My product management toolkit (16): How not to become a “Product Janitor”?

It does make me feel sad at times. It does frustrate me occasionally. Sometimes I even want to shake them. “Product Janitors”. I’ve conducted countless job interviews where the candidate came across as as Product Janitor instead of a Product Manager. Let me outline what I think makes someone a Product Janitor and I’ll provide some tools to stop yourself from becoming one!

Tool 16 – Ways to stop becoming a Product Janitor



Fig. 1 – Don’t become a Product Janitor – Taken from:

In my view, there are two key behaviours which make someone a Product Janitor:

Mopping up all the things that the other team members don’t want to do  I believe that as a product manager there’s a risk of doing things that you’re not necessarily supposed to do or which take precious time away from things like product strategy or engaging with (potential) customers. For example, I’ve seen good product people ending up as a Scrum Master / pastoral carer / tester / dogsbody for the product development teams that they’re a part of. Whilst I’ve got absolutely nothing against about helping each other out and collaborating, I’d be careful about picking tasks or responsibilities purely because no one else is doing so!

Saying ‘yes’ regardless – Granted, it can be hard to say ‘no’ to people. However, I’m afraid that as a product person, you’ll simply have to! If you don’t say ‘no’, or at least ask ‘why’, there’s a risk of you becoming a shepherd of a bunch of someone else’s user stories or requirements and that’s it. When I’m looking for good product people, I want to meet people who feel comfortable saying ‘no’. People who have a clear product vision and strategy and aren’t afraid to make tough decisions (see Fig. 2 below).





Fig. 2 – “Big” Product Owner vs “Small” Product Owner – Taken from:

This raises the question about what one can do to avoid becoming a Product Janitor:

Carve out time to create a product vision, strategy and roadmap – Having a clear product vision, strategy and roadmap can really help in safeguarding yourself becoming the steward of someone else’s backlog. The chances of you just cleaning up someone else’s mess become slimmer if you have a clear vision, strategy and roadmap that drive your everyday activities. Especially if you’re working at a small startup, you’re bound to wear multiple hats. However, I believe you can still be selective about the number and types hats you decide to wear, or balance them. Having a clear rationale to what you’re trying to achieve will definitely help you with that.

How to best say ‘no’?  Saying ‘no’ doesn’t have to be painful in my experience. There are tonnes of reasons to say no to an idea or request, even if it does sound really good or compelling. Learning how to best say no, is one of the key things that I’ve learned over the last few years. Even though saying ‘no’ warrants its own blog post, these are some of my suggested ways in which you can say ‘no’:

  • “We’re not doing that, instead we’re doing this” – “Instead” is the key word here; explaining to others why you’ve decided not to do a certain thing and highlighting what you’re doing instead, its value and rationale. This is where your overarching product vision, strategy and roadmap will come in very handy, as they act as key communication tools.
  • “Let’s look at the expected impact first” – This is a catchphrase for investigating the expected impact of creating a certain feature or solving a specific problem. Whether it’s looking at expected ROI, impact on other systems or cost of delay, the point here is you creating the ability to say ‘no’ in a well informed way, using data where available to assess tradeoffs.

Main learning point: As a product person, I believe there’s so much value that you can offer. Don’t do yourself a disfavour by becoming a Product Janitor, and solely cleaning up someone else’s mess. Having a clear plan for your product and the confidence to say ‘no’ are critical tools in stopping you from becoming a mere custodian of other people’s mess or their unwanted tasks.


Related links for further learning:


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