Building The Habitual Year

Captain Haddock exclaims "What a week, huh?" and Tintin tells him "Captain, it's Wednesday"

As a new Product Manager, you’ve got a huge increase of demands on your time. You’re now the person responsible for answers about the product, and if you’re selling it globally or developing it overseas, that means you’ve now got a never-ending day. Additionally, it’s not just those tactical questions of “does it compete with Foo” or “can we prioritize Bar”… you’re on the hook for a strategic plan as well. Quick, how does this product serve your company’s goals, have you fixed bug number 8675309, and what’s your projection of outcomes if we OEMed a feature from this vendor you’ve never heard of and reorganized our bundles?

Don’t despair though, there are ways to handle the load and thrive. The key is to understand the tempo of product development, and use processes to ride that tempo. Use your calendar to make time. When things need to be done and you don’t have time or materials to do them right now… put time onto your calendar right now. Think it will take three hours for that task? Why not block two blocks of three hours next week. Think it will take ten minutes? Block thirty. Know that you have to do a series of tasks over a month? Schedule the blocks where you’ll do them, and explain that schedule in writing to the stakeholders who are waiting on those tasks.

Next, think about which processes need to be done. From the outside in:

  • You need to have a goal, and a vision for exactly how your products are going to help that goal. You might not be the person responsible for doing that or making it make sense, but you need to know that you’re heading North instead of West.
  • You need to have a plan for sales and marketing and a plan for R&D. You might not be responsible for delivery and execution of either, or you might be closely involved in one or the other or both… but you need to know your part in taking these plans to reality.
  • You need to do or delegate the tactical work to complete the product plan and achieve the company’s goal
  • You need to assess your PM load and discuss with your leadership if you need help or can give help.

Luckily, all that easily translates to calendar items… some more flexible than others. It’s not like you need to set the hours you’ll spend on Q4 planning before you can proceed with your January, but it does help to realize that halfway through Q3 you will be spending a week on Q4 planning. You’ll also spend a week on your sales kickoff in Q1, and a week on your customer conference in Q4. Are there industry conferences you need to be at? Get them in your plan. 

The rest of your calendar fills in with three types of meetings (in order of importance): customer calls, standing meetings, and one-on-ones. This stuff will expand to fill all gaps, so here’s three bits of advice:

  • set your working hours, transit times, and meal times — and then defend them.
  • take vacations. When you take a vacation, disconnect from work. When you plan a vacation, delete what you can, delegate what’s left, and reschedule anything that has to be done by you.
    • Side note: an excellent way to ruin the effect of a vacation is to speed-run through everything you missed when you get back. Instead, try searching for direct messages from your chain of command and direct reports. Read those, and delete everything else.
  • Leave any meeting where you are not getting or adding value (at the least by tuning out, but dropping is good too)

This flood of activity can be hard to keep track of, but luckily there is a process tool for that as well… set a block of time to reflect on what happened every week. 

One last thing… what I’ve just described is a plan, and plans don’t always survive reality. When reality intrudes and disrupts this plan, look back on all the things that didn’t get done. Are they still necessary? If so, reschedule them because they still have to be done. If the new reality has obviated those tasks, congratulations — you get to delete some items.

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