Prioritization, product stewardship, and the hardest part about being a product manager

I used to believe that effective prioritization is the hardest part about being a product manager. I don’t think that’s true any more. I now believe the hardest part about being a PM is that there is no way to shorten the time and dedication it takes to become your product and its industry’s most knowledgeable and empathic expert.

But I kind of skipped over some things there. Let’s step back a bit.

Realization 1: it’s not about prioritization

If you put a bunch of product managers in a room it won’t take long for them to start talking about their favorite prioritization methods. And you’ll find me in that conversation as well1. But after working on a fairly small team for over three years, I realize that I’ve been stressing out about prioritization too much.

First, when you’re on a small team there are only so many things you can work on in a (let’s say) 12-week period. In fact, you can do one or two big things, and maybe a couple of smaller ones.

Second, when you can only work on a very limited number of things — and provided your team is engaged in customer and business insights — the most important problems to work on are felt, not calculated. I truly mean that. When we go into planning for a new period of work we keep our business goals close, and the projects we need to work on to deliver on those business goals are in our bones. We talk about it, and debate specifics and implementation details. But when it comes to the problems we need to solve there is very little disagreement.

There’s a caveat: even though the “big rocks” of what we need to work on are well known, the tiny pebbles are not, and that’s where prioritization comes in. Figuring out which bugs to fix, which small annoyances to focus on, which tasks to work on to fill in the time gaps — that takes a lot of work, and that’s where prioritization frameworks can be extremely important and useful. But again, if you’re a small team, you’re not going to have a lot of time for those smaller things, and even then the most important “small tasks” are easy to spot too.

So that’s my first realization: product managers make too big a deal out of the importance of prioritization. Usually the biggest problems to solve are well known, and not in need of constant calculation, mapping, and scoring.

Realization 2: but it is about stewardship

My second realization is this: the hardest thing about being a product manager is that there are no shortcuts to gaining the knowledge and experience we need to be effective stewards of our products. Getting steeped in a product’s functionality, uses, customers, industries, tangential industries, business ebb and flows… those things can’t be rushed. Maybe part of the reason so many product managers feel “crazy-busy” is that they are trying too hard to take shortcuts in this regard.

What does it mean?

I think these two realizations are related. We rely so heavily on prioritization frameworks when we haven’t taken the time to inhabit our products in a way that will give us confidence in the problems we instinctively know that we need to address. There’s obviously an organizational aspect as well — with buy-in, trust, and all the complications around that. But when we become true stewards of our products — steering our teams with care and empathy — not only will we find ourselves in a more relaxed state, we’ll also have more time to solve the problems we focus on and improve our product through the feedback we get from customers.

So I guess if there’s some learnings or advice out of this, it’s simply that the most important thing we can do for our product, our customers, and our business, is to do the work that it requires to become product stewards (that is, “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care”) as opposed to just product managers. Instead of relying on short-term crutches like business canvases and prioritization frameworks, let’s take the time it requires to get to know our product, the market, and our business inside and out. It will make every single part of our job easier.

  1. It’s Kano, by the way. Kano is the best one. Don’t @ me. 

“There should be no guilt for refusing to work hysterically”

Katy Cowan’s interview with Frank Chimero is really great from start to finish, and covers so much ground on design and technology and how to think about our work. Frank’s view on the importance of not overworking yourself is refreshing, and we’ll hopefully continue to see more of this kind of thinking:

It’s really easy to think that not working full bore is somehow failing your teammates or that withholding effort is poor work ethic and moral weakness. That thought is worth interrogating, though, and it all seems kind of ridiculous once you get it out in the open. There should be no guilt for refusing to work hysterically.

Build a healthy development cadence by being flexible on scope, fixed on time

Megan Quinn’s post on Development Cadence starts off really strong:

The hallmark of a well-run development engine is a development cadence that is brisk in bringing new products to market without burning out its builders.

And then it only gets better from there. Her point about being “flexible on scope, fixed on time” is spot on:

One way to establish a good development cadence is to commit to a predictable launch schedule and avoid slipping by pushing out features, not time. Some organizations commit to launching every month with the notion of ticks (small feature releases/fixes) and tocks (bigger, marketable moments).

The importance of candid communication when things go wrong with your product

There’s been a bunch of Evernote post-mortems, but I did enjoy the backstory and humor of A Unicorn Lost in the Valley, Evernote Blows Up the ‘Fail Fast’ Gospel. CEO Ian Small also makes a point about honesty and candor that’s really important for product managers to understand. He talks about how customers reacted when they finally came clean about the app’s quality issues:

Customers responded to his candor with a mix of optimism and skepticism, Mr. Small said. “The fact that we were able to tell the truth — that they already knew to be true — was a change of pace, not just for Evernote but for every tech-company relationship they probably have,” he said.

How we communicate when things go wrong lays your company’s soul bare. Hide behind “sorry for the inconvenience” and other fluffy language, and customers will lose trust. Be honest and show true empathy, and you’ll build stronger relationships.

I also really like this quote:

Now Mr. Small faces the challenge of recruiting engineers to fix Evernote’s “unique collection of bugs,” when they could be riding a bullet train to riches at a newer company. Hot start-ups can spend lavishly on engineering talent; they can always raise more if they’re growing quickly. Evernote has a different, more mature goal. It expects to reach positive cash flow this year, with annual revenue of nearly $100 million. “We used to be a movement,” Mr. Small said. “When we were a movement, we weren’t a business.”

Too many companies try to build “movements” instead of sustainable businesses that provide real value to customers.

👉 Also see Ahead of Its Time, Behind the Curve: Why Evernote Failed to Realize Its Potential.

When it comes to prioritization, don’t go it alone

Ulaize Hernandez Troyas makes a good argument for involving full teams in the prioritization of what to work on:

This type of ongoing communication throughout the prioritization process has a definite cost, but the number of benefits from this approach is worth it. We have reduced friction between teammates, which has saved us from long-winded conversations that stemmed from misunderstandings. The sense of ownership and purpose has increased the team’s motivation. On a more personal level, having these open product discussions has challenged my own thinking many times over, which has definitely improved our product direction as a result.

In terms of the specifics of how this works in practice, I tend to prefer a combined approach rather than asking the team to come up with an initial list of priorities themselves. We have a leads team that comes up with a proposal for our priorities for the quarter, based on our business goals and customer insights. We then spend about a week with the entire team discussing our proposal, refining the approach, and making sure everyone is aligned and excited about what we’re working on.

Responsive roadmaps for modern product management

I really like Matthew Ström’s concept of Responsive Roadmaps that “visualize the process of turning uncertainty and complexity into outcomes and output.” He presents this as an antidote to all the things that are wrong with traditional roadmaps:

Traditional project roadmaps are right about our knowledge in a moment of time. They are good records of our beliefs about the correct sequence and magnitude of our work. But these roadmaps are wrong about the reality of work, and almost every roadmap I’ve ever used goes out the window as soon as the work starts. No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

Responsive roadmaps are right about the nature of work: it is full of uncertainty and subject to change. They are wrong about what we’ll be doing in the future; the farther out we look, the less accurate a responsive roadmap is. That tradeoff affords us time to focus in the present on delivering at the highest level of quality.

He goes into much practical detail on how to create, maintain, and use responsive roadmaps.

Agile vs. Agility in product development

I really like Jeff Gothelf’s approach to the question “Does every project need to be Agile?” in his newsletter issue Digital transformation is not innovation:

No. Every project does not have to be Agile. However, each project you work on should encourage and support agility. This means that every initiative creates the ability, desire and safety to change course in the face of evidence that contradicts our original plan.

He goes deeper on what it means for teams to have the ability, desire, and safety to change when needed.

My interview on The Product Experience: “Crazy Busy Product People”

I listen to The Product Experience podcast every week, so it was such a treat for me to be on the show this week to talk about Crazy Busy Product People. At first I didn’t know what to do — I’m so used to hearing Lily and Randy’s voices that it didn’t seem right to talk back, because that’s not how it usually works! But I did eventually find my feet (I think), and I’m overall pretty happy with how this turned out.

We spend most of our time discussing my article The dangerous rise of “crazy-busy” product managers, but we also touch on remote work and our 4-day work week experiment. I hope you can find some time to listen to the episode, and that you like it!

You don’t own your product

Jonas Downey argues that nobody really owns anything in a product made by a team. I agree with both his argument, and with how difficult it can be for product managers to make this shift. He gives some advice on how to get used to the idea:

The trick is to change how you evaluate forward progress: the long-term survival of your own contributions is irrelevant. The important thing is that the product is evolving into the best version your team can create together.

The more you appreciate the power of the group over the individual, the sooner you’ll become a more effective collaborator. You’ll be more willing to hear and absorb others’ viewpoints. You’ll be more eager to seek out everyone’s best ideas, instead of digging in and defending your own. And you’ll be able to celebrate other people’s achievements with authenticity instead of territorial resentment.

This is something I tried to articulate last year in a post called The humble product manager:

But equally important — and this is why humility is so important — they need to be open to the possibility that some of their decisions might be wrong. They should hang on to a measure of self-doubt every time they present a new solution to the team or the world. Admitting that someone else’s ideas are better than your own, and making changes based on good critique do wonders to improve products — and build trust within the team.

The primary cause of disruption, and how incumbents should respond

Thales S. Teixeira distills years of research on how companies are disrupted in his HBR article Disruption Starts with Unhappy Customers, Not Technology:

For eight years I’ve visited leading companies in more than 20 industries around the world that claimed to be in the process of being disrupted. Each time, I’d ask the executives of these incumbent companies the same question: “What is disrupting your business?” No matter who I talked to, I would always get one of two answers: “Technology X is disrupting our business” or “Startup Y is disrupting our business.” But my latest research and analysis reveals flaws in that thinking. It is customers who are driving the disruption.

He goes on to explain why disruption is a customer-driven phenomenon, and how incumbents should respond.


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