Full Gas in Neutral

A racing car that is stuck in the mud

Lately we’ve been discussing some topics that can be considered  ‘heavy stuff’, such as product strategy, roadmap planning, product market fit and more. All of those are critical aspects of any product leader, and even product managers who are not yet ‘leaders’ but do have a mileage in the product realm.

Yet… when you spend some time with the other product people in your company – most of the chances are that you will rarely hear discussions about the product strategy or the path to product market fit (PMF). Most of the conversations you’d be part of, or be evident to, are about the day-2-day tasks, the sprint status of the quarterly goals and so forth – e.g. – the ‘hands on’ aspects of the product manager.

This is very likely to apply to the product leaders in your company as well.

I’m talking about conversations and discussions such as:

“Julia from X [a big customer] wants to know when we’re finally releasing the feature we promised her. What’s the ETA of that?”

“The scrum process is not managed effectively. Let’s set up a meeting to discuss how to improve it”

“Are we going to meet the commitments for the sprint next week?”

“Our infrastructure in NA is down. Get everyone ASAP on this!”

“There is a negative trend with the revenues of customer X for 3 days now. What’s going on? Can Y take a look at this?”

 

And so forth…

Those conversations are very natural of course, and definitely should take place a great part of the time. However, when a great majority of the time evolves around those daily challenges – then your company is risking drifting into afull gas in neutral state’ where everyone is super busy, but the company doesn’t make real progress towards its long term goals.

From what I have observed and experienced myself – many companies suffer from this short term thinking and focusing on the immediate challenges that are in front of them. As a product person, if you believe that your company is starting to drift into such a state – then you need to do whatever in your power to change this.

But first – let’s talk about why this is happening.

Why is that, really?

The short answer is that ‘life happens’ and it’s easier to react to events rather than initiate them yourself.

The longer answer is that our priorities at our workplace follow the same method of thinking that guides us in our personal life.

I’m talking about the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which essentially says that survival needs will take over any other needs, including emotional, self-esteem and self-actualization.

In the workplace that translates to turning off fires, risks of customer churn and loss of revenues before doing anything else.

 

Sadly, for many companies – those things can easily take most of the working time. And when you spend most of your time turning off fires or addressing day-2-day immediate needs and priorities – how can you possibly find the time to think about the long term strategy and whether your product has reached PMF or not?

 

The second reason, which is strongly related to the first one – is that by addressing immediate needs for long enough we’ve been training an internal ‘brain-muscle’ to think and focus on what’s right in front of us, predicting disasters and working to fix them.

 

This line of thought certainly holds a value by itself. However, when your brain is trained to do something – the thought process involved with this becomes a ‘comfort zone’ in a sense. Meaning – it becomes easier for you to think about such incidents rather than training your brain-muscles to focus on the long term.

From what I have observed in companies – with the lack of a responsible adult that from time to time ‘snaps’ everyone out of their daily rush – the decision makers in the company (and the product team among them) are focusing purely on what’s in front of them. This is a disease because it spreads across the organization and infects everyone with this line of thinking.

The last scenario which results in short-term focus is the lack of discipline. Meaning – the leadership did discuss and agreed upon a north star, strategy, the road to PMF and so forth – but no one is really enforcing those. The ongoing reality pulls the attention of everyone and nobody takes their share of the responsibility for making sure everyone in their department is working according to the north star and strategy.

Is it really that bad?

Yes.

By keeping yourself fully occupied with the daily tasks and on what’s right in front of you – you may feel that you have accomplished a lot and you may also end each day with a big dose of adrenaline in your veins. What a day!! You accomplished so much!

Yet, this is an illusion

What percentage of what you or the developers assigned to you did yesterday will actually move the needle for your company?

Were you promoting the north star? Is there even a north star defined?

Losing track of the big picture results in loss of focus. This de-focus starts from the top and cascades all the way to the bottom. There is no longer a guiding hand and what’s left is just an arbitrary list of tasks.

Doing this long enough – and the company starts losing market share and becomes reactive to the market rather than being proactive and creative.

I’ve seen this happening more than once.

What can I do to prevent this from happening?

If you feel that this is how things are working in your company or department then you can make an effort to change this.

Start by becoming the responsible adult. If there is no north star defined – get the attention of the relevant decision makers and suggest to change this. 

If there is one defined, but it’s only an empty statement that no one is enforcing – start by enforcing it yourself in your own group/business unit or whatever. Lead by example! All the developers, product people, QA, analysts and anyone else for whom you define priorities must know the KPI they are measured according to, and they should alert you if they find themselves working on things that don’t push this KPI up.

Remind yourself at least once per month to take a half day to step back from the day-2-day noise and lift your head above what’s in front of you. Call it a ‘sanity check’.

What has changed in the market? Are there any important announcements by the big players or competitors in your market? Was there any relevant research that was published?

What about the company’s metrics? Consult the dashboards or talk to the analyst with the lack of such dashboards. How are the KPIs doing? You know, the north star is the most important metric, but it’s being affected by the other metrics, so if one of those is lagging, it could be a leading indicator of what’s going to happen with the north star soon.

What’s the status of your product when it comes to PMF? Have you ever considered this question? If you haven’t, and you’re not sure how to address it – read my series about it (here) as it should provide you with a great starting point.

If you started your journey towards PMF – where do you stand? Where do you get stuck? In the acquisition, activation or the retention phases? Prioritize what it takes to get to the next stage.

If your product has already achieved a PMF and you are in the growth or the monetization stages – are things progressing as they should? 

If your company is not yet a public one – imagine how an earnings call would look like for the past quarter if it were. Would your company become a ‘buy’ or a ‘sell’?

 

There is always a prioritization key out there that makes sense at each phase of the company. Most of the time it’s the north star, but sometimes it’s not. I provided some hints above as for how to find it. Use this and once you believe you know what it is – make sure everyone is aligned according to that.

 

Last remark – don’t underestimate your power. You can probably affect the decision makers outside of your department if you play it wisely and communicate yourself well. Most, if not all, the people in your company want it to succeed. So if you believe you can help with that – don’t constrain yourself to your ‘official’ subordinates.

 

No. Wait, don’t wrap it up just yet. I can’t do what you are suggesting. I’m REALLY overwhelmed. There is too much to do….

Well… if you’ve been really honest with yourself, you reviewed all the tasks, your calendar, your Slack and your email – and you’re convinced beyond any doubt that everything on your table is top priority – then “Houston, we have a problem..”.

You see, at the end of the day – it’s a major part of your duty to think about the long term as well. If you can’t get your head above the ground – then you are not doing your job. And let me tell you another secret – tomorrow is not going to be any better. 

I already provided tips on how to improve your time management skills (here) and when it’s the time to expand your team (here). At the end of the day – if you truly believe that objectively there is too much to do – then the solution is either the first or the second.

But I’m still gonna push back and insist that for most cases – this is not the reason for what’s happening in your daily reality. I claim that it’s merely a lack of discipline.

 

That wraps up the post for today.

If you found this post/series useful – let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

 

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

 

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