First 90 Days as Product Manager - 32 Must Dos - Design Your Thinking

First 90 Days as Product Manager – 32 Must Dos

first 90 days as product managersBeing in the product business is one thing, but being in a product-driven business is a whole different thing. The role of Product Managers in a product-driven business is extremely crucial to the performance of the business.

A Product Manager has greater impact on the company’s top line growth in a product-driven business. The importance of getting settled into the pilot’s seat early enough is very high. The earlier you settle into the cockpit, the earlier you can start to perform. The best Product Managers spend the first 90 days of their new role in sharpening their axe.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe - Abraham Lincoln Click To Tweet

abraham lincoln on sharpening axe - first 90 days

The Problem

Many Product Managers today get right into the thick of things from week one, if not day one. I have seen Product Managers (even in Director-level positions) in some companies jump into tactical design and feature discussions and make decisions. Even worse, I’ve seen some of these Product Managers get on a call with customers and make commitments on features and direction.

The irony here is that some experienced Product Managers who’ve had a good history of creating and scaling good products, end up jumping in too early too.

Why do Product Managers fail?

From interviewing and observing many Product Managers and their stakeholders, I’ve come to realize that this boils down to three things:

  1. Overconfidence
  2. Lack of Discipline
  3. Ignorance

These are just the core root causes, and there are a lot more that’s not under the scope of this article. Good and experienced Product Managers are sometimes overconfident. Some lack discipline in their Product Management practices and some are just unaware of how to get started.

Result? Failed Products, Failed Career

Product Managers who start to fail either end up in low-impact roles. Some Product Managers have become Project Managers and some have just straddled multiple roles from Program Management to Product Architect and others. Needless to say, the products they managed have failed in the period they were in the cockpit. The results of not getting started on the right foot can be disastrous, to say the least.

Enter – The Kickass Product Manager – First 90 Days

Product Managers that kick ass are those that know and recognize the importance of sharpening their axe. You might be a first-time Product Manager or someone who has tons of experience as a Product Manager before – the first 30, 60 and 90 days in your new role as a Product Manager is key.

After talking to and observing many kickass Product Managers, I’ve compiled a set of 32 sure-shot must-dos that you should consider doing in the first 90 days as a Product Manager. For ease of read and measurability, I’ve split them into three parts:

  1. First 30 Days
  2. Second 30 Days
  3. Third 30 Days

These 32 steps will definitely put you on a winning streak, as they’ve been tried and tested by many including myself. I truly believe this will give you a mighty push in your new role, and feel free to add and remove new tips, techniques and steps to make them work for you.

 

foundations to your success as a product manager

First 30 Days – The Foundation!

Whether its your first time or not, the first 30 days as a Product Manager is crucial. Many refer to the first 30 days as the honeymoon period in any job, but I consider them to be one of the most important times in any job. That’s the period I’d use to establish my base. Here is what I think is important to get a grasp of:

  1. People
  2. Product
  3. Process
  4. Tools

As a new kid in the block, its helps when we get the key aspects of our new role right. Let’s jump into each of these quickly.

1.0 People

People and relationships are key to succeeding in our role as Product Managers. Connecting with people inside and outside the company can go a long way in defining your success in your new role. Below are things you may want to consider.

1.1 Boss Connect

Connect with your boss and understand what he / she is focusing on. Understanding their goals is key. Understanding the company’s vision and the product’s mission is equally important. Try to get your goals discussed and documented.

1.2 Functional Connect

Schedule time to meet with the engineering, marketing, sales, support and the finance teams, depending on your role. I’ve usually found myself getting a lot of useful information when I met with them over a cup of coffee.

1.3 Develop Empathy

Understand the existing challenges each of these stakeholders have. I usually use a mind map to take notes of these meetings and try and document their challenges in the mind map too.

1.4 Who’s Who

Try to get the organization’s who’s who written down in a nice A3 sized paper and pin it in a pin board. I also try to get their pictures from the directory and pin them too. I tend to confuse names, and this has helped me connect the face to the name.

1.5 Customer Connect

Try to get on any calls with customers and observe the conversation like a fly on the wall. Try connecting to key customers’ account management representatives to get an overview and outline of challenges in each of their accounts.

2.0 Product

Product is your baby. Understanding the product first hand, its market and financials is important. Below are things you may want to consider:

2.1 SME Demo

Get in touch with the best SME or Quality Engineer in the engineering team and get a demo of the product. Ask a lot of questions. Don’t squelch those seemingly silly ones.

2.2 Support Demo

Meet up with a customer support engineer and get a demo of the product. Like you did with the SME, ask a lot of questions. Doing this helps understand how the product is understood by both these people. Understanding the product’s story is important.

2.3 Sales Demo

Meet with one salesman and get them to demo the product to you. This can lead to some key revelations.

2.4 Market Dump

Get a dump of all the market data about the product including competitive information, analyst data, win-loss analysis and put them all into one working folder. Block your calendar to go through all of them.

2.5 Financials

Schedule time with the company’s financial analyst to get a dump of the financials. Understanding the product’s financials helps understand the performance and work backwards to identify its strengths and weaknesses. Combining this information with the market insight will lead to important discoveries.

4. 3.0 Process

When in a new land, its important to know the terrain. Like a hunter, its important to know the forest, its animals, the tribes, weather conditions and finally your hunting weapon 🙂

3.1 Development Rhythm

Try to meet up with the engineering team to understand how they work on building software – release durations, development processes (Agile, Scrum, Waterfall, Kanban, etc.). Not knowing this can sometimes throw in surprises, especially when your past job experience happens to be very different than the current one.

Understanding how the company has been releasing software is key. Some companies are process heavy and some don’t have process at all (think of the continuous delivery models).

3.2 Expenses

Understanding how travel and discretionary expenses are managed is key. Your boss should be able to help with that. Get a grasp of how expenses are claimed.

3.3 Stakeholder Meetings Rhythm

Knowing how frequently you have product reviews with management, board meetings, investor meetings, analyst meetings is key. Understanding key contacts to talk to analysts will prove very helpful.

4.0 Tools

Finally the tools. As people, we get used to some tools and we need to sometimes learn new ones. Learning is hard, and it gets even harder when we don’t have a clear idea of all the tools we need to learn. From getting used to using a Macintosh to not using Lotus Notes, each of us have our own set of challenges. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Get your laptop and / or workstation ordered from the IT help desk. In some big companies this takes a lot of time and unnecessary process.
  2. Get all software that the organization necessitates installed on your laptop. This can sometimes get in the way of your work when you realize that some software was not configured has locked your computer.
  3. Get your favorite set of software tools installed on your new computer. We all have favorites – I’ve listed mine in the resources page. We just cannot work with our favorite To-Do list software (Trello is my favorite), Time management software (Pomodoro app for Mac is my favorite), etc.
  4. Order stationary for white boarding and taking notes. Many big companies again take a lot of time to get this in place. I many times have picked Post-it notes from Amazon.
  5. Get a demo environment setup for you to use your product. I find this the most useful as it gives me great comfort in exploring the product first hand.

I hope you find this useful. The idea of making this list was to help get a jumpstart without having to waste much of our time. These are what I consider the standard operating procedures (SOP) on changing jobs or roles as a product manager. If incase you managed to do all of the above, scroll down to the second 30 days!

 

synthesize and start to connect the dots - first 90 days

Second 30 Days – Synthesize!

If you’ve weathered the first 30 days, Congrats! You’ve now moved to the next set of challenges – the second 30 days!

What we did in the first 30 days of being a Product Manager was establishing the base. If you’ve seen military warfare, the soldiers and units move in the warfront from one base to another and get ready to attack. They prepare the bunkers, load the guns and layout the map, mark the targets and get ready for the next counter-offensive or offensive strike.

A disciplined product management approach is good for the product and for its stakeholders.

So what do we do in the second 30 days as a Product Manager?

Get into a Passive-Active mode..

..and start to connect and reconnect the dots as you learn new things about the product and its ecosystem. Focusing on the following will be really important:

  1. Learn
  2. Assimilate
  3. Ask

These are the three key elements for the second 30 days in the role of a Product Manager. The key is to listen more and talk less, more now than any other time. This is because the first 30 days has given set the bearings of people, process, product and tools, the mind is freed of the clutter and the context is clear. Let’s jump right into each one of them.

1.0 Learn

Learning can happen in multiple ways. Here are some ways that are guaranteed to work well to get you off on the right foot.

1.1 Retrospectives

If you’ve jumped in the middle of an ongoing release that’s coming to an end, use the opportunity to do a retrospective. You can offer to run a release retrospective with the teams. This is one of my favorite things to do when I’m new to an organization or team as it gives me the advantage of being an outsider.

I’ve seen that people are generally more comfortable doing retrospectives with someone who hasn’t been around when the release took place.

Retrospectives give a good sense of how things went in the release, what went wrong, and how people believe they can be improved. It’s a great way to come up with a set of improvements to work on too.

Read my article on 5-Steps to Actionable Agile Retrospectives for a case study on how you can make these retrospectives measurable and actionable. Also, here is one of my favorite videos on Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby.

1.2 Win/Loss Analysis

Start to dig deeper into the win-loss analysis of the product that you managed to get access to in the first 30 days. These are treasure troves of great information about the product. I’ve found it helpful in going through the analysis sheets from successive quarters and looking for trends.

Agreed, the sales teams would’ve done this every quarter. But the fresh perspectives you bring in from outside the company sometimes helps spot interesting data. Taking time from someone from sales operations is another great way to dig into some insights.

1.3 Release Cycles and Iterations

While retrospectives is a great way of getting knee-deep into product engineering, many times we won’t be there in the right time to do a retrospective. Taking time to be a part of standups (if engineering is following Scrum) is one great way of getting a pulse of how engineering works.

Depending on your role, trying to analyze releases and how features are developed, how they are planned, how much of what’s planned is actually delivered, how prioritization has been done, how impediments are flagged, are great learnings.

1.4 Meetings

In general being a fly-on-the-wall in any product and business meetings is a great experience. You do run the risk of being on too many meetings and sometimes these meetings can just have discussions that you may feel is irrelevant. It’s important we walk ourselves out of such meetings and find better use of our time.

2.0 Assimilate

Learning can soon get lost in the melee if we aren’t able to assimilate the data and information. I’ve found it extremely important to find the right set of tools to help assimilate data and information. Here are some options that’ve worked for me:

2.1 Mind Mapping

I’m a big big fan of using mind maps for almost everything in life. Any kind of learning, be it from meetings or from discussions and analysis, I take a quick 10-15 minutes to dump my learnings into a mind map.

I have the habit of even using smileys to remember how a certain person reacted during a certain comment or thought exchange. I also document the location of these discussions and anything more that can help me recall the discussion as vividly as possible.

2.2 Wiki

Using a medium like a wiki or a Google doc to start writing down and crystallizing some of our learnings is another great way to assimilate. This works really well when we’ve seen gaps from going through win-loss analysis, product documentation, etc.

Updating this for the first 90 days will serve as a great initial report that you can share with the teams (and yes, your boss too!). Assimilating what we learn can sometimes lead to ideas that can either turn into newer products or help monetize existing products better.

3.0 Ask

Asking is not about getting people to tell us what to do, but to get people to tell us what they need. I’ve found it helpful many times  when I’ve had conversations with engineers and even bosses to understand what they need. That helps us prioritize and sometimes help them clarify their sometimes-rather-fuzzy need. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

3.1 Share and Listen

It’s true that people don’t know what they need, until they have it. But when we share the insights gained from conversations, meetings and reading multiple documents, with people, they help validate. Offering to help them with the need is a great way for new Product Managers to start doing something in the first 60 days of joining.

Product Managers largely play the role of  facilitators to the creation of the product and its business. Even the tiniest help in such an early period will be remembered and will help build relationships.

3.2 Goal Setting

Asking your manager to adjust the goals based on what you are learning is another good way to get started on the right foot. Sometimes goals are set in the first week, signed-off and revisited only after six months or a year. I prefer revisiting these goals on a continuous basis for the first 90 days to make sure they are tangible and that we indeed delivering value.

Alright, that brings us to the end of the second 30 days!

How are you doing? Maybe you should take a stroll to the water cooler and get some water. Yeah? When you are ready, scroll down and let’s talk about the last 30 days!

Hey btw, if you are interested to explore more on learning fast and synthesize effectively, here are couple of links you’ll love – Tim Ferriss’ blog, Elon Musk on learning fast.

 

execution begins with you - first 90 days as a product manager

Third 30 Days – Action!

You are one level up – third 30 days – Congratulations!!

You’ve been through the first two months in your new role as a Product Manager, and that’s a lot of time to have been through successfully. I hope the checklists for the first 30 days and second 30 days was helpful. If you haven’t read them, never mind – its never too late to read them.

Establishing your base..

..and learning about the product and its business is quintessential to a successful stint as a kickass Product Manager.

Having been through the self-imposed grind in the first and second 30 days, you are now ready to rock the dance floor in the third 30 days, so to speak. In other words, it’s time for some action.

You probably start to realize this, but your role has suddenly started to become more active – you find yourself getting invited to help make decisions, asked for opinions from all fronts – you have arrived!

Here are 3 things that’s worked well for me, to ride on the learnings from the first 60 days:

  1. Discipline
  2. Focus, Focus, Focus
  3. Bias to Action

There is a lot more you may want to do and follow, but the above three areas are irreplaceable and try to make them the cornerstones of your career in Product Management. Let’s not waste any time and jump right into them.

1.0 Discipline

This is one of the key areas that can make you feel satisfied while getting a good reputation in your new role. Here are some things you may want to try and follow:

Themed Days

Theme your days, or in other words try to get your calendar setup to do certain things on each of the days in the week. If you have a 5 -day week, you may want to consider making..

  1. a day for any customer visits
  2. another one for market research, competitive research, etc.
  3. one day for planning engineering release activities
  4. reserve a day for any sales activities – workshops, sales kit updates, etc. and..
  5. another day for something else.

I generally keep one day pretty open to accommodate any discussions or things that just fall-off from other days’ activities.

Time Management

I did hint this in the first 30 days, but here I want to stress it more. As a Product Manager you will be soon finding yourself swimming in an ocean where currents pull in multiple directions that you just don’t feel in control of yourself – you would’ve had this experience if you’ve been in the role before. I’ve found a few personal habits work well here:

  1. Don’t accept to attend a meeting that you are invited to when they don’t have an agenda. If there is an agenda, and you find it vague, it’s a great idea to check with the organizer as to what is expected of you.
  2. In the blocked time slots through the week, just focus on your planned agenda and avoid entertaining casual talks – this is especially a pain if you happen to sit in a place where people walk by frequently. Wear a pair of headphones if you think people just are relentless – even if you aren’t listening to any songs, people will think twice before stopping by. Helps focus.
  3. Keep your boss and the executive management in loop about your working style – socializing this during conversations usually has worked well in my case – it’s a win-win.
  4. Consider using tools for time-management – you can find some in the resources page.

2.0 Focus, Focus, Focus

Every time you enter the workplace with a plan, there is someone trying to distract – can be your boss, colleague, CEO, irate customer or just a phone call. Focusing on the essentials is always the key to your success.

A well balanced Product Manager is one who is on top of all aspects of the product. Being able to demo your product in detail is as much important as understanding when and why the sales cycles are sluggish. It’s important to live in the moment.

3.0 A Bias to Action

Decisions galore, and you find yourself in the middle of them all. While analyzing the options and taking the most appropriate one is nice, it sometimes gets extremely tough and grows into you. This can prove detrimental to the success of you, the product and the company.

Bias to action is the ability to act now, and contemplate later. Psychology experts and research prove that the human mind understands and takes a lot of decisions driven by the unconscious mind. Sometimes we call this gut and some call it intuition.

Here’s an article I like on 9 Effective Practices That Will Drive You To Take Action Immediately.

It’s Time to Take Action!

Take action, make the decision and that will get things moving. You can still revisit the decision after people have started to act on it and make course corrections. Doing this right comes through experience, but make the beginning and you’ll get the hang of it. I’m told that the book A Bias For Action is a great read on this subject – I haven’t read it so far, but let me know how you find it.

Hope you find these tips helpful, and more importantly I hope you do something with this. I’d love to hear your experiences in the first 90 days as a Product Manager – will be happy to talk to you! Good luck in your career as a Product Manager!

download ebook - 30-day product mission for product managers

I just downloaded a copy of The 30-Day Product Mission, and I just loved it! You must check it out too! #prodmgmt #ux #startup #mindfulness #makelearnchange Click To Tweet

BONUS: Download my eBook The 30-Day Mission {Product}, a 30-Day Step-by-Step Guide for Product Managers. Join DYT Insider on the right to get your copy today!

Update (20-Feb-2018): I’m coming up with a new ebook to help you crush it in your Product career. I would love to share it with you first. Stay tuned to the updates on DYT Insider. I appreciate you!

Leave a Reply 11 comments

Jose carlos - April 13, 2016 Reply

Good article Karthik. I got an opportunity to become a product managers in my company. So, I’m looking for a book focused on best practices, methodology to product management and portfolio management. I would like to deploy process related to product management in my organization.
Unhappy, the link to download your book didn’t come. I looked my spam folder now and nothing.

    Karthik Vijayakumar - April 13, 2016 Reply

    Hi Jose Carlos,

    Thanks for bringing up the issue with regard to the eBook download. I’ve heard of this issue from other subscribers (I’m working on getting this fixed!) too. Hence I now send the eBook twice (a temp fix 🙂 ). You should shortly receive another email with a copy of the eBook. If you don’t get that email or unable to download, please let me know – I will send you a copy in a separate email.

    I’m glad you are looking to get your hands on best practices and methodologies in product management. Will connect with you soon!

    Cheers,
    Karthik

Steven haines - April 27, 2016 Reply

Glad you posted this. I also have a helpful book called The Product Manager’s Survival Guide. Perhaps these are complementary resources.

Perry - May 30, 2016 Reply

Agreed. I always present a 90-120 day plan anytime I enter a new Marketing role. Problem is that some employers don’t or won’t provide that time for “sharpening the axe.” A solid interview question is “will I have sufficient time up front to get oriented to the business, portfolio and role?”

    Karthik Vijayakumar - June 5, 2016 Reply

    Good point. Yes, there are times when some experienced PMs need to tackle tactical fires. The need to “think on your feet” and keep the ball rolling is important. That said, you need to learn the lay of the land faster and take the help of the right people in making any decisions. You can always make course-corrections. The 90-day plan is just indicative. Some do it faster and some take time while dodging some odd balls.

Cesar - June 2, 2016 Reply

Hello,

Same issue as José Carlos, trying to download the book but the download process doesn’t start. Can you please help?

Thanks,

Louise Bernstein - September 6, 2017 Reply

Hello, all the links, including the one to your book, are broken. Anywhere else I can access your articles? Thanks!

    Karthik - September 9, 2017 Reply

    I just re-checked, and all the links seem intact. I still see a lot of downloads of the eBook. Please re-check and lemme know.

Stavros - February 19, 2018 Reply

Same issue with Jose Carlos….didnt receive the email yet and i’ve tried twice. Could you please send it again?! Thank you

    Karthik - February 20, 2018 Reply

    Hello Stavros! It looks like you haven’t “confirmed your subscription”. Please check your inbox for an email with subject “Important: confirm your subscription”. Just click the button in there to subscribe and you should get a copy.

    I will send you a copy anyway to your inbox. But you might want to be on the list to get the updated copy that’s coming shortly. Appreciate you stopping by!

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