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The most important question I’ve ever been asked

A year into my new role as a product manager, and I was in a funk. Things were getting done, but I wasn’t making an impact. My product roadmap was was full of must-fix issues and critical gaps, and it felt like my agenda was being written for me as opposed to being the CEO of my product.

I was preparing for a regular one on one meeting with my SVP and to communicate my product strategy and roadmap, I prepared a ~20 slide power point which I would walk her though (one ingrained myth from my prior decade of professional services management was that slides were the most effective way of communicating with execs, even one on one).

I showed up for the meeting not particularly enthusiastic about what I had to share, but intent on keeping the lines of communication open.

We talked for a while then I launched into my slides, diligently reviewing the content of each. About halfway though, she stopped me and asked the following question:

This is all good, but what on your list are you most excited about?

Excited? I’d never been asked a question like this, and my planned discussion points clearly didn’t reflect excitement. If I had answered the question honestly I wasn’t particularly excited about any of it. But instead I quickly rattled three items from my list in no particular order.

The meeting ended uneventfully, but the question rang in my ears for days “… what am I excited about?

Over the next few weeks I had the opportunity to visit with customers with this question now seered into my subconscience, and something interesting began to happen. I started to see problems worth solving. Even better, I could see which ones were important to solve first. Seeing these opportunities and knowing there were solutions made me… could it be? Excited!

It turns out that for me, seeing users’ problems firsthand and helping energize my team around solving them is a real motivator.

The following are a few reflections on the experience:

  • We don’t have forever. If you desire to make an impact, focus on it right now, where you are. It’s easy to jump ship and go somewhere else, but the funny thing is that you always take yourself with you when you go.
  • Focus on the real problems your customers are facing. Get out of the office and sit with users while they work (seriously, right now. Go.). What is their day like as a result of using your product? Can you find a way to make it better?
  • Start small, make little bets, get little wins. The little wins are bigger than you think, and little wins turn into bigger ones with perseverance and time. Consider dealing with a long-standing bug, a usability annoyance or ship a “Friday afternoon feature.”
  • Prioritize. It’s easy to see all the warts in your own product. It’s also easy to get frustrated that you can’t resolve all the issues at once. But one thing’s for sure, you’ll never succeed unless you take the first step.

I have to go back and give credit to that one simple question, “… what are you excited about?” If you are manager, ask your people this question, care about the answer and help them do things in their work that also provide personal fulfillment.

If your manager doesn’t ask, ask yourself, and don’t let “nothing” be your answer. Find something to get passionate about and your work will become your life’s work, not just a job.

Categories: Culture, Personal, Product Management, Productivity, Uncategorized.

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  • Dhodge7

    Well put my friend.

  • Christian Hyatt

    This is absolutely right. I’ve never noticed, but I do find myself standing back every once in a while and saying “what do I want to do with my life right now” or in other words “what am I excited about”. Well done.

  • Heidi

    Thanks Jay!

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