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Productivity

Spinning Plates…

A Product Manager’s job is a complex one. Too many parallel initiatives to juggle, too many deadlines to meet, and too many stakeholders to manage. Feels like you can never do any real deep work. It’s not just PMs, startup founders and managers at a medium to a large company also find themselves in this spot.

Where Does the Day Go?

At any given time, PMs are often working on several initiatives in multiple stages of the product lifecycle. As illustrated in the chart below a typical day goes by dealing with stand-ups, monitoring metrics, roadmaps, processing customer feedback, etc.

Additionally, PMs work with multiple stakeholders in the company. From Engineering, Design, to Sales and Marketing. Every function has a dependency on a PM’s deliverables.

It seems like there is a never-ending list of serialized tasks which take up our entire calendars. Most efficient PMs work really hard to organize their tasks to ensure nothing slips through the cracks and end up having massive checklists like the one below.

https://amplitude.com/blog/how-i-pm-andrew-wynn-product-manager-looker-instacart

To add insult to injury, some of the best advice in the world is to free up your calendar and do some deep work with reading and thinking… 🤦🏽‍♂️

Spin Em Up

We all can’t be one of the richest people in the world or even get to the place to delegate our way to have a completely free and open calendar. We need a different way to manage our tasks and stakeholders.

The mental model which has helped me through this is one of the spinning plates. Just like the performer below, who is able to load up one plate after the other on the sticks and keep them spinning. He keeps tending to these plates by speeding up the ones which slow down and carefully catching the ones that drop. He is able to switch back and forth seamlessly while having all the plates spinning at the same time.

Now think of each item or dependency on your list as a plate that needs to be spun up. Just like the performer above, you have to keep these tasks going simultaneously and focus on them when they need attention. Always be mindful before picking up tasks that there is an upper limit here. Even the performer above won’t be able to manage too many plates.

Large Plates vs. Small Plates

Unlike the performer, as PMs, we can size our plates. This way we know which tasks are more important than others. Larger plates will need more focus and frankly, these are delicate. Smaller ones are easier and much more resilient. The key is to know which is which. For example:

Large Plates

  • Product strategy
  • Roadmaps
  • Product reviews
  • Key customer meetings
  • Managing key stakeholders etc.

Small Plates

  • Metrics
  • Stories
  • Bugs
  • QA / UAT
  • Release planning etc.

Don’t get me wrong. Small plates don’t mean you don’t focus on them. It’s just that they aren’t fragile and don’t need too much babysitting.

Allocate time on your calendar for the larger items. Go ahead and block out slots on your calendar for these. This is where you need to bring your A-game. Once you get better at this, I will strongly recommend to treat your “deep work” as a large plate too and allocate time for that.

Frankly, our calendar doesn’t belong to us and anyone can book time without even talking to us. Holding time on the calendar for our large tasks is critical. Once you have time locked for larger items, you can then find times for the smaller ones. This is analogous to my rock-pebble-sand model for delivery planning, which I will save for another post. Here is another framework for thinking about tasks, which could help you categorize / plan better.

Some Fast and Some Slow

In addition to being aware of the size of the task, you have to know the cadence each task needs. Not all tasks are equal nor need to be managed at the same speed. The key advantage we as PMs have over the performer is that some plates can afford to run slower than others. Intentionally slow down on tasks that don’t need frequent attention.

One key thing to keep in mind is stakeholders or team members who depend on you. Spin the plate enough to get them unblocked, such that you are free to go back to other important plates.

Conclusion

We all as PMs have way more than our calendar can handle and it feels like all of it must be done all the time with the same attention. We cannot operate like that and clearly, we won’t be effective. Also trying to finish everything at all times is a sure shot recipe for burnout.

So allocate time and energy wisely. Pick the right tasks and spin them up with the velocity required. One more thing do find time for some deep work!

Cover image credit: Lori Welbourne

By Abhishek Tiwari

SVP Product wiser.com | ❤️ building Enterprise SaaS & Consumer Products | Beer & BBQ, enthusiast