Ownership Mindset

In the past, I’ve heard folks say that a Product Manager is the CEO of their product. This kind of thinking creates a strange founder-like mental model where folks feel work will simply fall apart without them so they can’t take a vacation. You can also sub Product Manager for any other ‘Lead’ role within a digital product team (think Lead Engineer, Product Owner, etc).

In short, this line of thinking is not sustainable.

As you can imagine this leads folks quickly to burnout. Putting yourself at the center of things seems great because you feel essential but more often than not you end up being a single point of failure or at the very least a bottleneck to progress.

And progress could translate to work for the product as well as the collective team’s progress toward maturity. If folks always look to one person for guidance, they are not empowered to solve their own problems. In a mature product organization, you want everyone on the team to feel empowered to do their best and learn from one another.

To bring your best to the team, you do need an ownership mindset. But more so for your career and the specific tasks you need to own versus the entire product. You 100% own what is within your control but you’ll never be 100% in control of the product.

So what does owning your career mean?

Here are some guiding principles:

  • Focus on Value: to truly own the tasks that are within your control, you need to know why they are important. I had a colleague who used to ask, “What are we solving for?” It wasn’t until years later that I realized what he really meant was: “Why are we doing this?”

    If you can’t answer that question, you aren’t set up for success.
  • Manage Up: to that end, sometimes you haven’t been set up for success and that might be a miss on your manager’s part. They are human after all and, if you survey managers, many have been undertrained and may feel overwhelmed or even underprepared for the job at hand.

    You may want to take a stab at what you think the “why” is and gut-check with your manager; a way to frame it is:

    I understand you want us to make this experience more user-friendly because our clients struggle with it and I suspect this puts us at risk of losing their business, which would be a big loss for the company financially – have I understood that correctly? Or is there any other context around this that you think I should know?

  • Leverage Best Practices: once you know why you are doing something, focus on bringing all the expertise you have or can gain to adding value. We live in a world where so much is at our fingertips.

    I personally have found so much great guidance by following smart folks on Twitter or Googling a topic to see examples or articles that might contain a nugget of wisdom. Forums and personal contacts can also be great resources to find new, potentially more effective, ways of achieving your goals.
  • Don’t be Captain Save-The-Whole-Team: you need to trust that everyone else on the team is trying to do their best (your mantra: in most normal scenarios, no one intends to be bad at their job) and let them rise to the challenge or have a misstep they can learn from.

    It is a trade-off: less speed now but maturity later. Generally team maturity will help make a product more successful so best not to save folks, or yourself for that matter, from the opportunity to learn something.

    For a long time, Facebook coined the term “Fail Fast” but I’d actually argue that what’s better is to “Fail Gracefully.” To me, this means save room for mistakes that are good examples (when put in the rearview) of what not to do for a different more mission critical project.