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The Main Thing is Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

A mentor of mine used to repeat this line fairly often to me: The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing. The quote comes originally from Stephen Covey.

Stphen Covey and words of wisdom

Like many of Covey's aphorisms, this one sounds simple, yet is hard to put into practice.

There are (at least) two reasons for this:

  1. You don't know what your main thing is
  2. Other people drag you in to their main thing

The main thing for Product Management

Product Managers can find it difficult to define their main thing. Is there only one? Some PMs focus on development, and view product requirements as their main thing. Others focus on sales, and view sales support as theirs.

I don't subscribe to either of these extremes. Yes, at times, we must cater to one department or the other.

But the main thing for a Product Manager on my team breaks down into three categories. It's my article, so I get to name three main things:

  1. Know thy business: Attending to the health of the product line as a business.
  2. Know thy buyer: Understanding the experience, context, and needs of buyers before, during, and after a purchase.
  3. Now Lead: You must enable and empower others in the company to carry out the detailed tasks.

Yes, R&D needs requirements, and yes, of course, sales people need training. And quite often, you will be the one to provide both.

But if you are doing either of these and cannot tell me how they connect to the main things, we will have a problem. And if others won't follow your lead, you're doomed.

Things that distract you from the main things

The problem with the definition above is its breadth. To truly attend to the business and the buyers is a huge job and can lead to burn-out. What's worse, it you spread yourself too thinly, you will fail at everything rather than succeeding at something.

It is crucial, then, that you circumscribe your activities. Put boundaries around what you can do. There are two ways to get distracted:

  1. Corporate work: Executive off-sites, special projects for the CEO, portfolio reviews, corporate budget meetings.
  2. Line-work: Working the booth at a trade-show, writing copy, detailed requirements or product design, sales calls, product demos.

Which one of these traps do you or your staff fall into? I think it must depend on personality. Some people are more naturally drawn to one or the other.

Keeping the main thing the main thing

Fixing this problem is not easy. Product Management is by its nature a cross-functional job that almost never ends. It will never be easy, but some tips might help:

  1. You need support: You need marcom to write copy. You need creative support. You need a product designer to create detailed requirements. You need a development manager to understand the business to assist you with feature triage.
  2. Let them do their jobs: Perhaps more than anything, you need to let others do their job. You need to lead them, empower them, but stop short of doing their job. You must to allow others to succeed or fail under their own steam. You might imagine that you can do it better than they can do it. But if you do it, you're missing the main thing.
  3. Narrow the concept of your job: Few companies staff to do Product Management properly. Saeed has argued in the past that you can never have too many product managers. :-) And while this may be true in theory, few companies invest sufficiently in product management. If this is the case for you, figure out the one or two areas where you need to make an impact. It may be in the product, but it may equally be in sales. It may switch from time to time depending on the cycle you are in. This is very difficult, but try planning things out with your boss.
  4. Organize and staff for effective Product Management: If you are in a position of leadership, your main thing may be to bring the company into line organizationally. To be successful, product management needs design execution, time and money to study buyers, and support from the rest of the organization.

Homework assignment
Questions to consider for you, your team, and individuals on your team:

  1. What is your main thing?
  2. How does your main thing align with my suggestions? (Know the business, Know the buyer, Now Lead.)
  3. What kind of distractions are you prone to? (Corporate work? Line work?) List them. Talk them over with your staff or your management. Make these a point of development for each member of your staff and for yourself.
  4. Do you need to narrow your job? If so, what tactics will you use?
  5. How can you get buy-in to focus on your main thing?

Final remarks
The trouble with the main thing, as with so many other of Stephen Covey's ideas, is that they require you to ignore, or de-prioritize tasks that would normally give you great satisfaction or immediate praise. You may need to recuse yourself from some Executive Work that strokes your ego. Or you may need to put up with product design that is lower than your own standard.

Whatever your temptation may be, start by knowing that you have it. Decide when to wade in to a distraction ... sometimes you must.

Perhaps there is one more main thing: Know thyself. If you know your own temptations, you can start to overcome them.

Good luck. Let me know how it goes.

- Alan

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