How to Solve the Product Manager’s Biggest Problem

By Michael Chase. This page is available under the Creative Commons Attribution License

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Table of Contents


If you are drowning in urgent issues, know that you are not alone. Product managers face a constant barrage of day-to-day demands. Deadlines, sales support requests, management inquiries, and upset customers are constantly demanding your attention. However, if all you ever do is firefight, you will never become a highly effective product manager. Drowning in urgent issues is common, but it is not inevitable.

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 to focus. To make sure that he was as effective as possible, he developed what we know today as the “Eisenhower Principle” for prioritizing tasks by urgency and importance. The Eisenhower Principle characterizes tasks in a four-quadrant matrix. See Figure 2.

The Eisenhower Matrix
Figure 2: The Eisenhower Matrix

Quadrant-A activities 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 need is both urgent and important. Quadrant-A activities are those crises that demand your immediate attention to address an important issue.

Quadrant-B activities 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 activities are urgent but not important. Many phone calls, emails, drop-in visitors, and meetings fall into this category. These activities are often an interruption 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 have important work to do.

Product Managers are Not Firefighters

Certain jobs demand that you spend most of your time 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 through careful preparation and planning.

However, product managers often fight quadrant-A crises, such as:

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

Most product management crises are preventable through preparation and planning. You will firefight less if you focus on important, not-urgent activities like:

  • Market requirements development
  • Voice-of-the-customer market validation
  • Competitive analysis
  • Value proposition development and validation
  • Product strategy development
  • Selling tools deployment
  • Sales force training
  • New product introduction planning
  • Product end-of-life planning

Where to Find the Time

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

Try this exercise. For one week, categorize all 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 spend your time through the lens of importance and urgency.

For what to do for each task, see Figure 3.

What to do in each quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix
Figure 3: What to do in each quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix

Your goal is to find time for important, but not urgent, quadrant-B activities. There is no escaping your quadrant-A tasks. The quadrant-A list will not get smaller until you complete some crisis-prevention quadrant-B work.

Quadrant C, however, is flush with opportunities to free up some time. These are interruptions by other people trying to make their urgent issues your urgent issues. To protect yourself from these distractions and free up time, adopt as many of these habits as possible:

  • 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 voicemail.
  • Block time in your calendar that others cannot fill with 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 sit at your desk.
  • Hide out in a conference room to avoid interruptions.
  • Work from home sometimes.
  • Delegate more.

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

That brings you to quadrant D. The advice for activities that fall in this quadrant could not be more straightforward. Do not do them when you have important work to do. You might think that you would never waste time. But you can easily end up in quadrant D when there is a break in the quadrant-A action, and you do not have a plan for your quadrant-B activities.

How to Get Important, Not-Urgent Work Done

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

  • Your product is exactly what the customers need in your large, growing market.
  • You have put sales materials in the sales force’s hands that articulate a compelling value proposition with multiple levels of material, data, and case studies to prove it.
  • You are two steps ahead of your competition.
  • You routinely achieve value-based 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 would diminish substantially. My product would be an unmitigated commercial success. And my career would take off like a rocket!”

You would be right. You would also be right if you recognized that all the above require thoughtful, important, product management work. Work that you cannot do 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 are flying all over the globe to support sales calls and rescue orders. Here, you might select “Develop new sales materials and train sales to use them” as your important, not urgent, activity. Doing so would improve your product’s success and reduce the number of sales crises needing your attention.

Once you have selected your activity, commit to completing it. Do this publicly. This public declaration of your intentions creates accountability that will help you stay on track.

Public commitments have probably helped you get important things done in other parts of your life. For example, you may have told friends that you have started a diet to lose ten pounds or are training for a marathon. Every time you see those friends, they ask, “How’s it going?” That nudge of external accountability helps you stay on track.

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

  • Tell your boss what you are doing and explain why it is important.
  • Add the activity to your annual goals and objectives. Have part of your bonus tied to it.
  • Tell a colleague what you are up to. See if he or she will meet with you every other week so you can share your progress.
  • Ask your boss to add an update on your project to her 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 results of your activity. This might be a sales meeting, an online seminar, a business review, or a similar event.

You have selected the most important activities and gone public. Now you need to get the work done. But here is the thing. If you take the “I’ll work on it whenever I get some free time” approach, you will fail.

Everyone is 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 a product management project done. Some combination of crises and time wasters will always encroach on your time. You cannot count on unexpected free time to pop up so you can do your important work. If you want to get your important, not-urgent work done, you must schedule some time to work on it. Try an approach like:

  1. Every Friday, just before flipping to weekend mode, 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 would 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, reschedule it at once.

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