Your First 90 Days as the ONLY Product Manager

Establishing yourself & your product function in the first 90 days

First 90 days as a Product Manager

Mature product organizations have it easier than their newbie counterparts. Established product organizations have a semblance of a framework, established value for product, a support structure for new product persons joining, and product mentorship.

However, as the ONLY product manager in an organization, you have a lot of responsibilities. You have to establish the product function, differentiate yourself from a project manager (common confusion), and create order in chaos.

Chances are, you’re joining a nascent organization with a few product evangelists (people who know or believe in the value of a product function).

You have also their hopes and their expectations to manage.

I’ve been in that role a fair few times. And I’ve made mistakes. And I’ve learned. The biggest learning is that you NEED to have a structure. If you do not rely on your structure, you’ll be blowing like a leaf in a hurricane.

So what do the first 90 days look like, you ask?

Well, before we go there, understand one important thing — as the ONLY product person, you’ll be stressed. You’ll need to keep your mind agile and switching contexts every few hours. It’s going to be a hectic and enjoyable experience — if you’re up for it. Our function, as product, exposes us to every aspect of the business — as mini-CEOs, you’ve to understand the basics of every function. And knowledge may not be readily available.

Be ready to use every tool in your arsenal; beg/borrow/steal knowledge if you have to… and rise!

You’ll be building more relationships than ever before and each one needs attention.

Having said that, it need not be so overwhelming. Pace yourself. Keep an open mind and think of things from a long term point of view — what you learn about, say, operations may not be useful to your immediate career goals, but, trust me, you’ll look back at this time fondly.

The First 90 days — Establish yourself as Product Manager

Just like your product roadmaps, you need to establish your themes before jumping in… I’ve established a general theme, but you can alter the order of things within based on your organization/personality. However, I recommend that you run these things parallely.

Have a 3–5 days review to ensure you’re on track.

Product functions usually wield no authority, but hold all responsibility. Hence, it is of utmost importance that you establish your influence over the various functions. They need to see you as their champion.

So, how do you establish yourself?

Understand the lay of the land

I’ll break this down further into the following four categories:

Understanding people and the influence structures they have on other people/functions is critical to your success. A CTO can wield a lot of power in the boardroom and on your product roadmap. Chances are, she is the one who recommended the product function. Identify these people and their influence spheres.

You can do this by adding a catch-up meeting with every stakeholder in the first 2 weeks.

Remember, your stakeholders need not be C-level execs. Sometimes, the operations team or the marketing team can wield as much power as a C-level exec, especially for a small organization.

In the catch-up meeting, identify the following:

  1. Their ambition for the product
  2. Their or their teams’ pain
  3. How they can help you
  4. How they think the product/functions output can be immediately improved

The last point here is critical for identifying your quick wins. During my first 2 weeks at a previous organization, I found that the marketing function was kept out of development tasks and hence their requests were never surfaced. Their biggest pain, as found through a coffee catch-up with the marketing manager, was that they didn’t have proper analytics.

In the same meeting, establish the value you can bring. Talk strategy, identify opportunities. Be seen as a visionary — a champion for their function.

Note: DO NOT make promises. Always note down their requirements and return to them with potential timelines. Empathize, but do not commit.

2. Process
Understanding the incumbent processes is critical. Do not comment on the process. Understand it. If possible, understand why the process came into being, even if you’re thoroughly against it. For some new organizations, with outsourced tech, it is easier to do waterfall development.

Accept it. Understand it.

Process is critical for you to understand how the functions work (or do not work) with each other. You do not want to step on any toes.

Catalog the process, if possible. Refer to it extensively.

3. Agreements
Before your arrival, there were agreements made between functions. The marketing team was promised a dashboard. The operations team was promised a new functionality. Every contract has two parties. Identify which parties were involved and see where you fit in. Established agreements between teams (like sharing of reports) should not change, even if they are painful. You do not have the full picture yet.

90 days is as small a time window as it is large. Change need not come in the first 90 days.

4. Data
This is one of your core product functions. Understand the availability & accuracy of data. Do you have analytics on your product? Are there tracking/reporting tools available?

Only when you establish the baseline can you hope to show improvements. Otherwise, it was all business as usual.

Identify your product KPIs. Set current benchmarks. The data (or absence of it) tells a story. Listen to it. Missing data shows that the organization was OK not to have it, at that stage. It also means you’ll have to build a data-driven strategy. Buckle up!

By getting the lay of the land, you’ll have accomplished three things:

  1. Identified structure & hierarchy
  2. Advertised yourself
  3. Identified the way forward

You can now use this information for the coming steps:

Get a quick win

As you understand the lay of the land, a few quick wins will be apparent. Make sure that those are not process wins (process optimization is a post-90 days activity). Simple tweaks and improvements that get you maximum bang for your buck will get you kudos from the upper management. But when you’re doing that, remember to present it properly.

Personally, I use this framework:

Your First 90 Days as the ONLY Product Manager 9
Impact vs Effort framework for identifying quick wins

If you’re able to convince the leadership and the stakeholders that your efforts are aligned in the right direction, you will have established yourself as a great product person.

Communication, Communication, Communication

Your First 90 Days as the ONLY Product Manager 10

If that’s not the central theme to your first 90 days, you’re doing something wrong. Slowly ramp up communication with various stakeholders, depending upon their preference.

Three things you need to get right with your communication:

  1. Communicate Early
    Tell them you’ll do something. And then do it.
  2. Communicate Often
    Tell them what you’ll be doing at a set frequency.
  3. Communicate Concisely
    Show them what you’ll do, rather than a mountain full of text.

Note that your 90-day strategy has to be discussed and communicated with your sponsor within the organization. It’ll help them to know how you’re approaching the role.

What’s next?

During this time, you’re collecting a lot of information on setting up your next 90 days.

By the end of the 90 days, you’ll have:

  1. Established yourself as reliable, relatable and structured individual
  2. Shown value in your role
  3. Created the foundations for the next 2 phases

Also, now you have a basic model for the next two themes — Bringing Order to Chaos & Strategic Growth. I’ll deal with those in subsequent articles.

Generally asked questions

1.Should I generalize or find a niche? 
These are early days for you. You might a data fanatic, but till you have a stabilized system for backlog creation and efficient team management, you’ll be forced to generalize. There is no harm in identifying a niche for yourself, but don’t make it your core focus.

2. People are relegating me to a Project role! I’m supposed to be bigger than this! 
Project management is part of product management. If the expectation is to manage the development team workload — do that well. But be vocal about opportunities, experimentations, and improvements that can be added. Sometimes, you need to rise above the expectations. Deliver on the core, but show you are much more!

3. Why don’t they listen to me?
Why should they? People listen to established experts. You’ve yet to establish yourself. Remember the grind — it’s the rite of passage that everyone has to go through before they’re marked as reliable.

4. There are too many things to fix! Everyone’s requirement is a priority, what do I do?
Believe it or not, for the first 90 days, your sponsor — the person that championed the product position — is the most important one. You need to deliver on their expectations, first. Non-traditional and anti-logic frameworks like HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) or FIFO (First In First Out) or Noise Maker first are your friends. Your role is to steer the organization towards order. Accept the chaos, partake in it, but don’t let that define you.

The next few themes of Bringing Order to Chaos & Strategic Growth can be brought forward in the 90 days plan, if you’re confident.

Remember, this role is as much about change management as it is about product management.

As the sole product person on the team, you’ll have a lot of responsibilities, expectations and work to manage. Make it fun! Enjoy your experiences!

If you’re starting out in Product Management or are jumping into a product role in a new organization, you’ll have to make sure your foundations are strong. Always be learning!

Well, that’s that! I’d love to know if you’ve tried the above in your organization. If you have questions or want to reach out for further clarification, please do! You can reach out over Linkedin (very active) or Twitter (where I lurk).

Thank you for reading!


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