Aligning a Product Manager’s Effort with Their Priorities

Chris Jones
Aug 13, 2018 · 4 min read

By far, the most common complaint I hear from product managers is not having enough time in the day. They are drowning in product execution tasks like requirements gathering, story writing, stakeholder management, project management, scrum rituals, bug fixes, customer success, deal support, recurring meetings, and all manner of fire-fighting.

With all these things to do, it’s difficult to find time for longer-term and higher-impact activities like vision, strategy, product discovery, or hiring. Though most people recognize that these activities are important, they never seem to prioritize their work in a way that reflects this. These tasks always end up happening only after everything else, which often means they don’t get done at all.

Students of Ike Eisenhower or Stephen Covy will recognize this as the “Urgency over Importance” problem. Despite best intentions, people naturally prioritize urgent tasks first, and tasks that are important but not as urgent never get the attention they require. We always hope we will be able to get to the important stuff as soon as we get past this current crisis, but it never seems to happen. Once we complete an urgent task, a new one takes its place. The important tasks get pushed out again

The problem doesn’t solve itself. It requires active engagement between a PM and their manager to constantly clarify priorities and allocate time. One very simple tool for facilitating this engagement is time-spent piechart.

I first started using this as a new manager, and it’s been one of my go-to tools ever since. At the end of the week, I ask each pm to quickly tally how they spent their time. I tell them I am not interested in detail or precision, just the broad allocations. They should not spend more than 5 minutes on the accounting.

I get the best results when I constrain the exercise to a set of pre-defined categories in order to frame how I want them to think about their work. My categories change based on the nature of the product and the team, but here’s a collection of I often pull from:

  • Deal support, field enablement
  • Solution prototyping
  • Customer interviews, research, testing
  • Story writing, documentation, delivery artifacts
  • Hiring, interviewing
  • Vision & Strategy
  • Recurring meetings
  • Stakeholder management
  • Data analysis
  • Research: competitive, analyst, market
  • Other…

I also tell them that I am interested in accuracy. I want the allocation of how they actually spent their time, not how they wished they had.

For most PM’s, the simple act of documenting time spent is enlightening for us both. The actual allocations rarely align with what they believe are their priorities. The piechart clearly shows where the problems are so we can develop strategies for fixing them. This is where the real fun begins.

For example, one PM was a favorite of the sales team, and was called into lots of deals. He loved the excitement of the sales process and loved being able to play the hero who helped close the big accounts. He also believed that by spending so much time directly with customers through the sales process that he was doing real product discovery. Unsurprisingly, this PM had a very large pie wedge for the category of “deal support” and a razor thin slice for “customer interviews.” Framing the categorization allowed us to have a good discussion on the difference between the two activities and set better targets on how the pie should look going forward.

Another PM was trying to hire someone to help her particular aspect of her product. She was clearly underwater without this help, yet headcount had been open for a long time. Her “hiring” wedge was around 10%, representing the time she spent processing the resumes that the recruiting department provided. I suggested to her that until she hires this person, it was her single most important job and should account for no less than 40% of her time and energy. We then discussed ways for how she could more directly contribute to sourcing candidates, as well as ways to reduce some of the urgent demands on her time that were getting in the way of hiring. Many of these fell to me to figure out through reallocating effort in other parts of the team, de-prioritizing tasks, or resetting expectations in other parts of the organization.

Qualitative product discovery is perhaps the biggest opportunity for a manager to change behavior. Many PM’s realize that direct, non-deal-oriented customer interaction is important, but always seem to relegate it to the small spaces left after everything else is done. The time-spent piechart can help a manager invert this thinking. Insisting on a 30–40 percent allocation for direct customer time communicates to a PM that product discovery is actually their “day job” around which everything else must fit.

These examples show that it’s not enough to simply create a pie chart. That’s just the staring place. Prioritizing a team’s effort requires hard conversations and even harder decisions to move past the urgent. But if you don’t do it, it is the important things — like the long term success of your product — that suffer.

By the way, if you’re a manager, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be running this process for yourself. Your categories may be different than your team’s, but it’s just as easy for a manager to fall victim to the urgent and continually defer the important.

Chris Jones

Written by

Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group. Former head of Product at Lookout and Vontu (acquired by Symantec)