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“People waste years of their lives not being willing to waste hours of their lives”
- Amos Tversky in “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis
Product Managers always have something that needs to be done. User stories need to be created, business requirements need to be written, PowerPoint slides built. All this with countless meetings and stand-ups to attend. It can sometimes feel as if the work doesn’t stop and there is no opportunity to back away from it. Between the actual work that needs to get done and our fast-paced culture telling us that we always need to be busy, there isn’t any room for wasting time.
Product development is a job that doesn’t have a clearly defined end goal. There is always something else that could be done: an algorithm to optimize, a slight user experience improvement, a new pet feature to implement. When managing more mature products, these types of things make their way into the roadmap simply to keep the product moving forward and to keep the entire team busy.
It shouldn’t be that way.
We should be rigorous and ruthless about validating the value of every single feature or unit of work we add to our products. The opportunity cost of building a feature that isn’t needed is incredibly high. Building something that doesn’t solve a problem for your customer is just motion without results. Over time this can lead to a culture of inefficiency, which makes it harder to compete.
Understanding how much value a single feature will bring is critical to determining how much effort should be spent on it. This might be counterintuitive to what society (and other product leaders) suggest is the right path to take. However, any amount of time you are spending on a product that isn’t returning measurable value to your customers is likely not worth it.
We Hate Not Being Busy
Inside each of us is a constant tendency to want to do something. Sitting around and not doing anything is painful and our conscious kicks and screams if we try. Social media companies have spent billions of dollars to help you waste time while feeling like you are doing something. Scrolling the infinite streams of low-quality posts on social media feels good in the moment. We despise not doing something.
These infinite streams of content make us feel like we are getting some value from the activity. They make us feel like we are staying close to our friends, keeping up on relationships, managing what events are ongoing, and staying aware of the news. All of these things can be done without social media and (do I dare say) produce even better results.
This lie bleeds over into our work lives as well. We are constantly watching Slack and email. Just waiting for any message that comes through so we can respond as quickly as possible. We tell ourselves that we don’t want to block our colleagues from getting their work done, even though we know it’s just another form of busywork. Commenting on Jira tickets, building another dashboard, and sitting in meetings all fall into the same category. They are all activities that have high motion, low results.
Motion != Results
Therein lies the problem: we often conflate motion and results.
Motion feels good. We feel a sense of accomplishment for getting things done. We are able to check things off our to-do list and show a list of things we accomplished for the week. We feel a sense of pride in how much stuff we are able to get done. We point the finger at others who aren’t getting as much done and use that as evidence that we are better at our job than they are at theirs. Our sense of self-worth commonly comes from the things that we do, the things we accomplish.
But motion doesn’t always equal results. Motion only equals results when you are doing the right types of motion.
There is currently a large public discourse (mostly on Twitter) about managing productivity and work volume now that we are living in a fully-remote workforce during the pandemic. One side of the argument is asking how we know that people are working if we can’t see them. What stops them from just slacking off at home watching YouTube instead of getting their work done? This side of the argument even goes as far as to suggest tracking hours spent working using technology that tracks mouse movements (!!). The other side suggests that all of this is unnecessary and that we should only be tracking the output of our teams. If the results are good, then you shouldn’t worry about how long people are working or how much “slacking off” they are doing.
This dichotomy is a great example of how easy it is to conflate motion and results. Just because you are getting stuff done does not mean you are getting the results to go along with it. A fully completed to-do list at the end of the week means nothing if you were working on the wrong stuff and the motion didn’t lead to any results. I would suggest both sides of this argument are wrong -- the issue isn’t output or hours worked, it is all about results. If you don’t actually get anything done that moves the needle in a meaningful way, you are just busy.
Stop Working on Valueless Features
This is something product managers do frequently at a larger scale with their products. They are constantly looking for things that will keep the team busy, show a small improvement in the product, and make it look like they have a lot to do. The tendency to want to do something creeps in and overtakes the team. They aren’t satisfied to take a step back, reevaluate the product position and customer usage, and determine if the product is good enough to be left alone. The constant churn on updates to the product that don’t result in any noticeable increase in customer satisfaction or product success metric is motion without results.
So, what should a product manager do when they find themselves in this situation?
It’s time to push back against the tendency to want to do something. Be willing to waste hours of your life in an effort to save yourself years.
Michael Lewis doesn’t actually mean to waste time. He explained what he meant by this quote during an interview with Tim Ferris:
“What he meant was that people don’t back away from their work, and especially the need to always seem busy or be busy stops people from finding things that are really worth doing and sifting the ones that are worth doing from the ones that aren’t worth doing.” - Michael Lewis [emphasis mine]
I think this analogy is incredibly helpful when thinking about our products and what we should and shouldn’t be working on. Sift the things that are worth doing from the things that aren’t worth doing.
A Product Sieve Will Help You Find the Gold
put (a fine, loose, or powdery substance) through a sieve so as to remove lumps or large particles.
examine (something) thoroughly so as to isolate that which is most important or useful.
Definitions from Oxford Languages
Sifting a substance to remove the unwanted particulates is laborious, dirty, and time-consuming work. The mental image I get is of a ‘49er at the peak of the gold rush, spending days trying to find small pieces of gold. This is what we should be doing with our products. Search and search again, letting the small, valueless particulates fall to the wayside to ensure we are working on pieces of gold, the stuff that will actually provide results for our product.
One of the critical elements of sifting is the sieve itself. A sieve is the fine-grained screen through which you pass all the material. The stuff that passes through is the waste. But, the stuff that sticks on the sieve is big enough to be valuable gold. You must define what your sieve is before you can get started.
A product management sieve is usually made up of questions that should be answered. Some examples include:
What metrics are you trying to impact and what impact are you expecting?
What problem are you solving for your customer?
Will your customers love your product more if you do this work?
Does the required amount of effort align with the value returned?
Creating a sieve is the most important part of this process, and you need to make sure all the stakeholders of the product are aligned. You are creating the tool you will use to determine what should be worked on and what shouldn’t -- their input and buy-in is vital.
Doing this requires trust between everyone involved: your manager, your team, and yourself. You may not have a to-do list at the end of the week to show how much you accomplished, but that is the point. Taking time to talk to customers, read about the landscape of the market you are in, and talking with developers about their ideas is crucial. Take all the time that is required to ensure you are working only on things that are gold, and not things that are just dirt.
Minimize the Motion, Maximize the Gold
Looping back to the topic we started with: motion doesn’t equal results. Using a product sieve to filter what your team is working on will improve the results of your product and decrease the motion you spend getting those results. You need to be willing to waste hours of time doing things like building a sieve, sifting product features through your sieve, and validating that stuff that comes out is actually important.
When you stop trying to keep your team busy just for the sake of continuing to deliver features, you will open up the team to work on things that are truly impactful. Sometimes, this means continuing to work on small features that provide incremental value. Sometimes it could mean working on a completely new product that will augment your current one. And rarely, though it can happen, it means abandoning your product to build something that will be better for your customers.
When you find that you are very busy, but unsure if your work is providing the results to go along with it, just take a step back and build the sieve for your product. Sift the work you have planned through it. Make decisions about what work is golden and what work is motion. Minimize the motion, and maximize the gold.
Building a product sieve is a mixture of art and science. Next week we will answer questions about how to build a product sieve:
How do I build a product sieve?
What are the best formats for the product sieve?
Who should be involved in the design of my product sieve?
Once the product sieve is created, how can I use it?
How do I know if you are using it correctly?
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