Beau Blinder

@BeauBlinder

3 Practical Ways to Become a Better Product Manager in 2019

January 30th 2019

Every Product Manager inevitably comes to a point in their career where they wonder, “how do I take the next step? How to add more value to my organization and grow my career?”

Maybe you’ve been a PM for a year or two, maybe you’ve been at it five or six years. Regardless, when you get to this point you’ll realize there is a chasm of missing information. There are 5,000 articles, courses, and blogs dedicated to becoming a Product Manager, but few deal with how to become a great Product Manager.

Here are three practical ways you can become better at your job, starting tomorrow.

Bring As Much Context As Possible

It’s often too easy to get caught up in the “software is hard” mentality and suddenly find yourself months behind on an ill-scoped, ill-discovered, and ill-defined feature. In 2019 do less of this. The more time you spend on keeping the lights on, the less time you can spend on being exceptional.

Focus on bringing as much context as possible to the conversations with your team and doing it for each and every project or feature, regardless of how small. Context is absolutely critical to delivering great products while keeping engineers excited motivated. Deliver the best context you can by ensuring your team can answer questions like:

  • Who are they’re building this feature for (is this a power user? Someone who has never seen the product before?)
  • What they’re building and how customers are going to interact with it
  • How what they’re building plugs into the bigger story you’re trying to tell, and what solutions customers are currently using to solve the problem

One way to help is to get your engineers involved in discovery. Invite them to customer calls. Have them demo prototype features to customers. By hearing directly from customers and interacting with them, you can help put faces and voices to features and functionality. Doing so helps everyone remember exactly who is going to be using the feature you’re building.

Capture this context in clear, clean, and concise documents that the team can reference.

Write comprehensive scenarios that the whole team reviews.

Make stories user-actionable. Write acceptance criteria with the team as they pick up stories.

Ideally all of this is presented in a kickoff meeting and placed prominently for the team to refer to.

Being able to consistently deliver good context requires a lot of work. It points to a PM who speaks with customers regularly, has a strong discovery loop, and has put lots of thought into the vision and future of their product.

Most importantly, go through the SAME process for everything. A two week feature might need less design and less buy-in than a six month project, but that doesn’t mean the process you follow should be any different. You’ll get yourself in trouble when you choose to skip steps because “this feature is well-known” or “it’s too small for this process”.

Not only should you be bringing context for individual projects, but you should also be placing these projects into a broader story that your team buys into. That way, when you move from project A to B your team understands how they tie together. By creating a narrative, you are building a roadmap, justifying that roadmap (both to your team and stakeholders), and aligning resources in your company to achieve the goals you’ve set out.

Focus on Deep Work

If I could give you one piece of advice in 2019 it’s to focus on maximizing the amount of Deep Work you get done in a week. Cal Newport introduced me to the idea (via his book, Deep Work) and the principles truly resonated with me.

Most of your day conspires against you getting things done. Between meetings, Slacks, emails and other interruptions most PMs lack the mental space to focus on big-picture questions and problems. Cal’s suggestion on avoiding this problem and getting your head out of the fray is to focus on structuring your day to maximize the amount of time you can purposefully structure.

There are two strategies that have served me well. First, build a plan. Even if it’s a bad plan that you know will get blown up, go through the process of lining up your tasks for the day against the free time you have. Budget your time. Each time your schedule changes, update the plan.

Second, tune out the noise. Be thoughtful about which notifications you allow to take away your focus. Cut down on the number of times you check your email. Even think about physically moving yourself to a different part of the office (temporarily, obviously). When you are less available people get really good at solving their own problems. They realize their questions may not be that urgent.

Most importantly though, each time you interrupt yourself to answer an email you lose your focus. You get pulled out of whatever you were doing and start working on the interruption. It doesn’t sound like much, but those interruptions add up. Each time you get pulled out of what you were working on, you have to spend energy getting focused again and run the risk of getting distracted by Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or a conversation with coworker.

This doesn’t mean you should be a jerk or a hermit! Your job is to communicate and orchestrate, but that doesn’t mean every waking minute of your workday should be occupied by being a human router.

Block off time to focus it on important long-poll things.

  • What is your product vision? Are we on track to deliver on this vision?
  • Are your KPIs right? Are you on track with your OKRs?
  • What are your competitors up to? Has the market changed?
  • What does the roadmap look like? What does next quarter/half/year’s roadmap look like?
  • How are we going to build a specific feature? What are the pitfalls? What are the use cases?

“Deep Work” time doesn’t have to be spent alone, but it should be spent purposefully. So, I count time spent collaborating with engineering, UX designers, or talking directly to customers as Deep Work. It’s time blocked off dedicated to a specific task where there is little to no interruption.

You’d be surprised how much you can get done!

Be a Leader (Not Just a Product Leader)

Instead of only focusing on your area, learn to manage upward and outward (beyond just your organization).

Though you may be a often front-line contributors, excellent PMs are looked to as leaders within an organization. Their voice is grounded in the customer context they bring to conversations, along with the deep understanding they have of the business, the priorities, and the market.

This might sound intimidating, but you can take small actionable steps tomorrow:

If you don’t already have strong relationships with the leaders in your company, go build them. Grab coffee with your VP of Sales, your CTO, your COO, or any of the cofounders. Get their perspective on the business, their careers, and the company trajectory. Find out what they’re passionate about, what they think the company is doing well, doing poorly, and where the biggest opportunities lie. Find out if there are projects or ideas they’re interested in exploring.

These conversations are often incredibly fruitful and lead to insights and ideas you wouldn’t have had without their external perspective.

Beyond the senior management of your company, think about departments where you can strengthen relationships. Have you talked with a sales manager lately? Or a sales rep? What about someone from your Success / Support organization? How about an account manager? What about Marketing?

At Salsify we use Donut to help connect people from different parts of the organization, but I’ve also found it tremendously helpful to target specific people across the organization and build connections. Not only is it fun to make new friends, but it’s a great resource when you’re planning, launching, or prototyping a new feature. There are set of go-to people I have across the organization for feedback / validation on ideas we have. I lean on other people to get good customer interviews. And I rely on others for good, honest feedback about our product and how it’s performing.

Don’t be intimidated — these people are eager to hear from the product team and will happily talk your ear off. Most of these teams are very curious about what the PM team is up to, whats on the roadmap, and how you see the product evolving in the future. These connections serve as a great way to get feedback on your ideas, sharpen your product vision, and expand your knowledge of how your company operates.

It’s not just your manager’s job to communicate beyond the PM organization. Cultivating relationships at all level of other organizations helps position you as a leader, build awareness of you within the organization, and get better feedback to ultimately build amazing products.

Conclusion

Hopefully the three ideas outlined in this article are a helpful way to start bridging the gap between becoming a PM and becoming a great PM. They are small, actionable steps that you can start implementing next week and they’re aimed at exposing you to new ideas, helping you continue executing on a very high level, and finding the time to step away from the day-to-day in order to focus on things that might not help you today, but will reap rewards tomorrow.

Let me know how it goes and good luck!

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