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Product Management & Deep Work

Ryan Frederick | January 6th, 2022

Digital workers are inherently deep workers. Deep work is challenging because of the focus, intensity, creativity, and skill required. This is also part of the reason digital workers are well compensated.

Product managers get the privilege of working with a mix of deep work professionals — designers, developers, data scientists, data engineers, architects, and more. Product managers need to understand deep work to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues effectively.

Product management has some deep work components but isn’t nearly as deep work-centric as other digital product crafts. This is why some deep work colleagues don’t initially value product managers as much as they should. They may not even know why but intuitively know that product management doesn’t require the same level of focus and intense work as theirs. Product managers earn the respect of their deep work colleagues by acknowledging and appreciating the intense nature of the work. Product managers also don’t try to hype the intensity of their work to try to make it comparable to their colleague’s deep work. Deep workers will repel the idea that a product manager has to work as deeply as they do. Product managers shouldn’t try to garner deep work credibility, but they should strive for respect from their deep work colleagues.

Product managers can and will earn the respect of their deep work colleagues by making their deep work more valuable and impactful. Deep work is exhausting. Deep workers put everything they have into their work because they have to. The nature of their work requires it. There is nothing worse for a deep worker than to have their work, the associated time and effort, be wasted. This is why developers get so demoralized when they find out that what they were asked to code was wrong. Because deep work is so challenging, deep workers need to understand the why and context of what they are being asked to do. Deep workers have the how covered. They don’t need lectures and direction from product managers on how to design or write code, but they do need to know the why behind the work — then why doesn’t make them better designers or developers. The why gives meaning and purpose to their deep work. Deep work without purpose and meaning is drudgery. Deep work is too intense to do well, consistently without understanding and believing in the why of the work.

Product managers have to get good at defining and communicating the why of work. This will get the best, most engaged, and most efficient work from a product manager’s colleagues — the why most be substantial and consequential. Deep workers won’t be excited about creating something and do their best work if the why of the work is shallow. Product managers need to substantiate work by peeling back the layers of what is driving the work. How did the problem get identified, who is it affecting, what impact is it having on them, and the consequences? A product manager has to tell the story behind the work they are now asking to be done — the more poignant the story, the better.

Deep workers are often viewed as so into their work and worlds that they become almost robotic. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Deep workers want and need to be connected to their work. Intellectually and emotionally connected. The emotional piece is the aspect that is most often disregarded. Deep workers like the other members of a product team do their best work when they feel connected to the positive impact of the work. Deep workers are not emotionless robots, quite the opposite. Their ability to produce a high volume of high-quality work is directly related to how much they care about the work.

Product managers shouldn’t assume their deep work team members understand and are connected to the why behind work; they need to confirm it. Product managers need to make the why personal, and they need to ensure every team member is personally connected. Making the why personal means product managers can’t speak about a problem and users anonymously. Impersonal problems and impact don’t correlate to empathy, understanding, and connection. Product managers need to provide their deep work colleagues with personal examples of struggle. Product managers need to reference the scale and overall impact of an area of friction with a product. Still, inside the larger picture, they have to reference specific users/customers to make a personal connection for their deep work team members. Product managers need to be messengers for users that get their deep work team members excited about making the lives of the users better. After reviewing the macro data around a problem for users, product managers should get micro around one user representing the macro problem. A product manager needs to be able to say, “I have spoken with Joe about this problem several times, and this is how it is negatively impacting his experience and making his life harder. We have to help Joe.” Attaching a macro problem to an individual user substantiates the problem is large enough to devote time and energy toward, while the individual user representation makes the problem personal. Impersonal problems aren’t that motivating. Helping someone is.

Deep work requires time for decompression. Product managers need to be sensitive to the intensity of deep work and allow adequate time for their deep work team members to recharge. Product managers who ignore the realities of deep work will soon alienate their deep work team members. Setting unreasonable timeframes and milestones, especially without input from the people doing the work, will immediately and maybe perpetually lose respect for a product manager.

Product managers who attempt to command deep work team members out of their feelings of inferiority will drive a wedge between themselves and their team members. Deep workers know they are such and know who isn’t. When non-deep workers try to command and pressure deep workers, they will lose respect for them. A high priority for deep workers is acknowledging that what they do is challenging and requires intense work and focus. Deep workers don’t want a parade around their work, but they want acknowledgment and respect from those they ply their craft for. In an ideal circumstance, users would understand and appreciate a digital worker’s deep work on a product they use, but users don’t and shouldn’t have to care about how the sausage is made. Since digital, deep workers aren’t going to get the acknowledgment from a product’s users, they need to get it from their product colleagues.

Product managers need to learn about deep work’s characteristics, attributes, and demands. The more context product managers have around deep work, the better they will interact with their deep work colleagues.