Eye-opening insights from 700+ product managers & leaders.
To manage a product, a team, or organization, you first need to know how to manage yourself, and that’s not easy to do. Even if your objectives are clear (a big if), it often feels like you’re within one cat gif, presidential tweet, or unnecessary meeting from being sucked into procrastination’s vortex. And then, that big project you were going to tackle…?
“It can wait until tomorrow.”
This year, what would it take to feel less reactive and more proactive? More in control, more deliberate, more effective? What would it take to avoid distraction and approach your work with the curiosity and creativity it deserves? Your career is made up of a discrete number of days. This year, how will you make every day count?
Below we’ll explore five steps you can take to drive better outcomes for your product, your customers, your organization, and your career.
We’ll start by exploring how to define your objectives and prioritize your daily efforts around them. Then we’ll discuss how you can process small tasks more efficiently, work smarter by applying core tenets of popular innovation methodologies to your own work, and then build the right habits to support all the above.
When we’re done, you’ll have all you need to make 2020 your best year yet.
At the start of a new year, it’s easy to launch straight into new and exciting projects or play catch-up on old tasks from Q4. Diving into previously-defined work feels great because it’s the clearest path to quick wins and gratification. But is doing so really the best way to support your customers, advance your organization, or further your career? Your time is valuable, so invest in your success and define clear objectives.
“If you’re not working on the right thing, no amount of productivity can make you effective.” – Hubert Palan, CEO @productboard
It’s true that objectives can be scary. They introduce the risk of failure and hold your feet to the fire where you might otherwise have been able to skirt by. But that added accountability and direction will provide the focus you’ll need to achieve miraculous things.
Your day-to-day will be more rewarding as well. In a two-year study on employee engagement cited in Measure What Matters, Deloitte found that no single factor has more impact on employee engagement than “clearly defined goals that are written down and shared freely.” Objectives create alignment, clarity, and job satisfaction.
So how do you get started?
Product managers: You’ll also want to set objectives for your product!
There’s nothing more tragic than arriving back at the office armed with clear objectives and fresh resolutions only to be dragged right back into the cycle of reactivity, one Slack notification at a time. These are the urgent yet unimportant tasks that constantly flood our inboxes, feeds, and task lists.
How do we remain focused on our biggest objectives and avoid the endless cycle of reactivity?
In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey explains that if you fill a jar with sand, then pebbles, and finally rocks, the largest rocks won’t fit. But if you add the big rocks first instead, then sand and pebbles can fill in the gaps and everything fits.
Prioritize your big rocks.
On a daily basis, that means choosing one big thing that, if you got done, would advance one of your priorities and make the day a success. The authors of the new personal productivity book Make Time call this your daily highlight, and they offer some great tips on how this works in practice.
This last point is so vital, it’s worth exploring further…
I once had a colleague who was in high demand. As the sole business analyst at the company, he was a shared resource between a number of teams and had far more on his plate than any one person could handle. Yet for all the pressure on him, he was remarkably coolheaded. Whenever someone asked for his help on something – whether it was a colleague, a VP, or the CEO – he’d say…
“Just so you know, my biggest priorities right now are to finalize the board deck and the sales analytics dashboard, but I should be free to work on this toward the end of next week.”
Learning how to say “no” to others’ requests for your time takes courage to do, even when done with compassion. But it only gets easier. When others notice that you consistently define, plan, execute (and defend) your priorities, they’ll come to trust and respect you in a whole new way.
Use the formula below as a starting point:
“It sounds like this is < nice-to-have | important | critical > for you and the deadline is W.
My current priorities are X, Y, and Z but I expect to get to your request in <time_horizon>
It could be easier to set your own priorities when you have the stature of Warren Buffet, but there’s at least a kernel of truth in his saying, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
Additional tips for capturing the little things:
If productivity can be bogged down by what we’re not currently working on, it can also decline when we try to take on too much at once.
In other words, multitasking is a myth.
Rather than diffuse your focus over many things at once, shine it like a spotlight on one thing at a time. Not only will you be more productive, but deep focus will enable more creative and inspired work.
It should be no surprise that this foundational principle behind Agile methodologies like Scrum and Kanban applies to personal task management as well. More on that to come!
Have you ever compared your energy level at 3 p.m. on a day when you focused on one intensive task to another when you tackled 20 small ones, interspersed with frequent breaks to check notifications, social media, stock tickers, and news headlines?
Like a CPU loading data to RAM, your brain expends energy each time it refocuses its attention on a new task or topic. That means less energy for accomplishing your most important work, as well as depleted willpower to avoid procrastination.
Tips for avoiding brain-taxing activities:
It’s tempting to triage the incoming tasks/messages/emails you receive before circling back to take action, but reading everything twice doubles the work. Instead, conserve your energy for the big rocks by acting swiftly and decisively when handling small tasks. Some call this the OHIO rule: Only Handle It Once.
Design Sprints… IDEO’s Design Thinking… Human Centered Design… The Lean Startup… Agile and Scrum…
What do all the most popular methodologies in recent years have in common?
They all address our most counterproductive tendencies:
Even in our personal projects, common themes from popular methodologies can help guide the way.
And you don’t need to! Isn’t that liberating?
In his writings that inspired the Lean Startup movement, Steve Blank pegs the billions of dollars lost (by individual startups!) during the dot-com bubble on poor assumptions around customer needs, made by smart people who thought they had — and had to have — all the answers.
You can avoid the same mistake in your own work by doing what top entrepreneurs and product managers do: Get out of the building.
“When you’re stuck with a tough decision or a problem you don’t understand, talk to all the smart people you know.”
— Tom Kelley, IDEO
More ideas for seeking input early and often:
Lean, Agile, and Design Thinking emphasize turning outward for answers, forming cross-functional teams to solve “wicked” problems (that lie outside the purview of any one field), and daily standup meetings where challenges can be surfaced and discussed. Don’t forget to leverage the strengths of those around you. And breathe, because you’re not alone.
We’ve already discussed unburdening your mind of to-dos. The same applies to ideas. It’s why creative agencies like IDEO kick off new projects with brainstorming exercises that plaster the walls with post-it notes. Visualizing ideas out in the open is key to identifying patterns and synthesizing information.
Whiteboards can work wonders too!
“We’ve found that magic happens when we use big whiteboards to solve problems… As humans, our short-term memory is not all that good, but our spatial memory is awesome. A sprint room, plastered with notes, diagrams, printouts, and more, takes advantage of that spatial memory. The room itself becomes a sort of shared brain for the team… Whiteboards make you smarter.”
from Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days
So remember to capture ideas visually, and diverge to consider more ideas before you converge on the single best one.
Brainstorming, stakeholder interviews, and background research can help chart the territory when starting a new project. But researching the status quo can be limiting when you’re setting out to do something brand new, and it’s well agreed that traditional approaches to management overemphasize upfront planning.
Since planning amidst uncertainty can be daunting, if not misleading (if you commit to a plan that’s sure to change), what if you just dove right into the deep end?
Tips for adopting a bias toward action:
Adopting a bias toward action accelerates learning, reduces wasted effort, dissipates fear of the unknown, and builds momentum that drives decisive decision-making. Just pick a direction and go! It’s expected that you’ll course-correct along the way.
Build-Measure-Learn. It’s a cycle of continuous improvement!
And that leads us to our final step…
Ask someone to list their top ten tips for being effective in the workplace. Then follow them around for a week. How many do you think they’d actually use?
If there’s a gaping disconnect, it’s because staying effective requires regular maintenance. You’ll need to perform certain meta-tasks or the whole system falls apart.
On a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis:
While your daily reflection, planning, and maintenance session might look a bit different from your annual one, they’re still fundamentally the same activities.
Carrying out personal planning sessions and retrospectives on a regular basis takes an investment to be sure, but with the help of some apps you probably already use, you can minimize the overhead.
Even standard iOS/OSX apps like Calendar and Reminders support custom intervals for recurring events/reminders: e.g. last weekday of each month.)
Set notifications for all of the above as you see fit.
Here’s a final tip. The 80/20 rule says the majority of outcomes result from a small number of inputs with a disproportionate impact…
How will you make 2020 count?
Share your #1 goal in the comments and tell us what steps you live by!
The books below are the kind you’ll want to read and reread for years to come. The first in each section is especially highly recommended.