How should a Product Manager spend their time?

One of the major sources of both satisfaction and stress of the Product Manager job is that you are responsible for defining your own tasks and schedule. There is no convenient external guidance like tickets or cases, and you are not judged on your output but rather the outcome you drive – if you worked like a demon and wrote 500 user stories but your team didn't move any metrics, you haven't done a good job.

So the core dilemma – one I see many fresh PMs struggle with – is how to allocate your time. You only have 40 (ha!) hours in a working week, so what should you do with them?

Categories of PM work

Broadly, PM work can be divided into three different categories:

  1. Delivery: getting features out the door
  2. Discovery: working out which problems to tackle and how they should be solved
  3. Dreaming: clarifying the vision for where the product is going long-term and why your team exists

Usually this is also the order in which they are prioritised, too. Trouble is: this is the opposite order to the amount of value they add to your organisation! Even worse: it is also the opposite order of how replaceable the PM's input is.

What do I mean by this? Think of your team as trying to get to the highest point they can in a country filled with hills of different sizes. The country is so hilly that the horizon is quite wavy, making it hard to tell how high you are at any given time without measuring. You have a teleporter that can instantly move you to a different patch of the landscape, but it is imprecise: to get to the top of a hill you need to walk. (Yes, this is an optimisation problem analogy – you can take the man out of the economics, etc.)

Here's what spending time on each category of work lets you do:

  • Time spent on Delivery increases the amount of steps you can take in a given period
  • Time spent on Discovery lets you choose the direction you are moving
  • Time spent on Dreaming gives you visibility over the other hills you could be climbing
Question you can answer by spending time on each PM activity

Delivery work feels the most productive – last month you took 5 steps and this month you took 7! But what if those steps turn out to be parallel to ground level? Or worse yet, what if they turn out to have taken you down the hill instead? Clearly time spent checking that you are going in a (probably) helpful direction is very valuable – probably more valuable than the extra 2 steps you managed to squeeze in. Discovery work is therefore very important.

But then, what if you are on a weeny little mound and actually there is a giant mountain somewhere else that you could be climbing to get 10x as high? Unless you take the time to check the landscape to decide where you should be spending your efforts, you might work hard for ages only to plant your flag atop a molehill. Time spent dreaming is critical to real success.

How to prioritise discovery and dreaming

OK, so now you are convinced that discovery and dreaming are important. But how can you prioritise them? You've got a sprint to fill right now! And the next sprint, too, and the one after that...

Some tips:

  • Engineers are good substitutes for the delivery part – in fact, at Wise we hire Product Engineers for this exact reason. Your tech lead is your best friend here; talk to them about how to delegate more of the delivery work to the team.
  • Designers and User Researchers or particularly enlightened Data Analysts can be good aids for Discovery – you just need to be clear that the aim is to understand the situation thoroughly in order to identify the right problem to solve.
  • You as the PM are basically the only person well positioned to do the Dreaming: everyone else's scope is not right to spend time on this. If you don't prioritise it, no-one will – you'll be stuck on the same hill forever...
  • Schedule time! If you just hope that it will happen, it won't. Clear the decks occasionally. You should be doing discovery work every week or every fortnight. You should be dreaming every month or every quarter.

Ideal media for each category of work

Delivery lives in tickets, no surprises there.

Discovery should live in some big, collaborative space – a Miro board or Wiki is perfect for this.

  • Work with the door open: ask the questions aloud, record your thoughts, and encourage others to do the same
  • Keep track of what you are confident of and what you are still investigating, and the evidence you are gathering

Dreaming is best done in Google Docs, where you can write a draft and then let others comment. The version history will let you see how the vision has evolved over time. When you are ready for it to be part of the common knowledge, copy it to the Wiki.