What Not To Do

Unless you’re a diehard music enthusiast, you may not think much about who the directors and producers are on albums. However, years ago I cam across a producer named Rick Rubin. He is a producer with an incredible career and has worked with some incredibly talented artists including Jay-Z, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash and System of a Down just to name a few. I recently read his book The Creative Act where he breaks down many lessons on being creative and finding success. This is definitely not a typical “leadership” or “self-help” book at all – he’s got some great stories and a really unique perspective.

One of the things that stood out to me was his list of thoughts and habits detrimental to your work. His list had 20 items on it but here’s my favorite 5:

  1. Believing you’re not good enough – Tony Dungy once said that the first thing that has to exist before something good can happen is the belief that it’s possible.
  2. Mistaking Adopted Rules for Absolute Truths – I’ve fallen in to the trap of thinking this myself. I try to remember with each new project, assume nothing. By staying open-minded you set yourself up to find success that might not have happened if you just followed the same approach and tactics.
  3. Never Finishing Projects – It’s been written and spoken about from everyone like Ryan Holiday to Jocko Willink to James Clear – Discipline is a critical ingredient to success. And when you see discipline in action, it’s usually looks like a finished project. It allows for the execution of a strategy and provides the follow through needed to reach an outcome.
  4. Impatience – This is a tough one for me but if we agree discipline is important to finish, then impatience is often a discipline killer. It can also be the difference between another iteration that an idea needs to be its best versus settling too soon.
  5. Thinking that anything that’s out of your control is in your way – Another challenging one try to take action on the things you can control and remember that the Obstacle is the Way.

One last Rick Rubin story to leave you with. He was working with System of a Down on an early album and on the song “Chop Suey”, a song that would go on to be one of their biggest hits, they were struggling with lyrics for the bridge. After 2 days of essentially “writer’s block”, Rick Rubin was talking with the singer in Rubin’s home office. Rubin asked him to pick a random book off the book case, and open it to a random page and then read to him the words. Those words from that random act became the actual lyrics used on the track and amazingly it’s a high point in the song! Don’t take my word for it though, check out Rubin telling the story himself.

If you’ve read the book, let me know which of the “habits to not have” resonate the most!

Blind Fish Friday

In the remote caves of the Rio Grande, there is a species of tetra fish that are blind. In fact, they don’t even have eyes.

But they weren’t always eyeless. Thousands of years of evolution led to the point where they no longer have eyes. In the dark caves where they live, in the absence of light, they were forced to learn to rely on other senses. And with food scarce, being efficient was a matter of survival. So rather than waste the energy it takes to have “eyes”, these fish evolved to maximizing their ability to survive on limited resources.

In her book “The Customer of the Future”, Blake Morgan writes about these fish and the importance of our ability to adapt.

But humans are notoriously change resistant. In fact, in many ways we’re wired from nature to resist change. This phenomenon is found in our physiology (“Homeostasis”) and even in the way we respond to exercise (Muscle growth happens because the body wants it to be easy to do the movement). I go through this with my mother-in-law every time an app updates on her phone!

Here’s 4 things that we can do to maximize our ability to change.

  1. Attitude – Start with an open mind. If something is different consider how it could be better first instead of feeling frustrated that you have to learn something new.
  2. Keep the end in mind – If you’re on a track for continuous improvement, then you know that change has to happen for progress to happen. Changing technology, process or line ups can often create a spark that leads to something great.
  3. Revel in the journey – There is no destination, at least not a permanent one. Embrace this idea instead of grinding against it. You wouldn’t deliberately swim against the current in a river so why do the mental equivalent when faced with it?
  4. Understand the Obstacle – Ryan Holiday’s “The Obstacle is the Way” explains this so well but the gist of it is this: Often that thing that’s new that we think is in our way is actually the challenge we needed to get to something bigger and better. The Tetra fish didn’t sweat the lack of light in the caves, they just got rid of their eyes they no longer needed.

Naturally some things change for the worse and not every change is good. Progress isn’t a straight line up but a jagged line with downs too. But most of us don’t struggle with recognizing a bad move, we struggle with open mindedness needed to do things differently than the way we always have.

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one more responsive to change. – Charles Darwin

Prioritization: I Somewhat Disagree

notes on board

Our team has been working on prioritization quite a bit lately and, perhaps by no coincidence I’ve seen a lot of great commentary on priorities. In my experience, there are at least 3 challenges with prioritization. And while there are no perfect ways to combat these challenges, by understanding them and keeping them in mind you should be able to make better decisions.

  1. No Clear Objective – This is possibly the biggest culprit of poor ability to prioritize features and build a great roadmap. And it’s generally not directly the fault of the product managers but comes from a lack of leadership – often starting all the way at the top. The leadership’s responsibility is to create an objective or said differently establish a problem to be solved and then come up with ways to measure whether that’s happening or not (and ideally, empower a team to then go after this objective). But absent that, a product manager is like a chef with a ton of ingredients and no idea what they’re trying to bake. One caveat here though is that the process of presenting problems to solve has been established. If there’s no discovery, then the leadership can’t create effective objectives and this situation snowballs from there. Which often leads to the creation of issue number 2.

2. You’ve Overfit the Product – In statistics, the goal is to build a predictive model from a random sample of data where there are a limited number of variables. But if the creator of a model puts in too many variables, some of which aren’t significant to the population at large, they create a model that is great at predicting the data included in the sample but terrible at generalizing thereby rendering it poor or even useless. Without discovery and OKR’s, stakeholders and sales people often bring singular client requests to the table. Jason Knight summed this up perfectly:

“For all the talk of ruthless prioritisation, one pattern I’ve seen before is that a company has Way Too Much Stuff to do, and all of it is somehow equally valid as the top priority. This can kill attempts to prioritise or trade-off. It’s all important!

Companies can end up in places like this because they went where the deals were (no well-defined ICP), they went fast, leaving them with a wide but shallow product that does just enough to cover the basics for many but not delight any.

They then end up with 15 different things that legitimately need to be improved (or, in worst-case scenarios, fixed) and enough revenue tied up in each to make it impossible to just ignore something for a year until you get to it.”

This is a sure-fire way to create feature teams constantly feeling behind, likely suffering in terms of quality and probably feeling like their product’s addressable market size – the number of people that benefit from the product – is very small.

3. Treating Models as Deterministic – Once a backlog becomes unwieldy, it’s tempting to apply modeling techniques to it and see them as the silver bullet to the prioritization problem. However, every model (that I’ve seen anyway) has at least one and usually many non-deterministic inputs to it. Behavioral researchers use these types of measurements in places where absolute measurements don’t exist (Likert Scales for instance – that ask you to strongly agree, agree, disagree etc.). To be fair these are better than nothing and can reveal insights. But these are things that can only be estimated or hypothesized but not demonstrated and they’re even subject to human biases. Intuitively (and ideally from listening to customers) a product manager can describe things like impact or potential. But translating that to a number and then apply to a formula doesn’t change the fact that the underlying driver is the Product Manager’s intuition. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using models and they do sometimes create thought and perspective just by going through them that may not have otherwise been realized. But be careful to not treat them as 100% gospel. They’re nuanced. And remember, even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity doesn’t hold up under certain conditions. Candidly, this is what’s both beautiful and difficult about product management – it’s not easy!

Hopefully understanding these challenges with prioritization will help or at least give you something’s to think about while grooming roadmaps and making decisions on next steps.

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!