How can you spot a product manager turning into a “Jack of all trades”? What’s the impact and what action should you take? We explore that in detail below.
- “A product manager eh? So, what do you do exactly?”
Let’s face it: We’ve all heard product managers describe themselves as the CEOs of their products.
This facet of a product manager’s role often goes hand in hand with the claim they deal with everything from product vision and product roadmap to ideation, market research, and validation.
There’s also business process re-engineering (BPR), technical product review (TPR), design and solution architecture rollout, adoption, change management, and business planning to take into account.
If the above sounds somewhat overwhelming, that’s because it is.
In fact, doing it all – being a Jack of all trades – often proves problematic to both the product manager and the product.
At the end of the day, have you ever seen a dog trying to chase mice while soaring in the air in a backward trajectory?
You have? Ok, but have you seen it do that for longer than an hour?
Didn’t think so.
This article examines the product manager’s role and the first signs of the Jack of all trades syndrome (JOATS) while offering a robust structure for identifying and dealing with JOATS in the most effective and expedient manner.
Indeed, a smooth product lifecycle and a successful product hinge on avoiding or at least managing the JOATS. For more information on anti-patterns, check out the lead article in our product anti-patterns series.
Meet Jack, the unwanted guest
JOATS is a common problem for product managers who are overwhelmed by trying to do everything from business goals and core positioning to strategic objectives. And that’s before you get to ideation, market research, competitor analysis, rollout, and business/product planning.
This can lead to burnout, reduced quality of work, and friction within the product team, as well as related departments like the product development team and engineering team.
Symptoms of the syndrome include a product manager claiming to be the "CEO of the product", and/or wavering in decision-making due to impostor syndrome. Additional indications may include unclear or flaky communication, undefined key responsibilities, and an excessive number of meetings.
To avoid JOATS, it’s important product managers have clear roles and key responsibilities and they focus on their strengths and areas of business expertise, rather than trying to do everything.
This leads to improved teamwork, higher quality output, and product specialists with a niche focus.
The JOATS Product Manager– first symptoms
The signs of a product manager’s role becoming Jack of all trades are varied. Below, we explore potential signals in detail.
CEO of the product
The first and most obvious sign of JOATS, (has a ring to it, right?) is hearing a product manager say they’re the “CEO of the product”.
Seemingly innocent, but that statement is as loaded as they come.
Product managers mustn’t forget the majority of their duties revolve around speaking to the right people to validate assumptions on matters they have knowledge of but aren’t experts in.
All in all, product managers are connectors, catalysts, and mediators – not CEOs.
Seeing a product manager waiver or stall in their decision-making is rarely a sign of incompetence or indecisiveness.
Oftentimes, it’s the result of a sudden drop in self-confidence caused by a bout of impostor syndrome – feelings of incompetence and doubt that linger despite education, experience, and accomplishments.
Dealing with impostor syndrome on a regular basis defines most modern-day professionals.
While a social media detox and positive affirmation may help most of us deal with it effectively, a lasting or violent case of impostor syndrome may well signal JOATS.
In fact, JOATS almost sets up impostor syndrome. Why? Because by its very nature, it expects product managers to do it all, to an expert standard.
Flaky or unclear communication
Be wary of the product manager who’s unable or unwilling to communicate with their product owner and cross-functional teams (such as product teams, engineering teams, and product development teams) regularly and clearly. Otherwise, it can cause misalignment in teams engaged in product development.
This is often due to time constraints or the product manager’s inability to formulate certain ideas and concepts, stemming from a lack of domain expertise.
Indeed, JOATS is the likely culprit, because it stretches the product manager thin and oftentimes decimates their ability to plan and action proper communication.
Undefined key product manager responsibilities
Unfortunately, some companies and their product leadership teams set product managers up for JOATS. It’s true that a product manager’s job description is broadly, well, broad.
But so is a lawyer’s. That’s exactly why there are TYPES of lawyers who specialize in specific areas of law.
The same should apply to product managers – a company shouldn’t expect a growth hacker or a technical product manager to focus on the product marketing strategy.
So, the next time you see a product manager whose role and responsibilities are undefined, know that JOATS is just around the corner.
Meetings: all day, every day
This one’s easy.
JOATS means more stuff on a product manager’s plate. This, in turn, translates into more meetings.
The more meetings, the higher the chance JOATS manifests.
What happens when Jack wins?
Absolute pandemonium sans the pandas. Let’s have a brief look, shall we?
Reduced trust in product leadership
If a product manager’s role turns into JOATS, there’s less trust in the powers that be. If a product manager isn’t doing a good job and isn’t aware of their key responsibilities, that doesn’t reflect well on the leadership or the business as a whole.
Diminished team morale
JOATS makes sure product managers have their fingers in way too many pies. Naturally, that’s far from ideal for anyone trying to do their job.
Giving advice or, perish the thought, trying to work in areas where business expertise is lacking, results in hostility and resentment.
Put simply, when a product manager does the above, team members view them not only as an impediment but also as a know-it-all who underestimates their competence.
Reduced output quality
It goes without saying that JOATS has a direct impact on a product manager’s output. As the adage goes: “You can multi-task but you can’t multi-focus.”
The product manager tries to do everything at once and their attention is scattered between many tasks at the same time.
As a result, JOATS makes it nearly impossible for product managers to produce high-quality deliverables, each of which requires consistency, attention to detail, and deep focus. Instead, the product manager increases low-impact deliverables like bug fixes and sprint planning that take less time and effort.
The more tasks a product manager takes on, the slower their velocity becomes. In addition, JOATS often creates a state of urgency, putting the mind in survival mode.
When under such spells, the product manager focuses only on short-term, high-benefit, or risky tasks, greatly compromising long-term value and product strategy/business strategy.
Simply put, JOATS means dealing with everything and everyone, all the time.
As you no doubt remember from your university years, cutting on sleep and trying to finish essays at the last minute while putting rest on the back burner is a recipe for disaster.
Product managers who experience JOATS tend to focus on short-term, easy-to-action tasks and push back strategic activities, because they often don’t have the headspace to deal with them appropriately.
It’s a lethal cocktail, sifting through hundreds of little and somewhat meaningless tasks, while knowing full well that the more important strategic initiatives won’t just disappear. The result is sudden and sometimes violent burnout, taking months or years to recover from.
What to do when you spot JOATS?
When JOATS rears its ugly head, it’s time to take action. This can take several forms, including a candid discussion with the product manager, getting to the root cause and formulating an action plan, and conducting cost-benefit analysis.
Have an open and frank conversation
As soon as product leadership notices any of the above JOATS signs, take the product manager into a room and have an honest tête-à-tête.
Rather than scolding them, it’s important to establish the underlying reason for JOATS, be it an undefined scope of work, an unreasonable expectation to deliver, an inability to delegate, etc.
Address the underlying cause, and fast
Walk the talk, as fast as you can: Come up with an actionable plan to resolve the issue(s) along with a clear timeline.
For instance, the issue is that the product manager is confused about the scope of their work. Sit down with the whole team and agree on a RACI matrix (responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed), cementing the role and key responsibilities of each team member.
Equally, if the product manager feels unable to delegate any tasks, discuss their concerns. Agree on how it may be possible to do so while putting their worries at ease. For example, implement a trial where the product manager assigns tasks to team members and reviews how well they perform, building trust for future delegation.
Perform cost-benefit analysis
We all know product managers love a good cost-benefit analysis. With that in mind, consider sitting down with them to discuss the costs and benefits of adopting a JOATS approach in the short and long term.
Once you expose the perils of JOATS in a constructive joint discussion, the product manager is more likely to change their ways.
Best practices to prevent and overcome JOATS
To try and stop JOATS from happening in the first place and conquer it if it does, product leaders and managers must focus on vigilance, communication, documentation, and enforcement.
Leadership must remember that inconsistency is measurably consistent. That is, they mustn’t fall into a false sense of security when the product team is performing well. Instead, they should be vigilant at all times, looking for early signs of JOATS.
Once leadership identifies a JOATS pattern, they must share their findings with the product manager as clearly and quickly as possible.
Said communication must include:
- The JOATS pattern
- Its potential impact (both short- and long-term on the product manager and the company)
- Solutions and action points
- An invite to a 15-minute meeting to discuss and agree on next steps
After the meeting, the product manager must be clear on what they need to do and by when.
As an ex-lawyer, I’m a firm believer in the maxim that if something isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist.
Consequently, it’s best to keep a JOATS journal where product leadership outlines the JOATS patterns you’ve identified, how you’ve addressed them, and what their status is.
Naturally, you can include workflows and automations by building the journal in a platform such as Trello or Notion.
A process without enforcement is but a mere suggestion. As such, choose whatever works best for your product leadership/product management style:
- Positive reinforcement: For example, awarding points toward some sort of reward for effectively preventing or overcoming a JOATS pattern
- Penalties: For instance, awarding black points (impacting annual reviews, etc.) for not dealing with a JOATS pattern
- A healthy combination of the two
Having a clear enforcement model clearly demonstrates to the product team and the cross-functional teams that you’re seriously committed to dealing with JOATS in the most effective and expedient manner.
Key action points
Here's a short cheatsheet to fight the Jack of all trades syndrome and make a product manager’s role more resilient:
- Draft, define, and agree on:
- a product manager’s job and scope of work
- a RACI document
- comms and standard document templates
- Suggest, implement, and enforce a “no meetings” day
- Have a weekly 15-minute catch-up with the product manager to discuss blockers
- Empower product managers to challenge unreasonable deadlines and deliverables
- Define, agree on, and enforce clear business objectives and key results (OKRs)
- Openly discuss failure to meet OKRs, addressing the cause rather than the symptoms.
Avoiding JOATS as the Product Manager’s role
In this fast-moving world where the definition and duties of the product manager’s role constantly changes, Jack of all trades is becoming an ever so pervasive and prevalent product anti-pattern.
Consequently, it’s of paramount importance for leadership to use the proper tools to identify, address, and deal with JOATS as quickly and effectively as possible.
While this article provides said tools as well as a robust framework for managing and dealing with JOATS, leadership must remember at all times that product management is about people, not products.
To build a JOATS-free environment, leadership must constantly iterate and discuss their approach and product strategy with product teams, to ensure they deal with the root cause rather than merely addressing the symptoms.
For information about how we can help, head to our product management consulting services page.