What to do when you don’t know what to do next

Written by Tim Feeley on

Lots of PMs face the “I have no idea what I’m doing” moment. It’s common, it sucks, and it can make us feel stuck. To get un-stuck, get specific.

About ten years ago, my boss gave me some great news: “Tim, the CEO signed off on the Google Maps contract—your team can start switching over and delivering those UX enhancements you pitched.”

Everything was going great, until I got an email from our Head of Advertising: “This looks great, but where’s the sponsored UI and custom pins?”

Ah, crap. In all of the excitement, we never had any formal discussions about bringing some of the hard-coded sponsorship components into the new system.

In offhand discussions with engineers, it was clear that it would be a challenge to override some of the low-level Google Maps UIs to build the sponsored elements. And much of that UI was what made Google’s UI superior.

It wasn’t a widely sold placement, and we didn’t think too much of it—until we had to.

I had to write the dreaded ‘whoopsie’ email: “Oh, sorry I forgot to connect about this earlier... it’s not really feasible to incorporate the previous solution as-is into Google Maps.”

Even though the existing product didn’t generate a ton of money, it did generate some. Even after some initial discussions, it was clear that we were in a bit of a stalemate:

Advertising didn’t want to leave money on the table. Product and UX didn’t want the new launch to include unexpected behavior introduced by sponsored elements.

The more I talked with my stakeholders, the more I noticed that I was playing telephone and not adding a ton of value, or driving towards a resolution.

I was relaying information, and not much else: “UX isn’t on board with that treatment” and “Advertising doesn’t think that’s prominent enough.”

How was I supposed to weigh the modest (but nonzero revenue) tradeoffs against a longer-term UX bet?

Relatively new into my career, I had my first “I have no idea what I’m doing” moment.

It’s not you. It’s the problem.

One of the root causes of my situation—though I didn’t appreciate it at the time—was that the late inclusion of another team meant we started evaluating solutions and tradeoffs with virtually no shared context.

There wasn’t clear alignment on the problem we were solving.

But, a decade ago and with less experience, I didn’t know that. I thought it had to be me. “Why didn’t I get that MBA?” I’d ask the cat.

If only I arrived out of the womb with the adjusted value of a sponsored element for an improved navigation!

I was stuck.

I was still playing telephone between stakeholders, and it wasn’t clear if things were moving towards a resolution.

As many a PM mentor would eventually remind me, I needed a better answer for “Why are we doing this?” than “we got the budget for Google Maps.”

As I started reviewing my early notes, it became clear that not even *I* had clear answers to some foundational questions:

  • What was wrong with the old maps provider?
  • What made us decide to change—to Google—and do it now?
  • What do we want users to do now, that they weren’t doing before?

Starting to answer these questions chipped away at this big monolith of a problem and created smaller, more manageable problems to investigate instead.

Eventually, we were able to build the shared context we so sorely lacked, and found a better way to keep those sponsorships whole without digging into the low-level guts of the Google Maps APIs.

How to get un-stuck.

Maybe you’re in a new role. Or you’ve inherited an in-flight project. Perhaps you’ve done everything right, and things are coming your way that you don’t have the answers to.

When you’re stuck: go back to the basics.

If you aren’t sure where to go next in pursuit of a solution, odds are you don’t fully understand the problem—yet.

Try this.

Stop.

If there’s already in-flight work, there’s nothing wrong with saying “I’d like to take a moment and make sure I’m understanding the problem correctly.”

Build a baseline.

If you’re confused or feel like you don’t have a handle on everything going on around you, then start by writing down what you do have a handle on.

  • If you’re stuck: Make a grid that has rows for each person (or team) you’re working with, and add column headings for things like “their goals” and “unresolved concerns” to start.
  • If you’re still stuck: Make a list of all the stuff you want answers to, and the first steps you’d take towards figuring it out.

The key here is to have some sort of artifact that you can use to find smaller, more tractable problems.

Expand your baseline.

Your initial artifact may not have all of the details, but it’s a start.

Validate it with the folks in your grid: “Just double checking that this reflects the latest thinking from you/your team.”

If you’re working on a high-stakes problem, it’s best to make sure everyone’s OK with how you’re representing their problem before sharing with other groups.

Otherwise, it’s probably fine to share draft thinking across groups.

Proceed.

Once you start reviewing and refining your artifact, odds are, you’ll find a path forward that’s suitable for your project.

That’s great—you’ve just un-stuck yourself by:

  • hitting pause
  • collecting what you know
  • validating it, and making sure folks are aligned.

If you haven’t found a path forward, don’t despair!

As you make your way through your list of “things I want to know,” consider asking people on that list who they would talk to, and what stuff they wish they knew. Solve recursively!

Helpful hints

This advice isn’t anything new or novel, but it can be difficult to access when you’re stressed or anxious.

If you’re noticing these behaviors in yourself (or someone else), it might be time to re-read this post:

  • Playing telephone: You’re involved with developing a solution, but you’re just relaying information without an opinion of your own yet.
  • Different (or no) goalposts: Different people have different definitions of “finished”—or none at all.

Summary

It’s normal and expected to have some moments where you’re totally stumped about what to do next. But it doesn’t mean you’re a bad PM, or otherwise not cut out for the job.

It usually means that there’s some foundational pieces of the problem space that are missing. So, take some time for yourself to map out what you know, and what’s missing, and enlist the support of your team to flesh it out.