WTF is…Interim Product Management?
Ah yes, another timeless Unsplash classic. Photo by Leon on Unsplash
Let’s get the definition out of the way:
Interim Management is an established practice in which organizations contract a manager to temporarily take over management, mostly to keep course while a permanent replacement is being sought; this can be due to planned absences like sabbaticals or parental leave, or employee turnover.
As a subset of that, Interim Product Management bears distinct aspects, advantages and challenges as they pertain to Product Management as a whole.
Cool. So can I have my TL;DR Takeaways now, please?
Sure, here ya go — as an Interim Product Manager, you should:
- Prepare to ramp up quickly. Don’t expect anyone to sit you down for 2–3 months until you take the scenic tour of your new employer — usually you’ll have 1–2 weeks until you need to start delivering. Learn what corners you’re able to cut when ramping up (hint: there are quite a few).
- Be ruthless about prioritizing — you have even less space for scope creep than permanent product managers. Clear-cut your priorities with your client. Don’t attend meetings you don’t need to absolutely attend. Don’t entertain conversations that deter from your scope. Don’t exchange with people you don’t absolutely need to exchange with.
- Remember that your next milestone is your handover: make sure that you document and prepare everything as necessary for your successor to take over. This isn’t just a courtesy, it is best practice and will anchor your strong reputation with the client.
Still here? There’s more, of course!
Are all Interim Product Managers freelancers, or can they be on staff as well?
Usually, most are freelancers — but that’s largely explained by the nature of the product manager role itself.
Unless they’re working for a consultancy or an agency with the intent of being circulated through different products and/or clients, on-staff product managers are usually hired for a specific product, area or team, usually with the mutual intent of upholding that bond.
Simply put: most on-staff product managers don’t want to do an interim job (quite the opposite, actually).
On the other hand, most freelancers became freelancers seeking out the challenge of managing a product for a limited time and then moving on to the next one — because on-staff jobs would not allow them to do that (or at least highly discourage it).
This means that on average, freelancers are more interested in, as well as experienced with, interim positions.
What’s so hard about running a product for a little while?
Glad you asked — let’s unpack this:
Blazing Fast Onboarding
Remember when Marty Cagan stated in INSPIRED that a product manager’s first three months on the job should be considered onboarding?
But — what do you do if you only have 3 months, period?
Product People’s Mirela Mus dubbed this Blazing Fast Onboarding — as an Interim Product Manager, you need to compress all that getting up to speed into around 2 weeks time.
How do you do that? A good balance of the following:
- Routine & experience
- Knowing what corners you can/should cut
- Precision in limiting scope
Which segues into the next aspect:
Product managers are integrally often confronted with difficult prioritization decisions to make; as an Interim Product Manager, it’s vital to also apply that skill to onboarding and running the product itself:
- Do you really need to have an intro to all those people in the organization?
- What meetings are relevant to your product?
- Who’s helpful to you? Who’s running a risk of consuming more of your time than they’re actually saving?
- What’s the strategy? And, more importantly, what’s not part of the strategy and needs to be turned down?
This isn’t being rude — it’s being focused.
As a contractor, you have less of a social responsibility to the client’s team members, but rather a service & quality responsibility to your buyer.
If you’re having superfluous conversations or exploring concepts the client has no use for, you’re neglecting that responsibility. Why should they be billed for a time-waste?
So yeah, turn down that meeting if you’re sufficiently sure that it doesn’t add value to your work.
And when you’re about to pass the baton, make sure to properly “make the nest” for your successor.
If you took over the product in a good condition, you wouldn’t want to leave it in a worse state than you found it.
If you took it over in a bad condition, preparing a good handover is your time to shine.
Draft up something like a cheat sheet for getting up to speed quickly (which is all the information you just gathered already), and include recommendations for the future — as a proper consultant does. This will truly manifest your legacy in that product.
Can’t one of my on-staff people do it?
I’ll be brief about this one:
If someone leaves your organization, that’s your team being down a person.
You can’t just expect someone else to do 2 jobs all of a sudden.
Lots of department heads attempt this — until their staff eventually burns out and they learn the hard way that the only thing more time-consuming than replacing one employee is replacing 2 of them.
Don’t listen to the devil on your shoulder — get interim support instead.
As a rule of thumb — if you’re bridging a month, you might be able to run a product on your staff’s backburner. But anything more than that — get support.
Alright, cool — so how do I find good Interim Product Managers?
We wrote another thing about that — check it here:
So, how about it?
Have you worked with Interim Product Managers before? How would you rate that experience? Have you worked as an Interim Product Manager yourself? We’d love to hear from you, please leave us a comment below!👇
Interested in more stories around freelancing in Product Management? We publish regularly to our Freelance Product Manager publication & would appreciate a follow! 👆
And as always,
Thanks so much for reading!
We acknowledge that with the 5 minutes, you could’ve literally done anything else, and we’re very honored that you decided to dedicate them to our piece! ❤️