Book review: “Humble Inquiry”

Edgar H. Schein, a former professor at MIT has done a lot of research in the field of organisational culture, and I particularly like the work he has done with respect to effective communication. His 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling” is a prime example of Schein’s endeavours to help create what he refers to as ‘positive relationships and effective organisations’.

What does the ‘humble’ part of Humble Inquiry stand for?

When Schein talks about humility in the context of humble inquiry, he refers to ‘Here-and-now Humility’. Schein describes this type of humility felt when a person is dependent on another person to help achieve certain goals or tasks that he or she has committed to. As Schein writes “My status is inferior to yours at this moment because you know something or can do something that I need in order to accomplish some task or goal that I have chosen.”

People can thus choose between denying the dependency on another person (and avoid feeling humble) or engaging with the other person (and be humble). Schein explains why Here-and now Humility’ is hard to learn; in achievement-oriented cultures where knowledge and display of it are admired, asking questions or admitting that you don’t know can be felt as a loss of status.

What does the ‘inquiry’ part of Humble Inquiry stand for?

Inquiry comes down to curiosity. Plain and simple. It means that you ask questions. But Schein is at pains to urge us not to ask any old question; in Humble Inquiry there is no place for:

  • Leading questions – a question that prompts or encourages the answer wanted.
  • Rhetorical questions – a question asked purely to create a dramatic effect or make a point, instead of getting an answer.
  • Statements in the form of questions – you are just making a point or are trying to provoke, but not asking a question.

One of the things I like about the book is that Schein isn’t trying to be prescriptive about the specific questions you should ask. Instead, he encourages the reader to reflect on the kind of relationship that she wants to build and the forces that hinder us in practising Humble Inquiry. I’m keen, however, to offer some practical examples of questions that you could ask, which I believe stimulate active listening and trusted relationships:

 

“Can you help me understand why ___?”

“Would love to understand what you did here.”  

“Just for my learning, can you please explain?”

“Can you think of any major risks related to this task”

“What is the biggest you learned from _____?” 

“What is ____ like today? “Why is that?” 

What could we do differently and why?”

“Can you please talk me through the pros and cons?”

Main learning point: The concept of curiosity sounds so simple and obvious, but in reality we often resort to ‘telling’ instead of ‘asking’. Humble Inquiry teaches us to be mindful of other people and encourages developing a genuine interest in other people and the creation of trusted relationships.

Book review: “Why Are We Yelling?”

 

Buster Benson, entrepreneur and former product leader, has written “Why Are We Yelling?”. In this book, he covers ‘the art of productive disagreement’. Most of us are weary of disagreement, so Benson’s claim that disagreement can be productive is intriguing. The book begins with some of the common misconceptions with respect to disagreement:

  • Arguments are bad – They aren’t bad, but they can’t be unproductive. We aren’t taught how to argue productively.
  • Arguments change minds – We can really change only two things: our own minds and our own behaviour.
  • Arguments end – Arguments have deep roots and will always find a way to grow back again.

Benson then flips these misconceptions to make the case for the “gift of disagreement”:

  • Truth 1: Arguments aren’t bad – They’re signposts to issues that need our attention.
  • Truth 2: Arguments aren’t about changing minds – They are about bringing minds together.
  • Truth 3: Arguments don’t end – They have deep roots and will pop back up again and again, asking us to engage with them.

I thought it was refreshing to read how Benson starts dissecting product disagreement by zooming in on anxiety. He explains how anxiety sparks “when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way” and offers ways to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement (see Fig. 1 below).

There are number of internal voices that come to life in the case of a disagreement. Benson cites the three main ones and explains how these tend to be culturally engrained:

  • The voice of power – This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Take it or leave it” or “My way or the highway”. The voice of power isn the ultimate conflict-resolution strategy, because you can’t argue with sheer force. Benson states that this what power does – it forcibly closes down arguments and ends conflict in your favour, which is an undeniable evolutionary advantage.
  • The voice of reason – This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Why?” or “That doesn’t add up”. The voice of reason is all about using reasons to shut down a debate. Benson argues that the voice of reason works best in situations where you have disagreements with people who share respect for the same higher authority or are part of the same group or organisation that your reasons draw from.
  • The voice of avoidance – This is the internal voice which tells you things such as “I would prefer not to” or “Leave me out of it”. Benson describes how “conflict avoiders have identified flaws in the voices of power and reason and so have chosen to address conflicts by simply refusing to participate in them in the first place.”

Core to the book is the fourth voice that Benson introduces: the voice of possibility. The voice of possibility seeks to make conflict productive. This voice resonates in questions like:

  • What are we missing?
  • What else is possible?
  • What else can we do with what we have?
  • Who else can we bring into the conversation to give us a new perspective?

Benson makes the point that the voice of possibility encourages us very explicitly not to do what the other three voices – power, reason and avoidance – have made habitual in us, which is to find a way to uproot and kill the conflict. We need to, Benson argues, develop ‘honest bias’. He also offers a set of useful guidelines with respect to product disagreement:

  1. Watch how anxiety sparks – These sparks are signposts to our own internal map of dangerous ideas. Notice the difference between big and small sparks.
  2. Talk to your internal voices – Most of us have internal voices that map to the voices of power, reason, and avoidance. Get to know yours so you can recognise their suggestions as merely suggestions, not orders.
  3. Develop honest bias – There is no cure for bias, but we can develop an honest relationship to our own bias with self-reflection, frequent requests for thoughtful feedback, and a willingness to address feedback directly, however it comes.
  4. Speak for yourself – Don’t speculate about others, especially groups that you don’t belong to. Instead, seek out a respectable member of any group you might otherwise speculate about and invite them to your table to speak for themselves. Listen generously.
  5. Ask questions that invite surprising answers – Think of big wide-open questions that create space for divergent perspectives to be heard. Measure the quality of your questions by the honesty and eloquence that they draw out from the person answering them.
  6. Build arguments together – Structure arguments into evidence of the problems and opportunities (to support conflicts of head), diverse perspectives within the argument (to support conflicts of heart),and proposals to address the problems and opportunities ((to support conflicts of hand).
  7. Cultivate neutral spaces – A neutral space is inviting; it opens up big questions and allows arguments to strengthen and the fruit of disagreement to grow. It creates wiggle room for perspectives to shift and expand without punishment or shame. It reminds us that it’s okay to be uncertain indefinitely and it’s okay to act while uncertain.
  8. Accept reality, then participate in it – We can’t change reality from the realm of wishful thinking and wilful blindness. We can’t hide from dangerous ideas. We’re right in the mess with all of it, getting our heads, hearts, and hands dirty. The only way out is through.

Main learning point: ‘Why We Are Yelling?’ successfully demystifies the common notion that disagreement needs to be painful and unproductive. In this book, Buster Benson describes the rationale behind this notion – through three, culturally engrained voices – and introduces a powerful new voice; the voice of possibility.

 

Fig. 1 – How to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement – Taken from: Buster Benson – Why Are We Yelling?, pp. 54 – 55:

  1. When you notice anxiety, pause and ask yourself: are you anxious about what is true, what is meaningful, or what is useful?
  2. Ask the other party the same question. Do they give the same answer or something different?
  3. Narrate out loud what each of you is anxious about (this buys more time and slows things down). Reiterate how each of you answered the question to see if that leads to new connections for yourself or the other person.
  4. Check to see if either of you is willing to switch to what the other is anxious about. Who has more cognitive dissonance happening and could use the other’s help?

My product management toolkit (40): managing time

“Time Management” comes up in lot in conversations that I have with other product managers. The concern is about their ability to be a good product person, managing a product end-to-end while being short on time and fighting lots of different, and often conflicting requests. We’re busy* all the time but are we busy working on the right things? Are we able to focus on the things that really matter? How much control do we have over our own calendars? If not, are there ways to regain some of that control?

 

 

Since moving to the UK over 14 years ago I must have come across at least ten different ways of saying that you’re busy, almost like a badge of honour 🙂 From being chock a block to being slammed to up to your eyeballs, it definitely took me some time getting used to these expressions 🙂

Especially given the fluid nature of the product management role and the associated risk of being pulled in lots of different directions, it’s important to consider how we spend our time and what we should say ‘no’ to. I will share a number of tools and techniques that you might find useful when prioritising and managing your time, based both on my own experience and the great work by Jake Knapp (Make Time) and Greg McKeown (Essentialism):

  1. We’ve got a choice (1) – Sometimes I can’t help scratching my head when we talk about empowering people. In my mind, people are empowered when they enter the workplace, but collectively we inadvertently end up taking some of that power away, e.g. by entering meetings in people’s diaries, setting recurring tasks, etc. Understandably, we don’t always feel empowered or comfortable saying no to things, instead saying things like “I have to” or “They want me to”. In the great book “Essentialism” Greg McKeown reminds us that we have the power of choice and that we can say “I choose to”.
  2. We’ve got a choice (2) – The ability to choose can be applied to tough tradeoff decisions on how to best spend your time. Instead of asking the question “How can I do both?” we should wonder “Which problem do I want?” or “What can I go big on?” We thus put ourselves in a position where we decide about the tradeoffs that we’re prepared to make. Ultimately this comes down to establishing what really matters and why.
  3. Identify what really matters – McKeown suggests that a ‘non-essentialist’ says yes to almost every request or opportunity, based on very broad criteria. In contrast, an ‘essentialist’ will say yes to only the top 10% of opportunities, using explicit criteria to (de) prioritise opportunities. I like how McKeown tries to keep things simple by suggesting that “if it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” You can also use Suzy Welch’s 10/10/10 test to decide whether something is worth prioritising or not: How will I feel about this 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now?
  4. Saying “no” – Saying “no” is a valid option when presenting with conflicting requests, and there are a number of ways to say no graciously but firmly (see Fig. 1 below).
  5. Reflect on how you currently spend your time – Particularly if you’re feeling chronically overworked or that you’re not getting anything done, it’s worth keeping track of how you’re spending your time. Over the course, you could track how much time you spend in meetings, checking and responding to email or Slack messages, reading a book, doing exercise, doing admin tasks, etc. This exercise isn’t about accounting for every minute of the day but about building up a more global picture of how you spend your time. For instance, if you find that 80% of your time is spent, it could be worth reflecting on the different meetings you attend. How helpful are they? Why (not)? What are the opportunity cost attached to attending these meetings? Reflecting on such findings will help you in making tweaks to your schedule or ways of working.
  6. Carve out time (1) – Naturally, it’s hard to cater for unexpected events or things taking longer than planned if your schedule is fully packed with meetings or other activities. Keown recommends building in some buffer time – daily or weekly – to deal with unexpected events or to start preparing early for future priorities or commitments. Generally, blocking out time is extremely important if you want to retain a sense of proactivity and doing those things that really matter to you. For example, no one is going to schedule in regular time slots for you to study competitors or to look at product performance data, and you might well have to block out dedicated time to ensure this happens on a regular basis.
  7. Carve out time (2) – Similar to how you’d carve out time to do specific things, it can help to block out time to respond to email instead of constantly being distracted by new messages coming in. I find that if you only go through email twice a day, e.g. from 9-10am and 4-5pm – you’ll capture most of the important stuff in your inbox while still being responsive. To make the most of the dedicated that you carve out, I suggest minimising distractions e.g. by temporarily turning off email, Slack or text notifications. I know it involves using technology, but apps like Forest can be a great help if you want to create focus time.
  8. Pick and plan your highlights (1) – In “Make Time” Jake Knapp distinguishes four steps to making sure we focus on the right things, repeating these steps every day: highlight, laser, reflect and energise (see Fig. 2 below). Knapp stresses the importance of thinking upfront what you’d like to be the highlight of the end of each day, making sure that you spend time on things that matter to you instead of losing the entire day reacting to other people’s priorities.
  9. Pick and plan your highlights (2) – Knapp suggests three different ways to pick your highlight: urgency, satisfaction and joy (see Fig. 3 below). I have seen other people apply a similar approach, whereby they select a few big ‘rocks’ that they really want or need to do on a given day, complemented by a small number of  ‘pebbles’. Similarly, when I plan my day, I typically have a small number of items above the line and a certain number of items below the line, trying to make sure I do the above the line items first.
  10. Apply made up constraints – Even if a deadline or another type of constraint hasn’t been set, you can apply one to make sure you achieve your goals. For instance, if you’re preparing a work presentation and are worried about spending days on the largest PowerPoint deck the world has ever seen, you can set yourself a maximum number of slides that you can’t go over. Naturally, the trick is to then stick to the deadline or restriction that you’ve made up, but I know from experience that applying these constraints goes a long way in being productive.

Main learning point: I know full well that there are plenty of great books, blog posts, etc. on the topic of time management, and the approach that works for one person might not work for someone else. Writing this post, however, made me reflect on the key thing about managing your time: proactivity. Time management is all about being more on the front foot with respect to adding value to your life, your job, relationships, etc. and therefore a topic worthy revisiting on a regular basis.

 

Fig. 1 – Ways of saying “no” graciously but firmly – Adapted from: Greg McKeown, Essentialism

  • Pause – Pause for a moment when a request comes to you. You can take a moment to count to three when you’re being asked in person or not responding immediately via email. Doing this gives you the time necessary to decide whether you can or want to honour the request.
  • The soft “no” (or the “no but” or “not now”) – Instead of a blunt no, you could say something something along the lines of “I can’t do it now, but can I do it by the end of this week instead, as I need to finish a few other things first. Would that work?” or “No, but let me check with my team whether someone else can do it.”
  • Let me check my calendar and get back to you – To avoid committing to something and only afterwards realising that there’s a diary or priority conflict, I will often give myself time to check my calendar and priorities before confirming.
  • Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritise?” – No one has said that prioritisation is a pure solo effort. By indicating that something will have to give if you say yes, you can have a constructive conversation about your priorities and an opportunity to further explain why you prioritised these things in the first place.
  • Say it with humour –  Having lots on or saying no doesn’t mean that the world is falling apart 🙂 Sometimes, I will joke about needing to get creative to make things happen or doing some time-travelling to indicate that I can’t satisfy the request (now).
  • Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to X” – Not only does the phrase “You are welcome to X. I am willing to do Y” provide clarity about what the other person can expect, you’re also being explicit about what you can’t or aren’t willing to do.

 

Fig. 2 – Make time consists of four steps – Taken from: Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, Make Time

  • Highlight – Choose a single activity to prioritise and protect in your calendar.
  • Laser – Beat distraction to make time for your Highlight.
  • Energise – Use the body to recharge the brain.
  • Reflect – Take a few notes before you go to bed, adjust and improve your system based on your reflections.

 

Fig. 3 – Make time consists of four steps – Taken from: Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, Make Time

  • Urgency – What’s the most pressing thing I have to do today?
  • Satisfaction – At the end of the day, which Highlight will bring me the most satisfaction?
  • Joy – When I reflect on today, what will bring me the most joy?

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://jakeknapp.com/make-time
  2. https://svpg.com/coaching-managing-time/
  3. https://gregmckeown.com/book/
  4. https://medium.com/@christopherjones_12942/aligning-a-product-managers-effort-with-their-priorities-3af576f2dfa1
  5. https://www.oprah.com/spirit/suzy-welchs-rule-of-10-10-10-decision-making-guide/all
  6. https://www.businessinsider.com/time-management-productivity-rocks-pebbles-sand-2019-2

Book Review: “Unlearn” by Barry O’Reilly

“Disruption does not actually apply to organisations. The truth is it applies to individuals.” states Barry O’Reilly early on in Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results. O’Reilly goes on to explain what great leaders and their companies have in common: a capability within themselves to innovate, adapt, and anticipate the future. Barry O’Reilly is a business advisor, entrepreneur, and author who operates at the intersection of business model innovation, product development, organisational design and culture transformation.

In order to adjust, O’Reilly argues in his latest book, we’ll need to unlearn, which starts with acknowledging that what you’re doing isn’t working for you. You need to let go of past viewpoints or behaviours, and take action to do what’s needed to progress. The Cycle of Unlearning contains four distinct steps to go through each time we need to adapt and innovate.

Barry O’Reilly, The Cycle of Unlearning

 

Step 1: Unlearn – Unlearning starts with the recognition that what we’re doing isn’t working. The core premise of “Unlearn” is a strong willingness to learn and to unlearn those behaviours and mindsets which once served us successfully. The first step in the process of unlearning requires courage, self-awareness, and humility to accept  that your own beliefs, mindsets, or behaviours are limiting your potential and current performance and that you must consciously move away from them.

Step 2: Relearn – O’Reilly makes the point that as you unlearn your current limiting but ingrained methods, behaviours, and thinking, you can take in new data, information, and perspectives. This is the process of relearning, which comes with its own challenges: (1) you must be willing to adapt and be open to information that goes against your inherent beliefs (2) you may need to to learn how to learn again and (3) you must create an environment for relearning to happen in a meaningful, yet often challenging, space outside your existing comfort zone. The point of relearning is that you’re trying to get better information and learn to see, sense, and listen differently, to respond and act differently.

Step 3: Breakthrough – Breakthrough is the net result of unlearning and then relearning. O’Reilly stresses in his book that breakthrough isn’t simply a matter of telling people to think differently, with the expectation that they will act differently as a result. Instead, the way to think differently is to act differently. This isn’t a one off event; it’s continuous and a deliberate practice or habit in its own right, often triggered by specific unlearning prompts:

  • Where are you falling short of your expectations?
  • Where are you not seeing the outcomes you want?
  • What are you willing to do to affect those outcomes?
  • How could you get out of your comfort zone and succeed?
  • What would thinking BIG but starting small be for you?

In the book, O’Reilly outlines what he sees as the four necessary conditions of unlearning:

  1. Identify a challenge you wish to address – Pick a challenge you want to tackle and don’t worry about waiting for the right moment to do so. O’Reilly suggests that the best place to start is where you’re right now.
  2. Define success as though you have dissolved or conquered the challenge – What are the behaviours you, your team, or your customers would be exhibiting to confirm that you had addressed that challenge and not only solved it, but dissolved it forever?
  3. Channel courage over seeking comfort – O’Reilly makes the point that seeking comfort over courage often results in taking the easy option of avoiding situations where you feel you’re not in control of the outcome. As a result, you’re stuck in the status quo and not growing. Whilst not easy to do, moving outside your comfort zone requires courage and a willingness to be vulnerable.
  4. Commit to, start, and scale the cycle of unlearning – Once the three previous conditions are in place, it’s important to commit to moving forward through the Cycle of Unlearning and to do so continually (see above).

Helpfully, O’Reilly has included necessary conditions for relearning and breakthrough too. Reflection, for example, is a necessary condition for relearning. Continuously reflecting on what has happened will lead to valuable, breakthrough moments and insights. You break through by stepping back and reflecting on exactly what it is that you’re doing and the results your effort is yielding.

 

Main learning point: Having not really thought about the concept about unlearning before, Barry O’Reilly’s book provided much clarity about discarding old beliefs or approaches and replacing them with new ones. Never does the book feel like unlearning is a silver bullet that will magically solve all your learning or innovation challenges. Instead, O’Reilly pains a realistic picture of the courage required to unlearn, and the ongoing nature of un- and relearning.

 

Book Review: “Red Teaming” by Bryce Hoffman

Groupthink or complacency can be devastating when developing great products. Having someone who plays or is a devil’s advocate is often a welcome aspect of the product development process. So-called “red teams” take playing devil’s advocate to the next level; the mission of such teams is to force businesses and people to think differently. Red teams will push businesses to consider alternative points of view or contemplate worst case scenarios. Red teaming makes us aware of our assumptions and cognitive biases, and offers us a means of overcoming them. “Red Teaming” is the brilliant book by Bryce Hoffman in which he examines the origins of red teaming and offers an abundance of red teaming techniques.

 

 

 

Red teaming exercises are applied in a wide range of contexts:

  • Cybersecurity – Companies hiring specialised red teams to attack their technology and exploit security vulnerabilities. Going beyond standard penetration tests, red teams will act as aggressively and unrestricted as any hacker would.
  • Intelligence – Whether it’s NATO, the CIA or the Israeli army, they all have teams dedicated to doing “alternative analysis”, set up explicitly to challenge prevalent assumptions within intelligence bodies.
  • Business – When developing a business strategy, companies often consider a best case scenario, assuming that everything will go to plan. Red teaming exercises can help in laying bare any strategic gaps or flaws, helping companies scan the business environment for both threats and opportunities.

Whatever the context, red teaming is all about rigorous questioning and thinking unconventionally. Red teams consists of people who’ve proven to be contrarian thinkers. These are the three phases of a typical red teaming exercise:

  1. Using analytical tools to question the arguments and assumptions that too often go unquestioned during the regular planning process.
  2. Using imaginative techniques to figure out what could go wrong – and what could go right – with the plan, in order to expose hidden threats and missed opportunities.
  3. Applying contrarian thinking to challenge the plan and force the organisation to consider alternative perspectives.

Hoffman argues that adopting a red teaming mindset means that you’re not taking anything for granted, challenging everything and thinking the unthinkable. Red teaming is about looking at the future, and not getting burdened by the past. In the book, Hoffman also explain what red teaming is not:

  • A challenge to leadership – The red team’s role is to empower leaders and managers to make better decisions by providing them with a more objective analysis, a more comprehensive picture of the business environment, and alternative options to consider.
  • A creator of new plans – Hoffman stresses that red teams don’t make plans. In contrast, their purpose is to make existing plans better.
  • Always right (or has to be right) – Red teams don’t need to be right to be effective. They work more effectively in those environments where it’s ok to be wrong.

The question arises when it make sense to create a red team. Hoffman explains that although all red teaming starts out with a problem, not all problems require red teaming. David Snowden’s Cynefin framework is great tool to figure whether it’s worth doing a red teaming exercise:

 

 

Fig. 1 – David Snowden’s Cynefin framework – Taken from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-four-contexts-of-the-Cynefin-framework-When-in-disorder-the-actual-context-is-not_fig2_283194976

 

If problems fall in the “complicated” or the “simple” quadrants of the Cynefin framework, they can be solved through a more straightforward, reductionist approach to problem solving. Problems that are “complex” or “chaotic” tend to be much more open ended and fluid, thus benefiting from a more radical problem solving approach. Ideally, red teaming should begin after a plan has been created but before it has been approved, while there’s still time to approve it.

Finally, Hoffman’s book contains a range of valuable techniques to consider as part of a red teaming exercise:

  • Problem Restatement – When faced with a challenge or problem, one of the best first steps in solving – even before you start thinking up possible solutions – is to examine and restate the problem.
  • Think-Write-Share – This technique is a way of ensuring that the red team begins with divergent thinking and moves to convergent thinking. The technique works like this: Start by asking team members to think about a problem or question, then write down their thoughts and share them with the group.
  • 1-2-4-All – 1-2-4-All enables you to engage all team members simultaneously – irrespective of team size – in generating questions, ideas, and suggestions.
  • Argument Dissection – Dissecting an argument involves asking a number of questions of any argument that is used to justify a particular course of action, or that is offered as an explanation for a problem.
  • Key Assumptions Check – Hoffman explains how in red teaming, it’s essential to differentiate between facts and assumptions. Facts are things that are objectively true right now. However, most plans fail because they rely on unstated or unexamined assumptions.

Main learning point: Red teams or red teaming exercises can be extremely valuable for businesses, whether you’re creating a strategy or developing a new product. Red teaming breaks through groupthink and inertia, and will offer important alternative perspectives to consider.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_team
  2. https://brycehoffman.com/books/red-teaming/
  3. http://web.archive.org/web/20130509055208/http://slashdot.org/topic/bi/symphony-of-self-destruction-strengthening-security-with-a-red-team/
  4. https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/30/inside-the-cia-red-cell-micah-zenko-red-team-intelligence/
  5. https://www.act.nato.int/images/stories/events/2011/cde/rr_ukdcdc.pdf
  6. https://www.act.nato.int/images/stories/media/capdev/capdev_03.pdf
  7. https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making
  8. Morgan D. Jones – The Thinker’s Toolkit
  9. https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/4-TWPS_Template.pdf
  10. http://www.liberatingstructures.com/1-1-2-4-all/