Prioritising Career vs Company, and why OKRs are the Gateway Drug to Good Product Management
From time to time, product managers are going to find themselves dragged into areas they don’t want to be in. I’ll talk about that on a broader level later on in this issue, but what is a product manager to do, tactically speaking? As an expert in your product, you may be asked to get involved in what are basically professional service engagements to help customers out. Saying “no” and hiding behind your favourite product management book will be met with a stony stare, so what to do? Consider the HWIP questions (yes, HWIP, like Cool-Hwip).
How much money is this even worth?
(Some people might love the sound of extra money on top of ARR, but how much are you going to make net? Product companies can be quite bad at charging a decent margin on extras)
What happens if we don’t do it?
(Is the customer going to shrug their shoulders? Grumble? Complain? Escalate? Churn? All of these are going to factor into how much you’re going to be pressured to do this)
Is the opportunity cost understood?
(Everything’s an OR, never an AND. Presuming you have strategic priorities, call out the things that you’re not doing, and what’s going to be delayed. Align on which is really most important)
Product enhancement opportunities?
(Why can’t the customer do this themselves? Is this a common problem? Can we enhance the product to take this need away?)
A word from My Mentor Path
I’m passionate about mentoring and, in 2022, mentored 76 product managers and product leaders. I’ve benefited from mentoring in the past, and genuinely believe it to be an essential part of the support network that helps people navigate their careers and understand what’s OK and what’s not.
However, I realised that I cannot scale to mentor all the people I’d like to, so I co-founded My Mentor Path, a free mentoring platform that allows mentors and mentees to connect and help each other flourish. We ran our first matching cohort yesterday, and are already starting to connect people. If you want in, come on over and sign up as a mentor, a mentee, or both.
New podcast episode: OKRs: The Gateway Drug to Agility & Good Product Management
I recently had the pleasure of a long chat with Jeff Gothelf, the co-author of classic books like Lean UX and Sense & Respond. These days, Jeff is working with companies large and small to train them in the art of OKRs, and trying to help them move away from features and into solving the problems that really matter.
We spoke a lot about the principles that unite design thinking, agile and lean approaches, what OKRs really are and some of the barriers to successful adoption. Give it a listen on your favourite podcast app, or check it out here.
OKRs are the gateway drug to agility and good product management
OKRs are easy to explain, but difficult to implement. Used right, they can empower teams to make a measurable impact towards an aspirational goal, without micromanagement or deciding on a fixed plan upfront.
Choosing Where to Spend your Time: Career vs Company
Something I get asked relatively often, and something that has come up at various points in my own career is… “How can I get ahead in my career?”
Now, these days, many will tell you that job titles and career ladders are meaningless and that it’s all about the work that you do. And, you know what, I’m here for that energy. It came up in my conversation with Jeff, and we both agreed that, in many places, job titles and career ladders matter an awful lot. It’s not so much that the job title gives you power, but that it represents what your company expects of you, and how they’re going to rate success.
It’s common for strong individual contributors to stall in their career development because they’re always being pulled back to Earth by the intense gravity of their strong individual contribution. They know everything about the day-to-day operations that they have become so strong in, they have the hard skills needed to get stuff done quickly and, often, they have a helpful, proactive mindset. These are all great assets but can be a barrier if these same individual contributors want to take on more responsibility.
An interesting thing that can happen here is that the leaders of the company, the people that you need to convince to give you a shot, are the same people that realise how incredibly invaluable you are exactly where you are right now. You’re continuously proving your worth in your current position, which makes you indispensable. “Indispensable” sounds good, but it’s actually a poisoned chalice, because you’re generally spending your time on tasks you want to leave behind, and your boss knows that replacing you is going to be a massive pain. And, because you’re spending all your time doing the stuff you’re good at, you never have time to develop the area you need to be good at. Thus, the cycle continues.
Time for a quadrant!
Ask yourself a deceptively difficult question… “Where do I want to be in my career in X months?”
You may need to have a good think about this, do some mind mapping exercises, or speak to a coach or mentor. You need to really understand what you want. Is it leadership? Is it individual contribution? Is it another job entirely? Get thinking, write it down, and make sure to refer to it regularly.
If you know where you want to go, start to think about the tasks that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis. The things that are your actual responsibility, the things that you volunteer for out of helpfulness, the things you do just because it’s quicker for you to do them than someone else. You need to think about whether someone in the position you want to be in would be spending their time on this stuff.
There are many ways to categorise these things, but consider:
Good for Career, Good for Company
As close to a no-brainer as possible. You should be aiming to spend as much of your time here as possible.
Bad for Career, Good for Company
This is where strong individual contributors tend to revert to. You need to try to delegate as much as possible in this area. That can be tough, you might need to train people, or use your powers of persuasion to get rid of this type of task altogether. Consider the time spent divesting this stuff as an investment in your career.
Good for Career, Bad for Company
If the only way you can develop your career is to do things that ultimately harm the company, and by extension its customers then you need to (a) consider whether you’re trying to do the right things and (b) consider whether this is the right company for you. There’s nothing wrong with moving on for the sake of your career development.
Bad for Career, Bad for Company
Again, another no-brainer. Aggressively avoid these tasks.
“Good” and “Bad” here are obviously massively oversimplifications (or, if you want to sound clever, “dimensional reductions”). There are multiple interlocking aspects to everything that you could be doing. You’ll need to apply judgement.
But, also, it’s not so much about not doing any of these tasks, and that you should instantly leave the first time you’re asked to do a thing that goes in the wrong bucket. It’s more about the proportion of time you spend in these different areas and, crucially, the direction of travel.
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Thank you for the good suggestions about product manager decisions on-the-job and in your product career!