The case for the Unavailable PM
This post is a response to Embrace the Interruptions over on the Aha! PM blog. It really resonated with me, and on further reflection over the last week I realised that it’s only half the story.
As much as I embrace the interruptions, taking the time to be unavailable is as important.
As a product manager your primary responsibility is connecting with stakeholders, understanding their needs, and working with your teams to solve their problems. The more you hear from everybody around you, the more you learn. Every interaction is a chance to pick up something new, to continue to develop a relationship, to make Better Product.
That’s a big tick for encouraging interruptions.
The above means that you know your product better than anybody else.
That is exactly why you owe it to the product to make sure you get enough time to yourself. You need time to focus on exploring the problems, and you need time to make yourself a better PM.
In very simplistic terms, if you spend too much time on input you’ll never keep up with processing. And, if you don’t dedicate any time to improving your processing, it won’t get better.
Create some distance
Focus time is hard in my office. We’re open plan, and it’s great that people wander about and chat about projects. It’s pretty distracting when we’re all working on interesting things though.
When I need a quiet hour or two I’ll often head out. That could be to an empty meeting room in the building, home, or somewhere else offsite. What I’ve discovered is the physical distance buys focus. For my teams, picking up the phone or pinging me on Slack feels like more effort than wandering down the office, so not all the interruptions reach me immediately. I’m not completely unavailable, but there’s just a little more friction.
Calendars here are shared. It’s easy to see where people are and what they’re working on, book in meetings and conversations where there are gaps.
The risk with this approach is it is easy to consider blank space in a calendar as free time. To help with this I reserve time for activities that I need to complete on my own.
I’ll block out an hour or two if I have a time critical task to work on, once a week I have a lunch blocked out that I use to read my queue of saved articles in Pocket, if I plan to leave early that goes in the calendar too to make sure it doesn’t get filled.
It takes discipline to stick to these, and I’m not 100% successful, but it helps me keep a level of priority on personal tasks and improvement.
Use it as an opportunity
The flip side of all this is focus works the other way around too. Once you know you can control the time when you need to be alone you can emphasise the value in your interactions.
With protected time and space to work alone your time when you can be interrupted can also become 100% focused.
Go to the stand-ups. Be there, be available. You’ll need to skip them sometimes, but if that gets common find a way to attend remotely. This regular contact sets the cadence for the rest of the day, control this and you have the rest of your schedule largely mapped out.
On office days spend quality time with members of your team. Attend meetings and be 100% present (not also scanning through your inbox…), drop in and see other demos/etc, be a positive presence in the building.
And, don’t forget the no.1 rule of product management. Talk to your customers. Every day.