How to Deal with Product Messes
+ What Every Product Team Needs
If you join a product team and see several obvious product messes, don’t just point them out.
Ask them why:
90% of the time everyone already knows about the obvious messes. There are just real reasons the team hasn’t pursued fixing them.
Asking has a few benefits:
You learn a whole lot about the limitations and constraints in the product and industry.
You are seen as someone who is quickly ‘getting it’ vs a hotshot trying to prove themselves.
Some things will be unfixable. But many things are just mountains no one else wanted to move. You will be a hero if you can patiently move them. Once you understand all the blockers, then you can get to the hard work of fixing them.
Don’t underestimate how long it will take. When I joined Fortnite, it was obvious we needed to fix our mobile download times. The app would need hours of updates every few days. It was ramming our retention curves. But it wasn’t just one problem. It was like 5:
How we built and deployed
Our background updating
The launcher we used
The update sizes
We had to tackle the fixes one by one over 14 months. But eventually, our download times vastly improved - and so did our target metric, d30 retention rates.
This type of growth was only possible because I asked and persevered.
What Every Product Team Needs
In every product team, you need:
- Someone who ships a ton
- Someone who is always pushing the strategy
- Someone who loves to coordinate team events
- Someone who thinks ahead about the unknown unknowns
Bonus: Dealing with Stress as a PM
Context switching, infinite meetings, and see-sawing stakeholder demands.
The life of a PM is stressful. Here’s how to cope:
I have struggled with stress my entire 10+ year career as a PM. It’s easy to take the weight of the product development process on our shoulders. Thanks to conscious dealing with it, now I am far less stressed at work. I’ve helped many do the same.
1. Abandon Perfectionism
As PMs, we internalize all failures related to product development as faults of our own. Stop believing you need fixing. This all-too-common mistake is giving you a mindset of stress.
2. Observe Your Stress Rising
Anxiety is what gets us up in the morning. It’s a neurochemical reaction that manifests in physical symptoms. Too much is the problem. Identify your mental and physical symptoms.
3. Feel, then Deal
Feel those symptoms. Complain to your partner or friend. Go in a room and scream. Cry if needed. Let the feeling out in a productive way. Then breathe. Now that you’ve felt your emotions, you can deal.
4. Write it Out
Everyone deals differently. Writing works best for me. Writing forces you to get logical about your emotions. If writing doesn’t work for you, meditate, go for a run, grab a tea, smoke - do what works for you. What you want out of the activity is awareness.
5. Identify your Triggers
Awareness is the ability to identify what is causing your stress.
Is it what your boss expects of you?
Is it you being tough on yourself?
Is it feedback you received?
Is it a responsibility?
Is it a relationship?
Is it a person?
6. Sculpt your Situation
Every PM stressor can be solved.
Boss’ expectations —> chat
Your expectations —> reframe
Feedback —> downgrade
Responsibility —> renegotiate
Relationship —> discuss
Person —> avoid
Use your time on things that bring the least stress & fix the others.
7. Make the Choice
When you’re getting too stressed over a period of time, make the choice to prioritize having less stress. It’s critical to your mental health, ability to do familial duties, and social life. Make the uneasy tradeoffs and have the tough conversations.
8. Enhance with Lifestyle
Once you’ve actively sculpted towards low stress, it still inevitably creeps back up in PM. We are responsible but without authority. Do the things to keep your stress at bay. For me, that’s sleep, meditation, and exercise.
Being zen as a PM is not easy, but it’s possible. You got this.