Time Management for Product Managers

September 17, 2009

Product Managers are faced with a constant struggle to manage their time effectively. I have relied on a prioritization matrix developed by Stephen Covey to ensure I focus my attention on those activities that contribute towards my strategic goals. Without doing so, I have found that it is too easy to get consumed by non-important tasks.

Covey first introduced his time management matrix in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It involves a matrix composed of four quadrants that define how we spend our time:

I. Important and Urgent

II. Important but Not Urgent

III. Not Important but Urgent

IV. Not Important and Not Urgent

The two factors that define an activity are urgency and importance. Urgent activities are self-explanatory; they require immediate attention. Importance has to do with results - if something is important, then it contributes to one's strategic goals or mission. We react to urgent matters while we tend to plan important activities.

Herein lays the issue for Product Managers who desperately need to work on strategic activities but are very often yanked and pulled in other “urgent” directions. What I have done here is to take Covey's Time Management Matrix and applied it to common product management activities as the matrix here shows:

Quadrant I activities are necessary to the job - the key is to manage the time spent in this quadrant, otherwise it can consume you and the Product Manager becomes an all-encompassing crisis manager for the product. Quadrant II is where Product Managers need to maximize their time. These are the strategic activities that will ultimately define the success of the Product.

So how does the Product Manager keep his time in Quadrant I to a minimum and maximize his time in Quadrant II? In the table below, the Quadrant I activities on the left column list a number of activities that expose a risk to the Product Managers time. The Quadrant II activities in the right column identify the strategic activities that will help the Product Manager spend more time in the second quadrant.

Quadrant I
Quadrant II
If you are spending too much time doing these… Focus more attention on these…
Frequent requests for product demos. Produce standard product Presentation and Demo scripts that can be used by sales team in a typical sales process.
Urgent requests from Sales for competitive information. As an on-going process, define and maintain the Competitive Landscape that identifies competitive and alternative offerings.
Communicating to cross-functional teams and upper managements on project status. Maintain a regularly updated Status Dashboard to monitor key dates and checkpoints in product delivery.
Ad-hoc requests for references. Create a formal Referral & Reference program to identify and manage customers who are willing to give testimonials and be featured in case studies.

As you can see, failure to spend time in Quadrant II can result in more time in Quadrant I, which is not a good use of time. Focusing on strategic activities does save Product Managers from being pulled into urgent but important requests.

We have not mentioned Quadrant III and IV activities yet, and for good reason, the advice is simple - stay away...stay very far away. One note that Covey mentions about Quadrant III activities is worth mentioning; the urgency of these activities is often based on the priorities or expectations of others. There are meetings where someone feels the Product Manager should be there but in reality it is a waste of time. Trade show support on the floor can be a time-waster unless you are able to schedule dedicated meetings with customers (in which case it becomes a Quadrant II activity).

This time matrix for Product Managers doesn't help a Product Manager decide which activity to do, but it can be enlightening to find out which quadrants you are spending your time in. What I have found useful is to weekly gauge where I have been spending my time and look for ways to expand my focus in Quadrant II.


Mark Officer has been a Product Manager, Software Engineer and Consultant in enterprise software. His domain expertise is in content management, collaboration, search, and database technology. Mark writes the All Things Product Management blog and can be contacted at maofficer@yahoo.com.

Categories: Roles & Activities

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