My product management toolkit (34): product principles

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobodies are the same but you leave them all over everything you do.” Elvis Presley 

“Values” – each organisation has got them. Whether they’re explicit or implicit, strong company values underpin everything a business does (and doesn’t do). “Serve Our Users” for instance is a core value articulated in the Google Code of Conduct: “Our users value Google not only because we deliver great products and services, but because we hold ourselves to a higher standard in how we treat users and operate more generally.”

 

 

As product managers we use product principles, a clear set of standards and goals that connect company values with the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve, both for customers and our company. Before we look at example product principles, I believe it’s important to cover some terminology first:

  • Product principles – Specific principles that affect product development and decision-making.
  • Design principlesSpecific principles that drive product design, both in terms of the user interface and the experience. For instance, companies have design principles around their app content or navigation.
  • General product principles – Those principles which apply to building great products and whicvh are agnostic to company values and apply to every product.

Granted, lots of of people seem to talk about design and product principles interchangeably, but I treat them very much as two distinct concepts. For instance, “we’re always 100% transparent with our users” I see as a good example of a product principle, and one that which subsequently drive the design of the product or service as well as many other aspects of the product. Here are some key things to bear in mind with respect to product management principles:

  1. What to use product principles for? – Product principles can be very valuable at each stage of the product lifecycle, whether the product is at the idea stage or being considered for termination. In my experience, product principles ultimately help with decision making. Questions such as “should we add feature A or B?” or “which channels should we use for this product?”, can all be determined with the guidance of the overarching product principles.
  2. Who should use product principles? – Everybody in the business. Just as much as company values apply to all employees, I believe that product principles work the same. To think that product principles sit exclusively within the domain of a product person feels limiting. People across the business are involved in the product and should therefore at least be aware of the product principles.
  3. What do good product principles look like? – In essence, good product principles should (1) link closely to the overall company mission and values (2) be concrete enough to enable decision making (3) be easy to remember and (4) be specific enough within the context of customer outcomes. For example, at ecommerce platform Shopify the mission is “to make commerce better for everyone, no matter where they’re located or their level of experience.” From this mission statement, Shopify has derived its (product) principles: (1) put merchants first (2) empower but don’t overwhelm (3) build a cohesive experience and (4) be polished but not ornamental.

                                                    Taken from: https://polaris.shopify.com/guides/principles

 

Main learning point: Whilst I appreciate that values, design and product principles are often being talked about in the same breadth, I do recommend looking at product principles as its own concept. Well defined product principles can add a lot of value to product development and collaboration throughout the product lifecycle.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2017/06/applying-product-principles-guide-better-product-decisions/
  2. https://svpg.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Example-Principles.pdf
  3. https://svpg.com/the-product-manifesto/
  4. https://uxcellence.com/2015/product-principles
  5. https://medium.com/@ElWexicano/product-principles-better-products-65e64f784c2b
  6. https://inside.6q.io/190-examples-of-company-values/
  7. https://abc.xyz/investor/other/google-code-of-conduct.html
  8. https://medium.com/etsy-design/creating-etsys-design-principles-4faf31914be3
  9. https://www.jasonshen.com/2014/no-silver-bullets-etsys-randy-hunt-on-product-design/
  10. https://polaris.shopify.com/guides/principles

Book review: “Principles” by Ray Dalio

“Principles” is the latest book by Ray Dalio – founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund. In this rather hefty tome of a book, Dalio offers an insight into the principles which he’s applied throughout his life and work, and his underlying reflections. He kicks off the book by explaining that “Good principles are effective ways of dealing with reality” and that “To learn my own, I spend a lot of time reflecting.”

 

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“Principles” consists of three parts. In the first part, titled “Where I’ coming from”, Dalio looks back on his career and the founding of Bridgewater. “Life Principles” is the name of the second part, and covers Dalio’s approach to life’s challenges and opportunities. Finally. part three covers Dalio’s “Work Principles”. Let me share the key things I’ve taken away from “Principles”, starting with Dalio’s Life Principles:

  • Embrace reality and deal with it – Dalio shares an important equation which in his view makes for a successful life: Dreams + Reality + Determination = A Successful Life. For the ‘reality’ component of this equation to work, Dalio encourages his readers to be radically open minded and radically transparent.
  • Pain + Reflection = Progress – Dalio’s point about “going to the pain rather than avoiding it” resonated with me (see Fig. 1 below). It’s easy to dismiss this statement because it’s coming from a highly successful investor, but I’d flip that as I can see how someone like Dalio has gone through his own share of pain to get to where’s he gotten to, and learned along the way.
  • Using the 5-step process to get what you want out of life – Start with having clear goals (step 1), followed by identifying but not tolerating the problems that stand in the way of your achieving those goals (step 2), then you accurately diagnose the problems to get at their root causes (step 3), design plans that will get you around them (step 4) and, finally, do what’s necessary to push these designs through to results (step 5). Dalio depicts this as a continuous process and people can benefit from applying this model to achieve their goals (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Understand that people are wired very differently – Dalio stresses the fact that all people are wired very differently, and zooms in on the differences between left and right brained thinking (see Fig. 3 – 4 below).

 

Fig. 1 – Going to the pain instead of avoiding it – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 154

  • Identifying, accepting, and learning how to deal with your weaknesses.
  • Preferring that the people around you be honest with you rather than keep their negative thoughts about you to themselves.
  • Being yourself rather than having to be strong where you are weak.

 

Fig. 2 – Ray Dalio’s 5-step process – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 171

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Fig. 3 – Differences between left and right brain – Taken from: https://visme.co/blog/left-brain-right-brain-marketing/

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Fig. 4 – Understand the differences between right-brained and left-brained thinking – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 223

  1. The left hemisphere reasons sequentially, analyses details, and excels at linear analysis. “Left-brained” or “linear” thinkers who are analytically strong are often called “bright.”
  2. The right hemisphere thinks across categories, recognises themes, and synthesises the big picture. “Right-brained” or “lateral” thinkers with more street smart are often called “smart.”

 

Dalio’s Work Principles are dominated by the concept of an Idea Meritocracy – i.e. a system that brings together smart, independent thinkers and has them productively disagree to come up with the best possible collective thinking and resolve their disagreements in a believability-weighted way (see Fig. 5 below). Dalio successfully implemented an Idea Meritocracy at Bridgewater and shares the components of such a system in his book:

Idea Meritocracy = Radical Truth + Radical Transparency + Believability – Weighted Decision Making

  • Radical Truth – Talking openly about our issues and have paths for working through them.
  • Radical Transparency – Giving everyone the ability to see everything. Radical transparency reduces harmful office politics and the risks of bad behaviour because bad behaviour is more likely to take place behind closed doors than out in the open.
  • Believability – Dalio defines believable people “as those who have repeatedly and successfully accomplished the thing in question – who have a strong track record with at least three successes – and have great explanations of their approach when probed.”
  • Thoughtful Disagreement – The concept of Believability is closely linked to the art of Thoughtful Disagreement; the process of having a quality back-and-forth in an openminded and assertive way to see things through each other’s eyes.
  • Weighted Decision Making – At Bridgewater, employees have different believability weightings for different qualities, like expertise in a particular subject, creativity, ability to synthesise, etc. Dalio explains that in order to have a true Idea Meritocracy one needs to understand the merit of each person’s ideas.
  • Prerequisites for an Idea Meritocracy – To have an Idea Meritocracy three conditions need to be in place. Firstly, put your honest thoughts on the table. Secondly, have thoughtful disagreement (see above). Thirdly, abide by agreed-upon ways of getting past disagreement.
  • Mistakes are part of the game – Dalio has a refreshing outlook on the role and value of mistakes, which he treats as “a natural part of the evolutionary process”. It’s important in this respect to assess whether people recognise and learn from their mistakes. Dalio distinguishes between people who make mistakes and who are self reflective and open to learning from their mistakes and those who are unable to embrace their mistakes and learn from them.
  • Get people to focus on problems and outcomes – Assign people the job of perceiving problems, give them time to investigate, and make sure they have independent reporting lines so that they can convey problems without any fear of recrimination. To perceive problems, compare how the outcomes are lining up with your goals. Dalio also offers some valuable tips on how to best diagnose problems (see Fig. 6 below).
  • Avoid the “Frog in the boiling water” syndrome – Apparently, if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out immediately, but if you put it in room-temperature water and gradually bring it to a boil, it will stay in the pot until it dies. If one uses this syndrome as a metaphor for professional life, it signifies people’s tendency to slowly get used to unacceptable things that would shock them if the say them with fresh eyes.
  • Don’t just pay attention to your job – Instead, pay attention to how your job will be done if you’re no longer around. Dalio talks about the ‘ninja manger’ as “somebody who can sit back and watch beauty happen-i.e. an orchestrator. If you’re always trying to hire somebody who’s as good as or better than you at your job, that will both free you up to go on to other things and build your succession pipeline.”

 

Fig. 5 – The Idea Meritocracy as is the best way to make decisions – Taken from: https://twitter.com/RayDalio/status/1066357616350253057

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Fig. 6 – Diagnose problems to get at their root causes – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 484 – 490

To diagnose well, ask the following questions:

  • Is the outcome good or bad?
  • Who is responsible for the outcome?
  • If the outcome is bad, is the Responsible Party incapable and / or is the design bad?

 

Main learning point: Whilst “Principles” feels a tad repetitive at times and some of Dalio’s ideas might not be easy to implement, I feel that Dalio’s principles can provide great direction for all people working in organisations, big or small.  His reflections on things such as transparency and decision-making will be valuable to anyone reading this great book.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://youtu.be/c1OoWdqbKdg
  2. https://www.ted.com/talks/ray_dalio_how_to_build_a_company_where_the_best_ideas_win
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9XGUpQZY38
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7hNda9DVxo

 

My product management toolkit (33): launch and learn

“Build it and they will come!” I used to work once with a senior executive, who was of the opinion that a product or feature should just be launched, without any testing with customers beforehand. “I know that once it’s out there, people will want it” she’d explain to me, adding that “it’s what people want”.

 

 

Hearing this “build it and they will come” mantra time and time again did annoy me 🙂 At the same time, it did make me wonder whether it might be a good idea to (continuously) release product features without prior customer discovery … What if this executive is right and any new product, feature or service should just be launched, as a way of learning as quickly as possible!?

Being able to ‘launch and learn’ is a vital tool in any product person’s toolkit. I strongly encourage you to avoid ‘one-off product releases’ at any time; what are you going to learn from shipping a product only to then move on to the next thing!? One can debate about when to best learn – should you learn pre-release? – but the main point is that you’ll need to ship early and often to learn continuously.

Basecamp, a project management software compare, does take ‘launch and learn’ to the extreme, they don’t show customers anything until every customer can see it. In the book “It doesn’t have to be crazy at work”, Basecamp’s co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson describe how at Basecamp:

  • “We don’t beta-test with customers.”
  • “We don’t ask people what they’d pay for something.”
  • “We do the best job we know how to do and then we launch it into the market.”
  • “The market will tell us the truth.”

Fried and Heinemeier Hansson argue that anything you ask or test with customers prior to launch is hypothetical: “Real answers are uncovered when someone’s motivated enough to buy your product and use it in their own environment – and of their own volition. Anything else is simulated answers. Shipping real products gives you real answers.” Whilst I do agree with this line of thinking, I don’t believe in simply launching some crappy product or feature and see if it sticks (just as much I don’t believe in “build it and they will come”).

 

 

My suggestion would to ‘launch confidently and learn’. This means that for each new product or feature you determine – based on your confidence level – whether it needs some form of customer research before launch:

  1. Deliver value in order to learn – You want to be smart about the things you want to learn. The best opportunity to learn comes when you’re confident about the value that you’re delivering to the customer. Naturally, people might not buy or use your product despite the value it intends to deliver, but that’s a learning in itself.
  2. Minimum Level of Confidence (1) – How confident are you? What exactly are you confident about (and why)? The main reason why I believe in product managers adhering to a confidence treshold is to avoid launching products that don’t work or provide an awful user experience. The Newton MessagePad which came out in 1993 is a good example of the launch of an incomplete product, which didn’t live up to its promise. Larry Tesler, senior exec at Apple at the time of of the Newton MessagePad, described Apple’s promise about the Newton’s handwriting capability as a large nail in the Newton coffin. The lesson learned here is that you shouldn’t launch when you’re not confident about the capability and value of your product or feature.
  3. Minimum Level of Confidence (2) – I’ve come up with a number of basic questions and criteria to apply when you’re thinking of launching a product (see Fig. 1-2 below). In my experience, identifying your Minimum Level of Confidence shouldn’t result in ‘analysis paralysis’. In contrast, it’s an important conversation to have throughout the product lifecycle to ensure that everyone fully understands what risks or unknowns are associated with the upcoming release. As an outcome of such a conversation you can decide whether to get customer feedback pre-release.
  4. Make sure you learn! – Whether you do or don’t engage with customers before launch, being clear about what you’re looking to learn from a release is paramount. Like I mentioned above, I view releasing something without learning from it  as a cardinal sin. It’s very important to continuously learn from real users and actual usage (or not) about your key hypotheses. These learnings – both quantitive and qualitative – will give you the data points to iterate or terminate a product.

Fig. 1 – Questions and criteria to check your confidence about launching a product or feature:

  • Internal quality assurance – Have you tested your product feature to ensure there are no obvious bugs or gaps in the user experience? Even if you don’t test with customers prior to launch, you should test some key acceptance scenarios internally before launch to make sure the product works as intended.
  • Does the feature or product touch on core user experience? – If “yes” is the answer to this, then I recommend you do test with customers prior to launch to identify any major usability issues worth solving before launch. You typically need to test with no more than five customers to unearth any critical usability issues.
  • How confident are you? – The combination of low confidence in something which your business has got a lot riding can be deadly. Yes, one can always try to do damage limitation, but it might already be too late at the time of you trying to repair things! The idea behind determining your confidence levels upfront isn’t a scientific one. Instead, it enables a conversation, making sure that people have got their eyes wide open and understand the level of risk and unknowns involved in an upcoming product launch (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 2 – Basic confidence levels to consider before launch:

  • High Confidence: Our confidence in the upcoming release is high because we tested it thoroughly internally, have launched a similar product or feature before or if there’s an issue the fallout will be small.
  • Low Confidence: Our confidence in the upcoming release is low because we haven’t fully tested it, it’s based on new technology or creates a totally new user experience.

 

 

 

Main learning point: Even if you decide not to generate customer learnings before a product launch, make sure you at learn after launch. Launch and learn. Don’t launch without learning!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2017/02/the-life-of-a-product-manager-learning-by-doing/
  2. https://www.intercom.com/blog/shipping-is-your-companys-heartbeat/
  3. https://medium.com/@joshelman/a-product-managers-job-63c09a43d0ec
  4. https://uxplanet.org/10-things-i-learned-from-jason-fried-about-building-products-5b6694ff02aa
  5. http://time.com/13549/the-10-worst-product-fails-of-all-time/
  6. https://twitter.com/jasonfried/status/935555293014036480
  7. https://247wallst.com/special-report/2014/03/03/worst-product-flops-of-all-time/2/
  8. https://www.macworld.com/article/2047342/remembering-the-newton-messagepad-20-years-later.html
  9. https://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/26/business/the-executive-computer-so-far-the-newton-experience-is-less-than-fulfilling.html

Book review: “Autonomy”

Lawrence Burns is a veteran of the automative industry. Having worked his entire professional career in the car industry – in Detroit, the birthplace of modern car manufacturing no less – you might expect Burns to be apprehensive about ‘change’ and modern technology. The opposite couldn’t be more true of Burns, since he’s been an advocate for driverless cars for the past 15+ years, starting his foray into this field whilst at General Motors.

In his latest book, “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car – and How It Will Reshape Our World”, Burns and cowriter Christopher Shulgan paint a picture of driverless cars dominating our streets and roads, and having a positive impact on the environment and transportation as a whole. For those sceptics out there who dismiss driverless cars as science fiction, I recommend they read “Autonomy” and take note of the technology and societal developments Burns describes:

Getting started, the DARPA Challenge and Google’s “Project Chauffeur”:

The book starts off with the story of the “DARPA Challenge” in 2004 and how this helped shaped learning and development with respect to driverless cars. Burns gives the reader a good close-up of the experiences and learnings from one of the teams that took part in this challenge. At this first DARPA challenge, every vehicle that took part crashed, failed or caught fire, highlighting the early stage of driverless technology at the time.

Image taken from: https://www.wired.com/story/darpa-grand-urban-challenge-self-driving-car/

Driverless cars are the (near) future:

Bob Lutz, former executive of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, wrote an essay last year titled “Kiss the good times goodbye”, in which he makes a clear statement about the future of the automotive industry: “The era of the human-driven automobile, its repair facilities, its dealerships, the media surrounding it – all will be gone in 20 years.” There’s no discussion that driverless cars are coming, especially that both car and technology giants are busy developing and testing. When I attended a presentation by Burns a few months agogo, he showed the audience  examples of both self driving cars and trucks:

Image taken from: http://www.autonews.com/article/20170316/MOBILITY/170319877/bmw-says-self-driving-car-to-be-level-5-capable-by-2021

Image taken from: https://newatlas.com/volvo-vera-self-driving-truck/56312/

In “Autonomy”, Burns brings Lutz’ predictions to life through the fictitious example of little Tommy and his family. In this example, Tommy steps into a driverless which has been programmed to take him to school in the morning. Tommy’s grandma will be picked up by a driverless two-person mobility pod to take her to a bridge tournament. Burns describes a world where car ownership will be a thing of the past; people using publicly available fleets of self driving cars instead.

Image taken from: https://www.thenational.ae/business/technology/autonomous-pods-the-future-of-city-driving-1.730283

Together with Chris Borroni-Bird, Burns has done extensive research into the potential impact of an electronic self driven car, looking at metrics such as “total expense per mile”, “cost savings per mile” and “estimated number of parts”. Borroni-Bird and Burns provide some compelling stats, especially when contrasted against conventional cars. Reading these stats helps to make the impact of driverless technology a lot more tangible, turning it from science fiction or future music into a realistic prospect.

Main learning point: “Autonomy” by Lawrence is an insightful book about a driverless future, written by a true connoisseur of the car industry and the evolution of driverless technology.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://spectrum.ieee.org/cars-that-think/transportation/self-driving/auto-consultant-lawrence-burns-dishes-the-dirt-on-waymo
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pLM-2bxNMc
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJVKY1DtZ84
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/greggardner/2018/08/23/an-interview-with-self-driving-visionary-larry-burns-co-author-of-autonomy/
  5. http://www.autonews.com/article/20171105/INDUSTRY_REDESIGNED/171109944/industry-redesigned-bob-lutz
  6. https://lucidmotors.com/
  7. https://electrek.co/2017/01/02/lucid-motors-autonomous-tech-all-electric-sedan-mobileye/
  8. http://www.thedrive.com/opinion/9024/who-is-really-1-in-self-driving-cars-you-wouldnt-know-it-from-navigants-controversial-report
  9. https://news.stanford.edu/2017/05/22/stanford-scholars-researchers-discuss-key-ethical-questions-self-driving-cars-present/
  10. https://www.thenational.ae/business/technology/autonomous-pods-the-future-of-city-driving-1.730283
  11. https://www.wired.com/story/darpa-grand-urban-challenge-self-driving-car/
  12. https://spectrum.ieee.org/cars-that-think/transportation/self-driving/google-has-spent-over-11-billion-on-selfdriving-tech

Book review: “AI Superpowers”

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee is the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a China based tech focused investment firm. Previous to becoming a full-time investor, Lee held positions at Google, Microsoft and Apple. A large part of that career, Lee spent working on data and Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’), both in the US and in China. In “AI Superpowers – China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order” Lee bundles his experiences and insights to describe the progress that China and the US have made and are making in the field of AI.

AI Superpowers contains a heap of valuable insights as well as predictions about the impact of technology power that both the US and China have been racking up. These are the main things that I took away from reading AI Superpowers:

  • US and China, contrasting cultures – Lee starts the book by writing about the contrasts in business culture between the US and China: “China’s startup culture is the yin to Silicon Valley’s yang: instead of being mission-driven, Chinese companies are first and foremost market-driven.” Lee goes on to explain that the ultimate goal of Chinese companies is “to make money, and they’re willing to create any product, adopt any model, or go into any business that will accomplish that objective.” This mentality help to explain the ‘copycat’ attitude that Chinese companies have had historically. Meituan, for example, is a group-discount website which sells vouchers from merchants for deals which started as the perfect counterpart of US-based Groupon.
  • “Online-to-Offline” (‘O2O”) – O2O describes the conversion of online actions into offline services. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are great examples of the new O2O model. In China, Didi copied this model and tailored it to local conditions. Didi was followed by other O2O plays such as Dianping, a food delivery service which subsequently merged with the aforementioned Meituan company, and Tujia, a Chinese version of Airbnb. Lee also mentions WeChat and Alipay, describing how both companies completely overturned China’s all-cash economy. More recently, bike-sharing startups Mobike (see Fig. 1 below) and ofo which supplied tens of millions of internet-connected bicycles, distributing them across them about major Chinese cities and now across the globe.
  • China catching up quickly in the AI department – Having read the story of image recognition algorithm ResNet, and how its inventors moved from Microsoft to join AI startups in China, I can see how China as a country is quickly catching up with the technology stalwart that is Silicon Valley.  One of these image recognition startups, Face +++, has quickly become a market leader in face / image recognition technology, leapfrogging the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook along the way.
  • The four waves of AI – In AI Superpowers, Lee argues that what he calls the “AI revolution” will not happen overnight. Instead, AI will wash over us in four waves: internet AI, business AI, perception AI, and autonomous AI (see Fig. 2 below). This part of the book really struck a chord with me, as it brings to life how AI is likely to evolve over the coming years, both in terms of practical applications and use cases.

Main learning point: I’d highly recommend “AI Superpowers” to anyone interested in learning more about how China and the US are furthering the development of AI and the impact of this development on our daily lives.

 

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of the Mobike bike-sharing app – Taken from: https://technode.com/2016/07/07/mobike-uber/

 

Fig. 2 – The four waves of AI – Taken from: Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers, pp. 104 – 139:

  • First wave: Internet AI – Internet AI is largely about using AI algorithms as recommendation engines: systems that learn our personal preferences and then serve up content hand-picked for us. Toutiao, sometimes called “the Buzzfeed of China”, is a great example of this first wave of AI; its “editors” are algorithms.
  • Second wave: Business AI – First wave AI leverages the fact that internet users are automatically labelling data as they browse. Business AI, the second wave of AI, takes advantage of the fact that traditional companies have also been automatically labelling huge quantities of data for decades. For instance, insurance companies have been covering accidents and catching fraud, banks have been issuing loans and documenting repayment rates, and hospitals have been keeping records of diagnoses and survival rates. Business AI mines these data points and databases for hidden correlations that often escape the naked eye and the human brain. RXThinking, an AI based diagnosis app, is a good example in this respect.
  • Third wave: Perception AI – Third wave AI is all about extending and expanding this power throughout our lived environment, digitising the world around us through the proliferation of sensors and smart devices. These devices are turning our physical world into digital data that can then be analysed and optimised by deep-learning algorithms. For example, Alibaba’s City Brain is digitising urban traffic flows through cameras and object-recognition.
  • Fourth wave: Autonomous AI – Autonomous AI represents the integration and culmination of the three preceding waves, fusing machines’ ability to optimise from extremely complex datasets with their newfound sensory powers.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/07/chinas-meituan-dianping-confirms-4point4-billion-hong-kong-ipo.html
  2. https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/10/tujia-raises-300-million/
  3. http://www.forbesindia.com/article/ckgsb/how-tujia-chinas-airbnb-is-different-from-airbnb/48853/1
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobike
  5. https://towardsdatascience.com/an-overview-of-resnet-and-its-variants-5281e2f56035
  6. https://www.faceplusplus.com/
  7. http://www.iflytek.com/en/
  8. https://www.mi.com/global/
  9. https://www.happyfresh.com/
  10. https://www.grab.com/sg/

My product management toolkit (32): managing your frustrations

Every job or organisation comes with its own pressures and challenges. Millions of people will have a bad day at work, some people probably more frequently than others 🙂 That said, I believe that being a product manager can be one of the more frustrating roles out there. The same things that make product management such a great craft are the ones that can make the life of a product manager one filled with frustrations:

  • Constant navigation between all sections of the business
  • Interacting with a wide range of stakeholders
  • Being accountable without authority
  • Working in fast paced and high pressure environments
  • Regular dealings with complexity and uncertainty

Some product managers will suffer from frustration more than others and each person will have his or her own way of dealing with it but there are tools can help and so below I’m going to outline a number of tools that I use to try and manage some of the frustrations that I find can come with the day job.

A personal confession first

I definitely get frustrated. I like to think that I’ve come a long way in managing this, but I realise that it’s something I’ll always need to be mindful of and work on. When I reflect on some of the causes that have triggered my frustrations in the past, they tend to come down to the following triggers:

  • Things not going to ‘plan’ – I must admit, as much I know rationally that in product management things hardly ever go to plan or pan out the way you expect, I used to get quite frustrated when this was the case.
  • Taking things personally – Almost by default, as a product manager you’re accountable when a product isn’t performing or doesn’t live up to expectation. I really struggled with this, especially at the beginning of my product career as I’d take things highly personally. As a result, I’d get very deflated and defensive.
  • Missing a shared sense of urgency – Whenever I sense – rightly or wrongly – that other people are not pulling their weight, it can really get my back up. I love working in teams where there’s a shared sense of ownership and responsibility, and I sometimes find it tough when I feel that shared sense is missing somewhat.

Sounds familiar? I’ve come across plenty of product managers over the years who’ve been very open with me about their frustrations, so I know that I’m not unique in this respect and that it’s worth looking at some ways to cope with frustrations …

1. Learn about your triggers

The first ‘tool’, I’d highly recommend is to identify the situations or people that trigger a frustrated feeling within you. What triggers an emotional reaction in you, why? For example:

  • Meetings with ‘difficult’ stakeholders
  • Feeling that you’re stuck, struggling to see a way forward
  • A product or feature not performing as hoped
  • Colleagues feeling frustrated or pressured
  • A comment or criticism by a colleague
  • Other people not meeting your standards or values

If you know what tends to strike a nerve or when you might be at risk, you’re in a much better position to pre-empt the trigger from having an impact, i.e. causing a negative feeling. For example, when I know that a conversation with a stakeholder is likely to be a tricky one, I’ll catch a few minutes of fresh air beforehand or have think about how to best approach the meeting.

In an ideal world, we’d totally avoid situations which might trigger us. But this isn’t possible in reality, and knowing your coping mechanisms for when triggers do strike, can be incredibly helpful.

2. Big I / little i

Since I was first introduced to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (‘CBT’) about 20 years ago, I’ve been using CBT tools and techniques on a daily basis to manage my emotions and behaviours. For instance, where I used to take negative feedback very badly, I’m now much better at taking things on the chin and learning from feedback, using the “Big I / little i” method that’s commonly used within CBT (see Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – “Big I / little i”, Taken from: https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/category/cbt-cbc/

The “Big I / little i” technique is essentially about decoupling mistakes or perceived criticism from who you are as a person. For example, if I make a mistake in communicating with others, this doesn’t make me a bad person (“Big I”), it’s one of my many acts and behaviours, and one that I can look at and improve (“little i”).

3. Write. It. Down.

Have you ever been frustrated at work and your frustration turned into something much bigger: you feeling very deflated about your product, your colleagues, your job, etc. Before you know it, something that started as a molehill quickly evolved into Mount Everest. Whenever I want to stop my spiralling frustrations, I take a minute to grab my notebook and write it down.

I’ve learned how the mere act of jotting your thoughts down on paper quickly, can be incredibly helpful in gaining perspective and blowing off steam. If you’d like to add some more structure to your thoughts, then I’d highly recommend the “Cognitive Journal” which is part of the CBT toolkit (see Fig. 2). Journalling the “Activating Event”, “Beliefs”, “Consequence” and “Disputing” (‘A-B-C-D’) helps to not only capture what happened but also to look inward to figure out which personal beliefs were trigged and its consequences. For example:

A – Your boss tells you that she isn’t happy with the product feature that was just released to market.

B – You believe that your boss now sees you as incompetent and you feel that you’ve failed.

C – “Perhaps my boss will now fire me; I’ll be unemployed and I’ll never land another job as a product manager.”

D – “No way is my boss going to fire me!” Prior to this feature, I’ve helped create many products our customers love.

It’s easy and totally human to spiral into fatalistic thinking. Thoughts like “Perhaps my boss will now fire me; I’ll be unemployed and I’ll never land another job as a product manager.” Writing these thoughts down can help to make you reflect, and successfully challenge your negative thinking (“Disputing”). See it as a valuable “pause” moment, whereby you temporarily put a specific goal on hold and stop asking “What do I next?”

Fig. 2 – “Cognitive Journal”, Taken from: https://www.1alliancecps.com/wordpress/2013/09/02/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-cognitive-journaling-using-the-abc-model/

4. (Radical) Acceptance

In the book “Emotional Intelligence”, internationally renown psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about the process of ’emotional hijacking’, and describes how we as humans can be taken over by our emotions. In my view ’emotional hijacking’ implies that it’s ok for a person to accept their emotions and whatever caused the emotion to take over. Is there no limit to acceptance of your emotions!?

Upsetting others – deliberately or accidentally – is something I’ll always try to avoid. Naturally, I can’t control how other people perceive my sharing of emotions, but it’s something I’ve become more mindful of over the years. For example, when I just started out as a product manager I used to really voice my anger or frustration to such an extent that the other person would be fearful of me … Realising this, made feel upset in turn since my goal wasn’t to scare or upset people, in my mind I was just being honest and open.

I’ve learned a lot from reading “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, particularly about the best ways to accept the emotions I’m feeling or thoughts I’m thinking on my own, as this helps me to effectively take the sting out of the moment and have less of a negative impact on the emotions of others. Don’t get me wrong; this doesn’t mean that I’ve become a wallflower and that I only speak in dulcet tones 🙂 but I will take a minute or say to try and think before I talk or share my emotions (I’ve written about this previously).

 

 

Acceptance also means accepting your flaws and mistakes, and helps to accept things not going to plan or serious mistakes that you’ve made. Again, acceptance doesn’t mean that you simply resign to failure or a bad situation. In contrast, acceptance of a problem or a bad decision can make you see it for what it is, and be more constructive about it. For example: What can you do to solve a problem? What can you do to improve a situation? What will you do differently next time?

Amanda, a product person who I really look up to, told me once when I was upset that we as product managers act as problem solvers, irrespective of whether we’ve created the problem or not. And her saying this really helped me to understand that there’s no point just fighting or denying a problem. Instead, we should focus on what we can do to undo or improve things.

5. A word of warning

I wish I could say that I always lead by example when it comes to managing my emotions and practice what I preach 24//7.

 

 

It was only last week where I showed my frustration in front of my team and in hindsight I wasn’t happy with the way in which I’d expressed my frustration with what I felt was a lack of urgency and commitment. The point I’m making here is that eradicating frustrations or emotions completely is nigh-on impossible and possibly not even desirable.

“Honesty” and “Authenticity” are two of my core values which means that I’ll always try to say how it is and stay true to myself. I’ve therefore accepted that I might say or do things that might not sit well with other people and their personal values. However, I’m constantly learning to be mindful of other people, their beliefs and ways of doing things. Managing my own frustrations first helps me to better manage my own emotions, and get the most out of the people that I work with – in the right way. My hope is that you’ll find some of the aforementioned tools helpful in managing your own emotions.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/living-forward/201504/3-simple-steps-control-anger-and-frustration-others
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/happiness-in-world/201202/how-manage-frustration
  3. https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/cbt-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-techniques-worksheets/
  4. https://beckinstitute.org/get-informed/what-is-cognitive-therapy/
  5. https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/category/cbt-cbc/
  6. http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree
  7. http://www.danielgoleman.info/topics/emotional-intelligence/
  8. https://www.tarabrach.com/store/
  9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S000579671000238X
  10. https://beingwellcenter.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/9-traits-you-should-know-about-your-temperament/

The Product Manager Is Your Best Friend

Back in May I spoke at the annual Shift Conference in Split, Croatia and in my talk I looked at the collaboration between product managers and engineers. In “The Product Manager Is Your Best Friend” I tried to demystify some common perceptions about product managers and engineers alike.

For instance, the myth that all product managers are rockstars who can solve any business or customer problem single handedly:

 

 

Or the myth that all developers are fragile beings who just want to be left alone and write code:

 

 

In my talk, I examine what makes a successful collaboration between product people and engineers, and why. I introduce the product feedback loop and its individual stages, looking at roles and responsibilities at each stage:

 

You can watch the full talk below. Let me know your thoughts!