How helpful can you be as a Product Manager?
Managing the difficult balance between protecting your own time and helping others
A few years ago, I was introduced to the Helpful Hierarchy concept created by Daniel Debow. It as written as part of a piece on how to be an effective early-stage employee but is very useful when applied to the Product Management role too. The concept is straightforward but has been extremely helpful for me in thinking about how I help others.
What is ‘the Helpful Hierarchy’ Concept?
I recommend reading Dan’s piece but, for the context of this article, I have provided a summary of each of the stages along with Product Management examples:
Stage 1 — There is a problem, you state it and then you walk away. e.g. “That meeting time won’t work for me”, “There is a bug in the checkout on mobile” or, in response to a question, “I don’t know”.
Stage 2 — There is a problem and you identify some potential causes. e.g. “There is a bug in the checkout on mobile. I tried it a couple of times and it only seems to happen when I use a certain campaign code” or, in response to a question, “I don’t know but I think Catherine will know more”
Stage 3 — There is a problem, you identify some potential causes and offer some solutions. e.g. “That meeting time won’t work for me but I’m free Tuesday or we can catch-up after?” “There is a bug in the checkout on mobile. I tried it a couple of times and it only seems to happen when I use a certain campaign code. It looks like there is a special character that is breaking validation” or, in response to a question, “I don’t know but I think Catherine will know more because she was working on delivery area coverage. You could also query the data warehouse because that information should be in there”
Stage 4 — There is a problem, you identify some potential causes and offer some solutions and recommend which one you think is best. e.g. “That meeting time won’t work for me but I’m free Tuesday or we can catch-up after? A 5-minute catch-up is best as I’m not essential for the session.” “There is a bug in the checkout on mobile. I tried it a couple of times and it only seems to happen when I use a certain campaign code. It looks like there is a special character that is breaking validation. We could update the validation or regenerate the voucher codes” or, in response to a question, “I don’t know but I think Catherine will know more because she was working on delivery area coverage. You could also query the data warehouse because that information should be in there. I’d check the DWH because you’ll be able to narrow it down to exactly what you want”
Stage 5 — There was a problem, you identified what caused it and then fixed it. You just wanted to keep people in the loop. e.g. “There was a bug in the checkout on mobile. I tried it a couple of times and it only seemed to happen when I used a certain campaign code. It looks like there was a special character that was breaking validation. We could have updated the validation or regenerated the voucher codes. For now, we allowed the symbol in these codes because they’ve been printed but you’ll need to look into future use-cases”, or in response to a question, “It’s 94% for that area. I used this query [QUERY] in DWH to pull the information so you can use it again. I’d also recommend speaking to Catherine because she’s working on the delivery area coverage more holistically.”
Naturally, the definitions of the stage above are not all-encompassing but do provide a foundation for thinking about how we structure our support for others.
Product Management and The Helpful Hierarchy Concept
The concept of a Helpful Hierarchy really resonated with me as a Product Manager because of the sheer number and range of interactions we have. Product Managers often become the connective tissue between various departments (Marketing, Ops) and disciplines (Design, Engineering). This is usually a result of the facilitation role we play in organisations.
Unfortunately, those interactions can become overwhelming. I remember once scanning down my list of direct messages on Slack and being surprised at how long the list was and many different areas I was interacting with. It made me reflect on how I was handling these interactions. Was I really doing the best thing for myself and for the organisation?
One of my personal key motivations is to be helpful others — I really get a kick from it. When someone reaches out to me, or if I see an opportunity area for someone else — I want to be sure I’ve added as much value as possible in that situation. However, I realised I was aiming for the highest possible stage every time and this certainly wasn’t the best approach. This is for 2 main reasons:
- We don’t have the time to do everything
- We hinder organisational learning
We don’t have the time to do everything
Ultimately, to be a great Product Manager, you need to prioritise your time. Individuals and organisations are constantly making trade-offs between different decisions in order to return the most value. By helping and solving problems of others, you deprioritise the things you could (and maybe should) be working on.
Look at the examples I have above. The examples from the higher helpfulness levels take up more screen space acting as a good visualisation of the investment. That isn’t scalable for an individual or organisation. Although on the surface the may seem that striving for Stage 5 every time is the best, it’s not.
There is no hard rule for which level to strive for, but I approach it based on the estimated benefit to the business. If the checkout page is down you can be certain that I’ll drop everything to support and resolve that problem. In comparison, if I receive a question on how to configure a voucher — pointing the requester in the direction of documentation will likely suffice.
I think of the maxim, “give someone a fish, feed them for a day. Teach someone how to fish, feed him them a lifetime”. Ultimately, it depends on the criticality of the situation. If the individual hasn’t eaten in 2 days — you can be sure I’m going to give them the fish now and we can deal with the angling education later.
We hinder organisational learning
I was at my previous company for over 4 years resulting in acquiring a lot of domain knowledge. I was able to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. However, there was limited value to the organisation in only myself having that understanding. That is inefficient and very risky.
This is particularly true for the higher stages of helpfulness. The fish maxim above is mostly used to cover this situation. We need to be sure that when we’re helping, we’re enabling others to be able to be more helpful if they are asked the question in the future. It becomes a sort of helpfulness pay-it-forward.
When there is a Stage 5 situation, be sure to share as much knowledge on how you understood and resolved the problem. Including queries you used, useful contacts and documentation help the people you’re supporting be better informed next time.
Helpfulness Tip — After you answer a question, update your documentation. It will reduce your effort next time and organically grows your organisations chronicled knowledge.
(See my other article, “How I document — 7 tips for starting, writing and maintaining your documentation” for more on this)
The question of Helpfulness is particularly interesting in the context of those new to your organisation. They often lack the relationships and organisational knowledge that allows them to be self-sufficient in their role. In these cases, I over-index on things like contextual or supporting references to help them better ground themselves. You can also provide links to organisational diagrams, along with the name, if they are seeking an owner of a topic or historical announcements/updates if they’re asking why a product developed in a certain way.
Helpfulness is a key trait of a good Product Manager and understanding the level of help to offer is the sign of a great one. There will constantly be demands on your time as you work to support and unblock both your own team and others across your organisation.
Remember, everyone is trying to move the company forward and have their own role in doing that. When someone asks a question it’s because they are blocked in some way and they’ve come to you seeking help to get back on track. If you’re not able to help, at very least, provide additional avenues that may be able to help them such introductions to individuals, links to documentation or alternate options.