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Product Managers, let’s embrace Deep work

Uncategorized May 04, 2019

As product managers we have a LOT on our plates. Product strategy, vision, facilitating meetings, bug triages, writing user stories, answering questions from the sales team, design reviews, customer meetings, usability studies, stakeholder alignments, bringing the donuts and what not.

What happens as a result of this? We tend to do what is easy to do in the moment, rather than what really matters. And why blame us? We are human. This is human tendency. It is much easier to attend some meeting than to start to think about the roadmap for next year. I go somewhere, I get something concrete achieved. There, done.

But consider this: The Pareto principle states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Nowhere is this more true than work you can do as a product manager.

Most of this high value work is concentrated in a few areas: thinking about product vision and strategy, piecing together various forms of input to figure out priorities, looking at product from different angles, preparing for major meetings to make sure they are productive, competitive review etc. These are all examples of Deep Work; work that is best done in large chunks of time, uninterrupted, and without a worry that you need to respond to each and every slack question within 2 minutes 33 seconds lest you waste an engineer’s time.

We can ignore this Deep work. We can continue to run meetings, answer questions. But we will become product janitors, not product managers. In order to build exceptional product, we must embrace Deep work; for ourselves, and for our teams.

Here is how I try to do this as best as I can.

  1. Pick the right work to do
  2. Do the work
  3. Share the work
  4. Facilitate deep work across your team

Picking the right work to do

What work really matters? If you tried to prioritize work as a stack of items, and fit it for today, you will end up in a never ending loop of moving items around, figuring out that you cannot fit everything, and then stressing about the work you could not fit. The fear of missing out will take over.

Instead, you need to change your mindset. As I wrote in this blog post, you need to ask yourself ‘‘What is the thing, that if you did much better, and kept everything else in your operations the same, will have the biggest impact on our business?” (as the book The Four Disciplines of Execution tells us to do). Another way of framing this question is what the book ‘The One Thing’ states “What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Most of this falls under the following categories for product managers:

  1. Product strategy: defining and refining. If your strategy is wrong or unclear to your team then any decision they make has the potential to be wrong.
  2. Expressing and clarifying the vision in a way that makes sense
  3. Processing and acting on user feedback. This takes time; if you spend time on user feedback you might notice themes that are not easy apparent, root causes that might not have been clear before.
  4. Thinking deeply about upcoming work (e.g., clarifying and adding meaning to user stories)
  5. Preparing for meetings (a blog post on this topic soon :))

Doing the work

Congratulations. You now know what to work on.

Bad news. Its fucking hard to find the time. Or the energy. To do it right.

There are a set of practices I follow to make sure deep work done

  1. I setup time in my calendar to do the work. I treat this as an appointment I setup with myself; why would I ever want to let myself down and not make it to our appointment on time and with full energy?
  2. I find a location where I will not be disturbed. Most of the time it is not at my workplace. It might be home, it might be other undisclosed locations/coffee shops. But it has to be someplace where no-one will tap me on my shoulder and start talking. If your workplace has a strong ‘Don’t disturb anyone with headphones on’ culture, then the office might work for you.
  3. I find a time when I can focus and have energy to do this right. Evenings and nights are out — I am a morning person. Very often it is super early e.g., 4 AM, 5 AM when my kids are still sleeping. Or right after I get to work.
  4. I have a set of norms that I follow, namely a. Shut down emails, slack, facebook etc. b. Write down on a piece of paper what my goals are c. Write down what I am allowed to access d. Have a place to capture Todos that I think of when I am working (on paper) e.g., check cricket score of India vs. England match
  5. Turn on a mellow playlist from spotify
  6. Do rough passes and iterate e.g., do the outline, then fill in gaps.
  7. If I get stuck, I walk. I drink coffee. I don’t check email
  8. I always do enough such that I have a good set of thoughts to share with others, but not so much that I am completely married to my thoughts and unwilling to change my mind if I hear other opinions or get conflicting data

Of course, these are my norms. I encourage you to find what works for you.

Sharing the work

Now that you have done the work. Congratulations. However it is still not done — this work needs to product results. An example: Product strategy does not mean anything if engineers don’t know about it; if there are no decisions made based on it.

Share it. Get feedback, iterate. Very often the deep work I did might just results in a document that I never share with everyone; I talk them through it instead. I discuss ideas with others.

Enabling others to do the work

One of Paul Graham’s best essays is called Maker’s schedule, Manager’s schedule. His core message was that a meeting in the middle of a session of deep work damages the entire session. It’s not just that you are taking 15 minutes from an engineer; you might be destroying their entire productivity for the afternoon.

This means several things for you as a product manager:

  1. Setup standups and other meetings when work is at a naturally low time. Right after lunch is my favorite time for standups.
  2. For other meetings, ask the engineers
  3. Involve only those people who will have a role in the meeting
  4. Tapping people on their shoulder to ask a question has immense value; you can then collaborate and iterate really fast. But have some norms in place with your team that can make it clear that they don’t want to be disturbed. Like headphones on. Don’t disturb anyone with headphones on. Like this guy
 

5. Use asynchronous communication mechanisms effectively — chat for quicker messages, emails for longer ones, Docs for offline collaboration. These often replace meetings and allow people to add input on their own time

Summary

In this world of shallow work, deep work is a competitive advantage. Use it effectively for your product management career, and for the productivity and happiness of your team.

 

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