Sometimes being a product manager can feel like being on Survivor, and worrying about your product team voting you out at the next product council.

Product management is hard. Leading a product team is hard. You make countless decisions, and not all of them will be good decisions. Every product manager has occasional rough days; days where you’re stuck on a particularly difficult problem, or disappointed with your product’s progress, or in a decision you made, or maybe frustrated with the internal workings of your company. There are plenty of reasons for tough days.

It can be especially tough on you because as the product manager, the product team is looking to you for leadership, and watching your behavior and reactions closely, so you can’t just wear your emotions on your sleeve. So what do you do to get through those tough days?

When I get stuck or have trouble getting where I need to be, there are a set of things I do to try to break through. I present them here in the hope that they might prove useful to you as well:

– Review your product principles – you should always have your product principles handy – the set of prioritized principles that you use as a guide for evaluating the many decisions you are faced with. Take a fresh look at them. How closely has your recent product efforts aligned with these principles? If there’s a mismatch – are your principles out of date or have you let the product stray off course?

– Take a fresh look at the data – hopefully you collect plenty of data on your product’s use. You can always learn more from this data. Take a fresh look. What are the three things you’d really like to change/improve in these numbers? What are you doing right now to make these happen?

– Talk to customers – every time I contact a customer and have a discussion, I always a) learn something useful; and b) wish I contacted more every day. Get some random e-mail addresses from your sales staff or your CRM system, and send them a note just introducing yourself as the product manager and saying that you were just curious how they were doing, and what they were thinking about the product? Then after they answer you, let them know how grateful you are for their candid feedback and send them something – a shirt, a card, a starbucks gift card, anything.

– Review your product strategy and roadmap – sometimes we get so immersed in day-to-day execution that we can easily lose sight of the big picture. Take a fresh look at your product strategy and roadmap. Don’t have one? You should. Write it. Where do you want your product to be in three years? How should you get from here to there?

– Review your calendar – time management is a big subject that I’ll need to cover in a future article, but those of you that spend your day rushing from one meeting to the next and at the end of the day/week/month realize that you’ve been working 60 plus hours a week and not really getting anywhere know that something has to change if you want to start making a real difference for your product. Start by reviewing your calendar and setting the goal of clearing at least 10 additional hours and blocking them off for time to work on the things that will make a real difference to your product over the long-term.

– Use your product – when is the last time you actually sat down and used your product? If it was more than 48 hours ago, that’s probably too long. Or even better, instead of you using your product, watch a prospective user try to use it. Set up an informal usability test of your product and watch or lead the test. I promise you’ll learn something useful.

– Learn a new technology – remember that great product management is all about combining what is desirable with what is just now possible. So much rests on your ability to envision new possibilities. There are always several new and relevant technologies just waiting for you to learn them and assimilate them into your thinking. Go hang out for a while with your main architect. What technologies is he or she looking into?

Why?

– Hang with the enemy – take a look at a new competitor and try to identify three things you like about their approach. In my experience you can learn something useful from every product. It’s too easy to assume all competitors are clueless. They may or may not be, but do yourself a favor and assume there are three really useful ideas buried in there and go find them.

– Do a little reflecting – consider a product decision you made in the past year that, in retrospect, wasn’t the best choice, and identify how you might have made a better decision. Was there some data you could have reviewed but didn’t? Did you skip talking to users about this under the assumption that because you liked it they would too? Realize you’ll still need to make decisions with less than full information, but see if you can’t refine the set of information that you find truly essential prior to making the call.

– Think – product management is a very cerebral job. But it’s remarkable to me how so many try to do the job without giving themselves the time they need to actually think through problems. Get yourself some quality, uninterrupted thinking time. Even better, block some time out each day for this on your calendar.

– Don’t Think – sometimes in order to solve really hard problems, we need to take our mind off work. Read a great novel, or go for a long run or ride. Don’t worry; your brain will still be thinking about your problem, you just won’t realize it until you wake up the next morning with a solution.

If all else fails, remember that you’ve got the best job on the product team. Unlike most positions, you’re able to directly impact the future of your product. So hang in there and outwit, outlast and outplay your competitors.

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