How Not to Get Cooked as a Product Manager
Learn from the unpredictable chaos of a video game kitchen.
Overcooked! is a rather addictive time-management video game I like to play in which your job is to get your chefs to prepare, cook, and serve orders under pressure-cooker conditions. Orders appear in the top right corner of the screen. Depending on the level, this could be anything from soup to pizza, and your chefs have to cook the dishes to a diner’s specifications and get them out to the guest before the dish’s timer runs out. If you can get the meal out quickly, you might even get a little bonus.
It’s stressful: Sometimes there are fires, or kitchen designs that create (literal) barriers to good teamwork. It’s not unheard of to misjudge terrain and then take a tumble, which results in time penalties. In short, it’s unpredictable chaos.
I can’t speak to how the game compares with real-life restaurant kitchens, but the challenges of the game certainly feel familiar to product management. I’ve worked on products littered with unknown time bombs that sometimes blow up at the last minute — like a brand-new requirement introduced two weeks before launch. But give a Product Manager a situation of chaos, and naturally we will try to optimize, resolve, or in the case of Overcooked!, win. Here are five ways to level up.
Keep your eye on the line
To beat the timer in Overcooked! without compromising quality, you can’t be purely reactive. Like in product management — when you’re considering how the next week, month, or quarter might look — you need to think about what orders are coming down the line and start preparing them simultaneously while you’re finishing up a current dish. If you’re not looking ahead, you’re making mistakes. You just might not know it yet.
It’s essential to continuously plan for different circumstances, whether that’s sowing the seeds of a feature you’d like to sunset, or determining how to respond to a competitor’s changing strategy. PMs are always thinking about what could happen in scenarios A through Z and bringing teammates into that process. It’s a delicate balance between bringing contributors together at the right time and ensuring that you’re not slowing down the work on the grill right now.
Utilization, utilization, utilization
In property, location is key. In Overcooked!, it’s chopping, and in tech, it’s engineering time. Typically, if someone isn’t chopping (or coding), you are losing velocity. Misusing a vital resource is as bad as losing velocity. In fact, building the wrong thing can be even more costly long-term than not building anything at all.
For reaching prime utilization of resources, I love Kanban-style processes. For me, strict scrum methodologies have their place, but they involve so many meetings and time sunk. I still rely heavily on estimates, splitting things into chunks for releases, and stand-ups, but I want people to focus on doing the work instead of talking about the work as much as possible. Kanban prevents me from becoming a blocker.
Kanban-style management allows my team more agency. I can highlight the items needed for the month, but I frequently find that my team achieves more because people are able to better optimize their time with tickets and areas of interest depending on work styles. Tickets are clearly bucketed and prioritized, and people can choose their own destiny, which generally makes for happier teams. If a designer is the sort of person who likes to execute on things while noodling on their next problem, that’s possible with Kanban.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
You’re always going to have a moment where a fire breaks out — unexpected requirements, timeline changes — but it’s how you respond and prepare for those circumstances that allow teams to thrive.
In Overcooked!, there’s a little noise that starts to signal when something is in danger. It’s my least favorite noise in the game. It starts off as intermittent, sharp staccato beeps before becoming a crescendo of screams similar to a battle with my own IRL smoke detector. As much as I hate that beep, it has saved me more times than I can count, because you become attuned to hearing it and react — sending your line cook to find where the fire extinguisher is — before your workstation goes up in flames.
As a Product Manager, there’s sadly no handy warning beep for when something might go off the rails. But you become attuned to when the unknowns cross over from unknown risk to a cliff from which you need to pull back. Pay attention to the people who can help signpost these for you. That might be an engineer who can look two months down the road and know that we’re going to face a problem. That might be a client with whom you’ve had a great rapport but who suddenly clams up. I base my smoke detector on my feelings and the signals I get from a wide variety of sources, so that I feel prepared to respond to the first glimpse of a flickering flame before it gets out of control.
Sometimes you need a snack
There’s conflicting advice around “quick wins” in a product. On the negative side, they can cause scope creep, portray you as a follower in your domain rather than a leader, and bog down your team as they try to solve everything for everyone. Quick wins may also mean that you focus on the achievable in small bite-size chunks without zooming out and getting to the root of the problem.
But what if the root of your problem is something you understand but know will take another nine months to solve? What if one of your stakeholder groups is losing faith, and you know that giving them a small feature (genuinely small—for example, an engineer should be able to do it in a few hours without breaks) or fix will bring them back into the fold? What if one of your teammates has an idea that might have legs, but you’re not sure?
Occasionally, you have to send a snack out to the dining room. You can validate the idea, soothe rising temperatures, or get one tiny step closer to the long-term solution with a well-timed quick win. Don’t be afraid to utilize the quick win, but make sure it’s being used in a way that makes sense for the big picture.
Teamwork is everything
Overcooked! is a cooperative game. You can play alone (and I do), but it’s more fun with others. As in product management, I don’t work alone, and the most important product I’m consistently working on is the team. If you don’t have faith in your team to push them and celebrate them, then you won’t find success in either the game or the product. Dedicate your energy to building sustainable practices where people get to work on exciting problems and log off feeling like they’ve won.
Jojo Giltsoff is a British Product Manager, embroiderer, and avid reader living in New York. Reach out at email@example.com or by following @jojogiltsoff on Twitter.
Story published on Apr 12, 2021.