Every candidate gets excited about his or her new opportunity as a product manager. For some, it may be a big change – switching from a different background to product management. For some, it could be a promotion to a senior product management role. And, for some, it could be a dream opportunity, albeit in a different firm. Often, this transition can be a bit challenging for rookie PMs but an addressable problem for seasoned PMs. Why is that so? It is mostly because of the high level of ambiguity that comes along with the product manager job.
Handling ambiguity is a struggle for novice product managers while a testing challenge for veterans. Seasoned PMs, mostly, have a mental model or a blueprint of what to do on the first 30, 90, and 180 days as a product manager. In this context, I’m quoting a few of my favorite lines from the book — ‘The War Of Art’, Steven Pressfield.
"The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps”. "The amateur plays part-time. The professional plays full-time”. “The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional shows up seven days a week.”
The message for product managers goes in the same vein. With adequate attention and preparation – you can improve your productivity and reduce frictional experiences during your initial days. Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge this aspect and create a suitable plan.
First 30 days
Adaptability, Relationships, Learning, and Smartwork should be your mantra for the first 30 days. It’ll be helpful not to set high expectations for yourself; Be open-minded; Be willing to soak in new information from anybody and anywhere. More importantly, don’t pass on judgments but do form opinions.
Adaptability: If you’re transitioning from a functional role to a cross-functional role, you need a different game plan. But if you are already experienced in such situations, you might want to improvise your past learnings at your new job. Below tips might help you:
- Develop an ability to read situations and actors involved in it.
- Identify factors that are under your control and what aren’t. Work on improving things you can control and influencing factors that are beyond your control.
- Establish a high degree of self-awareness, comprehend contexts, and adapt yourself as the situation demands. All these will prove invaluable for your initial tenure in the firm.
Relationships: Every new product manager wants to make their mark, but before that happens you need to lay a foundation of respect, trust, and collaboration. It will help you in gaining influence, authority, and reputation. Below tips might help you:
- You’ve to sow seeds today that’ll build your brand tomorrow. It will help you in identifying your core values and establish guidelines to honor certain boundaries.
- Be proactive in building relationships and offering help. With time, people will acknowledge you not just for your Skills, Knowledge, and Impact but also for your Personal Brand.
Learning: Your first 30 days as a product manager should be to learn as much as you can. You have to be more in “Listening” mode than in “Speaking” mode. Below tips might help you:
- This might require you to have non-stop meetings, conversations, impromptu knowledge sessions, etc.
- Be willing to Unlearn, Learn, and Relearn. Be curious – You should let go of the past biases and embrace the new situation with an open mind.
- You should primarily focus on developing a well-rounded product overview – About customers, the core value of the product, Market landscape, Competition, Success metrics, and Product stakeholders.
- Apart from this, you have to educate yourself about the team’s & firm’s historical context, and reporting structure using the organization chart.
- Last but not least, you need to identify tools, processes, and help channels that’ll be your support system during the initial days.
Smart work: While learning is important, it sounds too passive. So, it’s also important to work on something “tangible”, which can be quantified as your first month’s output, if not an outcome.
- Be smart and improvise on your learnings from existing product documentation and roadmap, etc. to create a document(wiki or word doc) or a presentation that summarizes “your” understandings and key learnings about the product(s) and customers.
- Present it to your immediate manager and peers. This will help you in getting validation and also understand their perspectives on product goals and success.
- Be Biased: Don’t be prejudiced and show up with biases that have worked for you in the past. I’ve committed this mistake not once but twice and feel it is very important to evaluate everything from a fresh perspective. It’s important to have an opinion, but not enforce it blindly.
- Be Preachy: Acting as Mr/Mrs. smartypants could prove detrimental. If you act before you think thoroughly, chances are high that you’ll face a trust deficit or encounter friction with team members. No one likes a know-it-all, and it’s unfair to make proclamations or decisions undermining the collective wisdom of your teammates or management.
- Be Lazy: Put sincere and serious efforts in whatever you pick up. Not understand the product- Its features, customers, market & environment, business model, etc. is suicidal. Don’t be lazy and sit at your seat reading paperwork, documentation, or understanding systems. Spend quality facetime with your product stakeholders.
First 90 days:
Knowledge: By this time, you should have a good understanding of the essential knowledge required for your smooth functioning. This includes but not limited to – Product, Customers, Team, Culture, Strategy, Market, Tools, and Processes.
Product: You should be ready with answers to the below questions. It demonstrates that you have a good grip over your product and are ready to steer it towards its vision. Creating a high fidelity plan for the next quarter or the rest of the year helps a lot. Below are some tips that can help you in this regard.
- What is your product’s Vision, Mission, and Roadmap?
- Which features are prioritized for product development and what are in the product backlog?
- What features create parity and differentiate against market alternates?
- What is the complete product feature set and why do they add value?
- Why current technical debt exists and what can be done to reduce it?
- Where are the product ideas captured?
- What are some metrics to track the success of each product feature?
Customers: Ideally, a few actual client interactions would be good. In case it’s not feasible, you can use proxy resources to know more about clients’ pain points using – Insights from customer service, from the research team, shadowing customers support team, Jira tickets, Data analytics, etc.
You should have at least 10 to 12 relevant and useful pieces of data. These could be qualitative or quantitative, but something you can mention in conversations with your team and management. Remember, you are the face of the customer. You need to sense the customer pulse and product-market fit.
If you identify gaps in serving client needs, transform them into new insights, and create actionable items for the business and customers. When you make a customer visit or interact with them, comprehend and summarize what you heard and share it with your team. Make them feel the customer’s pain points and why is it worth solving them. Below are some questions that can serve as food for thought to achieve this
- Who are the users and what’s their persona?
- What are customer pain-points? What do they complain most about?
- How much of breadth and depth of customer pain-points does?
- What are the current consumer behaviors? What influences them?
- How can you improve the funnel metrics for the customer lifecycle?
- How good is NPS or CSAT of existing products?
- Do customers love your products? If yes, why? If no, why?
Team dynamics: Usually the expectation is that you’d have soaked in enough information to know your team well. The main purpose is to improve the team’s productivity and keep its morale high. Focussing on building relationships is extremely important.
Develop an inner circle of the most critical 3-5 people to build strong relationships with. This includes not just the software development team but also colleagues from executives, sales, marketing, support, and service. It may also include your PM buddy or mentor. To a great extent, they will act as your support system and help you in navigating the organization.
It’s also important to build a productive relationship with your product group – with your boss and peers. Take ownership of building this relationship. If he or she doesn’t schedule one-on-ones, block their calendars 🙂 and take initiatives to get on top of their mind. The meta point here is to know what problems can you solve to make their lives easier? Below are some questions that can serve as food for thought to achieve this
- Which teams affect your product: UX, UI, Backend, Legal, Compliance teams, etc.? Proactively identify the stakeholders upfront.
- Which sister or adjacent teams you need to engage in and influence?
- What motivates your team members and improves their productivity?
- What issues does the team encounter in building products?
- Familiarize yourself with the manager’s working style — does s/he prefer daily or weekly check-ins?
- Set up a cadence for standups within your team. Know whether your team members are more hands-on or do they prefer autonomy, etc?
- Establish technical credibility with your engineers. Understand the tech stack of the product and participate in discussions with engineers.
Culture: Peter Drucker once mentioned, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It emphasizes how important is it to know your firm’s culture. As a first step, you can determine the planning, operations, performance, and employee evaluation systems used by the company. Most MNCs publish a manifesto capturing the firm’s values. Spend some time studying them. More importantly, be a quick learner in understanding the status quo, decision-making processes, and ways to get your things done.
Put your softer skills to use in figuring out about internal politics and what are the touchpoints for influencing decisions, do the right thing, and create the necessary impact. An expectation from you might be that by this time you already know what’s the DNA of the firm. Below are some questions that can serve as food for thought to achieve this.
- What are the ethos and culture of your company?
- Is the culture more engineering-driven or product-driven?
- Are relationships extremely important for completing your tasks and achieve your goals?
- At what typical pace do projects start and complete?
- What is the product culture in your company?
- How to influence & manage cross border collaboration across teams?
- What creates effective communication and transparency across teams
Strategy: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” – Michael Porter. As product managers, we are always in the process of maximizing beneficial outcomes and minimizing losses and avoidable mistakes. Below are some questions that can serve as food for thought to achieve this
- SWOT analysis of current competitor’s current product offerings?
- What are some key strategic initiatives and how do they enable your firm to beat competitors and propel itself towards success?
- Are there key challenges that the company faces from the management’s point of view? What is your manager’s perspective?
- Are there any major challenges related to other aspects — sales, marketing, customer support, etc.
Market dynamics: As a product manager it’s important to identify and understand which factors affect the supply and demand of products in a market. Below are a few questions that can help you in evaluating markets under which your product operates
- What is your product’s current market share?
- What are the market growth rate and size of the revenue pie?
- Who are existing direct and indirect competitors? Are there any new entrants into the market? Is the market still lucrative?
- Is there a potential threat from incumbent players or from new entrants? What is your action plan to address them?
- How is the product positioned in the market? What do customers “think” about your product when they “hear” its name.
- What is the maturity of the current market? Evaluate whether the product-market fit still relevant.
- What are some key challenges in the 4Ps? – Price, Place, Promotion, and Product. Do you have any recommendations in addressing them?
Tools, and Processes: A lot of product managers seem to make the mistake of starting with a tool or a process, and then force-fitting them to work into their current working model. This usually does not end well. I suggest, start with the bare minimum you need. Use principles of Lean Thinking to minimize waste effort. For instance, you might drop some inessential documentation as a tradeoff for your required attention during product planning. Below are some questions that can serve as food for thought to achieve this
- Identify and establish ways on how requirements are produced, delivered, executed by the tech team.
- Use productivity tools to track things, but not to the point of being a stickler and reducing the team’s productivity.
- Create a framework to define how decisions are made, how conflicts are resolved or disagreements will be handled, etc.
- Create a mechanism to run the business and adhere to SLA for supporting customer issues on priority.
- Define a cadence to sync up with marketing and sales teams and devise ways to incorporate their feedback into improving the product
Demos: During your first 90 days, you’d have absorbed enough information to be considered a valued contributor. You can start asserting yourself in small doses. One quick way to expedite this process is to demo an existing product, or a feature or a proof of concept to management.
- Demoing the product to an internal audience is a good way to showcase what you’ve learned in your first 90 days as a product manager. A proper validation, almost guarantees, trust from others, and conviction on your abilities to steer the product towards its success.
- A product demo also opens up new avenues for ideation and possibilities of pivoting should things go south on you.
First Win: You can increase your influence and credibility by being honest, reflecting customer empathy, showing a growth mindset, and understanding your new workplace. Usually, it takes a quarter to half a year for a typical mid-management product manager, from the outside, to get up to speed and add value to the team. But it definitely helps to have some “quick” wins in your first 90 days.
- Few wins are always important. What is a Win? It depends on a case-to-case basis. For a junior product manager, it could be – adding a new feature proposal in the PRD, making a demo of an existing working product, etc. For a senior product manager, it could be – deliver a feature and take into production or creating a well-researched vision for a new product category.
- It could also be solving customer pain points by prioritizing and addressing existing customer tickets. This might lead to an improved CSAT score or marginally improve a product metric.
- Not following above DOs 🙂
- Don’t just focus on your vertical relationships, but also identify who are your stakeholders are across the organization. This will help in cross influencing across teams
- Don’t be directionless. This might sound vague, but I myself have experienced it first hand 🙂 In the first 90 days, there is a lot to comprehend. You might run into a situation where you are adding too much information but you are not creating any outcome. The impact needle is just not moving. One way to mitigate is to “chew only what you can eat”, nothing more. Deliver tangible outputs and outcomes that help you in completing a set of goals and ultimately marching towards the product vision
- Don’t be too self-reliant. It’s quite possible to run into a limbo situation or feel handicapped, unable to filter noise, and make a clear decision to move forward. It’s ok. There are times where you might require help from your peers and boss. Please reach out for help only after you’ve put in your best effort to solve a problem.
The first 30 days or 90 days as a product manager are always tricky. Even for veterans. To a great extent meticulous preparation, planning, and clever execution will decide your overall experience at work. Cracking a Product manager interview and landing a job in product management is in fact the tip of the iceberg. No matter how good you are with your interviewing skills, don’t be surprised if there are challenges that can totally overwhelm you. Although, smart work and having the right expectations may ease your problems
Finally, if nothing works 🙂 accept it and realize that all this is perfectly normal and happens to most of us in this profession. We consider it part of our learning process – face challenges, learn from mistakes, grow up and deliver next time! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. Let me know of your thoughts in the comment section