Alex Mitchell

How the Best Product Managers Handle “Downtime”

Over the past 7 years in Product, I’ve worked with a lot of Product Managers. Some were great at being unreasonable, many were extreme generalists, and most were great at saying no.
There are many things that separate the best Product Managers from the rest, but one of the biggest indicators that I’ve found is how they spend (or don’t spend) their downtime.
But wait…Product Managers have downtime?
While in the midst of a feature release or a quarterly planning week, it may feel like Product Managers don’t have a minute to spare. But, there will be other times: think holiday weeks and the middle of a well-progressing sprint for example, where even the best Product Managers will find themselves (sometimes unexpectedly) with time to spare.
The Best Product Managers make the absolute most of this very rare time. Average Product Managers simply enjoy the chance to relax.

Things the Best Product Managers do with Downtime

Longer-Term Planning

The simplest and most direct thing the Best Product Managers do with downtime is getting ready for the next sprint or the next big project.
This does not mean that they just go through the motions of sprint planning and create tickets. Rather, it means they take a hyper-focused approach to give their team and their company the best chance of future success.
Tactically, the Best Product Managers:
* Plan for the next project and create mock sprints for new features
* Create wireframes for features and start getting feedback from customers
* Look for opportunities to break down tickets into smaller pieces and/or make MVPs smaller by de-scoping before their team even has to look at the work
* Help test tickets and UI for their team or other teams

Analytics

Good Product Managers check their analytics each sprint. The Best Product Managers continually look for opportunities to add tracking to their product and interpret trends.
Tactically, the Best Product Managers:
* Deep dive into analytics and share what they learn with their organization
* Create new dashboards, add new user funnels, and create new reporting (Bonus: they automate the alerts/emails so they don’t have to keep checking them)
* Update their progress towards OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and add commentary. (Haven’t used OKRs? Learn more here.)

User Testing

The Best Product Managers use downtime to learn (more) from customers. They set up testing with different customer personas, have them try both current features and new concepts for features.
They dive deep into customer accounts and share what they’ve learned with their team. They adapt their tickets and roadmap based on what they’ve learned.
Tactically, the Best Product Managers:
* Set up low-effort “tests” in the product (using Chatlio, Qualaroo, Intercom or any other survey/chat tool).
* Sign up for the product (several times as different personas) and use all of the features themselves from that perspective.
* Simulate real users accounts (if you don’t have this functionality, you should consider adding it!) to see how they have set up their accounts, what they’re using and what they aren’t.
* Reach out to customers who are interacting with the feature(s) your team works on or the next feature you plan to work on.
* Talk with them, ask them questions, hear about their pain points.Watch FullStory sessions of your users (Shameless plug! You need this tool: www.fullstory.com).
When are they rage clicking? What separates successful users from unsuccessful ones? What errors are they encountering?Send a link to try your product to friends and family to try, get feedback from them on the experience. 
Note: Your family and friends are NOT your user, but they may provide a few interesting ideas or expose difficult UX, making this exercise still valuable.
Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this post, I think you would enjoy my book Building Digital Products.
Also, for a limited time I’m offering a free chapter of my new book: Disrupt Yourself.

Update/Learn From Other Teams

This one may surprise you.
The Best Product Managers will use the downtime on their team to shadow another development team and other Product Managers.
They recognize that observing a team with a different dynamic or a Product Manager with a different perspective may help them achieve the goals they have for their product.
Tactically, the Best Product Managers:
* Learn about what other teams are working on and struggling with by shadowing them.
* This doesn’t have to just be Engineering! Think Marketing, Client Services, DevOps, and Sales too.
* Think about ways to improve how Product, Engineering, and Design work together. They map out how the flow of work exists today from customer to delivery, highlight pain points, and come up with candidate solutions for each pain point to share and get feedback on.
* Schedule a 1-on-1 with a member of another team and candidly discuss progress, blockers, and opportunities for improvement. Often, you’ll find there are many ways to help each other!

Competitive Analysis

Downtime is a great opportunity to take a step back and look at the competitive landscape.
Don’t worry about benchmarking every individual feature of your product against every competitor or checking prices of comparable plans. Rather, see what your competitors have launched recently, try out their product, and generate ideas for your product.
Tactically, the Best Product Managers:
* Know who their key competitors (or similar companies) are in the market and how they’re trending over time.
* Track their competitive analysis and share what they’ve learned with other Product Managers to spread the knowledge.Know not to simply copy new features they see competitors introduce, but rather, get inspired to try new ideas or tests in their product or in interviews with customers based on what they’ve seen in the market.

Future Prep

It’s never too early to start thinking about the next quarter or the next set of product features that you should build.
Take some features from your neverending backlog and start designing them on a whiteboard or doing some research on new APIs.
Tactically, the Best Product Managers:
* Use downtime to mock up a new feature on a whiteboard or in a wireframing tool (I prefer Whimsical).
* They bring in others to critique or ask questions about what they’ve drawn.Do research on an upcoming project concept. This could mean reviewing API documentation, integrations, software that needs to be purchased, or simply thinking about why something is or isn’t important to your company.
* Read about and research major trends in your industry. You can (almost) never read too much!

Level Up Yourself

The Best Product Managers recognize that it’s not all about their current product. It’s also important that they continue to learn new skills and find ways to bring those back to their organization.
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to learn (often for free) almost anything online and the Best Product Managers take advantage of that.
Tactically, the Best Product Managers:
Learn a new skill relevent to their current role/company (ex. Machine Learning on Coursera for me).
* Reach out to Product managers/leaders at other companies and schedule coffee chats.
* These companies don’t need to be in the same industry you’re in! You can still learn a lot from other technology companies solving very different problems. I’ve learned a ton in over 150 coffees I’ve had in the past 2 years.
* Write a blog post on what you and the team are building to explain the customer value you’re hoping to deliver, the challenging decisions you made, and to invite valuable customer feedback. I write a lot for ICX Media and it helps me continuously improve.

What do you do in your Product Downtime?

I’d love to hear how you get the most out of this (often rare) time! Please share them and other ideas with me on Twitter at @amitch5903

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