Product Marty Cagan

Coaching – Managing Time

I’ve long said that to get the critically important work of a product manager done, you need on the order of four solid hours a day.

To be clear, I’m not talking about e-mail or slack or meetings.  I mean quality time working on coming up with solutions to the difficult problems we’re trying to solve – otherwise known as product discovery.

Still, that doesn’t sound too bad, until you look at your calendar and realize that your only chance for those four hours is from 6 pm until 10 pm at night (and hence the infamous 60-hour work week of so many product managers).

You’ve all seen the frenzied product manager that spends her time rushing from meeting to meeting, constantly complaining about not having any time to do “real product work.”

So it’s no surprise that one of the most common, and most important, coaching topics is helping a new product manager learn to manage her time.

When I start coaching on this problem, I begin by looking at how she is spending her time, and in the vast majority of cases, I find that the product manager is spending most of her day doing project management work, rather than product management work.

Now, they don’t necessarily call it that, but I try to point out to them that’s actually what’s going on.

So why is this?

Partly because the work does need to be done – especially when it’s urgent – and the product manager may not believe there is anyone else available or able to do it.

Partly because a lot of product managers have never been trained, and they think that’s what the job is.

And partly because I think many people are actually more comfortable with the project management tasks, as they are tangible, and much more straightforward, and it can feel productive to check lots of things off the list every day.

Now, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s always some amount of project management in every leadership role – engineering managers, marketing managers, CEO’s – they all need to “herd the cats” at times.  But that is not what defines those jobs, and that’s not what defines the product manager job either.

Your highest order contribution and responsibility as product manager is to make sure that what the engineers are asked to build will be worth building.  It will deliver the necessary results.

That means working with designers and engineers to come up with solutions that are valuable, usable, feasible and viable.  That is product discovery, and that is what takes on the order of four solid hours a day.

I encourage product managers to block off this time for the week, and protect that time, and then you still have half a day for other stuff.

Of course, the project management work doesn’t go away.  Which is why my favorite answer to this problem is for the product manager to team up with a delivery manager who can take on the project management, so the product manager can actually focus on her job.

But I also know that many product managers, even many good ones, aren’t comfortable giving that responsibility up.

One way or another, if you can’t manage to clear four hours a day during your workday, then I only know of two possibilities – either you extend your workday, or you fail to deliver results and so you fail at your job.

Some argue that it’s about working smarter not harder.  I would absolutely agree with this.  In fact, if you read my book INSPIRED, you know it’s all about sharing techniques that allow us to work smarter and faster, rather than harder.  I think I’ve published as much as anyone on how product managers can work smarter not harder.  That said, even with a skilled product manager, using the very latest techniques, you still need those four hours.

Others will argue that work will always expand to fill whatever time is available, and while this is true in general, and certainly applies to the PM role as well, this is not the key issue here.  If the PM thinks like an owner and not like an employee, and commits to an outcome rather than just a list of activities, then this is really about delivering results.

Please note that I am only talking about true modern product managers here.  There are several all-too-common situations where “product management” is a very different job:

  • If you are strictly a Product Owner and not an actual Product Manager, I am not referring to you.
  • You might have the title “Product Manager,” but if you are working in an old-style company, not following the empowered team model, where nearly all of the decisions are made either by the CEO or the stakeholders, then this also does not pertain to you. In most such situations, the PM job would be more accurately characterized as a project/program manager or business analyst.
  • In a true startup, where the number of people at the company is small, typically the project management burden is also small, and is not a problem to be covered by the product manager.

If you’re not sure where your time is actually going, my SVPG Partner Chris Jones has a simple tool he uses when he coaches PM’s to quickly answer this question.

However you do it, taking control of your time may be harder than ever, but it is also more important than ever.  If your job is to manage or coach product managers, then this very likely will be one of your most important coaching topics.