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How the Best Product Managers Handle “Downtime”

Over the past 6 years in Product, Alex Mitchell has worked with a lot of Product Managers. Some were great at being unreasonable, many were extreme generalists, and most were great at saying no.

There are many things that separate the best Product Managers from the rest, but one of the biggest indicators that I’ve found is how they spend (or don’t spend) their downtime.

But wait…Product Managers have downtime?

While in the midst of a feature release or a quarterly planning week, it may feel like Product Managers don’t have a minute to spare. But, there will be other times: think holiday weeks and the middle of a well-progressing sprint for example, where even exceptional Product Managers will find themselves (sometimes unexpectedly) with time to spare.

Great Product Managers make the absolute most of this rare time. Average Product Managers simply enjoy the chance to relax.

Things the Best Product Managers do with Downtime

Planning/Sprint Work

The simplest and most direct thing Product Managers do with downtime is getting ready for the next sprint or the next project.

astronaut action figures

This does not mean that they just go through the motions of sprint planning and creating tickets. Rather, it means they take a hyper-focused approach to give their team and their company the best chance of future success.

Technically, the best Product Managers:

  1. Plan for the next project and create mock sprints for this new feature.
  2. Look for opportunities to break down every ticket into smaller pieces or make an MVP smaller.
  3. Help test tickets and UI for your team or other teams.

Analytics

rainbow frequency

While good Product Managers check their analytics each sprint, the best Product Managers continually look for opportunities to add tracking to their product and interpret trends.

Tactically, the Best Product Managers:

  1. Deep dive into analytics and share what they learn with others.
  2. Create new dashboards, add new user funnels, and create new reporting.
  3. Update progress towards OKRs and add commentary. Haven’t used OKRs? Learn more here: How To Use OKRs in Product by Capital One Product Owner. 

User Testing

The best Product Managers use downtime to learn even more from customers. They set up testing with different customer personas, have them try both current features and new concepts for features.

person holding pink sticky note

They dive deep into customer accounts and share what they’ve learned with the team. They adapt their tickets and roadmap based on what they’ve learned.

Systematically, the best Product Managers:

  1. Set up low-effort “tests” in the product (using Intercom, Qualaroo, or any other tool).
  2. Sign up for the product (several times as different personas) and use all of the features themselves.
  3. Simulate real users accounts (if you don’t have this functionality, you should consider adding it!).
  4. Reach out to customers who are interacting with the feature(s) your team works on or the next feature you plan to work on. Talk with them, ask them questions, hear about their pain points.
  5. Watch FullStory sessions of your users (Shameless plug! You need this tool: www.fullstory.com). When are they rage clicking? What separates successful users from unsuccessful ones?
  6. Share a link with your friends and family members, then feed back their opinions.  Note: Your family and friends are NOT your user, but may provide a few interesting ideas or expose difficult UX, making this exercise still valuable.

Learn From Other Teams

This one may surprise you.

three gray metal forks casting shadow on green surface

The best Product Managers will use downtime on their team to shadow another development team and other Product Managers.

They recognize that observing a team with a different dynamic or a Product Manager with a different perspective may help them achieve the goals they have for their product.

Strategically, the best Product Managers:

  1. Learn about what other teams are working on and struggling with by shadowing them. This doesn’t have to just be Engineering! Think Marketing, Client Services, DevOps, Sales too.
  2. Think about ways to improve how Product, Engineering, and Design work together. Map out how the flow of work exists today, highlight pain points, and come up with 3 candidate solutions for each pain point.
  3. Schedule a 1-on-1 with a member of another team and mutually discuss progress, blockers, and opportunities for improvement. Often, you’ll find there are many ways to help each other!

Competitive Analysis

Downtime is a good opportunity to take a step back and look at the competitive landscape.

persons playing paper, rock, and scissors

Don’t worry about benchmarking every individual feature of your product against every competitor or checking prices of comparable plans.

Rather, see what your competitors have launched recently, try out their product, and generate ideas for your product.

Meticulously, the best Product Managers:

  1. Know who their key competitors (or similar companies) are in the market.
  2. Keep a running competitive analysis document and share what they’ve learned with other Product Managers.
  3. Know not to simply copy new features they see competitors introduce, but rather, get inspired to try new ideas or tests in their product or in interviews with customers.

Future Prep

It’s never too early to start thinking about the next quarter or the next set of product features that you should build.

Silhouette of Person Riding on Commuter Bike

Take some features from your neverending backlog and start designing them on a whiteboard or doing some research on new APIs.

Proactively, the best Product Managers:

  1. Use downtime to mock up a new feature on a whiteboard or in a wireframing tool. They bring in others to critique or ask questions about what they’ve drawn.
  2. Do research on an upcoming project concept. This could mean reviewing API documentation, integrations, software that needs to be purchased, or simply thinking about why something is or isn’t important to your company.
  3. Read about and research major trends in your industry.

Level Up Yourself

The best Product Managers recognize that it’s not all about their current product. It’s also important that they continue to learn new skills and find ways to bring those back to their organization.

person stepping on blue stairs

Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to learn (often for free) almost anything online and the best Product Managers take advantage of that.

Tactically, the best Product Managers:

  1. Learn a new skill (ex. Machine Learning on Coursera or free quality books).
  2. Reach out to Product Managers/leaders at other companies and schedule coffee chats. These companies don’t need to be in the same industry you’re in! You can still learn a lot from other technology companies solving very different problems.  You can join the largest Product Management community on Slack and start discussing with like-minded people. 
  3. Write a blog post on what you and the team are building to explain the customer value you’re hoping to deliver, the challenging decisions you made, and to invite valuable customer feedback.  

What do you do with your “downtime” as a Product Manager to level up yourself, your team, and your organization?

 


Meet The Author:
Alex Mitchell

Chief Product Officer at ICX Media Inc. and author of ‘Building Digital Products’, Alex Mitchell, has 6 years of experience in Product. He was Director of Product at Upside Travel and Head of Website and Domain Products at Vistaprint where he built website and e-commerce products that make a significant impact in millions of people’s lives. Alex is always sharing his Product thoughts on Medium.

 


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