Book review: “The Messy Middle” by Scott Belsky

 

I’m sure a lot of us have common misconceptions about successful entrepreneurs and their companies. It’s easy to look at people who’ve ‘made it’ and think that their journey has been all plain sailing. Scott Belsky is such an entrepreneur, having founded Behance, a platform for creative professionals to show off their work, which eventually got acquired by Adobe. In “The Messy Middle”, Belsky eradicates any illusions about the process of creating – whether it’s a business or a product – being painless. He writes about the different stages of a startup lifecycle: the start, the middle and the finish. Belsky makes the point that “it’s not about the start and finish, it’s about the journey in between.”

 

Fig. 1 – Scott Belsky, Navigating The Messy Middle – Taken from: https://medium.com/positiveslope/navigating-the-messy-middle-7ca6fff11966

 

At the start, there’s “pure joy” to begin with. That is before reality kicks in and things hit bottom. Belsky describes the finish as “final mile of journey and the recovery time between one project and the next”, the point where you can allow yourself to take a break and make a change. I, however, specifically bought the book because I was intrigued to read Belsky’s thoughts about the ‘messy middle’. Belsky writes about this period, as a collection of peaks – ‘optimising’ – and valleys – ‘enduring’. It’s this period which benefits from volatility. Volatility being positioned as a good thing might sound counterintuitive to some, but Belsky argues that “volatility is good for velocity”:

“The faster you move, the better your chances of learning and momentum to soar above the competition.”

Scott Belsky, The Messy Middle

 

To achieve this level of velocity, Belsky encourages conducting experiments, and lots of them. Running these experiments means that you’ll be both enduring the lows and optimising everything that works. In “The Messy Middle”, Belsky shares a ton of lessons learned and tips, particularly in relation to those stages of your company or product that are dominated by enduring and optimising. Allow me to give you a quick shopping list of those points by Belsky which resonated with me most:

  • Avoid validation in the form of false positives –  To objectively observe the performance of your new creation or product, put yourself in others’ shoes. Belsky refers to points made by Ben Horowitz about telling the truth in this respect (see Fig. 1 below).
  • Celebrate progress and impact – Especially at the early stages, celebrate anything you can. Whilst you should avoid ‘fake wins’, celebrating quick wins and progress milestones is important.
  • Master the art of parallel processing – This involves being able to focus on a specific problem whilst also churning through the omnipresent anxiety and uncertainty involved in building things.
  • Friction unlocks the full potential of working together – Hardship brings your teams together and equips you to endure for the long haul.
  • Do Your Fucking Job (‘DYFJ’) – Leading a team through enduring times requires many “rip off the Band-Aid” moments. Nobody wants to inflict pain on their team, but quick and controlled pain is better than a drawn out infection. This also implies checking your ego at the door, instead concentrating on what needs to be done.
  • Self awareness as the only sustainable competitive advantage in business – Your sense of self is likely to shift when you’re at a peak or in a valley (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Break the long game down into chapters – Belsky recounts the approach by Ben Silbermann, CEO of Pinterest, who breaks up every period of his company into chapters, each with a beginning, goal, reflection period, and reward. Chapters help break down the long timescale it takes to build something extraordinary. I like to think of them as strategic milestones, each time getting one step closer to achieving the vision for the business.
  • Do the work regardless of whose work it is – Everyone has an opinion, but few are willing to do something about it – especially if it falls outside their formal job description. Belsky describes his marvel at just how quickly an idea takes hold when someone proactively does the underlying work no one else clearly owned. He goes on to talk about how hiring for people with excitement about the idea, ability to contribute right away and the potential to learn is key when assembling a team.
  • Never stop crafting the “first mile” of your product’s experience – Whether you’re building a product, creating art, or writing a book, you need to remember that your customers make sweeping judgments in their first experience interacting with your creation – especially in the first 30 seconds. Belsky call this the “first mile”, and he argues that it’s important to prime your audience to the point where they know three things: 1. Why they’re there (2) What they can accomplish and (3) What to do next.
  • Identify and prioritise efforts with disproportionate impact – Belsky shares a nice prioritisation method by Jeffrey Kalmikoff, which Jeffrey uses to help choose where to focus his energy: look at each item on the table and assign a 3 for very important tasks that would make a huge impact on strategy and revenue, a 2 for something with less significance, and a 1 for something inconsequential.
  • Stress-test your opinions with radical truthfulness – “Sound judgment, achieved through aggressive truth seeking, is your most differentiating and deterministic trait. It’s all about being honest.” This is one of the founding principles behind Bridgewater, the leading hedge funded founded by Ray Dalio. One of the most fundamental principles driving behaviour at Bridgewater is the notion of “Know what you don’t know, and what to do about it.”

Main learning point: In “The Messy Middle”, Belsky has written a book that I expect to be coming back to over the coming years; it’s a great reminder of the realities involved in creating things and contains a lot of valuable lessons learned as well as practical tips.

 

Fig. 1 – Ben Horowitz – Three methods for assigning meaning to hard truths, taken from https://a16z.com/2017/07/27/how-to-tell-the-truth/:

  • State the facts clearly and honestly.
  • If you caused it, explain how such a bad thing could occur.
  • Explain why taking the action is essential to the larger mission and how important that mission is.

 

Fig. 2 – Self awareness, by Scott Belksy – Taken from “The Messy Middle”, pp. 54-56:

  • Self awareness starts with the realisation that when you’re at a peak or in a valley, you’re not your greatest self.
  • Self awareness means understanding your own feelings enough to recognise what bothers you.
  • Self awareness means being permeable.
  • Self awareness comes from chronicling your patterns.
  • Self awareness means dispelling your sense of superiority and the myths that people believe about you.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.themessymiddle.com/
  2. https://a16z.com/2017/07/27/how-to-tell-the-truth/
  3. https://www.adamgrant.net/
  4. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2017/07/enter-matrix-lean-prioritisation/
  5. https://ryanholiday.net/stop-examine-reconsider/
  6. https://blackboxofpm.com/ruthless-prioritization-e4256e3520a9
  7. https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/how-to-learn-what-you-dont-know.html
  8. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stroop_effect

My product management toolkit (35): effective one-on-one meetings

 

Like all meetings, it’s easy to get little out of one-on-one meetings. Ineffective one-on-one meetings affect both managers and their direct reports. Ineffective one-on-one meetings are characterised by at least one party feeling that it’s been a waste of time. These are two examples of ineffective one-on-one meetings that I’ve observed over the years:

‘The generic disengaged one-on-one’

Manager: “How are things?”

Direct report: “All ok. You know, the usual.”

Manager: “Good stuff! That’s great to hear!”

‘The full frontal attack one-on-one’

Direct report: “I’m struggling with the delivery aspect of my role.”

Manager: “Yes, I’ve noticed your underperformance with respect to delivery.”

Manager: “You haven’t met my expectations in this regard!”

Direct report: “But what do you want me to do about!?” or “Does this mean that you’re going to fire me!?”

Particularly if you’re managing or mentoring another person, it’s worth knowing how to best facilitate one-on-one meetings. I strongly believe that valuable one-on-one meetings are important when creating great products and high-performing product teams. Here are some pointers designed to get the most out of your one-on-one meetings:

In preparation for a one-on-one:

I used to be unsure about one-on-one meetings, especially when I started facilitating them. I’ve since learned that preparing for one-on-one meetings goes a long way, both for me as a manager and the person that I’m having the one-on-one with.

  • Revisit what was discussed in your last one-on-one – For example: actions agreed on, topics discussed, feelings shared, particular challenges or opportunities raised, etc. I like to keep brief notes of one-on-one meetings with my direct reports, purely to make sure I come back to outstanding issues or agreed actions in the next one-on-one.
  • Ask the direct report for agenda items – Ask beforehand for any specific things that your direct report would like to discuss in the upcoming one-on-one; things on their mind, questions, challenges, recent events, etc. Having a (loose) agenda in place helps to avoid the awkwardness of what I call the “So, what shall we talk about today!?” moment and adds structure to your conversation.
  • Think about things I’d like to bring up – Even though a one-on-one is mostly about the manager listening, this doesn’t mean that you as a manager can’t bring up the things you want to ask or share as part of the conversation. For example: your concerns and issues, performance feedback, personal development or non work related issues or events.

Questions to ask during the one-on-one:

There are numerous questions one could ask during a one-on-one, and I particularly like the examples previously provided by Ben Horowitz and Claire Lew (see Fig. 1-2 below). These are some of the questions I often find myself asking during one-on-one meetings:

  • “How have you been feeling since our last one-on-one? Why?”
  • “In our last one-on-one you raised your concern about ____. How do you see that now?”
  • “What has been going well, what hasn’t?” Why?”
  • “What can I do to support you better? What can do I do more or less of? Why?”
  • “Is there anything stopping you from doing good work?”
  • “What can I do to help unblock you? Where can I support you best? Why?”
  • “What have you learned lately that might not be related to your day-to-day work but more focused on personal development?”

Following up after the one-on-one:

Make sure to follow up after the one-on-one; I believe it’s very helpful to reflect on what came up during conversation as well as act on any next steps or actions you agreed with your direct report. For instance, if you promised your colleague that you’d look into a specific question for them, I suggest prioritising this action to ensure you follow up on your promised action, well before your next one-on-one.

It doesn’t all have to come down to one-on-one meetings:

I always stress with my colleagues that they don’t have to wait until our next one-on-one to bring up any (critical) issues or questions, as I will always try to make myself ad-hoc conversations as and when needed.

Main learning point: One-on-one meetings can offer a great opportunity to take step back from the day-to-day and reflect. As the person facilitating the conversation, it’s important to prepare for one-on-one meetings and to follow up on them.

 

Fig. 1 – Example one-on-one questions to ask, from Ben Horowitz – Taken from: One On One

  • If we could improve in any way, how would we do it?
  • What’s the No. 1 problem with our organization? Why?
  • What’s not fun about working here?
  • Who is really kicking ass in the company? Who do you admire?
  • If you were me, what changes would you make?
  • What don’t you like about the product?
  • What’s the biggest opportunity that we’re missing out on?
  • What are we not doing that we should be doing?
  • Are you happy working here?

Fig. 2 – Example one-on-one questions to ask, from Claire Lew – Taken from: Managers: You’re not prepared for your one-on-one meetings. Here’s what to do.

Questions that uncover concerns / issues…

  • “When have you felt most motivated about the work you’ve been doing?”
  • “When have you felt bored in the past quarter?”
  • “Is anything holding you back from doing the best work you can do right now?”
  • “Is there any red tape you’d like to cut at the company?”

Questions that elicit feedback about work performance…

  • “Would you like more or less feedback on your work? Why/why not?”
  • “Would you like more or less direction from me? Why/why not?”
  • “What aspect of your job you would like more help or coaching?”
  • “What’s a recent situation you wish you handled differently? What would you change?”

Questions that help provide career direction…

  • “What have you been wanting to learn more of, get better at, and improve on?”
  • “What’s one thing we could do today to help you with your long term goals?”
  • “Is there an area outside your current role where you feel you could be contributing?”
  • “If you could design your ideal role in a company, what would it look like?”

Questions that foster a sense of personal connection…

  • “How’s life?”
  • “What have you been reading lately?”
  • “Been anywhere recently for the first time?”
  • “What have you been excited about lately?”

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.oreilly.com/ideas/3-reasons-to-stop-hating-one-on-one-meetings
  2. https://getlighthouse.com/blog/bad-boss-one-on-ones-torture/
  3. https://getlighthouse.com/blog/one-on-one-meetings-myths/
  4. https://wavelength.asana.com/workstyle-what-is-a-1-1/

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.”

 

preorder-ray-dalio-principles-book-95db76ead27720616fe067f8e730b9f17a1a1c0b115f4028e075cc73ce9dcd40.png

“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

5stepprocess.jpg

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

Brain1.jpg

 

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

Dsx2YkGXcAAZVNC.png

 

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/