Aug 26, 2023
"Focus on one project at a time."
It is one piece of advice you'll often hear.
It's an advice I've frequently heard in my life as well. However, I've never applied it to my professional or personal life.
If you've been following me over the past few months, you know I've started multiple projects while continuing to work on my contracts.
On top of that, I've been exploring multiple ways to deliver value to the customer in each of those contracts.
There's one problem with this advice—sure, you can focus on one project as much as you need with your team. But it's not as if putting nine mothers together will result in a baby in a month.
There's an order and process for everything.
One thing I've learned throughout my career, which was one of the most complicated skills I had to acquire, is patience.
Some clients take two months to get back to you. You might have to write for a year before someone notices you.
Some code or architecture pieces require a redesign and rewrite due to technical debt and incidents. It's a complex task requiring preparation and reflection.
All these processes or tasks take time, and you can't force the output due to some external constraints.
Impatience comes from fear.
Fear of not reaching our expectations, fear of the future, or simply fear of missing out.
Fear is the worst place to be when making decisions.
Nothing great comes from fear.
Results can take time to build up. There's a need for rest.
Yesterday, I had the second episode of the Digital Leadership Decoded podcast. Kax Uson, my guest for the second episode, had a way to define product management.
"The role is uncertainty turned into a job." - Kax Uson - Digital Leadership Decoded Episode 2
Whatever you decide to do or whichever project you decide to move forward with, there will be uncertainty surrounding it.
Some PMs say they make bets, which isn't far from the truth.
I often compare, on my side, building a product or a brand to playing poker. You'll play and lose some hands, and some you'll win. Ultimately, the average and the fact that you're still optimistic.
The more hands you play, the more chances you'll have.
The key is to balance and calculate risk.
Before we dive into solutions for implementing this with your team and reflect on what you can do, I want to raise another point.
What will you do if something external blocks your project or if you invest all your energy into something that yields nothing?
It's a risk to take.
People push gambling too far. It is playing roulette without being aware of the risks they're taking. It is playing and potentially burning the cash of someone else.
One easy way to see it is that people will not make the same decision if it's their business.
One of the most prolific writers, Neil Gaiman, articulated it well when discussing writing and inspiration.
You can't wait to be inspired to write. Being blocked is one of the most frustrating experiences you can have.
Neil Gaiman's advice is to work on multiple projects simultaneously. That way, when a project is blocked or slows down, you can switch to another one.
I apply the same principles to the work I do, whether it's personal or professional.
I have multiple tracks of work that help me reach my goals. As a product manager and digital leader, I take care of different types of activities.
These multiple tracks help me create a product that is relevant now and for the long term. They also enable me to create an engaging ecosystem for my team and those I work with.
Finally, they allow me to achieve my personal goals.
Remember, as a professional, you work for yourself first. You have to do things following who you are.
Way too often, we need to remember this simple truth.
How do I apply this, and what activities do I run in parallel?
Categories of activities
First and foremost, it's crucial to recognize that professionals in the fields of digital leadership and product management operate within three distinct realms:
Strategic - Focus on long-term goals and overall direction. Typically, it requires the top-level management to decide on the future and guidance for the organization or product.
Tactical - Short to medium-term decision. Translated from strategic goals into actionable steps. It involves the middle management.
Operational - Day-to-day activities. Support tactical plans. Executed by the team.
Understanding this framework allows us to categorize activities and allocate our energy effectively. Each activity or initiative should align with one of these levels.
For example, launching a new product or partnering with other brands falls under the "Strategic" umbrella. These initiatives typically demand a significant investment of time and collaborative efforts. On the other hand, activities like streamlining workflows or implementing new processes are more 'Tactical'. It requires a different type of focus.
Mastering balancing activities across these three spheres is the first step toward efficiently managing multiple projects.
The second perspective I had on the sphere of the activity was to categorize the nature of the activities. I divide the activities into three types:
Linear: These activities produce direct, proportionate results with each effort you put in. For example, resolving customer complaints or dealing with an incident can be linear tasks. They both resolve issues within the product and achieve better customer satisfaction.
Compounding: These activities accumulate value over time and can exponentially impact. For example, putting in place a process that allows your team to work on experiments will have an effect in the long term. Tackling tech debt from a strategic perspective with a vision can tremendously affect your capability as a Product manager to release improvements faster.
Maintenance: These are tasks required to keep the operations running smoothly. Updates to the overall products and team meetings can fall under this category.
Understanding the nature of the activity can help us understand the impact in the foreseeable future of such an activity.
It will allow us to understand also what activity we have to delegate.
For example, one linear activity may be to write stories or send emails. These activities are consuming time, and our time is limited.
We can replace writing the email with tools like ChatGPT.
We only have one part of the truth for stories, as we need input from the engineering team.
Learning how to delegate them can help the team move faster.
Compounding activities are challenging to estimate in terms of results.
Those activities can be strategic, tactical or operational, such as running customer interviews or creating content. It might demand expertise and strategic oversight.
Finally, maintenance activities have a terrible reputation.
Yet, those are crucial for the sustainability of the team and the project.
I witnessed PMs not doing it and paying the price as their team made choices without them. They lacked the connection that those maintenance activities brought them.
The final question is how to work on multiple projects simultaneously.
The process to make it work
I won't sugarcoat it: managing multiple projects demands considerable time and energy.
You're juggling multiple balls at once.
First Step: Conduct an Audit
Contrary to popular belief, there are better ways to go than diving head-first into the glamorous 'Strategic' activities when starting a new job or project.
Reading complaints on Reddit or Twitter, people want to be heard and feel important by working on strategic decisions.
There are two things forgotten with this mindset.
One: Nobody is waiting for us to come in and save the day. From experience, nothing is more frustrating than a newcomer telling me how he will change the product I am building based on two weeks of background on the job.
Two: The crucial part of our job is to make things come alive. The execution matters way more than anything.
Your initial move should be far less flashy but crucial.
Conduct an audit.
Who is responsible for what?
Who has the knowledge and the decision-making power?
Where am I professionally?
Where is my team?
What is the maturity level of my team regarding best practices?
What activities are you engaging in?
What are the relations between my team and other teams/departments?
Where might the bottlenecks be?
What kind of alignment—or misalignment—exists between you and the company's strategic goals?
These questions set any project on the path to success.
Second Step: Problem Identification and Prioritization
Once you've got a lay of the land, the next move is to identify the challenges you're facing and prioritize them.
Despite the temptation, you must avoid tackling all the problems simultaneously.
Here is a step-by-step process:
Identify the problem at the end
Evaluate the situation's complexity based on scope, unknown, and involvement in the rest of the company.
Categorize the problem based on whether they're strategic, tactical, or operational.
What type of tasks are associated with it - Linear, Compound or Maintenance
One important note.
Let me be straightforward:
If you struggle to identify the problem or can't prioritize effectively, that's a knowledge gap.
As a product manager and coach, I've witnessed this issue repeatedly.
It's the 'saviour complex,' the belief that you should be able to solve anything and everything. But the truth is, you can only effectively solve problems you fully understand.
On top of that, if you are the only one recognizing it as a problem, the first problem will be to explain to people and the team that there is a problem.
So, if you need a more precise grasp of what you're facing, take it as a signal.
It's time to deepen your understanding and knowledge of the task. This awareness not only aids you in solving immediate issues but also helps you identify where you can act—and where you might need to build up more expertise.
Third Step: What will be the ideal situation?
I always ask myself: What will be the ideal outcome if I solve the situation?
I am giving you an example here. One problem I encounter when I work with teams for the first time is that I need to feed them with work every day.
Working in small companies comes with perks. It also comes with more responsibilities.
One of them is that you have the role of product director until product owner.
My ideal situation is to stop 80% of the linear and maintenance activities, such as writing tickets, defining solutions, preparing sprints, or retrospectives.
That way, I can spend time in other types of activities, more strategic or compounding activities.
All the examples above are maintenance or linear activities. It means I spend 100% of my time on this particular management task of those two types.
My aim is always the same: 40% of my time on linear activities, 30% on compounding and 30% on maintenance.
Here, the situation is how to change the process and how we work to fit my goal.
Can someone in the team be responsible for the sprints or the retrospective, and I act as someone to consult or a participant?
What do they need from me to be more independent?
How can I reach autonomy that helps me and the team achieve our goals?
I have my secrets for this, and it all comes down to the digital leadership I teach. It will be for another time.
Fourth Step: Dive Into Action But Keep an Eye Out
The final step.
After you've conducted your audit and prioritized the issues, the fourth step is to roll up your sleeves and get to work—thoughtfully.
Devise a detailed plan of action based on your vision tying back to the three realms: Strategic, Tactical, and Operational.
Know what activities fit these categories and align them with your identified problems.
Define the type of activities (linear, compound and maintenance) that will allow you to reach your goals. à
Allocate the right amount of time, define SMART Goals, and set timelines.
Now, execution is critical.
But, while at it, you must monitor the progress in real-time.
It's simple. No plan survives contact with reality.
Use gamification principles and agile methodologies to iterate in an engaging and fun way.
Use a waterfall or a growth experiment process to tackle more complex problems.
There is no one rule on how to do things. It all depends on the context.
Keep an eye on the prize.
Create a culture of growth, transparency, collaboration, openness, kindness and hard work within your team and with your stakeholders.
Here, your expertise in product management and digital leadership becomes invaluable.
You are not a captain of a boat. You are the First Mate or Quartermaster.
The CPO or CEO is the captain of the boat you are in.
You're not just steering the ship but navigating through unexpected storms and adapting the course.
Remember, the plan is essential, but the planning process is invaluable.
It will teach you more about your capabilities, your team's strengths and weaknesses, and the challenges you'll face. It's not just about reaching the destination; it's about growing more robust through the journey. And that, at its core, is what multi-project management in digital leadership is all about.