Great Product Managers Build Walls
September 17, 2014

Great Product Managers Build Walls

by Keith Brown

One of the best product managers I ever worked with created a physical boundary in her cube by placing a rug on the floor. When anyone (especially pesky sales folks) would start to stroll into her space uninvited, she would whip around and grumble, “You have not been invited into my office, yet.”

The suggestion that great PMs build walls might be counter-intuitive and maybe even controversial, but if you look closely you will see clear boundaries set up around all great achievers.

It’s the only way they actually get the most important work done. They are terrific, which means they are always in demand. It does not mean that they don’t also open doors, but they know when to hole up and when to bridge out.

My colleague would simply ask the sales team to stand outside of her cube until she was done with her email or call and wait to ask her a question. It seems like common courtesy but in high-growth, high-pressure environments, every second matters, and everyone is impatient.

As high-performing professionals, if we’re not standing our ground, we run the risk of being consumed with urgent but often unimportant requests.

We all need signals for ourselves and others when we need to work without interruption. My product management colleague simply set her boundary by placing a rug on the floor. This provided visitors with a reminder and gave her any easy way to say, “Yes, I can help you, but not right now, because I’m working on something critical. I will get back to you in a minute.” And if after a minute or two she still needed more time, she would simply ask the person to come back later or send her an email.

Here are a few ways that you can create reasonable boundaries (without physically barricading yourself) that should work for everyone else as well:

Know your priorities We’re all busy, especially product managers and product teams. While most questions are easy to quickly answer, some require meaningful investments of time and energy to satisfy (e.g. a custom pricing proposal). You need to know whether you are going to invest that effort. And to do so wisely you must establish a “goal first” approach and a true north for where you are headed. A “goal first” approach is about defining what work is most important and must get done vs. what can wait. Because if you do not have a vision, every request will seem like it’s more important than the last.

Set clear expectations Setting expectations is essential when you have a long list of requests and a “goal first” strategy guiding you. It is absolutely ok to acknowledge that the request was received and that you will get back to the person shortly. In the mind of the requester, his request should be your number one priority. So, the key is to digest the information and its importance as quickly as possible and clearly inform the requester of next steps (if any).

Communicate what is possible Sometimes what is being requested is not feasible. So, communicating the options and possibilities is even more critical. Allow someone to peak inside and understand why you responded the way you did rather than just offering a response. Explaining the “why” makes the “what” simple to digest. This is especially important when saying “No.” The benefit to you is that if you share your assumptions and motivations — and they are wrong — the other person will have a chance to help you see a better way.

As a great product manager, setting boundaries, clarifying expectations, and clearly communicating what you can and cannot do is your responsibility. You get paid to do it and to do it well. The good news is that if you do, you will be more respected and become even more valuable to the organization.

Product managers are always on the go, but when it’s time to focus in on what matters, they need walls to deflect the noise.

Keith Brown

Keith Brown

Keith was a vice president of marketing at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software.

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