Picture of hiker in Denali

For most of us PMs, every day is an adventure like none other. The unique challenges of project, people and product progress that we need to make every day means we, as responsible PMs, do different things each day. One constant however, is that I always found myself operating in one of two modes - execution and vision mode.

Execution mode: In this mode, there’s no new product or strategic thinking that needs to be done. Most features are under development and apart from the occasional peek at metrics, most everyday tasks include providing minor product input, triaging bugs, emails and chat, taking stock of project status, sharing updates and, generally unblocking engineers.

Vision mode: Your only job is to dream. You are creating a narrative, setting a vision, defining objectives and outlining strategy. You are in a creative high and you feed off of the energy you put out yourself. All execution takes a back seat, DMs go unanswered and inboxes fill up.

What mode do you find yourself in?

In my experience as a PM, I find myself spending roughly 20% of my quarter (~3 working weeks) in vision mode and the rest executing. This is a big change from when I was an entrepreneur where I probably spent equal parts being in both modes. Sometimes, in the same day.

I absolutely love operating in vision mode. To me, this is the most rewarding thing as a PM. I appreciate that we have the privilege of operating in this mode and shifting priorities of our orgs/teams with our output. Every brainstorm meeting and design sprint that I have been part of, tries to channel the vision mode in everyone. It is tiring, very tiring - recall how you felt at the end of your last team design sprint or strategy meeting.

The best part of vision mode is what follows immediately. You selling your vision to your team. Putting your narrative in a doc/deck and pitching to your stakeholders. One feeling I really enjoy, is when I find consensus around my vision & plan. How “we” found a way forward and how it took one (sometimes three) days to get all the stakeholders to agree. That’s one of the wins as a PM.

How to optimize your vision mode time?

Here are some of the things that work for me to maximize my output during my visioning time.

  • If you don’t have the luxury of spending the whole day, set aside the earliest slot in the day for ideation. You don’t want something to distract you early in the morning. Definitely not email.
  • Have a clear goal in mind and have milestones. For e.g., “high level themes defined in an hour” or “breakdown of features in theme 2”. It’s easy to get lost in finding solutions and contingencies. Usually, the busier you are the lesser time you have so it works in your favor. You’re in the process of defining objectives of OKRs (if you use it). So, it’s easier to think of it that way.
  • Ideating is a creative process. Treat it with the same respect you treat other creative endeavors like writing, photography or playing music. You cannot play the guitar for 8 hours in the day; in the same vein, you cannot ideate for 8 hours in the day.
  • Take breaks, hydrate and eat a fancy meal. Pamper yourself. Good ideas come when you are happy. There’s a reason strategy offsites are held in fancy resorts and offbeat venues.
  • If you’re at work, drowning out the noise helps. I use headphones and play one of the few hundred “Focus” playlists on Spotify. I find it helps me concentrate.
  • Make time to review your vision. I always spend at least an hour reviewing my output and coming up with a set of potential questions. For e.g., “why won’t this work?”, “how can we tell if we have made progress”, etc.
  • Define metrics - I’m not recommending detailing plans for a dashboard, but define a north star metric and one sanity metric per objective you define if you use OKRs.
  • My last tip is to look at material in your space from futurists, critics and analysts. If you understand the macro currents driving user behavior, you can design systems and features to help users realize that future.