Plate spinners, jugglers and firefighters
How can we develop and maintain amazing product management chops in a world where multi-task management is the surest path to career advancement?
It’s very common to take more on as we develop skills and competencies. Promotions typically lead to broader remits, or involvement in a wider variety of activities. While it’s obviously important that we grow - and sensible for organisations to leverage the resources available to them, getting the wrong balance between depth and breadth can stunt talent, cripple organisations and under-serve customers. How can we deliver excellence while growing our careers?
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Spinning one plate is relatively easy. Adding more plates to the mix means keeping things moving while splitting your attention. But this is just time management: no fundamental understanding of the nature of plates or gravity is required and the outcomes (number of spinning plates) can only increase linearly. Product management is not about task management. It’s the design, manufacture and selling of plates to a specific customer group. This takes skill, insight and the ability to spot opportunities for scalable, exponential growth.
Think back. When asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, did you answer, ‘Administrator’? I doubt it. My youngest boy insists he’ll be a dinosaur, but that aside, most children say something like astronaut, footballer or doctor. Even as adults, the professionals, artists and scientists we most admire are specialists. Product Managers are the same: we handle tricky stuff.
When we take on more work - especially non-core, plate spinning activities, we distract ourselves from the areas where we can add value and develop our own, more profound abilities. Cutting things like discovery or analysis to fit it all in compromises the customer experience in subtle but important ways. Generating ‘strategy’ ahead of the next committee meeting, rather than pondering, playing and noodling increases the chance that the wrong, generic path will be followed. If the outputs of our work are superficial, the outcomes we generate will be short-lived. This is bad for business, users and personal development.
Usain Bolt is not a juggler
In most traditional organisations, the Individual Contributor track is sorely under-represented. Career advancement is predicated on the ability to do more, while managing dynamics and capacity constraints. Those with ambition are incentivised to take on more, participate in more, attend more meetings - often dulling their ability to think deeply along the way. If too few thinkers are in positions of authority, the problem compounds, leading companies to:
Create dependencies and bottlenecks
Usain Bolt did not break world records while juggling. Projects will not progress at their maximum rate if everyone is distracted. Dependencies will grow, team topologies will be sub-optimal. Flow falters, everything’s blocked.
Over promote firefighters
If issues are popping up here, there and everywhere, then those who excel at finding quick ways to unblock can look very impressive. But isn’t it better to prevent the fire - finding root cause issues and adjusting processes accordingly - than run around the office with a metaphorical bucket of sand?
Believe that outputs are maximised
If everyone is working on multiple projects, employees are probably generating strong outputs, relative to their abilities, right?
If leaders believe that their company can move in multiple directions at once, they will avoid difficult decisions. Prioritisation is deferred and pet projects retained. This creates a feedback loop as firefighters, jugglers and plate spinners are rewarded.
While I recognise it’s very hard to say, ‘No’, especially early in a career, developing expertise - and long term success - as a Product Manager is about prioritisation: not only for your product, but for yourself. So here are five quick ways to protect yourself from distraction, without blowing your chances on career success:
Share your priorities
If you’re asked to take something on that you think will interfere with your current work, play this back. Say, ‘My current priorities are X and Y - and we’re doing A and B to ensure excellence in this space. Would you like me to slow down on these items to make space for this one?’
Empathise with your manager
You might not be the only one trying to focus - and you definitely won’t be the only person under pressure. Your manager will be trying to balance competing demands too, so think a level or two up. What can you do to help them win the time and space you need to do great things?
Say, ‘No’ with a smile
Saying, ‘No’ doesn’t need to feel like a slap in the face. Again, frame it as a question of time and be graceful. It might feel harder to turn down your boss, or others in positions of authority, but play this back as a desire to deliver excellence on the items you are already across.
In addition to saying it with a smile, give them options. Imagine a great 404 screen with a pleasing design and an actionable next step to help the user on their way. You are that 404. Make suggestions on how the task could be moved forwards without you having to get too involved.
Make the case for greatness
A step on from sharing priorities is linking this to OKRs, KPIs or other metric approaches. Use alignment to shared, transparent outcomes as your guide. Be clear that your focus is on delivering initiatives from start to finish that will make a meaningful difference to your business and users.
Free your time
Don’t attend meetings where you can’t add value. Yes, this is a trope of all effectiveness frameworks, but try to avoid sessions where you aren’t a decision maker or key source of information. Use this time to speak to customers, read - and think.
Focus on excellence
Working as a Product Manager in traditional, unfocused environments can be tough. But product management is spreading as a discipline because there’s an increasing appreciation that it works, even if fewer organisation’s truly understand why it works. In this context, it will be increasingly possible to build a successful career while delivering excellence. So, think hard before you take on additional responsibilities - and help those above you to prioritise and focus too.
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