On any given day at my job as Product Principal at SAS Software, I probably work on three or four broadly-defined projects. I know that this isn’t optimal because actual productivity demands true “focus.” Yet very few of us actually do focus in that way. The reality is that product managers (PMs) don’t get to pick when fires need putting out, or when requests need comebacks, and when due dates roll around. So we necessarily jump from task to task.
Nowhere is this more true than for PMs at big enterprise software companies.
Don’t worry — this isn’t another reminder about the power of saying “No” to your boss. (Though that is incredibly important. Go ahead and decline that meeting!) Rather, it’s about where, in my view, enterprise PMs see the best return on their time spent. Time is your most precious resource but it’s also the one most squandered.
One problem with Product Management as a business function is that it’s very easy to attribute all functions of a business to it. “What isn’t product management’s responsibility?” you’re probably thinking. This can be sort of true for little companies, but it’s usually just a cop-out. Allotting these tasks to people dedicated to its task is a key aspect to successfully scaling a small business into a larger one — or making sure a big firm fires on all cylinders.
Like you, there are a thousand things that interrupt my workday, demanding attention. It’s difficult, but I’ve learned to enforce the discipline necessary to ignore as many as is practical.
Before telling you the ways in which you can use the precious hours you have to focus in on what really matters in a following post, I’m going to tell you about the things you should not focus on. Essentially, the top four things Product Managers waste their time on.
Check them out below.
Obsessing Over Your Market and Competition
Every good PM knows his or her market and competition very well. But lots of firms heavily over-index on energy spent on competitive intel. PM and Sales needs competitive information to position the product and sell, but every hour you spend ruminating over your competitor’s latest white paper is an hour you didn’t spend improving your product. If pressed, I’d aim for a 1:5 ratio between this and improving my process (see below).
I’ve done product marketing, and been a PM where we had tremendous marketing support, as well when it was piss-poor. The results are stark. Done correctly, product and brand marketing can be a force-multiplier-booster-pack for you. Done poorly (or not at all), it’s like riding a bicycle while towing a 747. Yet product marketing can’t be the PM’s job. I find that folks often underestimate how big a job good product marketing can be, and when you ask the PM team to do it in addition to managing the product, you get halfsies results on both. (Which means neither is really done right.)
First, let’s be clear – in any company that sells software, sales is everyone’s job. But, okay — it’s more some people’s job than others. How much time enterprise PMs spend helping sales could be a whole blog post unto itself, but I typically see two good uses of PMs’ time here: sales training and “pragmatic” client visits gathering input. In certain cases, with high-value opportunities, PMs can be useful in closing deals; but they might not be, too. You usually don’t really know (and neither does the seller). Yet the pressure to hit numbers and close deals can be tremendous, and can draw PMs out on the road more than is really necessary.
We’ve all heard the business-y cliche below, right?
Okay, yes. But it’s true! This is famously hard for big companies to control, and unfortunately it exploits a key human frailty — our aversion to seeming rude. Well, my advice is — be rude! Okay — don’t actually be rude, but decline meetings and leave them early when you’re not getting or adding any more value. Not all of us can do this all the time, of course. (I’m not declining any meetings with my boss, or her boss, etc.) But what meetings you take, stay or participate in is ultimately a choice you make with your limited working time. It’s no one’s job but yours to make it count.
The stuff that floats to the top of our priority lists are often the squeakiest wheels, like these four. This is just a natural feature of our psychology, but it’s not always the stuff that really helps us add value.
The Nonessential Truth
Most of the nonessential things begging for Product Managers’ attention, like the ones I mentioned above, are high-visibility but low-urgency. The competition, marketing/sales and wasteful meetings are all things that we refer to as “interrupt-driven,” meaning that they’re likely to be things that land uninvited in your email or workspace, rather than work that you seek out intentionally (like improving your product, processes or delivering news). In other words, they’re distractions.
By contrast, focusing on improving your product, your processes and accepting hard tasks (like delivering bad news) are easy to avoid and that is why I’m going to focus on them in the next post. Look for it tomorrow.