Product Managers Let Fires Burn
Have more impact by surveying, prioritizing and seeking leverage
I started on a new team last week. In my first one-on-ones, I always ask a version of “Where can I help?”. This helps me understand the team, space and challenges in the area. I’ve been getting a range of answers:
“Can you help us get this feature approved by legal?”
“We need the budget to run this test. Can you secure it?”
“We’re blocked by another team. Can you unblock?”
When I first became a PM, I would leave these initial one-on-ones and immediately try to solve these problems. It made me feel like I was adding value early on.
But this was my fourth team at Facebook alone. This wasn’t my first rodeo 🤠. I knew that to best support a team, sometimes you need to let fires burn.
I first heard of this concept in an episode of Masters of Scale, a podcast by LinkedIn Founder and prolific investor Reid Hoffman. He makes an excellent point for startup founders:
If you spend all your time fighting fires, you may miss critical opportunities to build your business. You’ll be all reaction and no action.
This advice applies perfectly to the PM discipline. I’ll explain with an analogy and then some strategies to better fight fires.
🏡 Building a Neighbourhood
Imagine your team is building a set of houses. As you go to survey the houses, you notice that one is on fire. Someone outside asks you to put out the fire.
Oh no! You can spring to action and start pouring water on the fire. With some time and effort, you may get the fire to die down.
Or instead, you can look at all of the other houses in the block. You may notice something.
Helping put out one fire is good. In fact, it’s what’s expected of a junior PM.
But surveying the scene allows you to take two other paths:
If one fire is especially concerning, start on that one. If you sequence things correctly, you can minimize damage.
Note that not all fires need to be put out. As you’re firefighting, more pressing ones may spark up. Use judgment to know when to leave a small fire burning.
⚖️ Find leverage
Are there actions that can put out multiple fires with a single action? These are often found when problems share the same root cause—more on this in a minute.
One high-leverage activity in this analogy: call the fire department.
Remember: your job as a PM isn’t to put out fires. It’s to build the product (in this analogy, the neighbourhood). Don’t get addicted to checking items off of a to-do list. Instead, look for the way to prevent the most damage across the whole area.
🧯Two ways to fight fires
Reid Hoffman’s Prioritization Approach
In Masters of Scale, Reid shares a simple way to catalogue and prioritize your fires:
Assign probabilities for each of the risks becoming a reality
Assign vectors of possibility (is the probability of catastrophe going up or down?)
What’s the damage if it hits?
Is it correctable?
From here, you’ll find a scorecard of the most pressing fires to tackle.
Brian Chesky’s Simple Leverage Approach
Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky has a simple trick to fight the most fires at the same time:
Make a list of all tasks (be as exhaustive as possible)
Group them by their root cause
Then it becomes a game of leverage: ask yourself what one action can take care of these 3? What about these 5?
Do it again and again.
If you do this enough times, a list of 20 to-dos becomes a list of 3 actions that handle most of them.
A good product manager firefights. They see a fire, they try to put it out.
A great product manager surveys, prioritizes and finds leverage to minimize destruction. Importantly, they let some fires burn while they tackle others.
Don’t tackle the first problems you see. Survey the scene to see the whole picture.
Learn to be comfortable with a persistent problem.
Prioritize the largest fires to tackle first. These are the ones that have the largest potential impact on your product.
Explore high-leverage actions that solve multiple problems in one go. Try the Brian Chesky method for a simple way to find leverage.
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Until next time,
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