Product Marty Cagan

Meeting Hell

Do you ever feel like you come in early, work frantically until late in the evening, day after day, week after week, yet at the end of the month you didn’t get anything important done? Is your day packed with back-to-back meetings, with bursts of e-mail in between? If so, you’re not alone. Especially in larger companies, the life of a product manager can be meeting hell.

Partly this is a function of company size; smaller companies need fewer meetings because there are less people to keep in the loop. Partly this is a function of growth – when the company is small everyone gets used to being included in every meeting, and as the company grows this expectation continues even though it obviously doesn’t scale. And partly this is a function of the company culture.

But for whatever reason, many product managers find themselves in meeting hell, and it puts a serious strain on their ability to get their job done. As a manager or coach of these people, all too often I need to sit down with these people and explain to them that even though they’re working like crazy, they’re not doing what they need to in order to make a difference. They may get an A for effort but they still fail.

What are these things that truly make a difference? The types of questions I ask include:

  • do you have a clear understanding of your current objective – the problem you’re trying to solve?
  • what are the major risks in this case – value, usability, feasibility or viability?
  • do you have a prototype representing your team’s latest approach to the solution?
  • how many users or customers did you talk to last week, and how many scheduled for next week?
  • what is your plan for testing that prototype?
  • what’s changed in the competitive landscape?
  • what big insights about your product or your customers have you had this week?
  • what new technologies do you see emerging that may enable new approaches to our products?
  • what new skills or techniques is your team trying to learn right now?

Most people respond by saying that’s what they wish they were working on, and know they should be working on, but then they show me their calendar for the week. It is typically jam packed with status meetings of various flavors, interviews, planning sessions, one on one’s, marketing, project management, operations, peers, HR meetings of some sort to learn about 401k’s or company culture surveys, or planning some event, and the list goes on.

Unfortunately, most of these meetings will do little to help you make progress on the items that will actually make a difference to your product or your customers.

The good news is that you really can turn this situation around. And not only will you do a much better job for your product and your company, but you’ll also enjoy your day and life more at the same time. But it’s not easy – it requires some difficult changes in what are by now likely habits.

In order to fix this, there are three major behavioral changes.

First, you need to let go and start trusting your colleagues more to do their job while you do yours. So many product managers think they need to be present at every single meeting in any way related to their product. But in many if not most cases, you really don’t need to be there. You can tell these people what you’re trying to do, and say that if something big comes up that requires your personal attention, that they should feel free to contact you directly, but that unless you hear otherwise you’ll assume things are under control. The truth is that most meetings simply aren’t truly necessary.

A corollary to this is that you need to be smart and efficient about communicating status to those that need it. A concise, well-structured status note takes you only a few minutes to write and even less time for the members of the product team to read. A good status is a topic in itself, but one key tip is to highlight at the top any exceptions or actions you need taken by others. Write it so that the reader can assume your work is on track unless something is clearly highlighted at the top.

Second, you need to realize that every hour of your day represents a choice of both what you’ll do during that time and just as important, what you won’t be doing. We’ve all fallen into the trap of getting so caught up in the urgent items that we can’t actually get to the important items. Correcting this starts with a very clear awareness of whether an item is important or urgent. The questions above are examples of important. You need to have a list of what your important items are and when you need them, and you need to change your mindset so that becomes your true priority.

One technique that I’m a big fan of is to literally block off 4 hours every day for your discovery work – these important items. I just don’t know how someone can do the product manager job without this quality time to concentrate and work on these bigger issues.

Then it’s a matter of using the time that remains for your “urgent” items. This will typically involve triaging, as there won’t be enough time for everything. So you’ll need to decline or defer some things, delegate others, and in some cases enlist your manager’s help to find a way out.

Note that it will be tempting to spend the blocked off time responding to all the e-mail that has come in during all of your meetings. You’ll need the discipline to ensure that you are really spending this time on the truly important items. Make sure you use the blocked time wisely. If you have to turn off your e-mail and slack or even your phone, do it.

Third, for the meetings you do attend, and especially the ones you lead, you need to make sure that they’re effective meetings and a good use of everyone’s time. You need to have a clear and well-understood and communicated purpose, and make sure that you and everyone else is prepared, and you need to move the meeting quickly to resolution.

There are many systems for personal time management and improving the effectiveness of meetings, but you’ll find these core principles behind most of them. It is a shame that so few managers help their employees with these time management issues. It’s one of the most useful things a manager can do for an employee. Try them out and see if you can’t make some progress digging yourself out of Meeting Hell.