What’s the formula to this doing well in this challenging, ambiguous and emergent role?
In this post, I want to share the top advice & learnings that helped immensely at the start of my product career. The path to becoming a good PM is so much more than doing a course or reading books on product management — there’s a big human element with managing your emotions, relationships and to simply never stop learning. There’s so much to learn and so much I need to continue to learn.
1. It’s raining plates and you can’t save every single one.
It’s raining plates and every time one hits the floor it breaks. You want to save them all, but that’s not possible. The best thing you can do is to focus on saving the larger plates, and being okay with the others breaking.
These plates are a metaphor for the numerous problems you come across as a PM. You feel pressured to save them all because you’re afraid not getting to it all is a reflection of your competency. In reality, it’s not physically or mentally possible to get to every single one of them, they’re endless.
A couple of weeks into starting the role, it felt like I had reached breakpoint. That day there were about 5 new requests that popped up on slack, on top of the other 20 items that flooded in earlier in the week and alongside the big new projects we were working to ship, some team restructuring and all the business as usual meetings and planning. It felt like in the short span where I ticked one thing off my to do list, it went through mitosis and doubled. I was just trying to stay afloat and it couldn’t last.
So, I went through and ranked everything in order of importance and priority and simply archived the 2nd half of my to do list. I know, I’ll never get to half the things that pop up and I’m okay with that.
Fight that temptation to fix everything, especially the thing that just popped up. You need to be vigilant and ‘brutal’ with prioritization. Remember to ask — What’s the opportunity cost? Is this the most impactful thing I could be doing right now? Because it’s not humanly possible to get to everything but it is possible for you to maximise your impact on the business and your users.
2. You need a safe space
You’re under quite a bit of pressure. You’re juggling questions, expectations & requests from lots of stakeholders. And there can be days where it feels like an awful number of things are going wrong. This continues to build and bubble. Who can you talk to?
Bottling things up doesn’t work. I ended up feeling really isolated and burnt out. I’m more of the ‘keep to myself’ kind of person when it comes to my emotions and feelings. But you’d be surprised at what happens when you open up and share your vulnerabilities. People are really receptive and willing to help out, they’ve likely experienced something similar and totally know what you’re feeling!
By building strong relationships with colleagues you trust and connect with, you can create a safe space where you’re able to just let things out and not have to look cool, calm and composed. It’s honestly a huge relief and quite therapeutic! In this space to connect, you both can take the time to celebrate each other’s strengths, to re-energise or to even just rant and get it all out.
3. Pick your battles
When you’re working with passionate individuals, everyone can be heavily opinionated. There’s a huge diversity in opinions because there’s never a single way to solve or approach a problem and this can cause friction.
It can be tempting to debate and sell your point of view, or question someone else’s idea. But it’s not always productive. Time and energy you could’ve spent on more impactful work is instead depleted in trying to assert your opinion.
Take a breath and a step back to look at the larger picture, if objectively it’s not a huge deal then use this opportunity to give others the space to express and execute on their ideas. It might be a new way of running a team ceremony you know hasn’t worked in the past, but you can totally apply an open mind and give it another shot. Or a small feature that was assigned a ‘must-have’ priority, when you think it’s a ‘nice-to-have’ — If it’s quick to build anyway.
4. You won’t have all the answers and you’ll make mistakes — it’s okay
“When will the team deliver on project X?”,”Have you considered how it would work with this edge case?”,”What’s the solution to this problem?”……
You’ll be asked an endless stream of questions, in person, on email, on slack from engineers from stakeholders and more. Initially, I thought I needed to have an answer to all these questions and when I didn’t, I panicked and thought, “Sh**, I don’t know”.
But the thing is, you won’t always have all the answers. Now, when I get asked something I don’t know. I know the expectation isn’t to come up with the answer right on the spot. Instead I say “I’ll get back to you”. You’re solving complex problems and you need time, especially time with your team to come up with well thought out solutions, not immediate solutions.
And remember, often you are your own harshest critic. You’ll make mistakes, everyone does. Openly admit it when you do and learn from it.
5. Have FUN!
I’m not going to lie, yes it can be stressful and yes it can feel overwhelming and frustrating at times.
It’s a hell of a ride. It’s absolutely exciting and exhilarating because you get to learn so much, alongside creating products that improve and affect millions of users. There will be ups and downs but it’s all part of the adventure.
Enjoy the triumphs, the challenges, the connections you build with the people you work with. The fast pace, the opportunity to drive impact and the incredible opportunity to learn.
Lastly, a huge thank you to all my mentors and peers — for all your advice, guidance and support. I’m so stoked that I work alongside such awesome people every day at Canva! I have by no means mastered each of the principles above, I’ll need to continue exercising and building my Product Management muscles.
What advice would you give to new product managers? I would absolutely love to hear! Please comment or reach me via firstname.lastname@example.org.