I had just completed a one-hour seminar titled “Why You Need a Value-Based Strategy.” My talk covered a broad range of value-strategy concepts.

Now it was time for my favorite part, the questions and answers session. Hands shot up. I pointed to a gentleman in the second row, eager to answer my audience member’s tough, value-strategy question.

“Yes sir! What is your question?”

“How can product managers stay focused?”

So after an hour of juicy, value-based-strategy content, the first question I get is about managing product managers’ time so they can do the type of things I had described in my talk.  This is very revealing.  My audience member was telling me that he was comfortable with the content, understood how it could help him, but didn’t know where or how he would find the time to act on it.

I decided to dig up a little data on the issue. I coach dozens of product managers every year. At the beginning of every coaching session, we document the progress that has been made since the previous session and anything that the product manager struggled with. I went through those records to see if I could find a pattern. I did. More than ninety percent of the cases where a product manager struggled to make the expected progress, they cited being called away to address some urgent issue.

So if you’re drowning in urgent issues, know that you are not alone. Almost every product manager on planet earth faces a constant barrage of day-to-day issues. Deadlines, sales support requests, management inquiries, and upset customers are always demanding your attention.

However, if all you ever do is deal with urgent issues, you will never become a highly effective product manager.  Drowning in urgent issues is common, but it’s not inevitable. You can prevail by adopting just a few new habits.

The Eisenhower Principle

Before becoming the 34th President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower served as a general in the United States Army. General Eisenhower, like product managers, had to decide every day on which tasks he should focus his time. To make sure that he was as effective as possible, he developed what is known today as the “Eisenhower Principle” for prioritizing tasks by urgency and importance. The Eisenhower Principle characterized tasks in four quadrants as shown in the figure below.

 

Quadrant A represents things that are both urgent and important. For example, if an account manager needs a piece of data from you for a critical customer meeting that starts in fifteen minutes, that’s both urgent and important. Quadrant A activities are those crises that demand your immediate attention to address an important issue.

Quadrant B represents things that are important but are not urgent. Preparation, planning, and crisis prevention activities belong here. For example conducting a round of voice-of-the-customer meetings to validate your new product idea is important, but probably not urgent.

Quadrant C represents things that are urgent but not important. Many calls, emails, drop-in visitors, and meetings fall into this category. Often these activities come in the form of an interruption and are driven by someone else’s priorities.

Quadrant D activities are neither important nor urgent. These are your time wasters. Thumbing through your social media account, gossiping at the coffee machine, checking the stock market, and researching your next vacation are time wasters if you’ve got important work to do.

Product Managers are Not Firefighters

Certain jobs, demand that most of your time is spent dealing with crises. Firefighters and other emergency response workers come to mind. But product managers are not firefighters. They are fire preventers. They ensure the commercial success of their product lines by preventing competitors from taking market share and eroding your prices. They do this through careful preparation and planning.

However, product managers often find themselves fighting quadrant A crises such as the following.

  • A failed product demonstration
  • A last-minute presentation request
  • A surprise move by a competitor
  • An urgent request to fly to a customer site

It’s important to realize that most product management crises are preventable through preparation and planning. The more time that you spend focused on important, not urgent activities like the following, the less time you’ll need to spend putting out fires.

  • Market requirements development
  • Voice-of-the-customer, market validation
  • Competitive analysis
  • Value-proposition development and validation
  • Product strategy
  • Selling-tools development
  • Salesforce training
  • New-product-introduction planning
  • End-of-life planning for a product

Where to Find the Time

You’re thinking, “That’s fine in theory, but with all the urgent demands on my time, I’ll never get to prevention, planning and preparation activities.” Don’t give up. You can, but you’re going to have to change a few habits first.

Try this exercise. For one week, categorize all of your activities in one of the four quadrants in the Eisenhower Matrix. You can do this prospectively (your to-do list for next week) or retrospectively (what you did last week.) The result will be a picture of how you are spending your time as it relates to importance and urgency.  Now take a look at the figure below for what do for tasks in each quadrant.

 

Our goal here is to find time for important, but not urgent, quadrant B activities. First here’s the bad news. Quadrant A tasks must be done. The quadrant A list doesn’t get smaller until you complete some crisis-prevention, quadrant-B work.

Quadrant C, however is flush with opportunities to free up some time. By definition these are interruptions. Mostly it’s other people trying to make their urgent issues your urgent issues. This is bad for you. To protect yourself from these distractions adopt as many of the following habits as you can.

  • Turn-off email, social media, and text alerts.
  • Let phone calls go to voicemail.
  • Set aside fixed blocks of time to check email and respond to voice mail.
  • Block time in your calendar that cannot be scheduled by others for meetings.
  • Decline invitations to meetings that are not important.
  • Propose shorter meetings.
  • Close your office door and hang a do-not-disturb sign on the knob.
  • Set up your office or cube so that your back faces the entrance when you are at your desk.
  • Hideout in a conference room when you do not want to be interrupted.
  • Work from home sometimes.
  • Delegate more.

Making the above items a regular habit is bound to free up time, and shorten your urgent-not-important, task list.

That brings up to quadrant D. The advice for activities that that fall in this quadrant couldn’t be more straightforward. Don’t do them when you have important work to do.  You might be thinking that you’d never just waste time. But you can easily end up in quadrant D when there’s a break in the quadrant A action, and you don’t have a plan for your quadrant B activities.

A product manager once said to me, “I’m so busy supporting day-to-day sales issues that I don’t have time to be strategic.”

I asked him, “If all of your sales-support tasks were eliminated right this instant, what’s the first thing you’d do?”

“You got me.” He said, “I don’t know.”

Without a plan, he’d probably end up just wasting time until the next crisis demanded his attention.  So to avoid wasting time just to stay busy during a crisis lull, you need a plan for your important, not-urgent activities.

How to Get Important, Not-Urgent Work Done

What do you think would happen if all of the following were all true?

  • Your product is exactly what the customers in your large, growing market need.
  • You’re two steps ahead of your competition.
  • You routinely achieve value-based pricing.
  • You’ve put sales materials in the salesforce’s hands that articulate a compelling value proposition with multiple levels of material, data, and case studies to prove it.
  • Your salesforce is able to routinely defend your value proposition, competitive advantage, and pricing.
  • You seamlessly transition from one generation of your product to the next without upsetting customers or opening the door to competitors.

If you thought, “My crisis-quadrant activity will diminish substantially. My product will be an unmitigated commercial success. And my career will take off like a rocket!”

You’d be right. You’d also be right if you recognize that all of the above require thoughtful, important, product-management work. Work that cannot be done well in crisis mode. You need another approach. Getting this important, not-urgent work done boils down to these three steps.

  1. Select the most important activities
  2. Commit publicly
  3. Schedule time

It starts with activity selection. You must select the most important activities. These fall into two categories.

  1. Activities that will have the greatest impact on the commercial success of your product line.
  2. Activities that will produce the largest reduction in the time you spend in crisis mode.

For example, say your sales force is struggling to combat competitor attacks. As a result, you’re flying all over the globe to support sales calls and rescue orders. In this case, you might select, “Develop new sales materials and train sales to use them” as your important, not urgent activity. Doing so would both improve your product’s success and reduce the number of sales crises needing your attention.

Once you have selected your activity, you make a commitment to complete it. You need to do this publicly. This public declaration of your intentions creates accountability that will help you stay on track.

Perhaps you’ve seen this public commitment concept help you get important things done in other parts of your life.  For example, you may have told friends that you’ve started a diet to lose ten pounds or that you’re training for a marathon. Every time you see those friends they’ll likely ask, “How’s it going?” That little bit of external accountability helps you stay on track.

So how do you set up this external accountability in the workplace when it seems everyone else only focused on urgent issues? Here are some ideas.

  • Tell your boss what you’re doing and explain why it’s important.
  • Add the activity to your annual goals and objectives. Have part of your bonus tied to it.
  • Tell your cross-functional peers.
  • Tell your engineering partner what you’re up to. See if he’ll agree to meet with your every other week so you can share your progress.
  • Ask your boss to add an update on your project to his weekly staff meeting agenda.
  • Ask someone to be your coach and set up regular sessions to review progress.
  • Schedule and invite attendees to the event where you will present the final results of your activity. This might be a sales meeting, webinar, business review, or similar event. Do this well in advance of the event.

At this point, you’ve selected the most important activities and you have gone public. Now you have to get the work done. But here’s the thing. If you take the “I’ll work on it whenever I get some free time.” approach, you’ll fail.

Everyone’s busy. “Sorry, I’ve just been so busy”  is the most common excuse for not calling, responding late to an email, not visiting your parents, or not getting an important, not-urgent, product-management project done. Some combination of crisis and time-wasters will almost always soak up your time. You can’t count on unexpected, free time to routinely pop up so you can do your important work.

If you want to get your important, not-urgent work done, you have to schedule some time to work on it. Try an approach like the following.

  1. Every Friday before you close up shop for the week, open your calendar for the following week.
  2. Look for openings in your schedule large enough  to spend some quality time on your important work.
  3. Block those openings in your calendar and label them with your activity’s name.
  4. In the notes for each block, enter a few bullets to specify mini-goals that you’d like to achieve in that block of time.
  5. Keep your “appointment” with your important work.
  6. If some crisis forces you to give up that block of time, immediately reschedule it.

There you go. You’ve selected important work. You’ve told anyone who cares to keep you honest. You’ve committed time to get it done. You’ll become an important-work-producing machine is you make this a routine habit. Your product line will be more successful and so will you.