When I joined BetterWorks several months ago as a product manager, I knew there would be little time to adjust to the new working environment. Everyone was heads down and I wanted to add value on day one. So here’s how I aggressively worked to reduce the ramp.

Much of the advice around successfully onboarding at any company centers around a series of tasks broken down into 30, 60, and 90 days. But I know a product manager job rarely entails just completing a task list. Responsible for getting high-quality products built, product managers need to lend a hand to make sure the right things get done. Sometimes we need to help teams get their house in order. Sometimes we are asked to be designers or marketers. Other times, we are primarily data analysts. And often, we need to do all of the above.

So to reduce the ramp for my new position, I used a framework from an unusual source — Donald Rumsfeld. He is credited with saying:

“There are known knowns…there are known unknowns…but there are also unknown unknowns.”

This was a great framework to help me be more flexible as I approached the evolving responsibilities of my role as a product manager in a fast-moving business.

Known Knowns

I knew why I was selected to join the team, so my first objective included a list of specific tasks (the 30/60/90-day plan), focused on what I thought was most important on days one through 30. My task list included what I had to learn — which meant I also had to figure out how things worked, what was broken, and how I could provide value.

Known Unknowns

From meeting and talking to various team members, I knew I had opportunities to quickly make an impact. My second objective was to identify and surface issues percolating just below the radar that may not have been discussed during the interview process and first few days on the job. A good filter for this was to ask how we could do things faster, more efficiently, or better. This goal of mine included figuring out what the team needed, which was also an opportunity for me to provide additional value.

Unknown Unknowns

My third objective in the first 30 days on the job was to find out what I didn’t know. This would prevent me from being blindsided like a Mack truck, thundering along and leaving me speechless. Still somewhat of an outsider, it would be easier for me to step back and try to figure out how to deal with a potential issue in the first days than later when I was a more entrenched member of the team. While getting to know my colleagues and chatting with them helped uncover unknown, unknowns, more often, these issues were hidden pretty deeply because there wasn’t a good way to figure them out.

Unknown unknowns are a double-edged sword. They can be the bane of one’s existence as well as a boon for a new hire’s success. In both cases, they demonstrate agility in action. I’ve found it critical to break down the kinds of decisions a “new known” will require.

I try to follow Peter Drucker’s framework in The Effective Executive  for classifying decision-making:

  • Truly generic A decision that I’ve made before and that I’m going to have to make regularly again. For example, how to get feedback about specific features.
  • Generic, but unique to you Often occurring when there is asymmetric information, this decision is unique to me, but typically a common occurrence. For example, determining the product launch strategy for a new product.
  • Truly unique– A decision that is truly unique to the circumstance. For example, creating a product framework for the new company.
  • Currently unique A decision that represents a new “breed” of decisions. For example, applying the product framework to vet new features.

When blindsided by an unknown unknown, everything seems urgent. I use Drucker’s framework to think through, break down, and categorize the decisions required by new critical information.

Once I understand more about each issue, I can document the unknown unknowns to see if there are any common threads. [I even created a simple Google form for myself to document issues whenever I run into one where I was caught unaware or the outcome was drastically different than I had expected.] While there typically aren’t a ton of issues that I don’t understand (hopefully), documenting helps me to determine if there are trends and misalignments in expectations across various stakeholders (i.e., engineering, design, executives, customer service, and sales).

Starting a new job is never easy. Doing it as a product manager in a fast-moving business doesn’t make it any easier because of the added pressure to meet and actually exceed expectations. However, focusing on achieving these three objectives in my first 30 days on the job helped me deliver more immediate value:

  1. Tackling known knowns
  2. Digging for potential known unknowns
  3. Stepping back and categorizing unknown unknowns

I also keep this important piece of advice top of mind: Don’t focus on what to do; focus on goals and categorizing three objectives.

What are your tips for reducing the ramp?