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Mar 16, 2015

The Three Worlds of a Product Manager

One of the most challenging aspects of being a product manager is that your mind needs to simultaneously exist in three worlds — three different realities: the present, the near future, and the distant future. Let's go through them one-by-one.

  1. The Present
    This is the state of the product that everyone is using right now. To the product manager, however, the present feels like the past because it contains features and characteristics that he thought through long ago. The most relevant function of the present is as a tool to learn more about users and decide what the near future should look like.
  2. The Near Future
    The near future feels like the present because it is the world that the product manager's mind spends most of its time in. The product manager is looking at mockups and prototypes and thinking about the sequence of when to deliver near future features. If you follow lean product development, release cycles are short and the actions are pragmatic and concrete. The picture of the near future is clear enough that it feels like present day. We do weekly releases so the near future can be real this week, the next, or the week after. If you use feature flags, the near future may be the current state for some users.
  3. The Distant Future
    The distant future may not be that far away on the calendar (maybe a few months), but to the product manager, it is science fiction. The distant future never arrives; pieces of it merge into the near future but the rest keeps on being pushed off. Because knowledge and priorities are constantly changing, the product manager can't get too attached to the distant future. More than likely, the product manager is juggling multiple possible distant futures simultaneously in his head. The whole purpose of the distant future is to put the near future into a larger context and to force the product manager to extrapolate where decisions for the near future may ultimately lead.

Your product exists in a different state in each of these parallel universes and you need to know every detail about each of these states because people look to you as the expert. It is hard to keep these details from getting muddled together in your head and harder still to not confuse others as you talk about the product.

The hardest time to avoid confusion is when discussing a product road map. The best approach is to talk about the near future. Stick to three months or less with the details weighted towards the first month. With this horizon you are safe to talk about sequencing and dates but the most important topic is "why?" You are rapidly responding to an opportunity, testing a hypothesis, or incrementally building towards something bigger. The reason for an enhancement should fall into one of those three categories. Describe the distant future as a vision that influences your general direction. Don't commit to details or dates. You just need to paint a picture that shows that the next steps in the journey are worth the effort.

The other time when the three worlds confuse stakeholders is when they request a feature. Often what they ask for fits into a larger vision. For example, they might ask you to fix something that you plan to replace with a different approach. You need to adjust your perspective to their present (which feels like your past) and then take them through time to show your plans for the near future. You might also need to take them forward a few releases more to describe how you want that feature to evolve.

Navigating back and forth across the present, near future, and distant future feels a lot like time travel. It is disorienting when you context-shift into a particular time period and sometimes the past feels a little embarrassing when you come back from the future. Like a hero in a time travel movie, sometimes you need to repair the future by going back into the past. There is never a dull moment in product management. If you think things are boring and routine, you need to get your mind over to where the action is.