Published on August 30, 2017
Just landed a job as a product manager? Awesome. Whether you have decades of experience or your strategy is to fake it ’til you make it, the first few weeks at your new gig will be key in forming relationships and gaining a holistic understanding of your new organization.
Having crashed and burned a few times myself in those first few weeks, I’ve put together this playbook to help set you and your product up for success from the get-go. Though this reflects my own experience working at agencies across multiple products, there’s something in here for everyone, whether you’ve just joined a startup or mega-corporation.
1. Embark on a listening tour
When you’re new to the job, get comfortable with introducing yourself around the office. Sit down with different stakeholders — in-person if possible — and have an open conversation about how things are going. In smaller organizations, you may be able to meet with every individual, which is ideal. At the least, spend some time with team leads or managers.
Use this time to learn about how your new organization makes decisions and gets work done on its product(s). Take advantage of your newness to gather unvarnished feedback from different teams and lookout for areas of disagreement or misunderstanding.
This is a great time to dig into your organization’s product vision and strategy. Does everyone share the same view of where things are headed or are there unclear differences? By putting an ear to the ground, you can start to identify where you can make an impact.
2. Demystify what “product” actually means
“Product” is a slippery word. Even within teams, it can signify different things to different people. If you’re starting a product-related role, it’s imperative to first figure out where “product” fits into the company’s organization chart. How much decision-making power does the product team have in relation to other teams? How much cross-pollination is there between teams and skillsets?
Product can also bleed into other areas, depending on the size and makeup of your organization. Does it encompass user experience or is UX a separate entity? What about design, brand, copy and content? The sooner you understand where these responsibilities lie, the sooner you can identify where and how to enhance product management.
3. Map out the process and pain points
The journey from idea to a delivered story is never straightforward. If you can visualize this process, you’re more likely to achieve a unified sense of how work gets done and where you can make improvements.
When you sit down with different stakeholders, take notes and sketch out how they view the work process. For example, when someone has an idea to improve a product, what happens with their feedback?
Once you’ve documented different conversations, compare notes: ask yourself if the different parts of the process across design, tech and product fit together or if there are noticeable gaps. Share your sketches with other teams members and ask for feedback — you might uncover some new opportunities.
4. Assess for empathy
Great product managers empathize with the user. Knowing the user’s needs, challenges and goals is critical not just for you, but for the company at large. It’s when everyone across design, marketing and product aligns toward the same north star that truly meaningful user experiences emerge.
When you’re new to a product, you’ll want to figure out how specific user needs are taken into consideration and cited, especially in relation to product features on the roadmap or to company goals. Consider how and how often user research is conducted and, more crucially, how this information is disseminated across the organization and adapted into your product development process.
5. Follow the roadmap(s)
There’s no one-size-fits-all holy grail answer to managing a product roadmap. Understanding how your organization maps out their strategy and how that process is viewed will speak volumes. Is it openly accessible to the wider team (or even the wider public)? Which tools, methods and frameworks are used?
More importantly, find out why your roadmaps are the way they are. Product management tools and methodologies are constantly evolving. If you feel there are tools, methods or frameworks that would meet the needs of your organization more effectively, speak up!
6. Find the data
A huge part of being a successful product manager is deeply grasping how users interact with your product. If you’re working on an existing product, figure out where your use data lives as well as how accessible it is to you and others across your wider team.
If you’re coming into a startup or you’re building a product not yet brought to market, this can be trickier. But it’s still important to gather as much data about your target user as you can by getting up to speed on market research and your competitive landscape.
Once you’ve collected data points, you’ll need to figure out which goals or KPIs signify success. Are they measurable? Have they been clearly agreed upon and documented? Do they conflict or harmonize with other team members’ KPIs?
Now that you’ve studied the data and set clear goals, you can start to hypothesize about how different product features or stories will move the needle. You’re now in an excellent position to start testing your ideas and measuring their impact.
7. Look after your big ideas
As a product manager, it’s easy to get buried in the planning and delivery of features week-to-week, especially once you’ve bedded into your new role. When you’re new to a team and buzzing with ideas, why not create your own system or space to keep track of you and your team’s more visionary thoughts? This helps ensure your best ideas aren’t swept aside by business as usual.
Regular ideation sessions within and across teams keep creative ideas flowing, so consider setting them up for every two weeks, monthly or quarterly. It’s easy to create a digital space for capturing ideas across the team and building on each others concepts, too — just make sure that if you introduce something new like this to your team, that their ideas get followed up on.
If you’re able to translate some of these insights into tangible improvements to your company’s processes, you’re more likely to be viewed as a strategic asset. That, in turn, builds your personal brand and helps you earn the trust and respect of your new colleagues.
Obviously, the first few weeks in your new product role will be much more action-packed than what I’ve outlined in these seven steps (dare I drop the much-overused cliché of “baptism by fire”?). Still, by focusing on these areas early on, you could gain a deep understanding of your organization’s challenges while your perspective is still fresh.