Building Your Management Machine

As a product leader, you are responsible for so many things that need to happen. You can’t possibly keep track of everything without strict routines that will ensure things run smoothly. Here is how to make your management processes tick like a clock.

When I was 6 years old, my mother bought me an alarm clock and told me that from now on it’s my responsibility to set it properly and wake up in the morning on time so I’m not late for school.

My mother is a firm believer in letting children own their success early on (with proper support of course, but the responsibility is on the child). But even if it wasn’t for such idealistic reasons, it was one thing I’m sure she was happy to check off her list.

Back in the day, she was a developer in a tech company when it was still called a programmer, my father also had a demanding job, they just had their second daughter, and another one on the way. Life was busy.

It didn’t stop there. As we grew up, we all had our responsibilities at home – for example, I was responsible for picking up my younger sisters from kindergarten and making sure they had lunch. I owned this completely, including cleaning up the rice leftovers from the floor after they were done, for example. 

My mother knew that to keep a high-paced life she needed to create routines that would work for her, not just delegate time and again. 

With this split of responsibilities, she didn’t need to ask me every day to pick my sisters up – it was just something I did.

I grew up to love these routines that simply work. I think it is also related to my development background – it’s like creating a good architecture for your life, one that is sustainable, reliable, and scaleable.

A few years ago I saw this in action when my business entered accelerated growth. I hired a team and raised the operational level on multiple fronts, including marketing, sales, finance, and Academy operations.

In a matter of months, I moved from a one-woman show to a small army of strong women working with and for me. This was great, but something was still missing. While we were all working well together, I was still the one who needed to initiate almost everything we did. It wasn’t that they didn’t know what they needed to do, but it was still not rooted well enough for them to own it end-to-end.

Of course, the road to this full ownership goes through proper training, as well as a formal declaration that from now on you are the end-to-end owner. But for me to be able to take a step back, and for the business to work even if I’m away, we needed to implement strong routines that are operating without my involvement.

It’s not that I’m no longer needed as a manager, but it definitely shifted my focus from managing the routine to dealing with the exceptions where my attention is really needed.

As product leaders, you too own so many things that need to happen. Some of them are not even well-defined, but they still happen (just look at your endless pile of unread emails or Slack messages if you need proof).

To manage effectively, you need to create proper routines that will help you run, well, the routine stuff, so that you too can attend to the exceptional where you are really needed. 

You need to build a management machine. Here are the guidelines that will help you get there.

Identify Areas That Need Order

While the general approach of building your management machine is true everywhere (and be warned that it’s addictive – once you start working like that you can’t go back), you can’t implement it everywhere at once.

Choose the areas that are currently most painful for you to manage. For example, are you constantly getting questions about features that were just released? It calls for order.

Popular areas that the product leaders I work with are struggling with include:

  • Communication with the field (this can be further split into departments)
  • Roadmap and quarterly planning
  • Reviewing customer feedback
  • Setting goals
  • Status tracking
  • People management
  • And more.

This method is relevant to almost anything you do. But to start, choose just one area. Once this area is in a better shape, you can move to the next one. Build your management routine muscle gradually.

Understand the Needs First

When it comes to building the machine, people tend to start with what to build. But we are product people, we know that that’s not the right question, right? You should start with the need.

While we all know that for our products, I see many product leaders who don’t apply this to internal matters like this one.

Here is an example from a recent conversation with a product leader I coach on this topic. In his case, he wanted to organize how the roadmap is communicated externally. I asked him to share what they do today, and he mentioned several sessions that they run quarterly. He listed who attends the sessions, and immediately went to talk about what can be changed in the sessions so that it works better. But when I asked him if he thought it would do the trick and put things to order, he wasn’t sure.

Your management machine is a product. You need to understand the needs first.

As you do so, and as you should do with any other product, make sure you express the need from the consumer’s point of view. Try to be as realistic as possible and share their true view of things.

For example, your need might be to train customer success managers on new features before they are released so that they can spread the word and help with adoption. It’s easy to say it as if it was the CSM’s need – “I want to know which features are coming so I can start raising them with my customers”. Sounds plausible, right? But if you look at it entirely from their perspective, not in an ideal world but taking into account everything else they have on their minds, it could be that the real representation of their need would be something like “I know there are many features coming out all the time. I wish I somehow knew what they were without having to invest any effort or thought in it at all because I just can’t keep pace with everything else I need to do.”

If that’s what truly represents their situation, you want to acknowledge it because otherwise, you’ll be giving them a solution that wouldn’t work.

There is one exception to this point of view – when you want to build a management machine for the ongoing management of things that you own. For example, people management, planning, execution tracking, etc. In these cases you are building a machine for yourself as a manager first and foremost, so it’s perfectly fine to state the needs from your own point of view.

Answer the Needs With Proper Routines

Now that the need is clear we can turn to defining the machine itself.

The machine is built of routines that happen regularly and consistently. They need to become a habit

To start this part, create a list of the current and possible routines that you have. For example, if you want to work on people management, you can list the following:

  • 1:1 meetings with everyone every week
  • Team meetings every other week
  • Extended team meetings monthly
  • Weekly status email
  • Review meetings every month

You might not use all of them currently, but they are still a tool that you can use.

Next, start mapping the needs to relevant routines that can help with that need. Note that the same routine might answer multiple needs, and a single need might need more than one routine to be fully answered. That’s perfectly fine.

As you run through this process, you might realize that you were using a certain routine to cover needs that can be covered by other routines. For example, you might use 1:1s with your team members for status updates, which makes them longer and harder to manage, while there could be other mechanisms that could cover the need to be updated on the status of things more effectively.

Once the mapping is done, check to see if all the needs can be answered this way. It doesn’t need to be perfect (because otherwise you’ll find yourself building a super-heavy machine that will be difficult to stick to for long), but when you look at it you should feel that it would make your life as well as your stakeholders’ life easier.

Some of you would want to skip the latter, but that won’t hold. If you are creating a routine that doesn’t help your stakeholders it would be extremely difficult to implement it. The need might still be yours – for example, getting customer requests in an orderly manner – but you have to find a good enough solution that will incentivize them to use whatever you are building.

This management machine takes time to build. Don’t worry about doing it right the first time, or tackling everything together. But when done correctly, it creates a clock tick that gives you a new operational pace, as well as peace of mind.

Let me know how it goes.

Our free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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