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"If only I had the time to work on ______________."
This is something I say to myself frequently and I consistently hear from business leaders and colleagues. Finding the time to work on the highest leverage tasks can seem impossible. This effect is compounded by the fact that product people tend to be detail-oriented by nature. This isn’t a bad thing, you want everything about your product to be perfect. But perfectionist tendencies can get in the way of enabling your team to flourish.
When you find yourself wanting to double-check other’s work, make sure things got done correctly, or simply don’t have the time to teach others how to do the job, you are working on things that provide less value than you can bring to the table.
So how do you start to work on high leverage tasks? Start by getting out of the business of doing your colleagues or subordinates job. Once you have done that, find the highest leverage tasks, prioritize them, and turn the other tasks into an exercise of finding leverage.
How do you do this?
Finding the Highest Leverage Tasks
“Forget rich versus poor, white-collar versus blue-collar, it’s now leveraged vs. unleveraged.” - Naval Ravikant
Identifying the leverage of a task can be challenging. There are two ways I have found to best identify high leverage tasks.
1. Ask the question: Will this work provide 80% of the value for 20% of the work?
Following the Pareto Principle in your thinking will enable you to find tasks that are worth your time and will provide significant value to your colleagues. These can be:
shaping up the design and mockups for the executive pitch
providing a well-defined writeup for your team to execute on a project
making a high-profile decision about which direction the team should go
building documentation that will create self-service opportunities for your team
These are the kinds of things that you can do to jump-start the team and get them a successful start along their route.
As a product manager, you have a unique perspective on how to get things moving in the right direction, and if you can get things 80% of the way down the right path, your team is set up for success.
2. Build content that casts a vision and enables the team to stay on track.
“Good product managers create leveragable collateral, FAQs, presentations, white papers. Bad product managers complain that they spend all day answering questions for the sales force and are swamped. Good product managers anticipate the serious product flaws and build real solutions. Bad product managers put out fires all day. Good product managers take written positions on important issues (competitive silver bullets, tough architectural choices, tough product decisions, markets to attack or yield). Bad product managers voice their opinion verbally and lament that the “powers that be” won’t let it happen. Once bad product managers fail, they point out that they predicted they would fail.” - Ben Horowitz
Your team should know exactly where they are headed and what it looks like when they get there. If your team doesn’t have this type of vision, it is not surprising you are spending a lot of time on low-leverage tasks to keep the team on the right path. Enabling your team to be self-sufficient by providing them with a well-defined vision will keep them focused and enable them to exercise their creative muscles while keeping the ship steered in the right direction.
The second important idea when casting a vision is to ensure you put some guardrails on the path and let your team know what success does not look like. This includes things like:
What would happen if we failed in our vision?
How do we know we are starting to head off course?
What types of activities will guarantee us failure?
What things have you learned along the way and know to avoid?
Using a mental model called inversion enables you to come up with these ideas to share with your team. A combination of “where are we headed” and “what will make us fail” narrows the direction for your team and enables them to thrive without your constant support.
Here is the key: you need to write these things in a way that is clear, reference-able, and understandable to all members of your team. Having these written down allows your team to constantly come back and reference them when they need to. Think of this as putting up a highway sign and guardrails on a bridge. You want to let people know exactly where they are headed (highway sign) but you also don’t want them to accidentally drive off the side of the bridge (guardrails).
But remember, you don’t take down the guardrails after you’ve shown them to the drivers once. You leave them up as a constant reminder about where you are headed. Your product vision should do exactly this for your team.
Make Your Expectations Abundantly Clear
Making sure you set clear expectations with your team is critical to give yourself the space to act on activities of leverage. Not letting your team know what types of documentation you require as a status update means you will need to schedule a meeting while they play a game of “guess what the teacher is thinking” (don’t make your people play this game with you... tell them what you want). Make your expectations clear, let them write down what you need to know and send it to you. This mostly benefits you in the long run. You can read it whenever it is most convenient for you, and they will have time to create well-formulated and understandable thoughts. Over time, you and your team will have documentation about what is going on that you can reference at a later time.
Create a culture of writing in your team. It starts with you. Cancel meetings and provide an update in writing instead. Ask your team to write down things they want to talk about in a shared doc and use that to communicate throughout the week. There is no need to meet about something where one person is providing most of the context.
Ask your team to create a dashboard with all the detail you need to get a full view of the project status. Then you must review the dashboard so you stay up to date. Don’t waste your team’s time because you are too lazy to read a dashboard and ask specific questions to people on your team. Let them do their job and give them the time to do it well.
Do the Things You Always Wanted to Do
Now that you have your team working on the tasks you need them working on, they are headed in the right direction, and they know how to avoid heading down the wrong path, you suddenly have time to work on the highest leverage tasks. You can do market research, creating a report that shows where the industry is headed in the next 5-10 years which helps you pitch product changes to your executive stakeholders. You can spend time talking to customers, identifying which parts of the product are the most used and least supported. You can train your team on the value of the product they are building so they take more ownership over the activities they are responsible for.
Give your team the tools they need to succeed, provide clear expectations, and give them the space to execute. You will be pleasantly surprised by what your team will do.
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