unknown number of inputs from stakeholders who often aren’t quite sure what you do. They just know that, whatever it is, they feel better when you’re there.
In short, you’ll find yourself becoming the company’s safety blanket if you aren’t careful. Some of you who are reading this can look at your calendar and see the signals:
- A calendar full of meetings, none of which have a theme.
- An inbox of soft requests from all over the business
- A Slack that might as well be painted red.
If you see any of those things happening, I have some bad news for you: You can’t raise the decision-making quality of the team around you since you’re constantly reacting to the needs of others.
Let’s make this real by checking in with John, a PdM at BobCo. John has been with the team for three months. Since there was no product manager before him, his work helped the team gain insight into the company’s vision and align their work with it. He has been super helpful to everyone, always raising his hand and trying to solve problems, wherever they are in the business. This attitude gained him a ton of trust early.
That trust didn’t come without a cost to his thinking, however. In short, he didn’t have any. Every morning, there was the same routine:
- Wake up to 30 Slack messages. He does triage and respond to the most important 10, saving the rest for later.
- Attend a meeting. Although he’s there in body, he isn’t in spirit because he has to deal with those 10 major Slack messages.
- Another meeting, which he uses to process email. Thank goodness, most things have transferred over to Slack internally, but there is still some code he can push to production. Doing so will speed up the sprint and help the team reach its goal of 24 story points.
- Phew, the third and final meeting of the day! Wait, what were the last two meetings about? No matter, everyone else felt great with him there. Now, he can help with a quick sales deck.
- This process continues until the Slacks stop going off.
The past three weeks have been like this, and while he feels busy constantly, he’s realized that nothing ever gets done.
Responding, Not Reacting
In his seminal behavioral science book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman described two distinct systems for human thought.
System one refers to our gut reaction. This type of thinking is reactive and quick drawing on our emotions and current state to move as fast as possible.
System two is our responsive system. This approach is slower, focusing on logic and taking effort.
System one thinking drives quick solutions and bandaids. When you’re running into an issue with a lack of resources to push something over the finish line, here are two ways your brain may try to handle it.
System one says, “It’s no big deal, I used to be an engineer. I can just code that up!”
System two, by contrast, thinks, “This has happened three times in the last quarter. We need to adjust our product development methodology to understand why we are falling short.”
Which one of these sounds more like decision-making? System two does. System one leaves the PdM in trouble because, not only is he messing with code that he hasn’t spent a ton of time with, now he doesn’t have time to think about the overall issue either. Without looking at the big problem, the PdM will continue to drown as more red buttons appear on Slack.
Let’s go back to John. He’s realized that his calendar looks crazy and he is falling behind his OKRs for the quarter. This doesn’t make sense, though, because ... well, he’s so busy!
He reaches out to Jill, the director of product, for an informal coffee and coach session. Coffee and coach is Jill’s way of informally coaching the product team on how to spot problems. John wondered, with how much Jill oversees, how she had time on her calendar for such a session.
The coffee, starting with small talk, soon gets to the meat and potatoes.
“Jill, I find myself underwater. Even though I’m shipping stuff and answering my Slack messages fairly quickly —” his Slack goes off again. “Sorry about that! Anyway, I don’t see any long-term progress.”
Jill sipped her coffee; this is the part of the job she loves because she knows there is a growth moment for a PdM in front of her. This is what evolving in your role looks like.
“John, I want you to look at your phone, but before you do, I want you to tell me, on a scale of one to five, how important is that last Slack message to your overall goals this quarter? After you tell me your prediction, I want you to read that message and tell me the actual number.”
John tells her three, playing it safe. Then he looks at his phone and sees it’s nothing serious, really a one.
Jill smirks “ I can tell by the look on your face that the message wasn’t that important. Do me a favor: Look at the last 10 messages you’ve gotten. Do any of them crack a two? Could any of those be delegated, if not ignored outright?”
John shakes his head as he goes through the messages.
“What you are seeing here is that you’re becoming a safety blanket. The company likes you and trusts you. But I bet you can’t tell me anything from your last five meetings that was important and how it worked with your goal.”
John sat there, quiet.
“No worries — we’re going to fix this. In fact, this is a big part of your growth as a product manager. Your homework for this week is to look at your calendar and decline every meeting that doesn’t have anything to do with your goal and for which you can’t delegate the work. I also want you to delete the IDE from your company laptop and make no slides.”
Now John looked worried.
“Tell them you’ll need to withdraw and let them know if they have trouble, reach out to me. I then want you to leave your laptop at work and take the next few days off. When you come back the week after, don’t accept any meetings outside of your team rituals and turn off your Slack notifications. Answer them outside of meetings. Meet me here the Wednesday after next for breakfast, and we will talk next steps.”
Our Best Asset as Product Managers
As product managers, we have no discrete output. When it comes to our teams, the product manager is not responsible for anything people can wrap their hands around. We don’t write code, we don’t make the UI and we aren’t making the sale.
What we can handle, though, is the heavy lifting of our teams’ decisions when it comes to process, empowering everyone to make better decisions. So, every moment you focus on outputs, you’re taking time away from helping your team in the long term by avoiding the harder problems that accompany crafting successful products.
Useless meetings are outputs. Responding to every Slack message, direct and indirect, is an output. Coding is an output.
If you’re doing one thing, you aren’t doing another. If you chose to focus on output, you aren’t choosing strategy. If you pack your schedule all the way and leave no room to process, you are choosing to stay still. Managing your time like this is hard, but it’s the job.
Without removing yourself from unnecessary entanglements and delegating, you’ll find yourself on a treadmill. You’ll never gain a discerning perspective. You won’t find yourself with the time to deliver decisions.
Let’s check back in on John and Jill during breakfast.
John arrives; surprisingly, he finds Jill unbothered, drinking coffee, as usual.
“I am surprised you aren’t sweating, Jill. I had so many irons in the fire, I thought you would feel the burn or at least get a little singed. No one came up to you asking where I was?”
Jill smiles again.
“Nope, everything is fine. Your presence wasn’t as missed as you think. Tell me, with that week, what did you get done instead?”
John smiles with renewed vigor.
“Well, I was able to get into the data in a way that I’ve been putting off. I found that one of our initiatives was a waste of time, so I’m planning on scrapping that next week and putting the energy behind some follow-up discovery that has a high probability of success.”
“During our retro, I facilitated instead of Slacking, and we had a really powerful conversation. I found out about two blockers, one of which you fixed pretty quickly. I was surprised.
Jill takes a sip and remarks, “Amazing what you can see when you look,” smiling.
John finishes off his answer by saying, “And I was able to put the research back into the product strategy, and we found a way to move some work and get back on track there.”
Jill smiles. “Now you have something impactful to go back to those other teams with and see if you can pull them along. That’s how we merge trust with data.”
Jill and John talk through how they can do that as they wrap up breakfast.
Decisions > Output
Every time we make a choice, we don’t make another.
If our heads are down, we can miss the forest from the trees. As product managers, our job is to help the team avoid running into a tree face first. We do that by having the confidence to say no, managing our time, and focusing on putting together the pieces of the puzzle.
When we do that, everything else will fall into place.