Calendar, by Joy (CC 2.0 license)
Calendar, by Joy (CC 2.0 license)

The turning of the calendar itself has no real meaning, but it does give us a chance to reflect on what’s gone before, and what’s ahead. In my last post I reviewed the topics we covered in 2015. This post is about where I’ll be focusing in 2016 in terms of becoming a more skilled product manager, and in helping others achieve that. I already “practice what I preach” on all those topics, of course. But there’s always room for improvement, and as I’ve mentioned lots of times, getting more effective at product management has a huge ROI.


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But instead of focusing on that goal this year, I’m going to focus on a system for being a better product manager. This approach is inspired by several writers and speakers I heard this year, including James Clear and Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams (on his blog and on on Tim Ferriss’s great podcast).

The idea is the system is what gets you to the goal. You still have the goal (maybe), but you pay attention to the system. These other guys explain it better than I do – for example, James Clear illustrates the difference between goals and systems like this:

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.

In 2016 I’ll be working on my system for being a more effective product manager. As my new and updated system components unfold, I’ll report back.

Deliberate practice

The other big focus for me this year is “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is a key part of Kathy Sierra’s “badass” concept, although I didn’t go into great detail on in my badass-related posts.

If you want to become better at something, you have to practice – it’s true of skiing, it’s true of photography, it’s true of playing a musical instrument. And it’s true of professional careers as well – surgeons practice a lot, and so do lawyers. And practice is not just “doing the job.” As Kathy Sierra says in her book Badass:

Only a specific type of practice makes perfect, and in the science of expertise, it’s known as “Deliberate Practice.”

James Clear says, building on Kathy Sierra’s description:

Deliberate practice is when you work on a skill that requires 1 to 3 practice sessions to master. If it takes longer than that, then you are working on something that is too complex.

There are examples in the literature of doctors performing deliberate practice, and of course top musicians do a ton of it. But I haven’t heard of a pedagogy for product management that uses deliberate practice. It seems worthwhile to focus on this for a while, both for myself and for the product management community as a whole.

Some examples that have come to mind so far:

  • Making phone calls to stakeholders – this is actually something I’m not as skilled at as I’d like to be. Once I’m on the phone I’m fine, but it’s more of an effort for me to pick up the phone than it should be. So I think deliberate practice will help me with this.
  • Entering defects – this is something we all have to do as product managers, and I’ve actually done quite a bit of practice on this one.
  • Various situations where deliberate practice will take the form of role playing: breaking bad news to a customer, telling a sales person that the product can’t do what they just promised a prospect, breaking the news of a schedule slip. Those are all bad situations, but it will probably pay off to do some practice on how to make the best of good results as well – writing an effective company email to share an exciting customer success, for example.

I will develop a set of these small product management activities to practice, and then determine the forms that the practice will take. And then do the practice myself over the course of the year. It should be very interesting. And I suspect my skills will be much more developed at the end of the year.


About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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    • Great question! I’d say it was kind of mixed results. I did get better at setting up meetings with stakeholders. I’ve never had a problem with talking to stakeholders, but setting up the meetings or phone calls is challenging for me, for some unknown and irrational reason. So, I did a better job just through willpower, but also through implementing Calendly for myself. And most importantly, one of my colleagues, who was a great asset on these calls in her own right, also turned out to be great at setting them up. I’ve often talked about using “jigs” to help shore up your weaknesses or areas of difficulty, and both Calendly and this colleague played that role for me.

      As far as systems go, I need to continue to improve them. I do have a writing practice I do nearly every day. I’m at about 700 continuous days of writing at the moment, minus roughly five days due to various lapses. I’ve written over 2,500 days and 2.5 million words since I started about eight years ago. That turns out to be hugely valuable for a lot of different reasons. Many of my blog posts and various videos and podcasts start out as snippets from my daily writing. I also use it to articulate problems and think out solutions. Basically, my writing has been my best overall system.

      I recently (in March 2018) started doing a weekly Facebook Live video. I was quite consistent through October, and got that to the point where I immediately created a YouTube video from the live video, as well as a podcast episode. But, the time I originally chose (Saturday morning at 9am) resulted in no one showing up live, so for the past month the live videos have been on hold while I figure out a better time and then get back in the game.

      And of course, I did also manage to write a book in the interim as well.

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