Activity vs. achievement in product management
March 31, 2023

Activity vs. achievement in product management

by Brian de Haaff

Last updated: February 2024

"Super busy!" This is often the standard reply when people ask product managers how work is going. What if we answered, "Staying strategy-driven" instead? It might earn a funny look. But that raised eyebrow would be misdirected. Because while it is true that to-do lists can feel never-ending, accepting busyness as the norm is what should really be questioned.

"Super busy" is not the same as doing meaningful work — it is important to distinguish the two if you want to achieve great things.

Product development moves fast. High-achieving product builders naturally want to be responsive to team and customer requests. When things are going well, it is some of the most energizing work out there. When things get tough... well, "staying busy" may feel like all you do. Over time the challenges compound and that once-rewarding work becomes exhausting.

Many product managers are feeling this way right now. There is pressure to meet business goals despite unstable markets. There is pressure on the team to deliver new functionality with fewer resources. And there is pressure to engage and retain customers who are distracted by their own challenges. Folks under this type of stress often fall into the trap of checking off as many to-do's as possible. But when you approach everything with the same sense of urgency, what is truly important becomes hazy.

Busyness only counts if you are working on the right things. But how do you evaluate what the "right" things are when you feel busier than ever?

It starts with thinking critically about whether a task is something you should do or if it is just something to do. Learning to triage demands for your time will bring achievement faster while preserving your stamina in the process. That is why the best product managers actively work to stay focused on what matters most.

The Aha! team has decades of experience doing this. It takes practice — so we made a list of some identifiers you can start using right away to weed out distractions:

1. Connect to strategy

The clearest signal that something is worth your time: it supports your product strategy. Look for a strong connection between a piece of work and overarching goals. This is the best way to focus on tasks that meaningfully contribute to your progress.

2. Estimate value

Goals are just one way to identify work that matters. Consider the resources and effort needed to complete something against the estimated impact. You can use a value scorecard for features or a simple 2x2 matrix when assessing new ideas.

3. Be critical of priority

Is that feature request from sales really as high-priority as it sounds? Or is it just one very passionate person's idea? Take a beat to question what is driving the urgency before moving something to the top of your backlog. When you understand the context for the request, you can craft a better response that shows empathy for others — whether or not you choose to pursue it.

4. Think long-term

Some things do not have an obvious link to your strategy right now, but still need to get done. Considering goals holistically helps you make smarter tradeoffs. Technical debt is a good example. While allocating engineers to code cleanup might slow down other features in the near term, it will set you up for more sustainable growth later on.

5. Automate if possible

If you are spending a lot of time on something manual and repetitive — that is a red flag. Find ways to automate this type of work without sacrificing quality. Product development software makes it possible to set up rules and notifications for recurring tasks.

6. Delegate deliberately

Once you cut the fluff and hone in on top priorities, it might still feel like you are too busy to tackle it all. Do not tire yourself out. Delegate or de-prioritize what you can. Remember, you are not going it alone — others are invested in the success of the product and will want to contribute.

7. Tag team when you can

You may have heard the proverb, "A shared problem is halved." If you cannot delegate, see if you can share responsibilities. Alternating duties with another product manager is a good example. For standing meetings, have one person represent the team and share highlights after. Encourage folks to use a meeting template that includes action items and outcomes to keep progress moving forward no matter who attends.

You cannot change the number of hours you have in a day, but you can change the impact you make in that space of time.

Product builders will always be busy. Creating something of value requires ongoing effort and deftly handling many priorities. These tips can help you build endurance. But do not forget — joy is just as sustaining. Find moments to honor and celebrate your accomplishments along the way.

Product managers save 500 hours a year with our software — find out how.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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