One of the questions that frequently comes up within the large team of product managers within which I work is, given all of the other problems, issues, questions and tasks I have to deal with day-to-day as a product manager, how can I find the time to do the high[er] value activities that product managers should be spending time on? Things like:

  • Talking to customers
  • Analysing competitors
  • Researching the market
  • Ideating new products and features

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, one of the things I think I’ve been pretty good at over the course of my career is focusing on and prioritizing value-adding activities, so I think I do have some things to say here…

Prioritise it - in the face of all the other stuff that is asked of you, unless you make something a priority it will always go to the back of the queue and in the worst case, never actually get done. I’m in the habit of planning my work in advance, usually on a week to week basis. But as my role is evolving and I take on more senior/lead responsibilities, I’m recognizing the need to plan even further out – months, even years in advance.

Timebox it - research is one of those things that can never really be considered complete. There’s always another avenue for investigation; always another question to answer. The easiest way to set some boundaries around the potentially infinite space of whatever research needs to be carried out, is to specify the amount of time you’re going to spend on the activity. A spike, in agile verbiage. Start off with by setting aside a couple of days, and see where you get to. If further time and effort is required, you can plan it in from there.

Constrain it - to a specific question or hypothesis. If you go into the activity with a clear question or hypothesis in mind, you’re less likely to fall into rabbit holes along the way.

Distribute (or delegate) it - as the PM, you’re responsible for being the subject matter expert for your product(s), but it doesn’t mean you have to know (or are even capable of knowing) everything. Think about ways you can involve other members of your team in the research activities that need to be performed. I like to think of myself as the spider at the center of a web of information (and business relationships); I spin out the threads, and then need to be sensitive and responsive to tremors along them.

Automate it - some research activities are relatively mechanical, and as such, are good candidates for being automated. Setting up keyword searches and subscribing to useful sources of information are low hanging fruit. It may be possible for you to automate some other activities too (e.g. I use an R script to pull and collate production metrics into a report, eliminating a few steps of manual effort).

Document it - find a tool or means of capturing the information you gather so that it’s available to you when you need it. Ideally, you want something that allows you to organise the information in whatever way makes sense for your purposes; I mainly use Evernote for this, but there’s plenty of alternatives.

Be flexible about it - unlike some of the day-to-day tasks and activities I find myself embroiled in…

  • Acting as a scrummaster and release manager
  • Answering questions about new features during the course of development
  • Handling stakeholders and business needs
  • Supplying information to management, sales, marketing and others as needed
  • Writing documentation and producing other collateral such as webinars and blog posts
  • Generally overseeing the product roadmap and making sure everything is on track and everyone has what they need to do their job

… Research is an activity that can, to some extent, be carried out anytime and anywhere. I always have my phone with me (I’m writing this blog post on it) and therefore have the capability to read, listen to or watch media related to the objects of my research more or less anywhere I am.

Of course, not everyone will agree with this point. Some people like to have a much clearer line between work and home life, and I certainly understand that perspective. All I’m saying here is what works (and has worked) for me. Being flexible about when and where I am when I’m doing this kind of work affords me many more opportunities to read, and think, and ultimately to add the kind of value that’s crucial for a PM to really succeed in the areas of their job which can easily fall to the wayside, but which are hugely valuable.

Even if you’re not willing or able to be flexible in this way, hopefully some of the other suggestions above work for you. And if you have some other thoughts (or just completely disagree with me), I’d love to hear from you!