Great product managers are fanatical about prioritizing the things that will make the biggest impact on their product.
In this episode we discuss some of the activities that product managers should not be leading and some ways that product managers can be fanatically prioritize their time.
What a product manager is NOT
Why product managers get pulled into some of these activities
Creating your Contentment Mix
The VITAL time management tool
Some other articles / resources I have found valuable:
15 Productivity Hacks for Product Managers by ProductPlan
product manager, product, customer, important, prioritizing, tasks, role, engineer, management, understand, vital, sales, engineering, organization, spending, data analyst, products, data, activities, people
Intro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 00:03
Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources. To help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered in our special q&a episodes. That's all at product voices.com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of Great Product Management.
Hello, and welcome to product voices. Great product managers are fanatical about doing the things that will make the biggest impact on their product. If something doesn't have a direct or indirect effect on the product, then it's not important enough to do prioritizing the work that makes the most impact on customers. And your business is one of the most pressing challenges for every product manager. But many product managers are so focused on prioritizing the work which problems to solve which features get in this release. That they forget. Prioritization starts with how they use their time, time is finite, we get the time we have no more.
Truth be told, we don't necessarily need more time. We need to better use the time we have. One of the most common mistakes I see product managers making is not prioritizing their own time. How many Friday afternoons Have you looked back on your week and said to yourself, well that we got away from me, all those fire drills, not a single thing checked off my to do list. Great product managers are comfortable letting some fires burn. If something is not their explicit responsibility, or it does not have a direct impact on the product, they know that it shouldn't you serve the higher priority tasks. This is one of the hardest lessons for product managers to learn. It's not our job to put out every fire or perform all the tasks having to do with our product.
A product manager's time is their greatest asset, it is the most important thing that we give back to our company. Product Managers, by definition are responsible for researching and uncovering customer problems and then collaborating with internal teammates to design, develop, launch and support a viable solution that solves those problems and adds value for the customer. It's that simple. And it's that complicated. A lot goes into that researching and uncovering customer problems and frankly even more goes into collaborating with internal teammates to design develop, launch support a viable solution etc. Product Managers are often asked to do more than what should really be part of a product managers role. Frankly, the main reason for this in my experience is that the organization lacks the understanding of what the product manager role should and should not be.
Product Management involves many people engaged in numerous processes, activities, work streams and decisions, and the lines of responsibility among all of those people. And all of those activities and decisions are often drawn in pencil when they should be in thick black marker. It's typically leads to the product manager becoming the catchall. They're thrown all requests or tasks that are not concretely understood by the organization as belonging to others. Hey, this customer has an urgent question, send it to Mikey, the product manager, he'll know what to do anybody know when the components are coming in for the product, call Mikey, the product manager, he'll be able to tell you what Mikey said to those requests when he was a new product manager was probably something like I'll call the customer right now and talk to them. Or let me check with supply chain managers. And I'll get back to you. But what Mikey, the experience product manager says is something more like that's a request for the customer support department. They're well equipped to answer the customers question. If they ever need me, they know to reach out for more guidance. Or, you know, I haven't heard the latest from the supply chain managers reach out to them. They're the experts on that. So it's knowing what is in isn't necessarily within our scope. I'm not saying adopt. That's not my job culture or personality or behavior. That's not going to get you very far. But it is very important for us to understand what lies within our bounds so that we can accurately and intentionally prioritize the time for the most important things.
There are a few areas outside of the product manager role that I see PMS getting pulled into an inordinate amount of time. I want to talk to you about a few of those areas that I think a product manager is not what a product manager is not we talk a lot about what is the product manager, what's our role? What's our responsibilities? I want to start that conversation with What a product manager is not
The first one, and I get a lot of pushback on this one, but I stand by it, I think I'll die on this hill. A product manager is not an engineer. Now I know a lot of you listening right now have an engineering degree. Maybe you're an engineer now or you came from an engineering role into a product role. Does it mean that you can't bring that knowledge, that ability into the product manager role, but a product manager role is different than an engineer role. Many organizations, especially those heavily in science, or technology, or engineering based industries, think of product management as an offshoot of engineering. And this gets us into some issues. A lot of times in these organizations, people will internally transition into product manager positions from an engineering role. Often the product management function reports up through engineering. So when other people in the company see this org structure, or you know, kind of the engineer the product manager career path, they naturally assume that the product role is an extension of engineering. And then that becomes part of the unspoken understanding or misunderstanding, in my opinion, of what the product manager job is. If your company's products are technical or scientific, it makes a lot of sense for product managers to have some background rooted in science, there's no question that an understanding of the technical details of a product can be an asset to a product manager. But this knowledge can't be in lieu of the deep understanding of the business side of the product, the customers and their needs in the market. Whether you have an engineering background or not, when your product manager, your job is no longer to be an engineer, you are now the expert on the problem, not necessarily the expert on the solution. So product manager is not the same as an engineer.
Another thing that I see product managers getting pulled into a lot of sales support a product manager is not sales support. There's a role called sales engineer. It's often called Solutions Engineer or pre sales consultant, a lot of times the growth manager these days is basically a sales support job is especially in many industrial technical companies. And it's basically a designed role to be a hybrid of an engineer and a salesperson. So it's someone who understands the inner workings of the product. But they're also adept at translating technical details into language that really is more marketing speak or addresses the customer problem and value proposition terms, they can help customers and prospects understand how the product meets their needs, while still getting into some technical specs as needed, right. So that sales engineer, Solutions Engineer, etc, is a person who can toggle between the technical jargon and the marketing speak. Well, a lot of product managers can do that as well. And some companies subconsciously deemed the product manager as a pseudo sales engineer, they expect the product manager to be the subject matter expert. And in many cases, the product manager is that Smee. But when they're pulled into every important sales meeting, that takes so much time from the product manager to do the other things that we have to do. Of course, a product manager is going to be involved in large customer tenders, or a big account review meeting. But watch out for being pulled into too many sales calls, if you as a product manager are thought of, and treated as a pseudo sales engineer or growth manager or subject matter expert. Sometimes that feels good to be involved in all of that. But the truth is, it's going to take away from a lot of your time. So a product manager is not sales support.
And finally, a product manager is not a data analyst. Now before you think I'm a crazy person, hear me out, product analytics is of course, very popular and frankly more important than ever, product managers absolutely must be comfortable with and adept at using data to understand what's going on with the product, with customer usage, with the business with the market, etc. Any data that we have to make our job more data informed is really important and product managers have to be comfortable with that. When I say a product managers not a data analyst, what I mean is, I don't want to see product managers be the person responsible for capturing, sorting compiling the data into those detailed reports and visualizations. Ideally, all of that will be done by someone else. And then utilized by product managers and others, to analyze, to synthesize and to make decisions on their products. Now I understand that not every organization has the ability to do that. And not every organization has a full fledged data analytics department, customer insights department, etc. But sometimes It's just one person that added to the team can bring so much value, and take so much off the product managers, let me tell you a quick story about one of my customers, I worked with this company, a global manufacturer of personal protective products, environmental protective products, radiation detection, that sort of thing. So the business had multiple manufacturing sites all over the world. And each of these sites had its own enterprise resource planning system. So it had its own ERP system to manage capacity planning, production, inventory management, sales, information, etc. Some product lines were produced only at one manufacturing site. And so the product manager for that product line got off easy. And you know, that ERP system was pretty much what they needed to grab data. And it was somewhat easy to access and analyze the data on their products. But most of the products were actually built across multiple locations. So what that meant is the product managers for those products would have to spend two to three full days a month gathering data from all of the different ERP systems, piecing that data together into spreadsheet, creating macros, and graphs and tables, and all of that, trying to paint that picture of their products progress. And it took two to three days per month, that's over 10% of a product managers time just being this data analyst, right. So, of course, really wasn't an option for this company to overhaul its entire enterprise software infrastructure, right? No big Master Data Management Project, over the course of several years, was going to help in the immediate term, right. So what happened was the head of product hired a data analyst actually to in this case, because of the size of the company and the need, but they hire two people whose sole responsibility was to create these product dashboards, these reports for product managers, okay, I understand that's not going to be every organization's opportunity. But this was huge for this company, it gave product managers what they needed, they could even get custom views and work with these data analysts to get some different things. And then it freed up those product managers to do the tasks that they needed to, instead of spending two to three days a month working on that, they were able to turn their attention to more strategic tasks that had an impact on their product. Product operations is something that I'm seeing is that is is helping a lot in this area. A lot of companies are embracing product operations teams. And I love that it's not the only thing product ops does. But data analysis and helping product managers have the data they need is something very valuable that a product ops team can bring to the table. So while data and analytics is very important in our world, and we've got to be data informed product managers, a product manager is not a data analyst.
So product managers are not engineers. They're not sales support, and they're not data analyst. But let me be clear, there are times when product managers do and should perform these roles. In some capacity, maybe you're going to think like a problem solving engineer during a design exercise. Or you do serve as a product subject matter expert in an important sales meeting, maybe you're going to do some data and analytics on your own and pulling some data doing some of your own, you know, data polls, there's nothing wrong with doing this from time to time. But if your organization is pulling you into these and sees your role as an extension of these things, then I would take the time to speak to your manager, speak to your peers speak to others, and say let's get some clear lines on what's going on. So now we've kind of established what a product manager role is and isn't and some of the the areas that can can kind of run amok in terms of getting product managers involved in too many things, which then leads to not having fanatical time management and prioritization.
So now I want to talk about managing your time across your entire life. We talk a lot about work life balance, and it's kind of traditional sense. I'm personally not a huge believer in looking at it that way, the way that we always have or traditionally have. I just don't think we live in work in this bifurcated world of this is my work and that's my life. It's really not possible to balance that in our world, at least not in our craft and technology, engineering product, etc. I mean, we just simply have constant access to technology, we work remotely from anywhere. We communicate at all times across many timezones with our colleagues around the world and so we don't necessarily have a true nine to five job there can be good things and bad things about that right we means that we have more flexibility and you know, we can do things on a Wednesday afternoon. That is traditionally work hours but then You know, we're on on the email at night or checking slack at night or what have you. So things just don't really fit into this work life balance anymore. Now, I'm not saying that we should work more, I'm saying that we should look at our life as a mix. I call it my contentment mix of basically, how does my life work together? And and how can I prioritize the things that make me really happy professionally? And personally? How can I be happy? How can I be content? How can I be successful and productive in all areas of my life, right. So that means sometimes I do a lot more personal things, I exercise a lot more, I play a lot of golf, whatever. And sometimes I'm working a lot more, right. So it's not like it's always going to be perfect, but I just like to look across my life. Bucket out the areas that are important to me, whether it's family work, social exercise, golf, watching the Golden Girls, you know, all the important stuff.
You know, we just really have to look at that, and then take a good view of how do we prioritize, if we're spending too much time at work, guess what, let's balance a little bit. If we're not spending enough time at work, let's balance that, right. But first, you got to kind of look across your life. Alright, then from there, you can look at that bucket of work, right? Whether that's 25 30% of your time, 40% of your time, at certain points shouldn't be that much, always hopefully. But across your life, you can look across things and then understand deeply how to prioritize your work, right. But again, big believer that to get really good at prioritizing our work, we've got to also prioritize the other things in our life that matter. Again, I call it a contentment mix. It's basically a different way of looking at a work life balance. Okay, so let's talk about your work bucket, your category of the time that you have at work.
Again, this conversation is all about prioritizing your time not necessarily prioritizing for your product, we'll do another episode about prioritizing for your product. But it really starts with how do you use the time at work that you have to get the most out of it? Right? I personally use something called a VITAL time management tool. It's really just a way to categorize the time and be very intentional in what you're doing. Right. So VITAL is an acronym that stands for vital, important, transactional, ancillary, and learning. And each represents an area where most of your efforts should be going there are going to be some other, you know, unrelated types of things or others that you might have from time to time. But by and large, most of your time as a product manager should be on vital tasks, important tasks, transactional tasks, ancillary tasks, or learning tasks. Now, let me tell you about each one of those. Now, I categorize vital activities as those that are absolutely essential to your product. And it's core to your product manager role. So you should be the leader, the central person of these tasks, it does not mean you do them alone, we do very little in product management alone. So it's still collaborative, you're still working with stakeholders, and teammates, but you ultimately are the one who are responsible for these tasks. So if there are things that Yep, that is squarely in the product managers responsibility, I am the one responsible for this, at the end of the day, those are your vital tasks, those are the things that are most important for your product. If these things go astray, then your product may kind of go off the rails. So examples, maybe Voice of Customer sessions, or spending time with customers design sprints, Product Strategy generation, like having a good vision and strategy in the first point in the first place. stakeholder meetings, right? Like making sure that we're communicating the why constantly how are we bringing us all together and influence influencing our work, right. So things that are very vital to ultimately drive success in our product, right? We don't do it alone. We do it in collaboration with our teammates, but it's ultimately your responsibility. So those are things that you should be spending your time on. What I call important activities are those that affect your product but aren't necessarily owned by you, right. So maybe it's something that is very important to your product and its success, but it's probably owned by someone else. So an example would be like a marketing campaign. We in product management are not the ones usually building the marketing campaigns, designing them executing on them, right. We are the ones who are collaborating with the marketing department, making sure that the value proposition is clear, making sure that our customer needs are clear, etc. And so we're a partner in that but it's not necessarily something that we own maybe a sales demo or an engineering review, architectural decisions for the technology, what those sorts of things aren't necessarily our responsibilities, product management, but they're so important to our product that we need to be involved, we need to save enough time to be involved in these, okay. And then you've got your transactional activities. And frankly, much of our work day is going to involve around doing these transactional type of things. Maybe it's requesting information or providing information. Maybe it's supporting certain, you know, tasks, or projects, or sprints, or what have you. It's knocking down roadblocks when, you know, our engineering or our product team has them. It's kind of the back and back, back and forth interactions that take up a lot of time, frankly, you know, sending emails, clarifying requests, spending time on Slack, whatever it may be, maybe even attending meetings, virtually or in person, this transactional work is very important to get the flow of work going and sustaining it right. And so it's never gonna go away. In fact, maybe even a majority of your time, or or the biggest bucket of your time is on transactional things that can be okay, as long as so much of your work isn't in this detailed transactional work that you don't have enough time for that vital and important thing. ancillary things are activities that support your product, but you are typically not as involved in as a product manager, you should be informed on you should be involved in in some ways. But ultimately, those are things that usually happen at different levels in the organization. So you know, supplier decisions, or distribution strategies, maybe really large customer relationship meetings, we are not necessarily involved in those decisions in those conversations, we need to be aware of them. Sometimes we're involved, sometimes we're not, if you're spending too much time on these types of operational things, or sales, things, etc. Those ancillary tasks really shouldn't be part of your day to day role. So if you're spending a lot of time in that, and you look across your, your calendar, and your time spent and there's a lot in there, you're probably not going to have enough time for some other things. And then finally, learning. So learning activities are so important for us in product management, right? It's really anything that you do to help you grow your knowledge and of product of business of your industry of your customers, right any areas that are important to you. Were on a continuous learning journey in product management. So carving out time, and being very intentional to save that time for learning activities is going to be really important. I personally also include downtime, stress management, you know, midday walk or meditation or you know, listen to a podcast, or read a book for a little while, whatever, even if it's like, you know, right in the middle of the day, I'll save the time on my calendar. I personally think that's really important and successful product managers who manage their time well understand that there's a need for downtime and need for thinking a need for learning. It's very important. So again, vital, vital, important, transactional, ancillary and learning. Now, it doesn't really matter how you categorize or what you call it, this is something that works for me, whatever you need to do to define the tasks that are important and and then categorize what you're actually doing with your time. Be very intentional about that, right? Make sure that you understand where your time is going, it is so easy to get distracted, to let all of the kind of chaos that happens and product management derail us and make us not do the activities not do the things that are going to make the most impact to our product. So vital tool or some other type of time management tool, what are your very being very intentional, and looking across proactively looking across your schedule, so that you can push things off, you can say no to meetings, you can understand where your time is going to be spent. That is a really, really powerful tool for people to fanatically prioritize and manage their time. So again, product management is a quite frenetic job. It's fun, it's difficult, it's very easy to get into a scenario where our calendar is managing us as opposed to us managing our time and our calendar. The best product managers are very intentional in this area. They don't always get it right. But they spend more time making sure that they're asked to do what they should be doing. And when they're asked to do other things that should be other people's responsibilities. They have those conversations, they understand, and they clarify. And then at the end of the day, they protect their time they protect their calendar. They're very intentional about managing where their time goes. You do these things. You'll be much better, you'll be much happier and much more successful. So if you visit product voices.com on this episode's page, you will see some tools, some templates that may be valuable I've got a vital time management mero board template that you may find valuable some other things as well. So you can find that at product voices.com. So thanks for listening to product voices. Hope to see on the next episode.
Outro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 25:25
Thank you for listening to product voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website product voices.com And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.