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  • Writer's pictureJenne Pierce

Product Leaders: Help Your Team Make Time for Product Work

Most product leaders I coach want their teams to do the deeper product work we all love to talk about: digging into data, talking to customers, keeping tabs on industry developments, etc. They often lament to me that despite telling their teams to do this, many don't make it happen.

In a future post, I’ll dive deeper into the root causes in play and talk about how to help them build the right skills and find adequate motivation. But for any of that to succeed, product leaders must first help ensure their product managers have adequate time to spend on this kind of work.

Some techniques to try:

1. Establish a target amount of time for deep work each week.

This is best done at the individual level, though it can also be a team conversation. Discuss what the ideal number of hours for deep product work would be. If that figure seems daunting to them, agree on a starting point – even if it’s just a couple of hours per week. Agree to check in after 2-3 weeks to see if the target needs to be adjusted.

Emphasize that this is not about adding more hours to the week; it’s about culling less valuable items to create capacity. To avoid the aroma of micromanagement, ensure they take the lead in talking through how much time they believe makes sense.

2. Help them identify specifically what to cull to make room.

Leaders often underestimate the role they play in both catching things that product managers can drop, but also in moving tasks to someone else. They’re frequently surprised by something the product manager is doing – either they didn’t realize the product manager was doing it, or they didn’t realize how much time the item was taking.

My favorite technique is to have the product manager look at their past two work weeks in detail, and make a list of meetings they attended and tasks they worked on, with a rough guess at hours spent on each. It’s often eye opening for both of you. Be careful to make sure this is a super safe conversation – no “gotchas,” no judgement, no teasing. Don’t jump too quickly to conclusions about what you want them to cut – if they seem hesitant to ditch something, probe deeper to see if you can suss out what they think will happen if they stop doing it personally. Chris Jones wrote up a similar approach that's also worth a read.

Examples I’ve found in doing this work:

  • Product managers who spent several hours each week manually creating recurring reports. In some cases, the reports were indeed vital, so we explored how to automate them or get them moved to an analyst; in some cases we determined that the report could either be produced less frequently or suspended altogether.

  • Product managers spending a substantial portion of their time responding to product support inquiries from clients. This had made sense when the product was new, but now merited being transitioned to a different role (product support analyst or business analyst) with the product manager on phone-a-friend standby for tough cases. This let the product managers stay in touch with what the clients were asking without personally being on deck to reply within the client’s expected response time.

  • Product managers still sitting in on meetings from their prior roles because they were perceived as having invaluable subject matter expertise. In these cases, we focused on how to create and execute a knowledge transfer plan, and be available for questions without attending the meetings.

  • Product managers doing a significant amount of delivery management. Marty Cagan covered that well in his post about coaching on time management.

Sound familiar?

Pay attention to where the product manager is reluctant to give something up because it makes them feel relevant. Most humans need to feel valued by others - if you strip too much of that away without replacing it, you risk making their job significantly less enjoyable. Invest in ensuring they get as much sense of being valued from the deep product work as the items you want them to remove from their plate.

Note: If you have a product manager feeding the backlog for multiple teams, refining stories and staying on top of the backlog might truly be all they have time for. This is a structural problem, and something they can’t fix: YOU need to ensure that your product managers aren’t spread too thin across too many engineers.

3. Gently check in weekly on what they learned from their product work time.

In the future, we’ll talk about different ways to encourage product managers to write up their learnings for the benefit of the company. For now, set yourself a weekly reminder to simply ask them about how they spent the time, and if any “aha” moments occured. You’re sending the signal that you notice if they do/don’t use their time, that you genuinely want them to use that time every week, and that you’re authentically curious about whatever insights they gleaned. Be forgiving if they miss the occasional week, but notice if they slide back into the “tyranny of the urgent” occupying all of their time.

Good product managers want to do this work. By helping them make the time, you’re taking concrete steps to improving their product practice.

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