On our training courses, when the topic of tools is brought up, it’s often met with a collective groan from delegates.
Tools are designed to make our lives easier, so why does the topic frequently get such an adverse reaction?
Well, the answer would seem to lie not in the ‘usefulness’ of the tools but in the sheer number that product managers can be required to interact with every day.
Drowning in tools
That’s why people tell us;
“We’ve got too many tools! Everybody uses their favorite tool, and if you want to work with them, you need to learn it.”
“It’s a nightmare keeping on top of all the comms I need to use – email, multiple slack channels, multiple WhatsApp groups, text, voicemails. Then there are the notifications that come along all the time from tools like Jira.”
“The highest cost for most tools is the time it takes you to learn how to use it!”
It would appear, then, that some of us in product management are suffering from a state of tool exhaustion; an overload of tools that, rather than making our jobs easier, consume our valuable time and create frustration.
What should the benefits of tools be?
The word ‘tools’ can mean many things: a business case spreadsheet template, a generic office application like PowerPoint, your laptop, or a pen. Most of the frustration is aimed at software-based tools used to help when working with products.
We know the benefits these product management tools can bring are significant.
If implemented correctly (with well-designed governance around their use), product management tools can improve efficiency in a company. Benefits include a single source of truth for things like product roadmaps and storing requirements as well as more effective working practices for teams spread across multiple locations.
What goes wrong?
These tools generally work well when everyone uses them consistently. What seems to happen in many organizations is that a particular tool is introduced by one area because someone worked with it in a previous job or reads the website blurb and thinks great – that’s what we need.
But then sometime later another team introduces a new tool – the ‘latest greatest thing’ and start uses that. It’s fine for this team who use it regularly and develop an understanding and agreement on how to get the best from it. Where things go wrong is when other teams need to use it too, or data needs transferring from one tool to another.
Unfortunately, as product managers, we often experience these challenges because we work with so many different teams across the business.
And learning how to use these tools can take some effort – especially if you’re not going to be a regular user.
Have you ever tried to log-in to a new tool or portal e.g., Salesforce, to find some information? It takes time to learn to find what you want (or pulling in favors from an expert). Then, if it’s a couple of months later when you need to do it again, you have to go through the whole frustrating process one more time.
The main culprits – tools for communication
As we have seen, product managers operate across many business areas, with stakeholders across the organization. Often, each team will have their preferred method of communication or channel to monitor for feedback and questions.
Overload isn’t just limited to product management; more widely, the nature of business communication is changing. Whereas, years ago, the primary method of communication would be a call or a face-to-face meeting; our ‘always online’ culture has led to a rise in so-called ‘reactive comms’.
If you are giving feedback by a call or face-to-face, you will often prepare what you are going to talk about in advance. You will be mindful of the time it takes out of your day to take part in such a call, so you plan your thoughts to make effective use of that time. Any potential misunderstandings can also be ironed out through the course of the conversation.
However, now that it takes just a few seconds to fire-off thoughts in a Slack message, it can be easy to go with our initial reaction to something and hit send. This often results in a long series of back-and-forth messages, which ends up taking longer than a five-minute conversation on the same topic.
Reactive comms have created behaviors that remove the ‘self-editing process’ that would typically take place before a meeting or a call. There is little time for reflection. They have also become a crutch if we need a question answered. Rather than try and find out the answer, or wait until the next meeting with the appropriate person, the natural reaction is to send the person a message immediately.
Research shows that communication overload is a significant source of productivity loss. In this study by software company RescueTime, their analysis of 50,000 workers showed that, on average, workers checked their emails and messages every 6 minutes, and 40% never managed more than 30 minutes at a time of uninterrupted, focused work.
While it may just take a few seconds to check a slack message, it dramatically affects the amounts of ‘deep work’ that we can get done. People, by their nature, are not good at multitasking. So even the slightest disruption during a period of focused work can take, on average, 9 minutes to get back into the mind frame of deep, concentrated work. Some studies (like this one from the University of California Irving) have it at over 20 minutes to refocus! Whatever figure is closer to the truth, we can see the significant impact that constant interruptions can have.
What can you do?
As we advised in our blog on breaking the cycle of firefighting, there is no requirement always to be available to answer any question that comes your way. Breaking the cycle of reactive communication by setting clear expectations and boundaries will drive positive behavior.
If your stakeholders know that you don’t respond immediately to their ‘quick question…’ on messaging apps, then those messages will soon stop. People will either solve issues themselves, find a more appropriate place to get the answer or find a more appropriate time to ask you. A good way to implement this is to block time out of your diary when you need to focus on ‘deep work.’
Another way to minimize the number of reactive communications you receive is to hold regular meetings with business areas (if you don’t already do this). Sometimes, just having that date in someone’s diary will get them to hold off on those ad-hoc requests they would otherwise send through email or WhatsApp.
Unfortunately, dealing with a growing number of tools is a fact of life for many product managers. However, our central position in the business puts product management in an ideal place to recommend standardizing the tools used with products.
When it comes to communications tools, it’s never going to be feasible to completely ‘go-dark’ in this digital world. But, finding a better balance around your communications and when to interact with your various comms tools can have a hugely positive effect on your time, productivity, and even general outlook to your job.
So how do you manage to avoid tools overload and exhaustion?
Any advice to share?
Product Focus Founding Director