5 Tips for Product Managers Who Do It All
While not all Product Managers enjoy handling the project management of their team’s software development, I believe this structure has its benefits, especially at smaller organizations. A blended product/project manager can add a lot of value by leveraging Agile, freeing up the founder to do what they should be doing — selling the product, scaling the operations, and fundraising. Here’s a handy list to help a reluctant PM showcase their value.
At small, fast-moving startups (with fluctuating priorities), it can be best to have the same person evaluate the change, collaborate with design and tech, propose a solution and schedule the new work accordingly. Remember, this is what Agile was designed for. You’re the expert on the product requirements, UX functionality, stakeholder needs, technical limitations, developer strengths, project timeline, sprint priorities and the longer term roadmap, and are therefore well positioned to make product, priority and project decisions.
How to: You can often accomplish collaborations around a sprint change, asynchronously and remotely, within a single ticket shared among everyone involved (and a ping on Slack). Be sure to list any questions you have to help keep the collaboration focused, tag the team members you need, and make sure any deadlines and blocking work are crystal clear.
Startups often can only afford to hire one person to fill these two roles, and it can be handled efficiently by one person if the development team size is still small.
How to: Starting to feel overwhelmed running multiple projects? You can often get help from other team leads on the project management to keep progress moving and blockers addressed while you get your product work done. I’ve had both lead designers and engineering leads help here, and even cover for me during vacation.
If you’re working at a small startup and are the first PM to join the team, it’s important to remember that the founder was likely directing development themself until you got there. While you build leadership’s trust that you (and future PMs) are going to correctly direct the team on your planned roadmap, it’s going to be easiest for a founder to practice collaborating on product with one key point person.
How to: Finding that they aren’t always coming directly to you? Put some process in place for you to proactively collect new requirements before they’re passed to designers or developers. Ask your boss for a weekly one-on-one where you can collect any upcoming new requests. Or, simply Slack them regularly and ask “Anything new coming up that I can help with?” This gives you control over when the conversation happens, rather than it being a surprise interruption.
It’s easiest if the founder and others can come to one manager with feature requests and status questions. Coming to you for everything is much easier than having them figure out what’s a product question and what’s a project question, because the line, as you know, is gray. With direct access to leadership, you have the opportunity to ask questions and understand the background as a part of that same conversation, rather than playing telephone via another manager.
How to: Help them see the value of there being one point-person for all projects. Remember, you hold some great information on team progress for a leader working on strategic decisions. Consider providing weekly project summaries that include project status, estimated completion date and any project risks. Being proactive about reporting shows that you have a solid handle on your projects and builds you up as the go-to person for all product development items.
5. Quick Unblocking
Developers often have questions about implementation. Sometimes these questions open up a rats nest of complexities that will cause you to (1) rethink the feature’s functionality and/or (2) adjust the feature’s priority (or existence) in the sprint. You keep things quick by being the single person in charge of that ticket’s requirements, priority and communication with stakeholders.
How to: Remember to breathe! It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of needing to unblock your developers ASAP. Take your time and make sure you think through the new solution with team input and understand the implications. Keep a history of confirmed changes in the ticket so that anyone who picks it up has clear requirements, and always make sure corrected designs are attached. QA will appreciate this.
Extra credit: Remember to check in with engineering for any new issues that come up. Working closely with the engineers, addressing their concerns and really leveraging their expertise will help you build a great relationship with their team.
Proactively putting processes in place that make you the go-to person for all product and project requests will keep you organized, make your life easier, and sets you up for a promotion when it’s time to grow the team. Who better to be Director of Product than the person who has been running point, efficiently releasing new features, building strong relationships and sending out a weekly summary?