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  • Writer's pictureJohn Rae-Grant

Great Product Managers are Time Travelers

During my tenure at DataStax, I witnessed and actively contributed to the evolution of the PM function. It shifted from mainly orchestrating GTM activities centered around engineering-led features to true PM leadership.

There are a lot of lessons that I learned or relearned during this time, and one of the central ones is about the need for time-shifting as a core PM skill.

To be influential, a great PM has to be in the present: keeping up-to-date, dealing with what is, addressing current pain, solving current problems, and speaking with current customers about the prevailing market landscape.

To be effective, a great PM must also dive into the past: extracting learning from past successes and failures, bringing the team to shared understanding and codified learning, and drawing analogies to well understood historical challenges and celebrated triumphs.

To be leaderly, a great PM has to think backwards from the future: articulating a vision of the users’ better world to be and our role in shaping it. They extrapolate market trends, forging a strategic path to meet the market's evolving needs.

Hence, a PM must assume the role of a time traveler, proficient in all three temporal modes. Many of us excel in one mode while falling short in the others.

Tacticians are strong in the present, focusing on the immediate next steps. They skillfully eliminate obstacles, stay up to date with the status quo, and ensure efficient execution. However, they may unknowingly steer the team in the wrong or deeply suboptimal direction.

Managers are strong in the past. They bring lessons from their own and collective experience. They celebrate and remind us of past accomplishments. They perform retrospectives, and write our histories. But they may be out of date, looking backwards, or resting on past glory.

Visionaries are strong in the future. They know the trends. They can craft compelling memos. They captivate the imagination. But they may not draw the line back to the present. They may stop once the vision is articulated. Worse, they may move on to a new vision before the current one has been grounded in today’s needs and plan.

The successful Product Leader travels between these three, acting as a visionary, tactician, and historian/manager depending on the needs of the product and team at any given time. I’ve noticed that wise PMs get uncomfortable staying in any one of the tenses for too long. Moderation in all things.

The PM as Time Machine

A truly great PM has the ability to bend time for the whole team, functioning not merely as a time traveler, but as a time machine, transporting others through time as is needed to move the team forward.

Feeling the future

It is discouraging to me that “Vision” has gotten a bad rap recently. I fully understand that vision without strategy and execution is nothing more than delusion, but I have often seen that execution unguided by strategy and vision amounts to nothing more than futile busyness.

A PM with the unique ability to traverse time understands precisely when their team requires inspiration, perspective, and unwavering focus. In those pivotal moments, such a PM either creates or revitalizes the future vision, articulating with conviction, “Here’s what will be true in the world as of <when> because of our efforts.” This is the deep why behind all of the activity, and the true north for navigating these decisions.

The vision isn’t compelling if it doesn’t come from the entire team. The Time Machine PM, therefore, transports their team to that future reality, enlisting them in constructing that vision, which creates the pull to guide today’s decisions. The team develops a commitment to, and appetite for, that compelling future, which creates forward energy, urgency, and the ability to prioritize.

Learning from the past

In the urgency of completing daily transactions, we often forget to step back and learn from where we’ve been. A great time machine PM will take us back to the decisions we made, the unexpected hurdles we faced, the things that we learned, and how we have grown and changed as a result.

The PM time traveler knows when the team has gone through something significant, and walks the team back through it, to codify shared learning, deepen the team's sense of momentum, create dissonance and change around self-defeating patterns, and celebrate accomplishments.

Great teams learn together, and keep those lessons in mind going forward. The time machine PM transports the team to the past as necessary, to learn those lessons and strengthen the team for the next challenges.

Executing in the present

In the same way that the future and the past can be traps for an individual, they can trap the team. I’ve consulted with many organizations which scapegoat the past for current mistakes or indecisiveness. Phrases like "we're still reeling from last year's major reorganization," "the cancellation of that project left us demoralized," or "we failed to grasp the dynamics of the market" become common refrains.

However, the time machine PM chooses the opportune moments for focused execution. They ground the team in the challenges and priorities of the present, keeping their gaze firmly fixed on the future vision while drawing insights from past learnings. It is only in the present that action can be taken. Plans, visions, and future sprints remain hypothetical until actively pursued.

Indeed, much has been said about the importance of a bias towards action, because the present is the only active tense. A balance between learning, aiming, and doing is really the fastest way to make forward progress. Blind execution is super costly. Lack of execution is sure death.

Leading the team to when it needs to be

The time machine PM brings the team to when it needs to be to make the right decisions and take the right steps today: feeling the future, learning from the past, and executing like crazy in the present!


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