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I never understood why Garfield hates Mondays. He is a cat after all — why does he care what day it is? Personally, I have always looked forward to the start of a new week. I have a strategy that gets me into a productive mode fast. (And it does not involve lasagna.)
Product managers are planners by nature and by job function. But the demands on your time can quickly turn the week into a jumbled mess that weighs you down. Maybe you have not thought about setting up a Monday morning routine of your own. But I say you should.
You want a structure that will help start your week with confidence and purpose.
This is more important and valuable for product managers than for most jobs. You sit at the intersection of many different roles and tasks in your organization. You count on a lot of people — to do their part of the work, to give you information. And a lot of people count on you.
Your list of goals and tasks will help you keep your whole team running smoothly.
This does not mean you have to plan out every minute of your Monday. Your routine does not even have to be exactly the same every week. But I do have some recommendations.
Here are eight things product managers should do every Monday morning:
Review goals Dive into your actual work by reviewing goals — your product’s and your own. This will help you prioritize and mark time for the to-dos in the upcoming week that will help you get closer to those goals.
Check calendars At the start of every week, I look for what is coming up on my calendar. Pay attention to your meeting load and who is out on vacation. That way, you will not be surprised when things get messy. I actually do this on Sunday night, but Monday morning works too.
Fuel up and get going Start the day with a good, hearty breakfast — then get going. Right away. The best way to have a productive week is to be productive from the very start. So, push distractions to the side and focus, focus, focus on the work.
Confirm deadlines Those due dates are looming — user stories to define, next quarter’s roadmap to create, a customer waiting for a response to their problem. Are you on track to meet all deadlines? Or is it time to call for some assistance? The same goes with the to-dos you have assigned to others — do not wait until it is too late to check in.
Scan for roadblocks Your week is inevitably going to present a few obstacles to your plans. Your goal for Monday morning is not to clear it all out of the way. It is enough, for now, to identify and make note of existing and potential challenges. That way, you will not be caught off guard later.
Chat with customers It might be impractical to talk to customers first thing Monday morning, but you can make a plan to chat with at least one during the week. This could be sitting in on a demo, hopping on a call with customer service, or talking directly over phone or video. Every customer conversation you can work into your schedule can give you a better understanding of their needs and desires.
Check in with the team
Because you are at the center of building product — your team is bigger than one. Staying close to marketing, sales, development, support, and all the other folks you depend on is key. How was their weekend? What do they have planned for the week? And how will it impact what you need to get done?
Plan to refuel
Make a plan to refuel later in the week. Maybe it is carving out time for a workout or lunch with a friend. You will need the boost. Because every product manager is busy every week and needs to take quick mental breaks to stay fresh.
You cannot plan out your whole week with any precision — but you can use Monday to set yourself up for success.
The point of this well-planned morning is to take control of that day and the days that follow. This does not mean trying to wrangle your entire wild and hectic week into complete submission.
Give yourself a logical and efficient way to deal with the dynamic — sometimes chaotic — nature of your job. Then you will have a Monday that even Garfield could love.
What is one thing product managers should do every Monday?
Does greatness come from a spreadsheet? Probably not if you are a product manager. Yet many are attempting to do so at this very moment — using a spreadsheet to manage the building of a product. Really, those spreadsheets are nothing more than a glorified list of features and priorities. This may work for a while. But spreadsheets are not meant for roadmapping the future.
No offense to spreadsheets. But they are not that smart. And that is understandable. A spreadsheet is a general purpose tool — ideal for tracking and calculating things such as a marketing budget. But managing the complicated process of building a product?
When it comes to product management, the spreadsheet has big-time limitations. Think about it: No linking your strategy to the work. No custom roadmap views. No collaboration or sharing notes. And certainly no quick visual mockup capability.
As a product manager, you deserve a more sophisticated tool than a spreadsheet.
This is because you need to gather and share dynamic information. To build something exceptional, you need to deeply understand the customer problem and the market landscape. You need to capture those insights, set strategic goals, and link it all to the features that need to be built. And what about capturing customer feedback? Absolutely, you need that too.
Your goal is to create a product that customers love. You do this by focusing on and delivering what I call the Complete Product Experience (CPE). The CPE is an approach to building product that is both strategic and people-centric. And it is nearly impossible to accomplish in a spreadsheet. So if you are still squinting at those rows of cells, consider this a gentle alarm.
Throw out the spreadsheet. Use a tool that was designed for building products. Here is how to build product in a smarter, more strategic, and (hopefully) more enjoyable way:
Know your why You need to know why you are building in the first place. So, create a clear vision of the problem you are solving for customers and the opportunity for the business — your reason for being. You can then set your product goals and thematic initiatives for how to get there. It all starts with the “why.”
Know your customers Everyone on the team should know who the customer is — in a deep and meaningful way. To get everyone on the same page, create customer personas. Documenting the customer’s likes, dislikes, struggles, and desires. Once created, link these personas to your features so everyone on the team is clear who it is you are building for.
Know your plan To deliver what your customers need and to create the greatest business value, you need input from cross-functional teams. This means knowing the plan deeply yourself, while also making it visible and collaborative with the broader team. In other words, share the plan and share it often. Give the team insights on what is ahead and ask for input on what could be better.
Know your organization Once everyone understands the plan — the key ideas and how the features map to your thematic initiatives — you need to take steps to understand the team. Do they have what they need to execute on the plan? What tools will make it easier to share information and track status? (The answer is never “another spreadsheet.”)
Know your barriers I know it can be hard to hear criticism, but do not brush it off — whether it is from a support call or a frustrated email from a sales colleague. Listen, respond, and if the request is aligned with your goals, take action. A dedicated feedback loop like an ideas portal will help you gather these product requests on a regular basis.
Know your tool Are you using a dedicated tool to set strategy, capture ideas, prioritize features, manage releases, and report on progress to the team? If so, great — you are in good shape. But if you are trying to make a generic tool work with your very specific product job, you might be struggling to move the work forward. And you would benefit from adopting a purpose-built product management tool.
Spreadsheets have a place and a purpose. But if you rely on a spreadsheet to build product, you will find yourself boxed into a cell.
Even if you give up using spreadsheets for roadmap planning, know that they will continue to play an important role in running the business. Only now the spreadsheet will be used for what it was designed to do as a general purpose tool.
Everything you do — every feature created or idea gathered — needs to tie back to that problem you are solving. You deserve to use a purpose-built tool that helps you build product with conviction.
This is how great product managers build great products — the ones that customers love.
Are you still using spreadsheets to manage your product planning?
“Do you validate parking?” I had asked a job candidate at a previous company if they had any questions for me. And this was the sole question from the product manager I was interviewing. Flabbergasting. Product managers are supposed to be curious and inquisitive. This person’s lack of meaningful questions told me they did not want the job enough.
An interview is your best opportunity to figure out if the job and the company are the right fit for you. Do not waste it by asking routine questions.
This is not to say that you should never ask a mundane question that is really important to you. You want to know how big the team is and what the hiring manager is hoping for from the role. But you need to go beyond that as well. To get to the next round, you must ask questions that only a savvy and experienced product manager would know.
Everybody on our Customer Success team at Aha! is an experienced former product manager. So, between all of us, we have been on both sides of many of these interviews. I asked the team for some of the best questions they have asked or that candidates asked of them.
Here are 33 smart questions to ask during a product manager job interview:
Strategy Before joining a company, you want to know that there is a clear vision for where they want to go. If the interviewer cannot answer this in a sentence or two, it should be a red flag. If things are in the process of changing, consider whether the company seems self-aware about its shift in focus. Your line of questioning will also demonstrate your understanding that, without a clear and articulate vision, everything else downstream will be more complex and challenging.
How does the product vision relate to the vision and goals of the company?
How do you develop your product strategy and what are the inputs?
How has the product or go-to-market strategy changed over the last year?
What kind of data do you use to drive product decisions?
What other use cases might you expand to target in the future?
Are there broader company goals that this role can help solve?
Organization and teams To get a full understanding of the job, you must learn what kind of relationship the product manager will have with the rest of the organization. You want to get an idea of how cross-functional collaboration works within the company and how much autonomy you will have. And because the role of product manager itself can be very different at different companies, you want to drill down and distill how the teams are structured and work together.
How does the product management team work with executive leadership and the CEO?
Who is the most senior “product person” at the company and are they on the executive team?
How does the product management team work with engineering, sales, and support teams? Is the organization led by sales, product, or engineering?
What are the characteristics of successful product managers in your organization?
What is the hardest thing about being a product manager here?
How do you onboard new product managers?
Customers You want to know if this company truly understands customer needs and expectations. Do they take customer input into account to improve the experience — without trying to satisfy every individual customer demand? A good sign of a transparent organization is that they are not only in tune with their strengths but with their weaknesses as well. Inquiring about all aspects of the customer experience will give you valuable insight into the stage of their product and their culture.
Ask the following to learn about the company’s relationship with customers:
Can you describe the makeup of your customer base?
What type of customer research do you conduct and how often?
What new types of customers are you trying to reach?
Where have you seen the most growth in adoption?
What kind of interaction is there with customers in this role?
What do your customers say they love most (and least) about the product?
When was the last time you said “no” to a customer and why?
What is the most common reason that your customers cancel or leave?
How do you measure customer satisfaction?
Ideas and enhancements By understanding where most product ideas come from, you will have a better understanding of who the most common stakeholders will be. You also want to get at the heart of whether the company uses more qualitative or quantitative feedback to prioritize ideas and new features. The responses will reveal the objective metrics and influential forces that influence their product roadmap.
Ask about their approach to ideas:
How do you connect new ideas to your business strategy?
Do different ideas get treated differently depending on the source? (For example, does an idea from a customer carry more weight than one from an employee?)
What is your feedback loop with customers who share ideas?
How many customer ideas do you ship in a year?
Releases and launches You asked about the company’s “why,” but now you want to find out the “how” — the people, processes, and tools that are used to launch new features and products. The release plan and frequency will help you decide if the company is a good fit. If you are used to shipping weekly, then a quarterly release cadence might be too slow for you. If they are unable to give you specifics, that could be an indicator of a chaotic go-to-market process.
Learn more about releases and launches with these questions:
How are releases managed?
In the last year, what percentage of your development were bug fixes, maintenance, and new development?
Talk me through one idea that you turned into a feature and shipped that ended up being a mistake. What did you learn from that experience and what would you have changed if you could go back in time?
What was the last feature or product you decided to eliminate?
How often are new features released?
Can you share a lesson from the last product launch?
How do you measure the success of a new launch?
Your thoughtful questions will not only make a good impression — they will also help you figure out if this is a job you really want and a company you really want to work for.
Ask as many as you can. If you run out of time with one interviewer, save your remaining questions for the next one. And do not be afraid to pose the same question to multiple interviewers. The differences in their responses could tell you more about the company than the answers themselves.
What questions do you ask during product manager job interviews?
There are some Inuit dialects that have dozens of words for “snow.” The dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region, for example, has at least 53 words to distinguish between wet snow and crystalline powder. Interesting, right? Even though I really like being in the mountains, you might be wondering why I am writing about snow.
Well, it occurred to me that product management has its own version of this. Different job titles for what, on the surface, appear to be the same thing — but that actually have important distinctions.
Now, I am a big fan of flattening organizations and avoiding reading too much into a name. But I do believe titles have meaning — assuming the organization is clear on roles and responsibilities.
Teams need to understand who does what and how the various work fits together. This becomes even more important as companies grow.
Of course, every organization is free to define a position however they see fit. But in the spirit of clarity, our team has written several posts over the last few years explaining the various product management roles. And we have even compared the various types of roles to each other. For example, we wrote about the product manager versus the scrum master.
We drew on our own experiences and those of our customers — Aha! was built by and for product managers. People tell us that these are informative and they are popular on our blog. No surprise. Folks like definitions.
So, we figured we could make it even easier by collecting them in one post — your guide to product management job titles.
These are a few of the most commonly used product management job titles, presented in alphabetical order:
The business analyst This might be the job title most commonly confused with the product manager role. There are two main differences, however. While the product manager tends to look outward to the market and customers to determine what direction the product should head, the business analyst is an inward-facing role, examining internal processes, practices, and systems to determine how to best build and support that product. In this way, it is more like a product owner.
The other big difference lies in defining the requirements. As I’ve mentioned, the product manager owns the “why” and “what” of the product. The business analyst is more responsible for the technical specifications that will deliver on those questions. In this, they work closely with engineering on the “how” of what gets built.
The chief product officer The chief product officer (CPO) is responsible for everything related to product. This role typically includes all strategic planning, innovation, and the long-term roadmap across the product portfolio. They typically work on the product strategy in conjunction with the CEO, CTO, executive leadership team, and sometimes even board members.
The CPO is also focused on setting product management best practices for internal teams. Attracting, building, and retaining high-performing product management team members and recruiting new talent is critical in order to launch new products and initiatives. Many CPOs manage the product marketing function within the organization as well.
The director of product management At larger companies with many product managers spread across various products, the director of product management typically manages people and a collection of products. (The same responsibilities might also be performed by someone with the title of “product line manager.”)
Simply put, this person has broader responsibilities for a portfolio of offerings and the people who manage them. As part of this, the director of product may also work on special organizational development and training projects for the product team and represent the product group internally and externally. This person often fills in for the VP of products when needed.
The product manager The product manager is tasked with defining the product roadmap and is likely involved in setting the long-term product strategy. This role requires a cross-functional perspective and high-level oversight of enhancements to existing products and launches of new ones. The best product managers take a goal-first approach, creating product initiatives that support the company’s goals. The day-to-day work involves defining the “why,” “what,” and “when” so that the product team can deliver a Complete Product Experience (CPE).
The product manager’s responsibilities range far and wide depending on the size and complexity of the company. Generally, it involves leading the product planning process and working closely with the product development team — collecting ideas, defining features, planning releases, and prioritizing all of the above. This work also includes go-to-market activity and organizational training to help make sure everybody is marching in lockstep towards the same vision.
The product owner At smaller companies, the product manager is often responsible for representing the customer internally and externally. At larger companies with agile teams, it is not uncommon to split those duties out — with the product manager taking on the external focus while the product owner represents the customer and their requirements internally.
This means answering the development team’s customer-oriented questions and writing detailed user stories that capture what a user does, needs to do, or wishes to do. In this way, the product owner helps define the product’s functionality and features and works on a day-to-day basis with the engineering team. And in agile environments that use scrum, the product owner typically attends daily standups.
The technical product manager The technical product manager focuses on the core specifications and technology decisions, with a greater emphasis on product capabilities rather than overall product strategy. The technical product manager usually has deep technical expertise and often has a computer science or engineering degree.
The role tends to be more internally focused than externally focused. The work includes writing user stories and product requirements, as well as keeping a sharp eye on competitors and the market to spot technology trends and new solutions.
The VP of product While the product manager role involves a lot of roadmap planning and some strategy, the VP of product role takes that up a notch with broader decision-making authority over the product management function and the portfolio of offerings. The VP of product’s sphere of influence often extends further into the organization. In technology companies, the product strategy is often inseparable from the business strategy. And VPs of product typically act as spokespeople for a company as they are the most senior-level executives with deep customer, market, and product expertise.
On the hiring front, this role identifies the resources and skills that will be added to fill the department’s needs. This person gives structure to and supports the product team. But details and execution are left to the product manager and other trusted team members.
What product management titles does your company use?
It starts off with the best intentions. You are planning an upcoming release and notice that the support documentation needs to be updated. You could turn to a teammate and ask them to jump in. But instead you think, “I’ll just do it this once — it will be quicker this way.” Before you know it, you are spending lots of time in an area where your colleagues are experts. You have become the fix-it product manager.
It is a frustrating cycle: The more problems you preemptively fix, the more people expect you to fix every challenge the product faces.
You might be thinking, “But I am a product manager — solving problems is what I do!” This is true, solving problems is an important part of the job. But it is not your responsibility alone. Being a successful product manager means setting the team up for success. You cannot do this if you are constantly jumping in to fix every little thing.
The instinct to fix is a good one. But if you find that you frequently have your head down working through issues that could be solved by others, you will struggle to achieve anything meaningful.
The best product managers know when to solve an issue, when to bring others in, and when to leave it alone.
So instead of jumping on every problem that comes up, take a more strategic approach — one that will help the whole team move forward.
Here is how great product managers transcend a fix-it mentality:
Goal first Having clear goals is the key to understanding where to invest your time. When an issue arises, examine it next to your objectives and ask yourself, “How could this hold us back from achieving meaningful results?” You want to focus your efforts on where you will make the biggest impact — not on issues that are trivial or inconsequential to what you are trying to achieve.
Open conversations If the problem is worth working on but not obvious that you should jump to fix it, do not immediately take it yourself — open it up to the team. Grab 15 minutes at your next product team meeting to discuss the issue and come up with an action plan. The discussion will likely reveal someone on the team who is best equipped for the work.
Spot opportunities Maybe a teammate is not yet in a position to handle the issue alone. Rather than jump in alone, see this as your chance to help them grow a new skill. Encourage this teammate to shadow the person who is going to work on it. Or guide them as they do the work themselves, providing feedback along the way. The key here is to support — not do the work for them. Once your teammate is up to speed, they will be able to handle similar issues in the future.
Make connections To build anything great, you need to get cross-functional teams talking. So, you need to stop thinking of yourself as the go-between on the product team and start thinking of yourself as a connector. For example, if you know there is someone in engineering who can help solve a marketer’s problem, encourage them to talk and come up with a solution together. Teammates can learn from each other — without you doing all the heavy lifting.
Step back As a product manager, you are a trained problem-solver — but not every issue requires a reaction. Maybe you are stressed because a customer is angry or someone on the team is leaving the company. These are problems beyond your control. So when they happen, take a breath. Sometimes the best thing you can do is step back and let the issue resolve itself naturally.
It feels great to be the person who can solve everyone’s problem. But ask yourself, “Is my fix-it attitude really helping?”
The next time an issue arises, analyze it to determine when to give it to a teammate, when to allow the organization to self-correct, and when you really do need to resolve it yourself.
“I am just too busy to read.” This is what people usually say when I ask for book recommendations. But are you really too busy? I would argue that there are things you could probably limit or remove to make room for even 15 minutes of reading each day. One less Netflix binge? Not checking social media before bed?
To help our team at Aha! grow, we build out specialized training programs. One of my favorite things that we do as a team is read a book together twice a year. We share our thoughts in person at our offsites and fold the lessons we learned into our work.
I think that most of us are natural self-improvers — we all want to keep learning and growing.
What about you? Your knowledge of everything related to your work may run both wide and deep. But I bet you are also constantly seeking new things to learn and ways to gain skills — areas such as negotiation, tenacity, and communication.
Recently, I went looking for books focused on business strategy. I did a Google search thinking there would already be several good lists. But I was in for a surprise — I could not find one that fit the unique requirements of a product manager. So I decided to put one together, with input from our team at Aha!
Here are a few of our favorite business and strategy books:
The Five Dysfunctions of a Teamby Patrick Lencioni
“This book was eye opening. It is written as a fable, so it is a much more engaging read than your typical business book. It provides some great insights into why some teams succeed and others fail, as well as lessons on building a high-performing team. As a product manager, try reading it with cross-functional co-workers and working through the exercises together. It is sure to improve the dynamic on the team and may just set you up for success.” —Austin Merritt
For the Win! by Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter
“This was the book that helped define ‘gamification.’ I was fascinated by Werbach’s take on how games work and how they can be used in business and life to drive engagement. It helped inform my work as a product manager by teaching me important lessons on what motivates people and how to design experiences that people keep coming back to.” —Tom Bailey
Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen “Based on theories backed up by empirical evidence and case study examples, this book was a fascinating and factual insight into why some companies thrive in the face of adversity while others do not fair so well. It challenges you to focus on developing skills to deal with any situation and to set a cadence for big goals so that, no matter how ambitious, you can sustain steady progress to achieve them.” —Justin Woods
Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal
“I dislike the word ‘viral’ because that makes something seem like a fad, when ultimately you want long-term engagement in your products. But this book makes good points about creating ‘viral loops’ that your customers want to come back to over and over again. Even if you don’t have a consumer application (or an application at all) the idea of creating interest and love with your customers so that they want to come back over and over again can be applied to any business.” — Dru Clegg
How to Win Friends and Influence Peopleby Dale Carnegie
“When I think about the best strategic product managers, they have the uncanny ability to build great relationships with key team members and customers. They lead cross-functional business planning despite a lack of clear authority over the entire organization. In other words, it all starts with people. In the end, what is the greatest strategy in the world — if you have burned bridges and alienated those whose help you need to achieve it?” —Danny Archer
Leading by Sir Alex Ferguson
“With 27 years at the top of his profession, Sir Alex is the most successful football manager in British history and went on to lecture at Harvard Business School. He is the master of reinvention and renowned for his broad strategic oversight and attention to detail. His teams were winners, yet no one player was ever allowed to become bigger than the team. He was never reluctant to let a star player go to preserve the balance of the club. Anyone in a leadership role can learn from Sir Alex’s work.” —Steve Dagless
Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
“This book focuses on the power of communication and the key elements of getting an idea to stick. As the champions and stewards of ideas, product managers should heed these authors’ lessons on why some messages take hold while others are neglected and forgotten. The book includes a wealth of success stories and examples to draw from so you can implement the learnings in your own organization.” — Ron Yang
The One Thingby Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
“So much of strategy and planning is about prioritization. This book is an incredible reminder about the power of focus — avoiding complexity in business and in life. Putting the ‘one thing’ that is most important first, then making sure you get it done. Our team at Aha! uses the scorecards in our own software, which allows us to prioritize features according to how well they will deliver against goals. It simplifies the decision process by lending objectivity and transparency to prioritization.” —Keith Brown
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell “We always hear heroic stories about individuals who have reached the heights of their profession, but we tend to gloss over the long road that these people have likely taken to get there. We also may be unaware of the trends and advantages in those people’s lives that gave them a higher probability to achieve that success. The book’s lessons about people help me empathize and better understand human behavior.” —Randy Ayers
Wait, What?by James E. Ryan
“This book started as a commencement speech. Due to the overwhelming praise it received for its simple message, the author decided to turn it into a book. What it teaches us is that true wisdom comes from asking the right people the right questions at the right time. In so much of what we do as product managers, showing overt curiosity can inform our decisions and point us in the right direction.” —Tahlia Sutton
Acquiring new skills and knowledge is an investment in yourself and your company.
It makes you a more valuable teammate and it can even keep your brain sharp. Each one of these books can help you bring more to your role and contribute even more to your company’s success.
Yes, most product managers are extremely busy. But I think it is still important to squeeze in a bit more time for reading and self-improvement. I trust you will find these reads worthy of the effort.
Ask a product manager how the year is going so far. I bet the answer will include the word “busy.” I do not have to tell you this, right? If you are anything like the product managers I know, I bet you started 2018 at top speed.
The time for finalizing annual product plans is over — now is the time to do the actual work. You are presenting to leadership. Talking with customers. Working closely with development. And leading the cross-functional team efforts.
In other words, you are really, really, really busy. There is a lot to get done.
Our team at Aha! can relate. We set ambitious goals and tackle them with gusto. And we are always pushing ourselves to get more done. But we know it is important to make room for meaningful conversations in between all those to-dos and tasks. One big question has been on our minds lately.
Is it truly possible to think big and be wildly productive at the same time?
This month, we took some time to reflect on this. We wrote a lot about productivity on the Aha! Blog — how to boost it and what gets in the way. These insights helped us shape how we will work in 2018 and we hope they can help you too.
Here are 8 blogs to help you be a more productive product manager:
Hey Boss: I’m Drowning in Meetings There is a reason your meeting schedule feel endless — many have no organizer, no agenda, no clear goals, no questions or action items for attendees. But you can take steps to lighten the load. Read more…
The Product Plan vs. The Release Plan Do you know the difference? Both plans are critical for product management and to the success of the product. But in order to create these plans, you need to understand the nuances of how they differ. Read more…
User Stories vs. Requirements You likely use both in your job as a product manager. So, the question becomes: When do you use these different vessels? Before you can answer that, you need to understand what makes them different. Read more…
The One Way Remote Workers Let the Team Down You might be guilty of it — it is being the not-so-responsive co-worker. And remote teams cannot function without constant communication. Start working on your communication skills so everyone on the team can get more done. Read more…
The New Product Manager’s Survival Guide Our Customer Success team — all experienced product managers — share their best advice for surviving (and thriving!) at a new product management job. Starting with tip number one: Build your core team. Read more…
Can You Be Perfect Every Day? Perfect moments are when you work hard or serve others and the result is greatness. These moments do not have to be rare. In fact, you can have them every day — in all areas of life, including work. Read more…
Being extra busy does not lead to greatness. All that activity does not mean anything unless you are doing meaningful work.
So, instead of focusing on how many hours you are putting in — focus on what you really want to achieve this year for yourself, your customers, and your team.
When you do this, you will (of course) be a busy product manager. But I bet you will be a happy one too.
What are your strategies for boosting productivity?
How is your “project manager” job going? People always asked me this earlier in my career when I worked as a product manager. If you are a product manager, I bet you have heard the same. It is because most people still do not know that product managers exist. And they definitely do not know what we do.
Our team at Aha! has been called “project managers” so many times in their careers that we wrote a blog on the differences between the two roles. However, there is some kernel of truth to that question people always ask. Why?
As a product manager, you are good at thinking about the “big picture.” You know your product and customer better than anyone. You have ambitious goals and a clear vision for where you want to go. And you can capture it all in a flawless roadmap presentation. But that is just one part of your job. Product managers who have big ideas will struggle if they cannot also think small.
To actually build what customers care about, good product managers need to be great project managers.
Timing, cross-functional dependencies, routing work, resource planning — these project management skills are essential to building what I call a Complete Product Experience (CPE). This is because, to create a product that truly delights, you need to be aware of and consider all the touchpoints for the customer and how everyone in the company impacts that customer experience and is impacted by it.
Now, some of you may work in companies that have dedicated project or program managers assigned to each product. Even so, the company is ultimately depending on you to be responsible for everything the customer experiences. Remember that you were not hired to just think about the big picture. You need to understand and optimize the minutiae too.
Here are six ways for product managers to develop better project management skills:
Get curious As a product manager, you need to know everything about your customers, market, product, and team and merge that all into one comprehensive plan. But this does not happen without fact-finding. You need to ask yourself questions — lots and lots of them. Before you put a plan in place, consider everything you do not know yet. “Why are we doing this now?” “When do we need to deliver this?” “Who are the teammates who can best handle the work?” “What cross-functional help do we need?” Flag any potential constraints related to resources, risks, or scope so that you can come prepared for meaningful conversation when you meet with cross-functional teams.
Be time-fixed Get obsessed with time. I know that, for some of you, that will sound contrary to agile and lean ways. But time matters. If we had an endless supply of it, I would agree that it is just not that important. However, as you know, it is not something that you can buy more of. So start by creating a release plan that carefully considers how much time the work will take based on meaningful guidance from the teams and the resources you have available. You want specific dates that are aggressive — but not unrealistic.
Own the details Dates are not the only details you should be obsessed with. You are also responsible for leading everyone through each area of the release. This includes cross-functional team efforts such as design, Go-to-Market activities, and support documentation. By owning these details and knowing how each piece will ultimately affect the customer, you can deliver a CPE.
Plan for change Remember that you are the one who owns the release plan. You have to be proactive when things change. For example, let’s say that bugs are revealed while testing new functionality and your launch date moves. You should have a communication plan in place that documents who needs to be notified and what will be impacted. This keeps the work moving forward, even if a target date is missed.
Share data You will want to create go-to reports that you update and analyze regularly. For upcoming releases, our team frequently references the release roadmap, features listed by status (including what has already shipped), and a calendar report showing to-dos across teams. Consistent reporting will reveal where you are making progress and help answer questions about upcoming work and plans. (A purpose-built product management tool like Aha! makes it easy to build and share these types of reports.)
Let go of ego Yes, your job is to be strategic — but as you can see, that is where your work simply begins. If you cannot manage the actual work, you will be little more than a talking head. People will tune you out over time. Platitudes and vision do not mean anything if you cannot move your plan forward in practice. I know from experience that the best product managers are the ones who dive into the work wholeheartedly.
Product manager or project manager? The titles are different, but there are lessons to be learned from each discipline.
So, do not be annoyed when someone mistakenly calls you a project manager. It might just be the reminder all product managers need — that every detail matters and impacts our customer’s experience.
How do you react to being called a project manager?
Stories. You have hundreds of them if you are a product manager. Each one describes the awesome experiences you want your customers to have while using your product. And like any good storyteller, you need your stories to be clear and impactful.
All of the best product managers I know are responsible for sharing what customers really want through user stories.
But here is when being a product manager is hard work. There are also times when you are expected to define the requirements for what your development teams need to build — without providing the “why” from the user’s perspective.
While most new functionality should be defined from a user’s perspective, that is not always feasible or even helpful. For example, consider security features or infrastructure requirements that are not always customer facing.
So the question becomes: When do you use these different vessels? Before you can answer that, you need to understand what makes them different.
There is one major distinction between user stories and requirements: the objective.
The user story focuses on the experience — what the personusing the product wants to be able to do. A traditional requirement focuses on functionality — what the product should do. The remaining differences are a subtle, yet important, list of “how,” “who,” and “when.”
Here is how user stories and requirements differ:
How is it written?
User stories should be written in one or two sentences and capture who the user is, what they want, and why. A simple structure for defining features or user stories can look something like this: As a ____, I want to achieve ____ so that I realize the following benefit of ____.
Example: As a user, I want to be able to reset my password so I can get back into the system if I forget it.
Requirements tend to be very detailed and take a longer time to write. These often go into specific detail (sometimes highly technical) on how the software should work. Those details then guide the development team on how to build a new feature or functionality.
Example: The user is allowed to reset their password once they have received a password reset email. The email should contain a unique link for resetting the password and that link should expire after two hours.
Who writes it?
User stories can be written by just about anyone close to the software — developers raising issues, a QA tester who discovers a flaw in the UX — as long as it represents the end user’s perspective. But it is the product manager or owner who maintains the backlog of user stories.
Requirements are written by the product manager, product owner, or business analyst. Technical leads are often involved as well as the engineers who will be responsible for working on the features or improvements.
When are they written?
User stories are written throughout the building of a product. And updating the stories (or adding new ones) can happen at any time. For agile teams, the product backlog serves as a prioritized list of the functionality that needs to be developed. This is where the user stories are kept until they are worked on — typically during development sprints.
Requirements also can be crafted at any time. However, it is best to define what is desired from the user standpoint first if both stories and requirement definition is required. The further along a team is with their planning, the more the team understands the user and business needs. So, defining hard requirements too early can result in having to change them later — or building something that does not fully deliver the customer’s desired outcome.
Although the objective of a user story or requirement differ, the goal is always the same — building a product that customers love.
Whether you are writing a user story or a requirement, you need to focus on what matters most: describing the desired outcome for the customer and giving development what they need to build it successfully.
I know that it can be confusing to decide what to write. So here is a simple guide to making that choice.
If what you are requesting to build has a direct benefit to your end users, write a user story. If it is more central to the core of a product or infrastructure, jump to defining requirements.
I was in the throes of first-week jitters. It was early in my career and I was starting out as a product manager. Did I even belong in the new job? I was confident I had the work ethic, the ambition, the team spirit… but I did not yet have the tactical know-how. Each new day brought new stress.
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to relax and enjoy the opportunity to learn.
If you are starting a new product management job, I will tell you the same thing. Relax and get ready to absorb new information. (A lot of it.) New jobs come with huge learning curves. This is especially true right now — as the role of product manager has become more important than ever.
But I have some good news for you: You are not alone. Our Customer Success team at Aha! put together a “survival guide” for new product managers.
This advice is rooted in our past experience, but it is also based on what we think is important right now. We know what this focus should be because we speak with thousands of product managers every month. We hear the challenges you are facing. And through these conversations, we can see how the field is changing.
Plus, we are all experienced former product managers — so who could be better to help?
Here is our advice for surviving (and thriving!) in your new job:
Build your core team “Join or create a cross-functional core team and meet on a weekly basis. This core team will be fundamental for Go-to-Market releases and product updates. After all, what happens when a customer has a question about new features or when something breaks or goes wrong? The rest of the organization needs to know how to support it, and this begins with your core team. Sharing the product plans helps win trust — which is essential for working together and delivering a Complete Product Experience for your customer.” — Matt Case
Get close with development “While all stakeholders are important, I would encourage you to really focus on your partnership with development. Trust me — no one wins when product management and engineering have a poor relationship. Especially not your customers. So, be open and honest in your interactions with the development team. Even when you need to tell them ‘no,’ explain your decision and the tradeoffs the business has to make.” — Amy Woodham
Talk to customers regularly “You need to really understand how your customer experiences the product. Not just the technology but every other component too — like your support team. So dig deep within your customer base to learn more about how and why they use your product. What do they want to accomplish with it? Where is it failing them? Meet with your supporters and your detractors to understand all points of views. And do not just focus on the largest and loudest groups.” — Scott Goldblatt
Share the major themes (again and again) “Anytime you are presenting anything, clearly outline and communicate your key points. Sure, you are proud of the work being done and you are going to want to show off every small detail — but avoid this temptation. Outline your major themes and hit them over and over again. Use the same language on your roadmaps. As you approach a big launch, it will feel like you have repeated yourself an annoying number of times. But stay clear and consistent. The next time you hit your key points might be the time that others really start to hear them.” — Austin Merritt
Measure everything “One of my favorite quotes is from W. Edwards Deming: ‘Without data you are just another person with an opinion.’ Be really clear on the metrics and KPIs for your product. What is being measured? Are those numbers accurate and still appropriate? It is important to understand how your product is performing right now so you can measure the tangible benefits of change from future enhancements.” — Justin Woods
Block off time to think “The best advice I received when I was a product manager was to block off time each week to just think. It is too easy to get stuck in the daily weeds of prioritizing the backlog, refining the roadmap, and meeting with customers. You need to spend dedicated time each week reading the latest news and announcements in the market. That will then help you determine if priorities for functionality in the product should shift — or even the product strategy as a whole.” — Deirdre Clarke
Learn to let go “Sometimes you need to simply let go. You can do your best each day to push for what you think is right for the product based on your strategy. But if the CEO or the executive team decides they want to go in a different direction, accept that — while also asking questions. Understand why that decision was made. Let go of any emotional attachment you have (to the feature, direction, option, etc.) and embrace the new direction.” — Jessica Groff
Remember that you were hired for a reason —have confidence and courage to show the team why.
Now it is up to you to dig in and really learn the product management discipline. This takes lots of time and practice. So, I encourage you to stay dedicated to it — even when you have to fight through your own first-week jitters.
What is the most important survival advice you would add?
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