How to create free time as a Product Manager (or Manager)

As a manager (or a Product Manager), you never have enough time to get everything done. The purpose of this note is to describe how you can better leverage your time to free some up for yourself and/or focus on higher-leverage problems. To get there, you need to make an upfront investment in:

  1. creating team processes (the method of doing things) and
  2. creating team culture (the manner of doing things)

After that, (3) spend the rest of your time upskilling your team by teaching people what you know and writing shit down so people can access what you know later.

1. Create a structure for your team so they can work independently

When you create a goal, agree on which levers to pull to get there, and develop repeatable processes to catalyze execution with your team, you have created leverage and can spend time on more difficult problems to pave the way for your team to accomplish more.

First, you need to figure out why your team(s) exists: you need to agree upon and write down a mission. You as the manager need to help the team describe why they exist and how they’ll help your organization and/or company achieve their larger goals. So if the company is about creating economic opportunity for everyone (like LinkedIn is), then your team could be about helping people learn skills so that they have access to new opportunities (like LinkedIn Learning is). For a deeper dive on setting and measuring direction I recommend reading Measure What Matters by John Doerr.

Once you’ve decided on your goal, you need to understand the levers that drive that goal: those levers are the structure of your team. Let’s say you manage a team that is in charge of climbing mountains and your goal is to get to the top. Your “levers” would be reliable equipment (you need climbing gear, oxygen, and food), climber recruitment (you need people to climb), and climber training (you need to make sure the climbers know what they’re doing!). If you’re a manager, you will likely have one person in charge of each of those levers; if you’re a PM you may split these themes into tracks that your team shares responsibility for.

With goals and team structure in place, the last (and often overlooked) piece is creating and documenting processes. This could be as simple as a doc or checklist on how to launch a product, set up a test, onboard new team members, or run a team meeting. I’m consistently surprised by how often people need to reinvent the wheel because processes aren’t documented and the positive impact that writing these things down has on the productivity of the team.

2. Create culture for your team so that they can make decisions independently

Once you’ve laid out the method of what to do in step #1, your next challenge is getting your team aligned on the manner in which you want it to be done. You could call this team culture or team principles. When a decision isn’t clear, on what side of the line do you want your team to lean. For example: do you want your team to execute quickly to get to market with a few bugs here and there or is attention to detail and going a bit more slowly the right path? Is providing feedback to teammates important or is it better to keep people happy?

Here’s how to do it: gather 3–5 of your trusted partners across functions and build your principles from the bottom up. You’ll know that you have a good principle when an intelligent person on your team could create a counter-argument for one of them but the vast majority of your team agrees it’s the right tradeoff. Share with the rest of your team and incorporate feedback: this has to be a document that the entire team believes in. Then share widely in a team all-hands and make sure to reference the principles in decisions that you make to keep it top of mind with the team.

Here are some examples of principles from my previous teams to get you thinking:

  1. Be driven by data, but don’t be metrics-obsessed. Data guides thinking but it’s not the only thing. Metrics have a half-life of usefulness for your team and you should constantly think about better ways to measure value.
  2. Be transparent. Document decisions made and share those decisions widely.
  3. Invite feedback and close the loop. Take feedback in from all parts of the team and ensure that people understand why you do/don’t act on pieces of feedback.

The end result of this process is that you have 3–7 principles or tenets that your team can point to as to how to make decisions on the margins. Since you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be in every meeting that your team has, these principles are a great way to scale how you would make a decision on an ambiguous problem.

3. Spend the rest of your time upskilling your team

If you have strong processes and a clear set of principles for how your team makes decisions, the rest of your time should be teaching people on your team. Once you transfer a skill to someone, you can spend your time on higher-leverage problems. Find the people on your team who are talented and want to learn. Figure out where their opportunity areas are with them and then jointly decide the right course to upskill them.

There are a few options to upskill the people on your team. The growth area is a strength of:

  1. yours, so you can teach them directly
  2. someone you know, so you can connect them to that expert
  3. Learning content, so you connect them to the resource (a class, a book, etc)

Once you’ve got processes, principles, and an upskilled-team you won’t have to do any work at all! Or, more likely, you’ll have new people to onboard and challenges to solve and you need to consistently tackle all 3 aspects of this note. Regardless, following these 3 steps as a Manager or Product Manager will ensure that you’re able to spend time on the most important problems your team is facing and not getting sucked into the day-to-day execution that your team can handle.

What tips did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

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Chris Hatfield

I'm a Product Manager who loves to solve problems at the intersection of how to help people get value out of complex ecosystems and how people make decisions.