Why product managers need deep work

Mark Twain’s deep work writing hut. source

One way to describe the job a product manager is to hand engineers specs that will work. Writing the specs, tedious as it may be, is the easy part. Learning what will work is the challenge.

Figuring out what will work is a long process.

PMs typically start with a highly unconstrained solution space. Your job is to figure out what we should build.

The problem space is also quite unconstrained. What are the goals? What state of the world are you trying to solve for? Is it $100k revenue? $1,000k? Are you thinking in terms of this quarter? End of the year? Three years out? Are you trying to solve the same problem for the same audience that you were solving last year? Or is there a new problem, or a new audience, that would be better this year?

Somehow, out of the great undefined soup of potential solutions to potential problems, your job is to write concrete specs for a product that engineers can build, that, when released to the world, will “work”. It’s fucking hard.

To do this difficult job successfully, it’s essential that product managers take a healthy amount of time for ‘deep work’. This is time where you won’t be interrupted at all for at least four hours at a time.

Your goal, during that time, is to let your mind go deep. You’re the explorer of the unconstrained spaces: you’re the one who has to know the way around in there, and your job is to bring back clarity and concrete edges for your team to hold on to. If there’s something in that space that’s important to discover and bring into the light of day, yours is the role that does that.

So you need to give your mind the space to explore. Let it chase rabbits down their holes. Let it dream of science fiction futures. Let it work back to first principles, and then build up from there, temporarily setting aside the realities of your actual team and present circumstances, before bringing them back in. Your mind is a simulation engine. As you spend time in deep focus running simulations, you’re making sense of the great abyss that successful solutions must be extracted from.

If you don’t do this, you can expect your team to build common solutions to common problems. Maybe that’ll work. Maybe in a few years you’ll look back and wish you’d seen something bigger.

Get out of the office. Take Friday mornings. Work from home if you can be alone. Get a hotel room if you have to. And give yourself the space to think.


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