06017 No Job Too Big: Cutting Your Job Down to Size

We’ve all heard of the “No job too small” attitude, where a person considers nothing beneath them or too trivial to tackle as part of getting their overall job accomplished. Well, it seems to me that Product Managers have to deal with a very different challenge, the “No job too big” issue, where it seems as if the Product Manager position has been defined to cover the scope of three, four, or five full time jobs. Product positioning? Marketing collateral? Sales tools? Demos? Requirements? Release planning? Quality Assurance? No job is too big for the Product Manager to tackle!

This means that a Product Manager is faced with a truly challenging situation. How can anybody possibly cover all the ground that needs to be covered? Is it a setup for failure?

Yet there are ways to deal with the “No job too big” challenge that Product Managers have used, consciously or not, to manage to do their oversized job successfully. Read on for some ideas about how you can accomplish the Product Management mission despite the fact that it seems entirely too much for one person to fulfill.


Seven Approaches For a Job That’s Too Big

When your Product Management job is too big for one person to possibly do, try an appropriate mix of the seven approaches below to cut a too-big job down to size.

Is It Just Me, or Is This Hard?

The very first thing to determine about your job is whether you have too much on your plate because you have taken on too much through your own actions, or whether you are faced with a scope of responsibilities that truly is oversized. While it’s true that most Product Management positions tend to include a scope that spans almost the entire company, it’s also true that Product Managers tend to be individuals who want to be involved in all aspects of the organization, and that’s what often appeals to them about working in Product Management. Once bitten by the “hands into everything” bug, they’re no longer satisfied with being involved in only some of the action.

To determine what is really driving the scope of your job, go to the job description. Is it something along the lines of “Help develop the business case (Management and Finance) set the product direction and message (Marketing), support the sales force (Sales), plan and manage releases (Development), and ensure product quality (QA)?” In that case, you’re definitely dealing with an oversize job, and you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing by getting involved in many functions at your organization.

But if you go to your boss for input and receive an answer such as “We really need to focus on the development lifecycle right now” then it could be that it’s you who took on projects unbidden. In such a case you run the risk of not only not getting credit for taking on those extra Marketing and Sales projects, but you risk diluting your efforts and therefore doing a poor job in the areas that your boss considers essential.

As with all jobs, the key here is to verify with your boss whether the current situation with your oversize job meets his or her expectations or not. If you’re trying to keep many balls in the air, and that is expected of you, then you’re good. But if you’re not really getting credit for the many extras which you have taken on because you enjoy the variety, then perhaps it’s time to put the focus on the duties at the core of your position.

What Really Counts?

The Product Management function, by definition, is one that could contribute to every area, and every aspect of the product from Marketing to Development to Customer Service. But when you have limited time to cover an unlimited list of possibilities, it’s critical to decide not what you could, but what you should do.

When a Product Manager needs to narrow his or her focus within a too-wide range of responsibilities, effort must be directed towards the one or two factors that are most essential for the product’s success. For example, if your new product has no customers, your focus, after developing the product messaging and marketing presentation, must not be to create detailed printed collateral. Rather it must be to provide the sales support necessary to close the first few customers. Better to get sales going and leave the glossy materials for later.

I write about this concept in detail in 06010 Make Your Product Succeed: What Will It Take? I provide a number of examples of different factors which might be critical to success, and where to focus your efforts accordingly.

Who Needs the Help?

Another way to narrow down your Product Management activity is to realize that the role of a Product Manager is to fill in the gaps in the organization, wherever they may be. This means taking a look at Marketing, Sales, Development, Customer Service, and other functions to decide which area is in most need of help. Which area has the leanest staff? Which area has way more to accomplish than people to do the work? That’s the area that should probably be your focus, in order to shore up the overall team effort.

As your company and staff grows, areas that once needed assistance from Product Management are often strengthened. This reduces the need for your time and attention in some areas which previously you could not afford to turn away from. So it’s always a good idea to reconsider each of the areas where you have been providing Product Management support, in order to identify those areas which are no longer in need. Company growth and development provides the Product Manager an opportunity to cut back in some areas and focus more on others.

Effective Versus Thorough

It may seem like you have an endless list of projects and aspects of the product to pursue – sales demos, customer care calls, product testing, development reviews and more. But it doesn’t hold that you have to do an equally detailed and thorough job on each one. While for some duties, dedicating an extensive amount of time and attention to detail is the only acceptable way to fulfill them, other duties call not so much for a long effort as an effective one.

To be effective, you want to aim for being “good enough” to make a difference. If there is a customer care issue, perhaps a short phone conversation with the top manager at the customer is where you as the Product Manager can have the biggest impact, while others can follow through with the details on resolution of individual issues. Or a half-hour review with a developer of a new feature with a few thoughtful suggestions (and some guidance on what capabilities not to bother coding) may do the trick when it comes to guiding development of the product in a specific area.

Breadth and Depth

It would be simple to say that you can either have breadth in your duties or depth. But for a Product Manager, it’s a matter of combining the two. You are called upon to participate in a broad set of functions to help the product succeed. And some of these functions require in-depth assistance.

The key is to determine which areas require an in-depth approach and which don’t. In my experience, a Product Manager can rely on others to assist with almost all components of the job except for one: requirements. Usually only the Product Manager has the mission of soliciting and taking in suggestions for new product features. More importantly, only the Product Manager drives the systematic definition, analysis, and prioritization of requirements to create an actionable list to hand to Development.

(Of course, it would be too easy if a Product Manager had only one responsibility that fell to him or her alone. Usually, efforts such as the product road map fall to the Product Manager as well.)

Most other areas where a Product Manager gets involved can potentially be covered in less depth, relying upon the bandwidth of the rest of the team for the detail work.

Cycle of the Seasons

One effective way to cover multiple areas of responsibility is to organize your year into different “seasons” of work. Requirements can be handled at specific times in the year, while you can schedule the customer conference or trade shows to fit in between requirements and product launches. By working to define a schedule where the duties which demand the most time are dispersed more evenly throughout the year, a Product Manager can continue to cover the needed breadth of work while still having enough time to dedicate to the big projects.

For example, the busy season for sales support is the fourth quarter. You can plan for sales training and development of sales tools in the first quarter, requirements in the second quarter, and product launch with Marketing collateral in the third.

Influence Rather Than Control

Finally, there’s an important concept that is championed in the book First Things First by Stephen Covey, R. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill (Simon and Schuster, 1994). That is the idea of increasing your impact by focusing not on control but on influence. The book discusses how, by letting go of direct control over projects, activities, and people, and focusing on influencing them instead, you can expand your circle of influence over those activities. Your circle of influence extends well beyond the area you can control directly. By aiming not to control but to influence, a Product Manager can have a meaningful impact on a greater number of projects and aspects of the product, from Marketing to Customer Service.

While the seven tips outlined above are very helpful for Product Managers, anyone in a too-big job can use them to carve down their job to a size where they can be successful and feel fulfilled. A clever combination of focus, prioritization, elimination, and effectiveness can lead to better results that are noticed and appreciated throughout your organization.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges



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