I Just Came from the Future:
Effective Product Managers are Time Travelers

WRITTEN BY Todd Ewing

Product Managers

If you’ve met a great product person you’ve met a time traveler. The great ones, in fact, find themselves moving through the dimensions of time in the same day—sometimes even before lunch. It is essential for the success of their products that they can do this well and never get stuck in any one dimension (past, present, future) too long to neglect the needs of the other two.

Is time travel for you? If your hope is to build compelling products that customer love, then you should make it a part of your routine today, and tomorrow—and yesterday.

Why Time Travel? Sounds Dangerous

It’s a lot less dangerous than not having an informed and compelling perspective on your customer and market in any or all of the time dimensions.

  • Living too much in the past means not staying current with the world surrounding your product. You met customers last year, so you’re fine with how things are going. You went to that conference also the year before, so all good. Or maybe you’ve been the industry for a while, so the weight of history for you is more compelling that the realities of where things are today or may be going.
  • Living too much in the present is the most common, especially since most other functions on the business around you do as well. Today is full of demands, fire-drills and text messages gasping for responses. Not by coincidence, your manager usually has her primary residence here as well. The present day life is dangerous in that it may not learn well enough from the past, creating inefficient and poor decisions. It also usually assumes the future is basically today in a different shirt and calendar picture, which is true until the very day that it isn’t. Remember: tomorrow is when your competitor usually puts out that big press release.
  • Living too much in the future seems noble and strategic at a glance, but it can easily frustrate the organization around you that has legitimate issues pressing on them today. Maybe in the future the X400 will have near-field communication to solve that customer’s problem, but what’s the next step for your engineering team towards realizing that vision? And what’s the plan to migrate or manage upset customers who bought the x300? What did we learn from the X200 migration? Without being present to answer today’s issue, planning the future may be a moot point.

How to Time Travel and Be Home for Dinner

Just like any form of travel, preparation will determine success once you land at the right destinations. Destinations are answers to the question you have in mind when you booked the trip. You will have destinations in mind and hopefully a bag full of the right stuff to be comfortable in your surroundings.

It is, however, more difficult than it may seem. Good time travel is fueled on research and understanding.

For example, you can think of the Future anytime you want, whether daydreaming or locked into your time machine in conference room B. The difficulty comes in the quality of your vision.

  • Are you clear enough on the corporate strategy to know which outcomes your future is focused upon?
  • Have you done the research to accurate portray the picture of future in terms of your customer? What problems are still painful for them and why? What resources will they have then that they don’t have now? What will they still want?
  • Have you considered who else will be there, in terms of partners and competitors, based on their current vectors and stated strategies?

Similar questions should be asked of the Present, of course, in its own tense.

The Past itself is more focused on results gathering and drawing feasible conclusions you can justify as to why things happened (or didn’t happen in many cases) as a PM.

  • What was the hypothesis or riskiest assumption being tested with that product or release? Did you prove or disprove it incontrovertibly?
  • Why did a competitor zig when you thought they might zag?
  • Why didn’t you meet a customer’s expectation or intended outcome?

This should culminate in asking yourself: what about those learnings is transient knowledge vs predictive of potential future outcomes?

We have all heard about learning from your failures, but often times they are relatives you only want to see at the holidays or in a nightmare. Have you spent adequate enough time with your failures to be sure what you can learn and apply to Present or Future travels?

Strategies for Time Travelers

Once you’ve made your initial journeys fueled on adequate research or reflection, you can start working on a routine that ensure you balance time between all three time phases.

  • Some folks may block specific times, like Retrospective Mondays or Future Fridays, to put at least 90 minutes into the harder phases while staying present during the middle of the week grind.
  • The Three Box Approach advocated by Vijay Govindarajan is modeled around corporate strategy but could also easily apply to your product line or portfolio. You may consider dedicating members of your team to each time phase or rotating who is working in past, present and future when you have major road-mapping or decision-making work ahead of you.

The key is to be consciously collecting desired destinations (answers you need) as an ongoing behavior, gathering postcards for places you need to go. When the postcards pile up, book the trip and the time and the team you need. Conversely, if one of the three piles is constantly empty, revisit whether you are considering it enough.

It’s Not the Journey…

For time travels, it really is the destinations. That means arriving up on actionable conclusions or visions you can incorporate into your product strategy and give your business stakeholders clear views of what happened, what is happening, and where you are heading.

An effective time traveler is learning from the past, using a clear vision of future and acting effectively in the present to realize the vision. All they need now is a market, a customer and a product to carry with them.

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1 comment on “I Just Came from the Future:
Effective Product Managers are Time Travelers”

  1. Adrian Wible

    Wonderful framing of something I have attempted in various ways to articulate for years. I often use “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” for the past. For the future, I cite Wayne Gretzky – who, when asked about his success, is said to have responded: “I don’t skate to where the puck is; I skate to where it’s going to be”.

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