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5 Ways Product Leaders Can Help Their Burnt-out Teams

Mental stress for product managers is at an all-time high. More and more, they are stating they are burnt out.

Could this be from one your team members?

"I've been struggling to keep my head above water. I have too many tasks on my plate and no guidance on how to execute on them. I'm terrified I'll be fired because I don't know what I should be doing."—anonymous poster, Reddit

From struggles with SAFe and Agile to mass layoffs at FAANG and Unicorn companies to the slow drift of most product management roles towards becoming technical, product management is a high-stress profession.

Other posts from a Reddit thread asking how product people are doing:

Right now all I think about is quitting & taking a break. I feel like a ungrateful twat because I feel like this while I still have a job and many people in the community are getting laid off. Just wish things would get better.”

“I’m burnt out and would move on but I’m also nervous about the job market. But yeah, depression, anxiety and overall unhappiness is a reality.”

“I'm a VP, and can confirm — I feel like I'm an idiot, despite whatever people continue to tell me.”

These are just a few quotes, but they represent the 200+ comments about the stress and anxiety of the job. The state of mental health of product managers, of your teams, is not very good.

There may be little we can do as product leaders about the layoffs and economic situation, but there are definitely things you can do that can materially impact your team.

Here are five things product leaders can do to help their burnt-out teams.

1. Schedule team time to discuss product management

When was the last time your team discussed product management? They can gain value from conversations with each other, answering the question, “How do we do that here?”

We coach dozens of product management teams every year. Every team finds value in talking with their peers about the methods and fundamentals of product management. Product managers spend most of their time partnering with stakeholders and team leads from other departments, rarely with their peers in product management.

Who better understands the stress and challenges product managers are going through than their peers at their own company? They can empathize with each other and share tips and best practices for overcoming shared challenges.

Schedule a monthly or semi-monthly meeting. Use some budget to order lunch or breakfast, and let your team talk with each other. Share ideas. Discuss methods. Guide each other in difficult situations. Your team will thank you for it; all you need to do is schedule that time.

2. Have your product managers block “Product Management Day”

Product management is a busy role. We often spend too much time supporting our stakeholders that we don't have time to do our jobs.

Decades ago, Product Growth Leaders co-founder Steve Johnson declared Thursday as Product Management Day. Set aside one day for product management. Use that time to increase your customer and market engagement, improve your decisions, and ensure you are doing the right things. Use some of that time for strategic thinking, taking time to process and think. Review and adapt the artifacts and context provided to your stakeholders. These activities improve your results, and taking that time improves your mental health.

In reality, Product Management Day is not likely one full day at a time. Encourage your team members to block eight or ten hours each week on their calendars to think deeply about their work. Make it a recurring meeting to prevent everyone else from filling up their calendars.

3. Advocate for the business role of product management

Ambiguity is one area of stress in the role of product management. Many product managers are stuck as servants to other functions, such as managing JIRA backlogs, designing UX, doing project management, or whatever activities are under-skilled or understaffed.

When product managers get sucked into work that should be elsewhere, two things happen: the product managers start to doubt their value, and the other functions start to question the value of product management. This is not healthy for the product managers or the organization.

You must advocate for the business role of product management. Product management is not solution design. Product management is not project management. Product management is a business role. Product management is about ensuring we are creating the right things and empowering our stakeholders with context to make them (and our products and business) successful.

Simply advocating for the business role of product management will show your team that you have their back. Getting leadership to understand the proper role of product management will significantly impact both your team’s burn-out and your business outcomes.

Read more on the importance of the business role of product management. You might also enjoy our free eBook, "The Business Role of Product Management."

4. Focus on clearly defining the product management roles

Research shows that only 21% of organizations clearly define product management roles.

The lack of role clarity led one product leader to say every day seemed like Groundhog Day (as in the movie) as it seemed like they were doing the same things over and over and making no progress every single day.

Product leaders realize that a lack of role clarity leads to reduced productivity. Decisions never get made. Items are missed. Teams duplicate work that other teams have already completed. Confusion reigns.

The lack of role clarity in an already stressful job can contribute to poor mental health and burn-out, leading to low productivity.

Clearly defining the product management roles in your organization not only helps address burn-out but also helps improve your business results. Check out the “Three Roles of Product Management” to learn more about how to perform a Responsibilities Assessment for your organization.

5. Invest in improving the practice of product management at your organization

If you do these four things, you are off to a great start. Much of it can be done with little to no budget. That said, you likely need to start investing more in product management.

Recent Forrester Research has identified that “despite their cross-organizational importance, organizations aren’t sufficiently investing in their product management organizations.” They found that “successful product management teams actively invest in advancing their product management practices.”

So, investigate how to advance the practice of product management in your team.

  • Bring the product team together regularly to talk, engage, and support each other.

  • Support scheduled time for product management; perhaps time you can leave on the calendar after the cohort is over.

  • Help senior leadership and your organization better understand the business role of product management and the value that role brings.

  • Clarify product management roles and responsibilities at your organization.

If you need help making a case for investing in product management, check out the article “Strategic Investment in Product Management: The Time is Now.”

The product management profession is at a precipice. If we’re not careful, we’ll arrive in the direction we’re heading with product management as a support role. As an industry, we, the business leaders of products, need to come together to improve the state of product management. It starts with helping senior leadership and our organizations better understand the business role of product management and the value that role brings.

Much of that advocacy can start with you and your teams. Start working on these five things, and you will be amazed how much the mental health of your team will improve, and how much impact you will be having on the organization’s success.

If training your product managers is part of your plan to improve the practice of product management, download our eBook, "The ROI of Product Management Training." Justify the cost of training by focusing on what is most important for your team and your organization.

Free eBook The ROI of product management training. Justify the cost of training.


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