78: How to start a new product manager job

78: How to start a new product manager job

I’m writing about 100 things I’ve learned the hard way about product management. You can catch up on the previous entries if you like.

Starting a new product manager job can be daunting, particularly if you don’t change jobs very often. I work freelance, so I find myself in a new organisation roughly every 3-6 months. Let me share with you my tips for your first few months in a new role.

In this article #

The first 30 days

Learning, not decision-making

Despite your best efforts during the interview process, you’ll probably only have scratched the surface when it comes to learning about your new product. So in your first 30 days, you’re primarily going to be in information acquisition mode, and definitely not decision-making mode. Your priorities are to learn as much as you can about your product, users and market, and forging personal connections with the people you’ll be working with.

Get access to all the information you can

When you start, you can take advantage of the fact that nobody is expecting you to be instantly productive while you settle in. Use the breathing space to jump through the necessary hoops to get access to every repository of information you uncover while nobody begrudges you asking, and read EVERYTHING.

We’re talking about your predecessor’s files (if there was one), intranets, shared network drives, cloud storage, wikis, bug and support tracking systems, Trello boards (or whatever), project management systems and anything else you can lay your hands on.

Meet lots of people

I appreciate we’re currently all working remotely at the moment, so the concept of being away from your desk has changed somewhat. Nevertheless, you need to be away from your desk metaphorically, if not literally, most of the time. This means spending time talking to people face-to-face and getting to know them. Bear in mind that back-to-back video calls will be more tiring than the more traditional method of chatting with someone in person, so factor in some recovery time here and there.

You want to be meeting with your immediate team and stakeholders from across the company, users, customers, and commercial partners. Don’t forget to ask each person you meet who they would suggest you should talk to and add these people to your list. This will leave you minimal time for doing any productive work at your desk, so try not to take on too much in the early stages.

When society returns to something approaching normality, it can be useful to hover near the tea and coffee point. Informal chats while waiting for a hot brew can be a remarkably efficient way to swap ideas and make connections with a cross-section of the organisation.

Until normality breaks out again, you have to be a bit more proactive – set up a time slot at least each week, if not every day, to share a tea or coffee with a few people from around the company via video call. Deliberately set no agenda – it’s not a “meeting” meeting – it’s there to compensate for the lack of direct informal contact.

Stakeholder maps

It can be helpful to start to build up stakeholder maps as you meet with people. There are a few different ways to map out your stakeholders, but I try to keep things relatively simple.

I draw up a quick 2×2 grid. One axis is less to more supportive of your product, the other axis is less to more interested in your product. When you plot the people you meet on your grid, you can also use the size of circle to indicate their degree on influence on your product.

To begin with you can plot where people are right now. Later, you can start to think about where you’d like people to be in terms of interest, influence and support.

You might want to work to convert unsupportive yet influential people to supporters, or to minimise their influence on your product, if possible.

Or you might want to try to maximise the interest of people who are supportive and influential.

And you might want to think about how you could keep informed the ones who are lack influence but are interested in your product.

Take advantage of being new

Being new at an organisation gives you a temporary superpower: you can ask people the beautifully obvious questions that the rest of the company has stopped asking, and nobody should resent you for it. Your newness is an asset that you can use to uncover outdated working practices, received wisdom and other ingrained bad business habits.

Make notes, particularly about things that seem weird or incongruous to you, for further investigation before you pass judgement.

At the end of the first 30 days

By the end of the thirty days, you should be both sufficiently up-to-speed and credible enough in the eyes of you and your colleagues to take active, decision-making ownership of the product.

Days 60–90

In reality, you’ll likely need more than 30 days to run through your 30-day plan. Despite that, you should be able to start putting together what you plan to do and accomplish in the next couple of months.

You definitely want to continue meeting with as many users and customers as possible, and make it a regular fixture in your calendar. Keep using the “I’m new” schtick for as long as you can get away with to keep doors opening for you. I was still introducing myself to people claiming I was new about eight months into a job once.

And don’t forget to ask for people’s help, whether from your direct manager, senior stakeholders, or your peers. You’re still relatively new, and it’s not a sign of weakness to seek help when you need it.

Product vision and strategy

With the benefit of at least a month’s worth of learning about your product and its users behind you, you should be forming your view on how well the product vision and product strategy are defined (if at all). It’s not uncommon to realise that your product has not yet achieved product-market fit, even though it’s been available to users for some time.

Before you find yourself being pulled into the usual day-to-day activities of your job, devote some time to thinking about the fundamentals of your product:

  • What problem does it solve right now, for which people, and how valuable is it to them?
  • What’s the endgame for your product?
  • At what point could you declare that it’s achieved what it set out to?
  • What would it look like if you expanded the current vision for the product ten-fold?

You’re not trying to define the product vision and strategy single-handedly – this is a job for you and your team to collaborate on – but you can certainly start to explore and validate some possibilities.

Team and product admin

You may be asked to start setting your product team’s OKRs (objectives and key results) for the next quarter. This will be a lot easier to do if you have already thought about where you’re trying to get to with your product (the vision) and what your strategy needs to be for the product right now to help you get there.

There will also be items on the top of your personal to-do list that are figuratively on fire (to you at least), but which will almost certainly take a while to remedy, particularly if people reorganisation and/or cultural shift is needed.

Break these down into smaller steps so you can start working towards them now.

Quick wins

If possible, get some relatively low risk, high profile quick wins under your belt, such as giving a talk on a useful topic you’re already familiar with, or running some guerrilla usability testing and feeding back the results (diplomatically).

You might also want to think about helping out some of the more influential stakeholders in some way that matters to them so you can earn a little social credit with them.

Once the honeymoon period has worn off, you will need to be seen as someone who can get things done. So the sooner you start to establish your credibility and to earn trust, the better.

After your first 90 days

If you’ve done it right, people will be surprised you’ve only been at the organisation for three months or so, and will feel like you’ve been there far longer (this isn’t usually an insult). Try your best not to get absorbed so far into business-as-usual work that you lose touch with your stakeholders, or worse, your users.

Remember that once your honeymoon period is over, you’re not going to be afforded much slack. Hopefully, your preparations over the previous few months will be paying dividends by now and you’ll be in a confident, well-informed position to manage your product effectively and successfully.

Further reading

For some other perspectives, have a read of these other helpful articles and podcasts:

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Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a freelance head of product, product management coach and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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