Can You Spare a Little Change?

time lapse photography of brown concrete building

There’s an old saying that goes “the only constant is change”. It’s true that the earth itself has changed and continues to every day. What’s also happening is that the pace of change itself in the world has increased – seemingly exponentially.

There’s no place this is more obvious than in the business and technology world. Change is no longer an event but a constant. But don’t just take my word for it; check out the following graph:

That’s not to say that all change is good or that speed is the only factor. In order to stay relevant, change must happen. But if too much change happens, it creates chaos and a lack of precision. That said though, there are some mindsets you can keep in mind to help you.

In the book “Who Moved My Cheese?”, Spencer Johnson tells an imaginary story of 4 characters and how they deal with change to illustrate advice for optimizing outcomes.

  1. Stay alert to change – One thing that helps ease the uncertainty of change is to foresee it coming – at least in part. It’s impossible to know all of the future but by paying attention to where things are headed we get a shot at minimizing the impact of change.
  2. Recognize Fear – No one is at their best when fear is hanging over them. Learn to recognize fear and imagine ways around it. Fear itself isn’t bad – it’s an evolutionary survival trait. But left unchecked it can become suffocating. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s the conquering of it.
  3. Imagination – Imagine in the new environment how you might thrive. There’s a story of a taxi driver who was one of the first to join Uber. Many driver’s were afraid of what this meant to their future but this driver imagined being able to set his own hours and the freedom that might come from being his own boss. Through that imagination he was able to adapt quickly to change.
  4. Let it go – It can be tough to embrace new things when it means giving up something you already liked or found yourself comfortable within. Not to say you shouldn’t remember things or have no memory, but imagine the new situation somehow being even better. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.
  5. Enjoy the ride – If change and the rate of change is inevitable, then we must learn to enjoy it somehow. I had a professor who once told a class of several hundred freshman business students “revel in the journey, or skip the trip”.

One last tidbit, from Ryan Holiday in “The Obstacle is the Way”:

“In [times of chaos], talent is not the most sought-after characteristic, grace and poise are, because these two attributes precede the opportunity to deploy any other skill”.

When all else fails, keep putting one foot in front of the other. The best outcomes happen when we keep looking ahead and not at the chaos around us.

Here’s some Friday fun for ya. Speaking of change, maybe you’ve seen this but a an AI generated piece of art recently won an art competition. That led me to try one of those online AI generators – you type in phrases and it generates art. Here’s what you get if you enter Elon Musk and Taylor Swift:

A little impressive, a little scary?

Happy Friday!! Hope you have a great Thanksgiving next week!

Say What?

crop ethnic buyer with plastic card shopping online on laptop

I’ve taken a break from writing the last few weeks and have been reading “A People’s History of the United States” (hey, if it’s good enough for Good Will Hunting, it’s good enough for me!). Getting back to thoughts more suitable for GetThePackages soon but I did come across a really good reminder about the difference between perception and reality; the difference between what we say and what we do.

Most people interested in tech or innovation would guess, without looking it up first, that the majority of commerce these days is happening in a digital capacity. Anecdotally, in asking a few people I got guesses from 60-80%. But the reality is quite different.

Published by Forbes here

The graph above shows the massive disparity between the perception of many of us and the reality. Despite all of the massive growth and investment in online platforms, digital sales are still relatively small compared with traditional “brick and mortar”.

But what’s even more interesting than that is how this contradicts survey information. A recent survey showed that over 55% of the respondents preferred to shop online – nearly 4x what’s happening in reality. Maybe that’s due to the Paradox of Choice, maybe it’s something else? But for innovators, designers and product teams it’s an important reminder that there’s often a difference between what users say they do and what they actually do – a great contradiction to keep in mind when doing product research.

Avoid The Herd

flock of sheep in field under blue sky

Groupthink is a phenomenon where a certain member of a group expresses ideas and opinions that go unchallenged, often to the detriment of the group. Social Psychologist Irving Janis first coined the term in the early 70’s and it’s still a challenge today. Groupthink exists for a variety of reasons. Normally, the group is more obsessed with agreement than considering alternative viewpoints. There’s usually one member of the group who is most popular, persuasive or otherwise dominant.

One of the most infamous examples of Groupthink was the tragic space shuttle accident in 1986. A group of engineers found some faulty parts but were convinced they didn’t need to worry about them and that the negative publicity of cancelling the launch would be too much to overcome. Of course they were wrong, the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after launch killing 7 people.

In less fatal ways, groupthink is prevalent in board rooms, class rooms, juries and it effects frat boys, C-suite members, athletes, politicians and everything in between without prejudice. It’s a human bias problem keeping organizations from optimal decision making and performance.

Here are 4 things you can do to avoid falling victim to group think.

  1. Advocate for Organizational Health – For a challenging view to emerge and ultimately help the team make the best decision, there must be a functional, encouraged even, amount of conflict. The point isn’t to be a contrarian for the sake of arguing, but to have team members feel comfortable sharing a different perspective. Steel sharpens steel.
  2. Incorporate Different Types of Feedback Channels – For product management, if you only or primarily rely on focus groups and client advisory teams, you’re at risk for succumbing to groupthink. There’s nothing wrong with using these two techniques and they can provide value, but make sure you have qualitative, 1-on-1 interviews with clients where groupthink bias is essentially removed. Surveys are another way to avoid this.
  3. Understand Your Team – Even if an organization’s culture encourages alternative ideas, some individuals may not feel comfortable speaking up in a group. Give these individuals time in a 1-on-1 call (whether it’s as their peer or manager) to share these other ideas. The LifeHack article on the topic explained this in more detail.
  4. Stay Open Minded – It can be tempting with deadlines looming to falsely believe you’re on the right path and dismiss the “devil’s advocate” viewpoint. But what matters is outcome, not output and if you do the wrong thing the right way, you’ll most likely have an output met but it won’t deliver on the ultimate objective.

I’ll leave you with this great quote from Jim Hightower: “The opposite of courage is not cowardice. It’s conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.”

Churn Baby Churn

street vehicle vintage travel

I recently heard Guy Kawasaki asked what were some traits of Steve Jobs that innovators could learn from. He first explained what not to emulate: those turtleneck sweaters and those “dad behind a grill” tennis shoes! While no one should try to be someone else, we can learn some things from others and incorporate it into our repertoire. Here are some Jobs traits worth paying attention to.

1. Customers won’t tell you what they want. – I once had a client interview years ago to discover how they were going through an underwriting process. As the client was explaining the process to me there was some obvious opportunities where a digital solution would make their life easier. But even after I presented the idea, the client didn’t see the value initially and seemed content with a process they had become good at but that was otherwise inefficient. Being good a bad thing is just one of the things stopping clients from truly seeing what’s possible. Most of the time, what you’ll get from them is “make it faster” or “make it cheaper” but rarely something novel or innovative.

2. Taste Matters – Great design has been a hallmark of Apple. Everything from the packaging to the devices themselves has led the market in terms of efficiency, sleekness and has all the vibes of a “design for delight” mindset. But even more than just design, there’s a knack to “taste” and that’s where Apple really stands out. You can imagine other companies that still spend money on designers and UI/UX issues but don’t always get the results. Learn to separate the difference between great design and great taste. The reason modern cell phones have glass cases comes from Apple’s use of taste and UX focus. Engineers knew the glass would break more easily than plastic so they first prototyped and tested with plastic screens. The pilot users reported back that the screens scratched easily from just bringing it the phone in and out of a pocket. They quickly looked tattered. Even though the glass screens could out right break if they were dropped, they didn’t scratch. And users didn’t seem to understand that if they damaged it through abnormal use (i.e. dropping it). So by focusing on a more tasteful appearance and the psychology of the users, they came up with the best approach.

3. Meritocracy – It doesn’t matter where great ideas come from. Long before the emphasis on diversity and inclusion, Jobs had an open mind about who he would work with and it was simple – whoever could deliver great ideas regardless of job title, race, religion or any other classification. Elimination of politics and prejudice maximizes the size of the “idea net” you cast.

4. Iterate and Churn – Churn is often a four letter word in the business world but with respect to product and technology it’s a good thing. Build the smallest remarkable thing and don’t ship garbage but understand that getting to market and iterating quickly is the norm for innovation.

Have a great weekend!

Hope for the Best; but First, Plan.

man doing jump shot

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

Coaching my oldest daughter’s softball team was a blast. It gave us time to hang out and see her learn to play a sport. Besides all of the fundamental stuff, her head coach drilled them on things like “pickle” plays (where a base runner gets stuck between two bases), bunts and squeeze plays.  One day on the way home from practice, she asked me why we even bothered doing those drills because they never seemed to happen in a game.  I had asked the same questions as a kid and gave her the same answer that was given to me years before.  To win, you want to be prepared for everything and to be prepared means to have thought about and practiced for rare situations. 

Last season, the Bills and the Chiefs football game had a weather delay of over an hour.  Tony Dungy talked about what the teams might be doing to not let the disruption take them off of their game plan.  He mentioned how a former head coach he worked for even practiced this by interrupting practice sessions for 25 minutes and then asking players to resume as if nothing had happened.

Ryan Holiday of the Daily Stoic wrote: “We’ve all had our routines disrupted.  We’ve had our plans dashed.  We’ve been in the zone then forced out of it.  The Stoics had [what they called] premeditaio malorum practices”.  You can read more about it here but the idea is to be prepared through thought and practice for as much as possible.  Sometimes it’s simple.  The first 20 or so product demo’s I did, I kept screenshots of everything on my desktop so if there were any system issues I could quickly jump to those to finish the explanation (fortunately I only had to use them once!).  

I’ll close with this – a rewording of a quote on negative visualization from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations book updated to sound like he wrote it in the last decade or so:

“[Sometimes I think to myself, today I’ll have to deal with an immature person, with an unthankful person, a hater, a fake person, false, a rude person.
All these toxic qualities they have, they picked up through they’re own unawareness of what is real, what is truly good and truly bad. But remember, this transgressor, I’m related to – not by the same blood,
but by because I’ve been those things and we’re all human. How can I either be hurt by any of those, since it is not in their power to make words truly cause permanent harm?
We are all born the same so to be at odds is against nature and there is nothing to gain by being in opposition.]”

Call Sign Viper

Unless you’ve been living in a cave you’ve no doubt heard the hype around and probably seen Top Gun Maverick – the sequel made over 30 years after the original movie debuted. I was skeptical but came away impressed – the movie captured the “vibe” of the original, used modern technology to make even better action scenes than the original, and paid just the right amount of tribute to the original. No surprise at the dollars it’s racking up at the theaters.

Like a lot of people, I re-watched the original [not that I really needed to ;)] before going to see it. Something stood out to me this time that I hadn’t picked up on before. The movie is known for young, hot shot, clever lines from arrogant pilots, action scenes, bravado and even a little bit of romance and one unexpected, dare I say, tearjerker. But what I hadn’t picked up on before was some of the aleadership displayed by Viper – the aviation instructor to the class Maverick is in at Top Gun. I actually debated writing this because the movies weren’t meant to be taken too serious but here’s what’s on my mind: Five leadership lessons from Commander Mike Metcalf – call sign “Viper”.

  1. Difficult Truth – One of the things that can be challenging is to share difficult truths with someone you’re responsible for or otherwise care about. In the scene after Goose dies when Maverick goes to Viper for advice, he’s direct and candid with him. Not cold. Not rude. But honest even when it’s uncomfortable. He explains to him how his feeling of guilt over Goose’s death is giving him a confidence problem. It’s not clear that has an immediate impact but one thing that’s needed to help someone overcome or grow is a wiser, more experienced mentor who will share honestly with them.
  2. Re-engage – Maverick is naturally grieving when Goose dies. But Viper knows that he must get “back in the saddle” again if he’s to move on. That’s why he tells the assistant instructor Jester to “get him flying again soon”. As a mentor, he doesn’t want to see this become a permanent problem for Maverick. Sometimes when things aren’t going your way, you have to keep your foot on the gas and trust that you’ll come around.
  3. Faith – Once Maverick does start flying again, he’s having an emotional time with engaging in combat. Jester complains to Viper about it and shares that he thinks Maverick might not make it back. Without hesitation, Viper tells Jester “it’s only been a few days, keep sending him up”. He stayed optimistic that Maverick could come back.
  4. Availability – When Maverick was debating what to do after Goose’s death, Viper invited him over to his home on a Sunday afternoon to talk. They don’t make much about it in the movie but it occurred to me that given the hardship and decision Maverick was facing, Viper made himself available to be there for him and help him make sense of his options even at an inconvenient time.
  5. Vulnerability – I’ve written before about Patrick Lencioni and one of the traits he describes in a healthy organization is the ability to be vulnerable. If everyone is holding back their thoughts and ideas on a subject for fear of being shunned or ridiculed, then effectiveness is lessoned and progress is slowed. Viper routinely has conversations with Maverick about his past, the way his dad flew and the his ideas on strategy never holding any of it against him but looking for spots to teach and make him better.

The great thing about leadership traits is they almost always apply to relationships in general – managers, mentors, spouses and significant others, peers and pals. Have a great weekend!

What We Repeatedly Do

woman meditating in bedroom

As with most complex things in life, there’s no single solution or approach – a “one size fits all” to ensure success. Product Management is certainly in this category. There are a number of adages to that can help though. Recently the team over at Product Faculty published “10 Habits to be an Elite Product Manager”. Here’s a recap of them along with some of my thoughts.

  1. Strategy – While execution is always important, strategy is where the bulk of the value a Product Manager can provide comes from. But as they point out, it’s easy to get caught on the “hamster wheel”. It’s only with a discipline and faithfulness to schedule time to synthesize and digest information – time to think – that a PM can deliver strategy.
  2. Time Management- The ability to discern the vital few from the trivial many of things to do is essential. Our time is limited and “not all tasks are equal” or worthy of your [immediate] time.
  3. Building Trust – Base ball players practice squeeze plays so when the skill and teamwork is needed for this unique situation they are ready. Similarly, you need to have rapport built and trust established before it’s “[time to] leverage it”. Take time to build this, early and often.
  4. Customer – The ability to advocate for the customer takes time. You can leverage data and other insights to help guide you until “you can make informed decisions without the data”.
  5. Company – Business viability always matters. Understand the “business needs” and you’ll avoid alienating stakeholders along the way which will improve the efficiency of which you build something.
  6. Alignment – Alignment isn’t the same as agreement. We can align on the goal but disagree on the approach so long as everyone’s committed to the goals. Disagree but commit as Jeff Bezo’s says.
  7. Roadmap – Roadmaps evolve over time and the further out they run, the greater the evolution. Keeping “stakeholders informed” will serve you well for points 3 and 6 above.
  8. Execution – Early on in a role in particular, but even later, don’t pause to learn everything. Continue development and execution in parallel of learning a new client base, environment or culture.
  9. Process – A great deal has been said about iterating to create great product. Don’t forget though, your “processes should iterate too”. Evolve everything, assume there’s room for improvement.
  10. Performance – Save 10-20% of your time to “hone your craft and learn new skills”. By continuously getting better, you become more effective and that effectiveness compounds over time. You will reach a point where the number of hours you can give is exhausted and the only way to do more is to do something more effectively. Similar to point 1, it takes discipline to do this regularly and not say yes to business until all of your time is exhausted.

Nice work from Product Faculty! Have a great weekend!

Painkillers Not Vitamins

person holding silver blister pack

I’m always on the lookout for alternative ways to think about innovation and building things. For one, thinking about things differently is a good practice to ensure you’re continuously evolving and improving. Secondly, I think it’s good to challenge notions and conventions.

That said though, a core theme of innovation and product management that comes up repeatedly is that of solving pain. Something that causes friction in the lives of people is a great opportunity for innovation.

Tony Fadell, one of the creators of the iPod and iPhone was on Lex Fridman’s podcast this week talking about this very thing.

In their conversation, Tony talks about two things he’s passionate about – music and engineering. When he was young, he would listen to music in his room on a clock radio. His parents would get on to him for staying up too late playing music. So he hacked the clock radio and wired a pair of headphones to it so they couldn’t hear the music – problem solved!

Later he would go on to talk about the annoyance of carrying CD’s around and how he had the chance to work at Apple with Steve Jobs and others. It was there he came up with the design and engineering plan to create the first iPod. As he’s telling the story, a couple of things stood out to me.

One, he describes how great problems “chase you”. There always there but maybe hard to see. I’ve written before about user’s not always knowing what they want and so they don’t necessarily ask you to build or make something. Tony describes this as “habitualizing pain”. Everyone has just excepted it but that doesn’t mean there’s still not opportunity there. A recent example is autonomous vehicles. Most people, most of the time, don’t particularly enjoy driving cars, especially in heavy traffic. But we all accept it and this is better than riding a bike. Self-driving cars though will solve this excepted problem [eventually].

The other great point he made was that great innovation is like a pain killer. Some products or innovations are like vitamins – they may help a little or maybe not and it’s kind of hard to tell. But “pain killer” innovations have an immediate and obvious use! [side note, but ironically this advice holds in the world of innovation but isn’t true in reality – get vitamins!].

One last thing he mentioned that was a good reinforcement. He described how he designed and put together the first iPod but that was only half of the equation. They needed a way to get music on the device and they had to collab with another team that create iTunes. Teamwork of great, dedicated people is almost always part of a success story!

Rinse and Repeat, Again and Again

“The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time” – W.B. Yates

Edward Thorp was a mathematics genius and an early pioneer of using statistics and probability to successfully invest and direct funds he managed. His track record is one of the best all time. He used these models to become an early investor in the options market and found arbitrage opportunities in a variety of investment vehicles.

But the interesting thing about investing models and these techniques – they have to evolve. One of the most famous models, Black-Scholes [Fischer Black just recently won a noble prize for this one] forced Thorp to continue to tweak and refine is formulas. Depending on who’s side of the story you buy, Black-Scholes forced him to make his models better (apparently there is some drama as to the timing of when these models were published versus discovered – not the stuff you’ll see on reality TV anytime soon). The point here is simply this – over time everything changes and so must your product and your solution.

In his Ted Talk, Guy Kawaski explains the need to build quickly, don’t wait for perfection and then iterate. Some product managers suggest by version 3 of your product you’ll feel embarrassed looking back at version 1. And that’s ok. Time is going to render change and the opportunity to iterate and evolve. Sometimes that means just making a better version of your product. Sometimes it means realizing something even more novel, that your original problem has changed. Avon’s Skin So Soft was meant to be a better skin lotion but when they realized it was an even more effective insect repellent, they went with it. Either way, evolution and iterations must occur to stay relevant. If good product exists to solve problems and problems change over time then it’s only natural that product must change too.

So there you have it, poetry, math tea, and product thoughts all in one bite! Happy Friday!

The Future – My Challenge

photography of people graduating

It’s that time of the year – grad season – where the relief of finishing something leads to ceremonies and celebrations. I’ve been watching (or rewatching) some graduation commencement speeches. I’ve always thought that the advice in them is generally applicable through life, not just the first few years after somewhat graduates. In fact, most of the stories and wisdoms shared happened over years or decades even. Here are my top 3 and some of the best advice in them [with apologies to T Swift].

Number 3 – Steve Jobs, Stanford – Steve Jobs, arguably one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time, tells some amazing stories about things that shaped who he became. He dropped out of college because of the financial toll it was taking on his parents. That gave him the chance to take random classes with no focus on a major nor prescribed curriculum. He talked about taking a calligraphy class and how that later served him when designing fonts for the Mac. He also talked about failure – about how getting fired from Apple made him better. Lastly, a great point he made was essentially about not listening to the knaves, the naysayers, and the haters – it’s your life.

Number 2 – Admiral McCraven, University of Texas – This was a great speech from a former Navy seal. There was a certain amount of self-deprecating humor to it [“I remember graduation and the ceremony but don’t remember who made the commencement speech so I’ll make this short”]. It was also really pragmatic and he gave 10 pieces of advice he learned from being a seal. The top 5 in short were: 1. Start the day out making your bed, if you get the little things right and do something positive you set the tone for the day. 2. Find someone to help you paddle [your raft]. You need a team, a squad, a tribe. 3. Gauge people by the size of their heart, not their flippers. Heart is the intangible that often matters most and yet has no deterministic way to be measured. 4. Keep pushing forward. Bad days are inevitable, push through, dust yourself off and look forward to tomorrow. 5. Do the extra work. Drive and tenacity are a byproduct of heart and they’ll serve you well.

Number 1 – Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth – Conan starts out with some hilarious takes on college life, the ivy league rivalries and even jokes that the Dean has accomplished so much he must be overcompensating for something? Not surprising that he’s funny – that’s his forte. But what made his speech great was how real he got about failing, about finally landing the job of his dreams (the Tonight Show) only to have the carpet yanked out from under him when Jay Leno came back. Perhaps more than anything, perseverance is a trait needed to succeed and he gives a really vulnerable talk into how he turned his lemons into lemonade.

P.S. – Shout out to my daughter McKenzie for finishing at USF this May! Congrats Dolly, grab the holeshot and never look back!