Product managers are used to wearing many hats; it’s a fundamental component of the job. When something needs to get done and there’s no clear owner, it frequently ends up in your lap. Over time, the random assortment of ownerless items can take over your work life, leaving you less time to focus on strategic product management tasks as you run down your checklist of daily, weekly or monthly to-dos.
“Oftentimes other groups will constantly ‘assign’ or defer work to the Product Manager on the team. The result is that the product manager’s task list fills up rapidly with many tasks that really shouldn’t be their responsibility,” says Brian Lawley of The 280 Group. “We call this phenomenon ‘becoming a product janitor.’ Instead of working on the critical things that will make a big difference for your product and thinking strategically, the product manager ends up doing thankless low-level work that is not appreciated (and many times not necessary.)”
But just because you’ve been doing something doesn’t mean you should keep doing it forever. Instead, apply some product management fundamentals to your own life and figure out what’s adding value, what can be trimmed, and which product management responsibilities can be delegated to others.
Document your day
You wouldn’t ship a product without documentation, and you certainly wouldn’t let your engineering organization run wild without a well-documented process, but chances are you’ve never sat down and looked at how you’re spending your time beyond a glance at your Outlook or Google Calendar to see when your meeting are.
Getting a true sense of what’s gobbling up your hours requires noting each task you’re doing and how long it really takes. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether a week is a long enough sample size or if you need an entire month’s worth of data.
You don’t need to include “10 minutes: catching up on Facebook” or “15 minutes: talking about Game of Thrones with UX designer.” While that might be helpful if you’re trying go all Tim Ferriss on your life, you can limit this exercise to actual work—“30 minutes: prioritizing bugs,” 75 minutes: updating usage reports” or “60 minutes: interviewing a customer.”
Once you’ve collected this information, you’ll have a full picture of how your time is being spent. Compare these tasks to what you’re actually should do as a product manager, which is focusing on the strategic management of your product portfolio.
Quantify value by giving your tasks a dollar value
Everything you do seems important, but some things must be MORE important than others. So sit back and think about how much per hour you would pay a consultant or contractor to do each task currently on your plate.
While you might fork over $100/hour for roadmapping or defining requirements, there are probably a few items on your list that would barely merit minimum wage. Those tasks require less skill and expertise and are excellent candidates for delegation or even outsourcing.
Cutting loose legacy tasks
If your current product management role isn’t the first job you’ve held at a company, you’ve likely brought along some baggage from your previous gig. If you’ve taking over a product management job from someone else, the role may have collected a variety of tasks that don’t seem particularly relevant or appropriate for the primary job at hand. These are excellent candidates to trim from your daily duties.
“Product managers in early stage companies become jack of all trades, picking up any task that is loose in the scrum. However, as the organization matures, often these early ‘get-it-done’ behaviors become sticky–reducing product manager effectiveness,” says Geoff Anderson of The Product Bistro. “Break the cycle, get those tasks apportioned to the groups who naturally should own it.”
Product managers are usually the in-house experts on their products, and rightly so. But often this means you are often being pestered by sales and support staff to answer the same questions over and over again.
“If you are the only one who knows some vital piece of information, figure out some way to rectify that. Document it, communicate it, teach it to others, pick someone to transfer knowledge — find some way to make sure that someone else has the information,” says Jeff Lash of How to Be a Good Product Manager. “Beyond just providing better use of your time, this can be vital for business continuity and succession planning.”
So invest the time in documenting whatever can be better shared through a reference doc. Spend time training and educating, so you don’t spend your time repeating yourself.
The cook doesn’t have to buy the groceries
“They want you to cook the dinner; at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”
Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells’ most famous quote centered on being asked to coach a team without having a say over personnel. But while Parcells would have loved to pick which players he had on the team, that didn’t mean he wanted to negotiate their contracts and pick them up from the airport himself.
The same dynamic can be applied to product managers and their need for data. Product managers need data to do their job, whether it’s to understand the marketplace, identify opportunities, or illustrate progress to management. There are specific data points they need to do this. But there’s no reason product managers have to actually fetch and format the data themselves — this is where strategic delegation comes in.
“Like any good CEO, you need to ‘fire yourself’ from that role as soon as you have the resources to allow someone else to take it on while you get on with the real ‘why’,” says Masimba Sagwete of unbiased. “What it actually means is trusting other people to play their part in the team’s success. We become more effective as product managers when we accept that we need other people to get things done and start trying to figure out the best way of doing that.”
Tasks a product manager clearly shouldn’t be doing
Being a product manager is usually a full-time job, which means you have to give up anything else you were doing before you took it.
“One of the hardest things to accept when you first transition into a product management role is that you will no longer be writing code, creating beautiful UIs, running marketing campaigns or whatever you were doing on a regular basis before making the switch. Your only goal now is to make sure you help your team ship the right product to your users,” says product manager Manas.J Saloi. “Don’t code. Don’t design. Don’t run marketing campaigns. You are a facilitator whose job is to make life easy for your team members and not do their job.”
Here’s a checklist of tasks product managers have no business completing on a regular basis. If you find yourself handling one or more of these, it’s time to take a big step back and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” quickly followed by “Who should be doing this?”
- Writing code, reviewing code or even seeing code
- Managing the software release process
- Building prototypes
- Designing UI elements
- Managing projects, schedules or resources
- Running test scripts or performing other QA tasks
- Writing marketing collateral
- Creating sales decks
- Drafting press releases
- Negotiating with suppliers
- Writing minutes or scheduling meetings for other teams
- Printing, copying or mailing things
- Updating spreadsheets or inputting data without adding any analytical or interpretive value
“All of these things are important and must be done; but to be done right and to the best of a person’s ability, companies need to ensure that the people doing these things have the proper training, background, and skill set to excel at them,” says The Clever PM. “If you have those skills, you should certainly leverage them in your day-to-day work as a Product Manager, but you shouldn’t let yourself get sucked into performing these tasks on a regular basis in lieu of strong team members specifically assigned them.”
Remember, if you’re not advancing the product strategy or supporting a high-level goal for your product, then there’s probably something better you can do with your time. But when you do delegate a task, it’s important that the person you are handing it off to views it as an opportunity for ownership and a recognition of their own skills and expertise, which make them better suited to own it.
“Respect them and give team members the room they need to make decisions and complete tasks without you. Help them pick up the ball if it gets dropped, but don’t steal the ball and play keep away after,” says Bella Woo of TeamGantt. “Delegating tasks is an exercise of trust and you’ll feel rewarded with a successful outcome and a happy team once you master it.”
When you’re ready to start clearing your plate to focus on the main course, keep in mind that your role is to shepherd your product to success, not doing everyone else in the company’s job. You’ve got a great team capable of handling the many tasks that fall within their areas of expertise, so let them do the small stuff while you keep your eyes on the horizon. Your time is one of your company’s most valuable resources, so treat it that way.