Navigating Chaos as a Product Manager

Vrushali Paunikar

As product managers, we are expected to bring clarity to the makers: designers and engineers. We are the “shit umbrellas,” the “guardians of focus,” and the linchpins of the development team. In “Techlandia” change is inevitable — re-orgs, strategy shifts, etc. Navigating ambiguity is par for the course, but navigating chaos is how you master the craft. So what happens when the proverbial hell breaks loose — an unexpected pivot, lay-offs, executive turnover, etc.? How do you continue to be there for your team? How do you continue to do your job?

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Take a minute

When chaos strikes, find your calm. A mental health day or a long walk can help you collect your thoughts so you can return more composed.

Putting things in perspective will go a long way. During one such chaotic episodes I experienced, a coworker was dealing with the death of a dear friend. Most of us do not deal with life and death situations at work. Calibrating your emotions to the severity of the chaos will help you take a more mindful, measured approach towards your next step.

Be the duck

Naomi Gleit, VP of Product at Facebook, keeps a duck figurine at her desk to remind her to stay calm on the surface even when she is pedaling furiously underneath. Your team will take their cue from you in times of turbulence. If you remain calm, your team will as well, and this can help maintain collective focus and productivity.

Make a List

Chaos can paralyze you. To return to action, ask yourself, “what is step one?” What should continue to happen and what needs revision? The list of unknowns can produce a list of questions, and thinking through how to answer those questions can generate your list of next steps.

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Extend that umbrella

Your job is to extend the umbrella and shield your team from distractions. Turn that umbrella into a full “shit-repelling” globe. Use your judgment to keep your team in the know as needed. Anticipating the source of unnecessary clamor early and preventing it from reaching your team will prevent projects from going off the rails.

In case you want to literally label “shit,” click here.

Label the shit

When times are tough, nobody wants to hear from Dr. Pangloss. Instead, people want you to acknowledge their pain. In Never Split the Difference, hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, suggests the concept of “labeling” as an effective way to disarm and manage emotions. Labeling is to acknowledge someone’s emotions by verbalizing them. Labeling statements generally start with “It seems like…,” “It sounds like…” or “It looks like…” For example, you might say “It sounds like you are distraught that your coworker was let go because you will miss her and are concerned about her future.” Helping your team process the pain will help them navigate past the chaos and onto a healthier working environment.

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Get Back to Business

Moving on from a period of upheaval means getting back to the basics. As product managers, we work with cross-functional teams to ship products that drive value to end users and grow the business. Do that. Talk to users. Plan a sprint. Ship some product. Measure results. Rinse and Repeat.

I hope you found this helpful. I wrote this post to not only share what I have learned with others but also to embrace this advice myself.

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