Product management is complex. Here’s how we made it easier with a simple Google Sheet.
Our product team felt great — then realized we’d been flying blind without this basic tool. Now we can’t believe we used to function without it.
**(Find the link to the Sheet at bottom of article)**
One of the first lessons shared with me as a product manager was that I’d need to mentally inhabit three timelines at once: what’s been released, what’s being developed now, & what will (or won’t) be built in the future. Intimidating? Maybe just a bit.
This mental model pairs particularly well with the ubiquitous “roadmap” metaphor: as drivers on the product journey, we need our eyes on the road ahead, but also our hands on the controls, & a responsible habit of checking our rearview mirrors & blind spots. Neglect any one of these areas, & we make ourselves vulnerable to accidents & mistakes.
When we learn to drive, we’re taught to internalize a sequence of actions to make sure each trip is a safe one. Seatbelt on. Emergency brake off. Adjust seat, side view, rear view mirrors. Check surroundings. Foot on brake. Ignition. Turn signal? Check, check, check.
Again, the parallels to product management practically draw themselves. As we navigate each day, week, & month, we need to undertake certain motions to ensure we’re doing our job as well as we can.
Early on, a mentor of mine sent me a list of these motions: from the de-risking & experimentation phase down to reporting on impact metrics & prioritizing iterations based on usage insights.
Recognizing gold, I printed that list & pinned it to the wall next to my desk, glancing at it now & then as I executed this or that project to make sure I wasn’t dropping any balls. When it became my turn to begin to hire & train new product managers, I passed the list on to them. It was helpful… but not enough.
Having gone through enough development cycles at my company, I realized I’d actually been working from a much longer & more specific checklist, one which had grown silently & undocumented — inside my own head.
The way our process had evolved, the team was feeling successful in our work, but also found ourselves dealing with thoughts & questions like these, from ourselves & others:
- “How can we guarantee that our new features always have adequate frontend logging? How do we build that muscle so it’s just a given, every time?”
- “I almost forgot: did we run the latest copy by the CEO yet?”
- “I feel like our process for creating product marketing assets is a little nebulous & fraught.”
It was time for a new checklist.
I put the template together in Google Sheets, solicited & incorporated feedback from my colleagues (in product, design, engineering, marketing, go-to-market: anyone who might be involved in the life cycle of a new feature), & set it into motion.
What an immediate & tremendous difference it made:
- I’m more confident that every project my team takes on will get executed to our standard of quality.
- It’s not just peace of mind for me, but for my boss & other stakeholders, too.
- Sharing out to non-technical colleagues, the checklist helps demonstrate how “just a little change” is almost always a sizable creative & group effort: it reveals the part of the iceberg that’s usually hidden underwater.
- It’s also been useful to show prospective hires: anyone considering joining a product or engineering organization tends to wonder how product gets prioritized & built, & the checklist is a great aid in that discussion. Not only does it settle their curiosity, but the purpose, detail, & intentionality tend to impress & help win candidates over.
As a PM, there are so many demands on your time & mental energy. They say cooking is an art, but baking is a science. Product management is a bit of both, so any opportunity to focus on the art & automate the “science” by reducing mental overhead should be seriously considered.
To reëvoke the roadmap metaphor, the checklist has felt to me like some of the self-driving technology we’re seeing appear in the automobile space. It lets us take our mind off the minor details of execution & frees us up to focus on more important, higher level issues like our route & position, so to speak.
Like most approaches to product management, the checklist stays flexible rather than dogmatic, & evolving rather than fixed.
Do you have a similar tool? I obviously can’t recommend it highly enough.
I had it set to prompt viewers to request permission so I could monitor who’s taking a look, but unexpectedly hit Google’s limit of 300 permitted users! The link is now public: feel free to copy, share, & tweak so it suits your unique situation & needs! And do reach out if you’d like to connect!
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