📅 Product managers should project manage. How?

It's not by asserting authority.

This issue was originally published on Mind the Product.

In the previous issue, I explained why product managers should project manage. This issue gets into some specific ways to do this.

How do you project manage as a product manager?

Unlike a traditional project manager, as a product manager in a small or medium-sized company, you don’t have the power to make simple project management decisions like assigning work or setting deadlines. Fortunately, you don’t need to attain this authority. It’s simply not an effective way to project manage, especially as a product manager. Instead, lean on the innate motivations of people in a modern workplace, assuming high trust and competency. People want space to do their best work and a welcoming atmosphere to collaborate with each other. That requires a basic level of structure and consistency, where people can operate under shared norms. So work with leaders to establish a lightweight process communicating expectations on how to do product development. Be sure to emphasize desired descriptive outcomes in the process, over prescriptive rules. Maintain a source-of-truth doc for that process. For example, it could have these sections:

  • Maintain a prioritized backlog of product changes

  • Pick the next item from the top of the backlog

  • Check acceptance criteria when finishing a feature

  • Have a monthly retrospective

You also need some ground rules or meta-process to evolve the light-weight process itself, so that folks don’t feel restricted from doing their best work. You should welcome change proposals from everyone on the team, and put the onus on leaders to approve changes and communicate process updates widely. And so as a product manager, the way to project manage, is to simply gently nudge people to follow the process, and to propose updates as necessary. Again, the goal is not adherence to a rigid process, but shipping quality product changes leading to positive business outcomes. This in turn motivates people to continue doing their best work, establishing a virtuous cycle.

Every company is different. Your business needs and workplace culture shape your product development process and how you use it as a tool to project manage, as a product manager. But there nonetheless are a few best-practice principles to strive for. Start with these, especially if you are just starting out.

  • Intentional transparency: Most folks operate under a pull model of communications in the workplace. When they need information, they seek it out, asking relevant individuals along the way. As a product manager, be intentional in pushing out information as often as possible, even for work in progress. Beyond basic project status reports and announcements, take the extra step of articulating why certain decisions have been made. A traditional project manager exercises authority over folks to make things happen. As a product manager, you should be equipping your team with as much information as possible, so that they do their best work, in the business interest of the company, aligning with your goals.

  • Make decisions obvious: In traditional project management, after a leader makes a big business decision, they spend a lot of time articulating the reasons to the greater team. The decision has been made, and the goal is to convince folks that it makes sense, in order to motivate them and get them aligned on next steps. As a product manager, you should do the reverse. Since you’re already equipping the team with as much information as possible with intentional transparency, when you propose a particular direction (since you may not have the authority to make the decision immediately), the proposal should be so obvious to the team that everyone reacts in the positive. In other words, treat decision-making as a forcing function. If most of the proposals you make to your product and product development process proceed smoothly, you’re on the right track.

  • Don’t assign work. Set priorities: As a product manager, don’t spend time worrying about assigning work or squeezing out every last drop of productivity from the engineering team. Your job is not to build the product. Your job is to determine what to build. Focus on establishing a prioritized backlog of product changes and a visionary roadmap, based on convincing user research and customer development. Your backlog and roadmap should be a continual pitch to your engineering team. If they are sold, they’ll build it for you.

A transition mindset

Product managers tend to be really good at project managing since they are already managing stakeholders from various departments with different motivations and personalities. Product managers just have good people skills since they are effectively honing them every day. So as a product manager, it can be tempting to overly focus on project managing, because you are getting a lot of positive reinforcement, especially if you are doing a good job at it. But know that it’s not your main job, especially if you want to pursue a career in product. The value that a product manager brings to a company is figuring out what to build. As a product grows and becomes more complex, the overhead of implementation increases as well. And that’s ultimately an engineering management problem. Be on the look-out as engineering managers or directors arrive at your company. Or even actively advocate hiring for them. Adopt a mindset that project management belongs to the engineering department. Think about how to transition responsibilities to future engineering leaders. So that you can spend more time on your core competency, advancing the product itself.

🤔 What should I write about in the next issue of Product Management 101?

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