Product management is a discipline where there is an unending to-do list, a fixed amount of time in the day, and enough outside influencers to make even the best multi-tasker whither and die. Yet good product managers always appear to be in control of the situation.
This is a testament to several traits that are required, including the ability to ruthlessly prioritize, to quickly triage inbound chaos, and to adjust positioning on the fly, and to appear to be in control.
All in a day’s work.
The one constant is chaos. I have evolved an ethos of “Just in Time” product management to contain the unruly parts.
Lessons from the 7 Habits
Really early in my career, I worked at a place that offered the venerated program by Steven Covey, “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”. The one lesson stuck with me was the rocks/pebbles/sand story.
If you haven’t heard this, you can search YouTube, but essentially, your “time” is like a gallon jar. There is finite space within it. If you think of your to do list sorted into big things, like strategy, product roadmaps, et cetera, medium things, like backlog management, sprint planning, and tangible short term actions, and small things like sales requests, RFP’s, and the myriad tactical bullshit items that consume your day, you can see that there is a limit to what you can do.
So, the story goes, you first put in the gallon jug the big things. These are crucial “must do” items. Once they are in, you find room for the medium items. Odds are good that you can’t get them all in, and that’s OK. Finally, you can sprinkle in the small items to fill any remaining interstitial1 space.
Hence the rocks/pebbles/sand analogy.
The key lesson here is that if you start the exercise with the sand, or tactical bullshit, you will fill your schedule with things that do not accomplish your goal, and then when you turn your attention to the rocks, the real value to the organization that you should be bringing, there is no time to accomplish them (or, more likely, you do a rushed, burning the midnight oil effort, and it shows in the quality of the work.)
Just in Time
Not far into my career, I worked at a small-ish division where we built our products on site, not in a contract manufacturer far away. They had gone to a kanban methodology that was very effective. I learned a very important lesson about just in time, that I took to heart.
As a college student, who worked to pay his way, I learnt to keep the due date in mind, and then Set a schedule, commit to a definite due date, and then work to deliver on that date. That “due date” looms large, but it was the only way I ever was able to get things done.
In my current life, I am exactly the same way I keep a prioritized to-do list, mostly of the “rocks” and some of the “pebbles”, and keep that list current.
I will admit that it freaks my boss out, as she gets nervous about progress on the big items, yet I have not let her down.
An enormous challenge in the life of a product manager is the barrage of big things, the rocks, that never fit in the allowable time. Having a conscious plan, and open discussions with your manager, you can effectively reject some of these rocks. It is scary the first time you broach the subject, but having been both on the IC and the manager side of this equation, I can assure you that your manager will appreciate the dialog, and rational justification.
Perhaps it is just too many things expected, and some should be not done, or reassigned to other groups, or, equally as likely, it can be used to justify increasing the number of product managers.
Unlike the life of a project manager, where you can say ‘no’ or threaten to redo the schedule/resource plan when an odd request comes in and alters the plan, product managers are often expected to elastically accept these tasks.
However, you can reset expectations, rearrange priorities, and yes, even drop some big deliverables, if you have open and honest communications with your manager. Still, having a plan, with deadlines can be a crucial tool to accomplishing this. And learn to get tasks done just in time, not stressing about the little things that will derail any well laid plan.
1 – I just love using the term “interstitial”, it means the area between the atoms in a crystal, or the “unused space”. The benefits of being a physics geek.