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Set it and forget it

As a Product Manager I don't have a typical day. The only consistent element is change. And being at a software company change occurs quickly and often. Add to that a startup environment, and you get a fast-paced setting with shifting priorities and never-ending to do lists.

This quote by Reid Hoffman sums the feeling:

Starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.

Here is an example of a recent workday. At the start I answered questions from our offshore development team related to feature requirements. I then did user acceptance testing (UAT) for a new Chromebook version of our app. This was followed by leading an hour-long brainstorming session with the product team where we established requirements for an in-depth data analysis project our product intern is doing. Right after I presented our operations team a new feature in their internal user management tool (I had spent the previous evening writing  an exhaustive list of test cases for the operations team to go through to test this new feature). This was followed by reviewing a list of open Android and Chromebook bugs (the builds are currently in beta) and adding user stories to our backlog. And there ended the first half of my day.

In order to be productive I strive to block distractions. I refrain from keeping my inbox visible while working. Email can quickly derail momentum so I keep it out-of-sight. I do the same with my phone so I'm not distracted by incoming notifications. I'll also keep headphones on and loop through albums I've listened to hundreds of times. Music helps me focus on the task at hand and provides a little extra motivation when a task gets difficult. These distractions I can control. But there are plenty that I cannot.

An in-person question from a colleague. A ping (Skype, Slack, Hangouts). The email with subject line "urgent". These impromptu "interruptions" or "distractions" are not bad, they are a natural byproduct of work life. They are part of the appeal of working in an office versus working at home in solitude. But they can be dangerous if they control you instead of you controlling them.

In my role an interruption is typically product related. How does X feature work. We should look into Y. Let's make sure development works on Z. They are all valid for the moment, but in most cases (production issue being the exception) don't need immediate attention. They can be deferred. And so I've developed a process for keeping track of these things while maintaining focus on current priorities. I'm the last line of support in order to see a task through. If it falls off my radar, it may not resurface again until a user brings it up.

My process is built around this principle: set it and forget it.

Whatever the item is, I want to  quickly capture it, and store it in a place where it will resurface the moment it should be addressed. For example, a question that needs developer input is asked. Instead of interrupting the developers (or my) flow, I open a shared meeting notes page (using Confluence) and record the item. Our development team is remote, and so we have  morning sync calls three times a week. Each call has an agenda of topics ranging from current projects to user stories that need grooming. And so during this call the deferred question resurfaces and is addressed. The meeting is set to happen anyway, so it makes sense to address the question then instead of the moment it first came up.

For this system to work you need to have the right tools and a certain culture. My toolset includes Confluence, Trello, Evernote, and Google docs. My team uses Confluence to capture meeting notes, product specifications, and general product documentation. I'll use Trello as my personal "to do" list for items that I differ and am responsible for. I'll use Evernote to capture personal notes when they don't need to be available to everyone on the team (otherwise I use Confluence). And Google docs (especially sheets) is a great all purpose tool that is used in harmony with Confluence. The beauty of each tool is I can quickly capture a deferred item, and because of the system, I know it will resurface at the right moment. I have browser bar shortcuts to Confluence pages and Trello boards. Once I have something to capture I pull up the page, capture the item, and continue with the task at hand.

Set it and forget it.

Once you have your toolset, you need to set your mindset to deferring things. This is a cultural shift that may not be openly received by your team. Especially if they are used to having immediate satisfaction. As each team and situation is different, there is no magic formula. You'll just need to start and manage expectations.

Constantly think about what do we build now versus later? Or more generally, what do we address now versus later?