What energizes a product manager?

Main illustration: Kara Haupt

I had a call with a customer recently, who wanted to share their thoughts with our product team on what they’d like to see improved.

Our product managers jump on calls like this all the time – to make sure we’re understanding the most common customer problems, and learn what we can do to make our product better.

So I was surprised when I came out of that call absolutely buzzing. I immediately grabbed another product manager, Benjamin:

“You know that project we were working on recently? I took the foot off the gas on that, but I’m convinced again we need to do it, as soon as we can. Can we talk about where it fits in your team’s priorities?”

Then I grabbed a designer on our team, who had sketched up some designs that had never been shipped:

“Let me show you how this customer has hacked our product to create their own solution to their problem. I’m convinced your design is a solid one. And we need to get it out into the world.”

I went back to the roadmap we were working on, I confidently descoped a project I had been having nagging doubts about, and added a project that was going to solve this customer’s problem.

Walking home from work that day, I thought a bit more about that call. Why did it give me that immediate energy? And what should energise a PM?

Get frequent customer contact to tap energy supplies

As a product manager, you want to build product that impacts people’s lives, in some modest way. So it makes sense that our customers energise us.

It’s surprising how easy it is for shipping to become anti-climatic.

But to truly tap this energy reserve, you need direct customer contact, ideally in person. Second-hand synthesis of research is incredibly useful, but never as impactful. A graph on a PDF is no substitute for firsthand empathy. They certainly can validate your convictions, but they rarely supply them.

This is why I was so energized by that call – despite being just a single data point, it gave me a newfound confidence on a topic I had been wavering on. As product managers, with so many options of what to build next, it feels great to finally have real conviction of what matters most.

Direct customer contact is also what usually sparks insight. Watching usability tests can be as useful for the space it affords your brain to ruminate about possibilities as it is to expose user pain points.

This is easier said than done. There are so many meaningful distractions that come up for a PM on a day-to-basis, talking with customers can easily be pushed down the list of priorities. So prioritize your time effectively, and make sure you’re getting frequent jolts of direct customer contact.

Take energy from the middle, not just the beginning and end

If you’re a PM who gets energised only at the start (insight) and end (validation) of projects, you’re in trouble, because most of your time will be spent in the middle.

It’s also natural to get energised during the design phase — it’s creative, yet rational, and it feels great when you think you’ve arrived at an elegant solution with the team. But it’s important to take energy from the less obvious moments too.

Scoping can give you energy

Scoping is painful. Every product manager wants to see their full solution built, but you know you can’t justify it. We had a product review session recently, where we debated whether a component could just be in email or also needed to be in our Messenger. We really wanted it to be in our Messenger, but found it hard to justify that it was necessary.

During the review one of our engineers said: “We could just make it a link, instead of building the full card. A link would take a day, whereas the card takes two weeks.” Conversation over! This almost immediately unblocked our beta. It was a prime example of embracing constraints to make progress. Like most good ideas, it was so obvious in retrospect, but we were blind to it until then.

To everyone outside the team, it’s a run-of-the-mill boring anecdote. But for us, a previously agonising choice turned into a source of energy that drove us forward. Savor these little moments. The process of building should be fun, and you have to ensure you’re tapping those jolts of energy when they sprout up.

Ship to learn, ship to energise

When you have clear metrics to aim for with your product, there’s an obvious point of celebration (which is energising) or at least clarity of failure (which is motivating). But sometimes your product’s success metrics take time to register, or they’re not actually a primary indicator of success.

In the absence of those metrics, it’s surprising how easy it is for shipping to become anti-climatic. Don’t let that happen. With every release, you should be learning. Regardless of whether the release was a success or not, you should be energized by having new-found confidence in what to do next, even if it is to throw out what you just built.

These are just a few of the sources where I get my energy from. Where do you replenish yours?

Credit to Paul Adam’s piece on the topic, which was the inspiration for this post.