Bad time-management in product teams (or any team for that matter) is a source of pain for many but, by taking some simple actions you can ensure they’re a thing of the past. Here’s how you can support your team’s time-management as a product leader.
Time management is a challenge that appears again and again during my coaching sessions with product managers. It’s an acute pain and one that can lead to feelings of stress, inadequacy (the perception that everyone else has more time than you), and a strong sense of isolation. This can result in product managers not performing at their best or working lots of extra hours (which impacts their personal and family lives) but more concerningly, it can negatively affect their mental health as they desperately try to keep up appearances while feeling increasingly overwhelmed.
Time management is seen as a purely personal issue, a skill to be improved. And it’s often expressed by the people I coach in that way (“I need to be better at managing my time”). It might even be part of your company’s career competencies or job adverts. The onus is on the individual to manage their time better, often with very little compassion or support.
However, as with many mental health topics, managers and senior leaders have a large responsibility to ensure they create a constructive and empathetic environment and culture – in this case, one that minimises the necessity of time management. This doesn’t absolve the product manager of all responsibility to manage their time well, but by supporting them you can turn it into a useful tool rather than an elusive white whale.
Why is it Such an Acute Pain?
As a rule, product managers are conscientious people and servant leaders; sympathetic to both customer and colleague needs. They want to help their team deliver valuable, impactful products, so they need to provide customer and market insights and context.
They are the voice of the product internally, so they receive lots of questions (from graduates to CXOs, from PR to finance) and need to help other teams stay aligned. They could be discussing privacy constraints with the legal team one minute, and performing user testing the next. Not to mention doing things like recruitment interviews or being on the company’s sustainability team.
Time management struggles can also be a symptom of a deeper issue.
Perhaps the company’s quarterly objectives are unclear and there are crossed wires about the product manager’s goals and priorities.
Perhaps there is a gap in their team, and they feel they need to cover it to keep the team running smoothly (for example, if they’re spending time creating designs/mock-ups because there’s no designer on the team).
Perhaps it’s not clear what is expected from product managers at your company and the responsibilities differ from their previous role.
Perhaps they’re new and not up to speed on the industry or internal tools yet.
How can we Alleviate That Pain?
The best way we can do this is to clearly set expectations, so the product manager feels confident about how they’re prioritising their work and making hard trade-offs about which tasks to do (and which not to do).
At the most fundamental level, this is about making sure your company’s objectives are crystal clear, and there is a shared understanding of the goals and outcomes the product manager is responsible for. This message can be reinforced when asking them questions or discussing progress; but to help them focus on the important objectives (which, after all, are also what’s important to you) you should make a distinction between the core conversation and side information, suggestions, and opinions (ideally, trusting the product manager to successfully work out the low-level details).
It’s easy for senior leaders to inadvertently cause a feeling of lack-of-time. Try to limit your questions or input to the most important ones (to reduce the noise) and consolidate them where possible (instead of a machine gun of questions throughout the day that reduces the product manager’s focus). Also try to give them an idea of what sort of response you’re expecting and when you’re expecting it, so it doesn’t seem like you need a response right now (eg. “this can wait until tomorrow”, or “could you let me know by the end of the day/week”).
Where possible, avoid sending email/Slack/Confluence messages out of hours. It’s your choice to work evenings and weekends, but queuing up your messages to send when you get to work the next day means the product manager free to choose their own working hours.
Ensure it’s not an issue for new starters
Another area where it’s important to have clear expectations is onboarding new colleagues. The product manager role often differs slightly from business to business. Being specific about a product manager’s responsibilities at your company – this is vital for their success, and therefore the success of your company objectives. At Skyscanner, we have a document that details what to expect from a product manager at our company, and we share it with new colleagues. It’s available to anyone in the company, so we all have a shared understanding of the product manager role.
Helping a new colleague get up to speed with your industry (or an existing colleague taking on a different area of the business) is also important. This could be pointing them to the best resources to learn from, but it could also be as simple as noticing when you use industry-specific terminology or acronyms and explaining them as you go (or even better, avoiding them if you can). It also means understanding that it takes time to ramp up, helping the new colleague carve out time to learn by explicitly reducing delivery expectations during their first few weeks, and helping them set achievable development goals during this time.
Once awareness is in place for managing your own actions, you can use coaching as a unique opportunity to explore where the product manager is still feeling pressured or overwhelmed. Asking them insightful, open questions helps them see the problem in a different light, break it down, and refocus on their most important objectives. From a practical point of view, you can share time-management techniques (eg. pomodoro, eating the frog, time-spent pie chart) but there is also immense value in helping them feel heard. An additional benefit is that you understand more where there are gaps, misunderstandings, or mismatched expectations. And, importantly, it shows you where you can improve to help them succeed.