Book review: “The No Asshole Rule”

Do you consider yourself an asshole at times? Can you pinpoint moments where you felt – in retrospect – where you acted like an asshole? Apologies for the profuse use of the word “asshole”, I blame it on a great book I read recently: “The No Asshole Rule” by Bob Sutton. First published in 2007, Sutton describes what makes an asshole and offers tips on how to stop yourself from acting like one!

These are the main things I took away from reading “The No Asshole” book:

  1. What makes an asshole? – Sutton refers to a valuation by Bennett Tepper who studied psychological abuse in the workplace and introduced a useful definition for asshole behaviour: “the sustained display of hostile verbal and non verbal behaviour, excluding physical contact.”
  2. Do the asshole test – In the book, Sutton suggests two ways to test whether there’s an asshole at play or not. Firstly, after talking to the alleged asshole, does the ‘target’ feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energised, or belittled by the person. In other words, does the target feel worse about him or herself as a result? Secondly, does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at people who are more powerful?
  3. “Handle with care!?” – I like how Sutton cites research which shows how constructive arguments over ideas – NOT nasty personal arguments – drives greater performance. In order words, interacting effectively with others doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to have a constructive debate or pose a constructive challenge. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson talks a lot about how to best create psychologically work space. A strong sense of fear among employees or people feeling uncomfortable to speak up (especially with more senior people) can be signs of work spaces which don’t feel fully safe to the people that work in them.
  4. What to do when facing an asshole? “Small wins” – Research has shown that a feeling of control – even over the smallest aspect of your fate – can have a big impact on your wellbeing. Psychologist Karl Weick contends that aiming for ‘small wins’ is often a more comforting and ultimately more effective strategy than aiming for ‘big wins’. In the case of being exposed to assholes, Sutton suggests looking at small ways to reduce the interaction with assholes or other wise to seize a sense of control.

Main learning point: “Assholes are us” is one of the closing comments in Sutton’s book. If you want to create an asshole-free environment, you need start with having a long, hard look at yourself. A good friend of mine once encouraged me to think “how is that true of me?” every time I’d judge someone else or their behaviour. It means being able to stop your ‘inner asshole’ from coming out or you avoiding working at places with lots of assholes 🙂

 

Fig. 1 – “The Dirty Dozen – Common Everyday Actions That Assholes Use” – Taken from: Bob Sutton, “The No Asshole Rule”, p. 10

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one’s ‘personal territory’
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non verbal
  5. ‘Sarcastic jokes’ and ‘teasing’ used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering email flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or ‘status degradation’ rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

Fig. 2 – What’s your Total Cost of Assholes to Your Organisation; factors to consider when calculating the total cost of assholes to your organisation – Examples taken from: Bob Sutton, “The No Asshole Rule”, pp. 44-46

  • Damage to victims and witnesses – For example: distraction from tasks; reduced psychological safety and climate of fear and loss of motivation;
  • Woes of certified assholes – Victims and witnesses hesitating to help; retaliation from victims and witnesses and long term career damage.
  • Wicked consequences for management – Time spent appeasing, calming, counselling or disciplining assholes; time spent ‘cooling out’ employees who are victimised and managing burnout.
  • Legal and HR management costs – Anger management and other training to reform assholes; legal costs for inside and outside counsel and health-insurance costs.
  • When assholes reign: negative effectives on organisations – Reduced innovation and creativity; reduced ‘discretionary’ effort and and dysfunctional internal cooperation.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/the_no_asshole_rule/
  2. https://hbr.org/2007/03/why-i-wrote-the-no-asshole-rule
  3. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0149206307300812
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4STnZm21–E

My product management toolkit (26): PAUSE and LISTEN

If there are two things I can definitely improve, I’d say it would be my ability to “pause” and “listen”. Too often, I’ve made the mistake of not listening to what the other person is saying. Instead, I’m thinking of what to say myself or making assumptions, completely ‘steamrolling’ the other person in the process …

 

Looking back, I guess my inability to listen was closely linked to my focus on products over people. This focus effectively meant that I cared more about products, and less about building relationships with people. For example, I felt at times that internal stakeholders were more of a necessary evil whose sole purpose was to hinder product development. Fortunately, I no longer adhere to this point of view and I’ve come to realise how critical collaboration is to building great products.

I had to think back to this transition when I recently read “Practical Empathy”, which Indi Young, an independent UX consultant, published in 2015. In this great book, Young explains that empathy is all about understanding what’s going on in other people’s minds. She describes “listening” as a vital tool to create a deeper understanding and talks about “a new way to listen”:

  • Listen for reasoning (inner thinking) – What is going through someone else’s mind?
  • Listen for reactions  Reactions often go hand in hand with reasoning. For instance, I could express an emotional response when I describe why I decided to make a career change.
  • Listen for guiding principles – A guiding principle is a philosophy or belief that someone uses to decide what action to take, what to choose, how to act, etc.

I found that for people like me – i.e. with lots of opinions, thoughts, ideas and assumptions – listening can be incredibly difficult. In the Netherlands where I was born, voicing your opinion and standing up for oneself are considered highly regarded attributes. I’ve had to learn – and am still learning – to “pause” a lot more. Instead of jumping to conclusions or simply getting my two cents in, I’ve learned to breathe and pause first before deciding to say something or to simply listen. I’m trying to remind myself continuously that each I forget to listen, I forfeit the opportunity to understand what’s driving the other person.

Let me share a real life example with you, to illustrate how listening can help to develop a better understanding of where the other person is coming from:

Example

A while ago, I was talking about team performance with an engineer and he mentioned that “we have to be careful, because most engineers are delicate beings”.

Me – before understanding a single thing about listening and empathy

With a comment like the engineer had made, I’d have jumped straight in there and would have said: “what are you talking about! Surely, not all developers are delicate human beings! I’ve worked with some developers who made me look like a wallflower!” and so on and so forth.

Me – with the beginnings of an understanding about listening and empathy

In this real life example, I didn’t respond at all. I paused and listened. By allowing the engineer speak, I started to understand that he cared deeply about the developers in the team and considered himself as their mentor, wanting to make sure they fully enjoyed their day job.

The moral of this story is that listening starts with taking that split second to stop that innate desire to respond immediately. I learned a lot about listening from reading and practising the insights from “Active Listening”, another valuable book. In this book by Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker, they describe the four components of active listening:

  1. Acceptance – Acceptance is about respecting the person that you’re talking to; irrespective of what the other person has to say but purely because you’re talking to another human being. Accepting means trying to avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person is saying, at least initially. I’ve often made this mistake; being too keen to express my views and thus encouraging the speaker to take a very defensive stance in the conversation.
  2. Honesty – Honesty comes down to being open about your reactions to what you’ve heard. Similar to the acceptance component, honest reactions given too soon can easily stifle further explanation on the part of the speaker.
  3. Empathy – Empathy is about your ability to understand the speaker’s situation on an emotional level, based on your own view. Basing your understanding on your own view instead of on a sense of what should be felt, creates empathy instead of sympathy. Empathy can also be defined as your desire to feel the speaker’s emotions, regardless of your own experience.
  4. Specifics – Specifics refers to the need to deal in details rather than generalities. The point here is that for communication to be worthwhile, you should ask the speaker to be more specific, encouraging the speaker to open up more or “own” the problem that they’re trying to raise.

The thing with empathy, as Young points out in her book, is that it isn’t about having to feel warmth for the other person or fully agree with him / her. In contrast, empathy means understanding and comprehending the other person. It takes time and skill to be able to drop in to a neutral frame of mind to:

  • Resist the urge to demonstrate how smart you are – Well known technology exec and investor Bill Krause used to write down “DNT” in his notepad during meetings. “DNT” stood for “Do Not Talk”, and he used it as a practical tool to stop himself from saying something or showing how smart he was. Young also provides some good tips on how to stop yourself from talking or saying too much (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Develop the knowledge to gain empathy – In “Practical Empathy”, Young suggests a few simple questions that can help you build a better understanding of the other person’s deeper reasoning and principles. Readers are encouraged to use the fewest number of words possible when asking question (see Fig. 1 below).
  • Apply empathy to both customers and colleagues – UX expert Erika Hall recently made a great point about the importance of applying empathy to co-workers (listen to the Aurelius podcast here for the interview with Erika). Again, I used to make the mistake of solely applying customer empathy but not paying enough attention or respect to colleagues. Showing empathy towards can be as simple as understanding about someone’s else workload or OKRs.

Main learning point: Empathy – both inward and outward – is SO SO important. Pausing and listening are your first tools on the path towards developing empathy. Yes, I look back on mistakes made and people that I’ve upset in the past due to a lack of empathy, but I feel that I’ve learned a lot since then (whilst I appreciate I still have got a long way to go). If you want to get started on developing and showing more empathy, I’d highly recommend reading “Practical Empathy” by Indi Young and “Active Listening” by Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker.

 

Fig. 1 – Use the fewest number of words possible – Taken from: Indi Young – Practical Empathy, p. 60

  • “Why’s that?”
  • “What were you thinking?”
  • “What’s your reasoning?”
  • Tell me more about <her phrase>.”
  • “Because?”

Fig. 2 – Summary of “a new way to listen” – Taken from: Indi Young – Practical Empathy, p. 77

What to listen for:

Reasoning: Thinking, decision-making, motivations, thought processes, rationalisation.

Reaction: Responses to something – mostly emotional, some behavioural.

Guiding Principle: Belief that guides decisions.

Follow the peaks and valleys:

  • Started with a broad topic
  • Let the speaker keep choosing the direction
  • Dig into the last few remarks
  • Use the fewest number of words possible
  • Reiterate a topic to show attention, verify your understanding and ask for more
  • Avoid introducing words the speaker hasn’t used
  • Try not to say “I”

Be supportive:

  • Don’t fake it – react, be present
  • Never switch abruptly
  • Adapt yourself to the mood
  • Don’t cause doubt or worry

Be respectful:

  • Be the undermind, not the overmind
  • Resist the urge to demonstrate how smart you are
  • Avoid implying or telling the speaker she is wrong

Neutralise your reactions:

  • Learn how to notice your emotional reactions
  • Dissipate your reactions and judgments

 

 

Book review: “Zero to One”

Whatever you think of Peter Thiel, he’s got a lot of ‘street cred’ in the world of technology and venture capital. We all know how he founded PayPal and turned it into a billion dollar company. As a tech investor, Thiel is widely known for being an early investor in the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn. Listening to a recent interview between Thiel and Reid Hoffman on the latter’s podcast inspired me to read Thiel’s “Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How To Build the Future”. Thiel published “Zero to One” in 2014, based on a course about startups that he taught at Stanford previously.

Truth be told, some of Thiel’s views and concepts in “Zero to One” didn’t resonate with me, mostly because I struggled to convert them into action points I can apply to my own situation (read: working at a successful but early stage startup, and being based in London and not in Silicon Valley). Perhaps that’s exactly the point of Thiel’s book; to provide readers with a wide range of views, some more visionary and though provoking than others, and leaving it with readers to ‘pick and mix’ as they see fit. Consequently, these are the main learning points that I took away from reading “Zero to One”:

  1. Forget about being the first mover, be the last mover instead (1) – In strategy terms, people often talk about the benefits of being a “first mover”; a company’s ability to have a head start over its competitors as a result of being first to market in a new product category. The Hoover vacuum cleaner or Apple’s iPad are good examples of products which opened up a whole new product category and therefore did enjoy (durable) first mover advantage. Thiel, however, flips this by arguing the benefits of being a last mover.
  2. Forget about being the first mover, be the last mover instead (2) – Thiel argues that “moving first is a tactic, not a goal.” He stresses that the point of any business is to generate future cash flows, so being the first mover doesn’t do you any good if someone else comes along and unseats you. Video streaming app Meerkat is a good example of a product which was first to market, but got quickly overtaken by late(r) entrants Periscope and Facebook Live. Thiel explains “It’s much better to be the last mover – that is, to make the last great development in  a specific market and enjoy years or even decades of monopoly profits.” He advises that in order to get to such a position, companies need to dominate a small niche and scale up from there, constantly moving toward their long-term vision.
  3. The value of long term planning – I really like Thiel’s point about “lean” being a methodology, not a goal in it’s own right. As much as I see the value and importance of learning early and often, I do agree with Thiel’s opinion s about the pointlessness of iterating just for the sake of it. What’s the point of a Minimum Viable Product if you aren’t going to learn from it and iterate accordingly? What’s the value of just releasing ‘stuff’ without reflecting on whether a release got you a step closer to achieving your overall vision and commercial success? Thiel describes how successful companies like Apple and Facebook used long-term planning and business planning to get a position of durable market success.
  4. What to do with the “Power Law”? (1) – Thiel gives readers a good insight into the workings of venture capital (‘VC’) companies when he discusses the “power law”. The power law is based on the Pareto Principle. You might have come across this principle in the form of the 80/20 rule; explaining the unequal relationship between inputs and outputs, with 20% of invested input being responsible for 80% of results obtained. Thiel explains that this uneven pattern exists just as much in the VC world: “The biggest secret in venture capital is that the best investment in a successful fund equals or outperforms the entire rest of of the fund combined.” To optimise for the power law, Thiel recommends focusing on one market, one distribution strategy and, as a consequence, to be cautious about diversification.
  5. What to do with the “Power Law”? (2) – For me, the most valuable bit of “Zero to One” is the part where Thiel covers how to best use the power law when making critical business and product decisions. Going over his questions, I learned the importance of being pretty single minded about your unique proposition and execution (see Fig. 1 below). Thiel’s thinking about these questions is pretty simple: “Whatever your industry, any great business plan must address each every one of them. If you don’t have good answers to these questions, you’ll run into lots of “bad luck” and your business will fail. If you nail all seven you’ll master fortune and succeed.”

Fig. 1 – “Seven questions that every business must answer” – Taken from: Peter Thiel, “Zero to One”, pp. 153-154

  1. The Engineering Question – Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
  2. The Timing Question – Is now the right time to start your particular business?
  3. The Monopoly Question – Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  4. The People Question – Do you have the right team?
  5. The Distribution Question – Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
  6. The Durability Question – Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
  7. The Secret Question – Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

Main learning point: You can tell that “Zero to One” is written by someone who’s ‘been there and done that’. Thiel speaks with authority about the need to focus on a single market and busts commonplace myths about ‘lean’, first mover advantage and diversification.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/11098971/Peter-Thiel-the-billionaire-tech-entrepreneur-on-a-mission-to-cheat-death.html
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/21/peter-thiel-republican-convention-speech
  3. https://art19.com/shows/masters-of-scale/episodes/09f191df-d089-49a3-876d-75c7730a3f94
  4. http://www.reidhoffman.org/
  5. http://zerotoonebook.com/
  6. https://hbr.org/2005/04/the-half-truth-of-first-mover-advantage
  7. https://marketing-insider.eu/categories-of-new-products/
  8. https://medium.com/@RevelX/first-mover-disadvantage-9-reasons-being-the-first-to-market-may-harm-your-business-9ec75a85b1d2
  9. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/10/13/peter-thiel-we-dont-live-in-a-normal-world-we-live-under-a-power-law/#35b4d7fc7a7d
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle

 

Book review: “Product Leadership”

A few months ago, Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw published “Product Leadership”, a great book which shares stories and insights from top product managers who’ve built world class products and highly performant product teams. Banfield, Eriksson and Walkingshaw are all well established product management experts, and as part of writing “Product Leadership” they interviewed some of the best product managers in the field about their ways of working.

The authors distinguish between product management and product leadership, stressing the need to focus more on product leadership. This book isn’t about just managing a product team; as the book states, “A product leader is ultimately responsible for the success and failure of a product, and by extension, the company itself.” This raises the question about what makes a true product leader:

  1. “Product is people” – The book makes a great point about the importance of people within a product management context. More and more organisations are moving away from a traditional top-down approach, whereby senior management determines ‘upstream’ what people ‘downstream’ should be doing. Companies like Spotify have been very successful in creating autonomous and cross-functional teams. The success of this approach doesn’t only come from the cross-functional and collaborative nature of Spotify teams; people within these teams are also very close to the customer. When Banfield, Eriksson and Walkingshaw talk about ‘people’, they talk about people both within and outside of a product organisation.
  2. Focus on customer problems – I love how the book stresses the importance of focusing on customer problems. I liked the comment in the book from User Interface Engineering’s Jared Spool. He suggests having themes on the roadmap instead of features: “Themes are a promise to solve a problems not to build features.” Once you’ve truly understood customer problems, you can start prioritising. Banfield, Eriksson and Walkingshaw suggest that prioritisation is best done through the lens of the core product management principles: first, is it valuable; second, is it usable and third, is it feasible?
  3. Creating a successful product team – The book covers the ingredients of successful product teams (see Fig. 1 below). The authors point out that none of the people they interviewed mentioned hard skills, such as engineering, design or even specific product management expertise. In contrast, with product managers, the focus is much more on soft skills. One of my favourite product people, Drift CEO and cofounder David Cancel, believes that the traits of a successful product leader will always be weighted towards softer skills.”What we’re looking for are things that fit more on the qualitative side, which people hate because it’s so squishy”, Cancel explains.
  4. How to identify product leaders – The book rightly makes the point that hiring product leaders is hard. Experienced product people with strong soft skills are low in supply in most markets. One can derive the characteristics of good product leaders from the high level traits of a successful team (see previous point), and the book contains some helpful characteristics of good product leaders (see Fig. 2).
  5. Aligning team members – I’ve heard some product leaders talking about “treating your product team as a product”, and the book talks along similar lines about successful product teams. One key aspect in this respect is a product leader’s ability to align team members around a shared goal or vision.

Main learning point: “Product Leadership” is a great book for anyone interested in making the leap from being a product manager to a product leader. The book isn’t prescriptive in what makes a true product leader or how to become one; the authors have interviewed a wide range of global product leaders who share a wide range of experiences and perspectives. Because of its real life examples and lessons learned, “Product Leadership” isn’t your average ‘how to’ book. Instead, it helps readers reflect on what what product management is and what excellence in this field looks like.

 

Fig. 1 – Common characteristics of successful product teamsTaken from: Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw. Product Leadership, pp. 74-76

  • Lifelong learning – Actively seeking new information, insights and understanding is a cornerstone to successful product management. Connected to this is an open-mindedness and coachability in all respected leaders; they don’t assume they know all the answers and constantly refactor their thinking to take in new knowledge and feedback.
  • Strong communication – This is a big bucket that includes several soft skills like listening and presenting, but communication is fairly self-explanatory.
  • Empathy – Deeply connected to communication is empathy – not only empathy for team members inside and outside the organisation, but for customers as well.
  • Diversity – Strong leaders know that a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and demographics provides the range of perspectives needed to build a complete product experience.
  • Business savvy – This characteristic is related to how product leaders understand their role in the value delivery process and their grasp of the broader business context.
  • Cross-functional representation – Teams without representation see the world with strong biases. The more a product leader can bring the functional areas of a product together, the more likely the team will act in a coherent manner.
  • Collocation – Working side by side with your team makes communication easier and faster.
  • Autonomy – The best teams have the ability to solve problems on their own without having to run everything up the ladder. Decision-making skills and the authority to implement those decisions are critical to a team’s speed and effectiveness.
  • Interdependence – This might seem almost contradictory to the autonomous point, but successful teams don’t wall themselves off from the rest of the company. Autonomy is a reference to the ability to make decisions, not a reflection on their avoidance of others.
  • Accountability – The best teams place guardrails in place that allow them to see clearly when either the qualitative research isn’t paying back or the product releases are not hitting the desired outcomes.

Fig. 2 – How to identify product leaders – Taken from: Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw. Product Leadership, pp. 76-82

  • Plays well with others – Product management and product leadership are people-first roles. Teams are made up of individuals who each bring their own personalities, perspective, and opinions. Understanding what makes people tick makes it easier to get the best out of them and identify when there is a problem. Being an empathic product leader doesn’t mean you have to be all things to all people but you’re able to engage emphatically with others, even if they don’t have a lot in common with them.
  • Always acts and thinks “team first” – The kind of leader that needs constant recognition and praise is not likely to be the best person for this job. The top product leaders hardly ever get recognition for their hard work and dedication. Furthermore, they tend to turn any limelight they receive back on their teams.
  • Is comfortable wearing lots of hats – Product leaders are typically comfortably wearing the hats of marketer, manager, technologist, customer advocate, and facilitator, to name a few. This doesn’t mean they are experts at each of these roles; rather, they are comfortable working across all areas as the role evolves or as the product demands.
  • Displays curiosity – This trait relates to several others mentioned here, but needs to be addressed specifically. Having a deep interest in learning, enthusiastically accepting new challenges, encouraging others to speak up, and listening to their perspectives are all actions driven by curiosity.
  • Communicates well – This might seem so obvious it’s not worth mentioning, but it’s surprising how many senior managers and leaders are poor communicators. Having the ability to share information in a clear, concise manner is a necessary and desirable skill for a product leader. Whether they’re talking, listening, writing, planing, sharing, or facilitating, the goal is always to be understood.
  • Possesses selling skills – This might be controversial, but when you consider what product leaders do each day, it’s no surprise that selling is one of the things to look out for in product leaders. To be clear, this is not the type of selling associated with business development; rather, it’s not the type that works to change minds and get buy-in from others.
  • Has exceptional time management skills – Shipping product is a race against time. Managing that race is a series of little decisions that collectively make up the product roadmap.
  • Shows equanimity / grace under fire – Being equanimous is tightly connected to the “plays well with others” trait mentioned above. “We practice equanimity – the idea of taking all this emotional anxiety and trying to structure it, understand it, and channel it into productive output,” says Jeff Veen, Design Partner at True Ventures. Who is on the team matters much less than how the team interacts, and the number one dynamic that defined successful teams was a sense of psychological safety – a sense that the team would not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. Being able to instil this sense of psychological safety and trust is a key part of the product leader’s job.

 

Book review: “Customers Included”

In the book “Customers Included”, Mark Hurst and Phil Terry make a great case for listening to the customer. In the book, Hurst and Terry look at why customers get overlooked by companies and explain how to best engage with customers:

  1. Why do customers get overlooked? – “The problem with customers is that they don’t always know what’s best for them” is a quote from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings referred to in the book. Similarly, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, warns that paying too much attention to today’s customers could lead a company to avoid the necessary step of disrupting itself to prepare for tomorrow’s market. These are commons reasons for why customers don’t always get involved or listened to when it comes to creating or improving products.
  2. Listening and disrupting can go hand in hand – Hurst and Terry argue that listening to customers isn’t as black and white as the likes of Hastings and Christensen portray it to to be. There’s room for nuance; accounting for different types of customers and different ways of listening to them. They make the point that “being disruptive requires knowing how to listen, in the right ways, to the right customers.” I totally agree that even in disruptive environments, it’s still essential to include the customer.” The point being that innovation should be focused on creating benefits for the customer, measuring innovation by its impact on the customer.
  3. Difference what people think and what they actually do – There’s typically a big difference between what people think (or say they think) and what they actually do. In my experience, this phenomenon raises its head particularly in focus groups, where people get together to give their feedback on a product. Hurst and Terry make the point that the very structure of a focus group fails to approximate real-world usage of a product, simply because having a number of people talking about a product doesn’t equal actual usage.
  4. The power of direct observations – The risk with research methods like focus groups is that customers give hypothetical answers, speculating about how they might behave, or how they could feel. I don’t find this feedback particularly helpful as it doesn’t give me a reliable indiction of how people actually behave or how they really feel. This is the key reason why Hurst and Terry advocate the use of direct observations; observing people in the appropriate environment, watching what they (don’t) do. For example, if you’re looking to learn more about people’s grocery shopping behaviours, you’re most likely to learn the most from observing people whilst they’re shopping at the supermarket.
  5. Doubts about personas – Hurst and Terry argue that “personas prioritise the hypothetical over the actual, and fiction over fact”. A user persona is a fictitious person with a fictitious profile. These aren’t real life people and I agree that if you do work with personas, you should always validate your made up user traits with real people. If you don’t do this validation, there’s a big risk of making product decisions solely based on hypothetical data.
  6. Limitations of task-based usability testing – Similar to the aforementioned point about personas, Hurst and Terry explain about the limitations of task-based usability testing (see Fig. 1 below). The overarching problem with only doing usability testing is that you might miss out on larger, more strategic insights. At is core, usability testing is tactical and helps to learn about how people use your product and identify any points of friction.
  7. Discovering unmet needs – “Unmet needs” are the antidote to the concept of “customers not knowing what they want” or “build it and they (customers) will come.” By just focusing on set usability tasks, Hurst and Terry argue, you’re unlikely to develop more strategic insights into your customers and their needs. To solve this, Hurst and Terry suggest direct observations and so-called “listening labs” as a better way of uncovering unmet needs.

Main learning point: “Customers Included” offers some good primers to use when convincing others of the importance of engaging with customers. More than that, the book also provides a ‘nuanced’ overview of the different user research methods to use, explaining pros and cons of each method.

Fig. 1 – Drawbacks of task-based usability testing – Taken from: Mark Hurst and Phil Terry, Customers Included, pp. 70-71

  1. The user tasks are all determined by the researchers beforehand
  2. The insights gained from the usability test are limited by those tasks
  3. The focus of task-based usability on tactical design elements

Book review: “Radical Candor”

In my experience, as you further your career, you’re likely to lead other people in some capacity or another. Whether you’re managing people or simply interacting with them, giving and receiving feedback can often be tricky.  I believe that being able to both share and receive feedback is a true skill that only few people have truly mastered. I for one, feel that I still have a lot to learn about how to best give constructive feedback, especially since I’d rather not use the age old “sh*t sandwich” since I don’t believe in dressing up negative feedback, and most people tend to see through the sh*t sandwich anyway.

Fig. 1 – The “Sh*t Sandwich” by Lighthouse – Taken from: https://getlighthouse.com/blog/give-feedback-team-sh-t-sandwich/

This prompted me to read “Radical Candor”, a book published earlier this year by Kim Scott. The main premise of “Radical Candor” is that you don’t need to cuss or shout or act rude to be a great boss. In contrast, the book encourages leaders to create relationships based on trust with the people that you work with.

These are the main things that I learned from reading “Radical Candor”:

  1. What do bosses do? – I really like Kim Scott’s definition of a boss’ responsibility: “bosses guide a team to achieve results.” Bosses are ultimately responsible for achieving results. Rather than doing all the work themselves, bosses rely on other people to achieve results, and will guide them accordingly. Scott goes on to unpick the aforementioned definition further, which I found very valuable (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Trusting relationships are the key – For me, Scott’s point about the importance of building and maintaining “trusting relationships” is probably the crux of the book. Once a relationship of trust has been established, it becomes so much easier to practise “radical candor” on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there’s no set formula for developing trust. Scott, however, has identified two dimensions that help people move in the right direction: “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly”.
  3. Care Personally – I was really pleased to read about Scott slashing the idea of people having two radically different personas – with people’s work persona being radically different to their private persona. Scott makes the point that you need to be your whole self to have a good personal relationship. She also talks about genuinely caring for the people who work for you as a critical prerequisite for a strong relationship. Unfortunately, I too often come across managers who regard the people that work for them as “resources” and treat them accordingly. Getting people to think more deeply about the “Care Personally” part of the trust relationship equation should help in stopping employees being referred to and treated as “resources.”
  4. Challenge Directly – “Challenge Directly” involves telling people that their work isn’t good enough. I personally have often found this the hardest part to do, as I’ve found there to be a fine line between challenging directly and (passive) aggression. Scott argues that challenging people “is often the best way to show them that you care when you’re the boss.” As counterintuitive as it may sound; challenging people directly can be a great way to establish a relationship. Challenging people, in a clear but constructive way, is often appreciated – despite it feeling hard initially (for both the poser and the receiver of the challenge). It shows (1) you care enough to point out both the things that are going well and the things that aren’t and (2) that you’re willing to admit when you’re wrong and that you’re committed to fixing mistakes that you or others have made. At the end of the day, it’s all about fixing a problem in my opinion.
  5. “Operationalising” good guidance – The book introduces a helpful matrix, which has four quadrants to consider in light of how to best care personally and challenge directly: “Ruinous Empathy”; “Manipulative Insincerity”; “Obnoxious Aggression” and – the desired one – “Radical Candor” (see Fig. 4 below). Scott stresses that each quadrant refers to guidance, not to personality traits. These quadrants are not used to label people, but to learn about the types of guidance we are or should be providing to the people we interact with. Having reflected on each of these quadrants, I found them to be very useful and ‘true’ (see Fig. 5 below).
  6. How to criticise without discouraging? – Scott mentions a number of useful tips on how to criticise people without discouraging the person. Also, it’s important to ask for criticism before giving it. As hard as it can sometimes feel, it’s important to actively and continuously ask for feedback, as a way of building a two-way relationship (see point 4. above). Scott provides some pointers to make it easier to ask for guidance, particularly from people that report into you (see Fig. 6 below). Secondly, be humble and helpful, offer guidance in person and immediately, criticise in private, and don’t personalise. Thirdly, make it clear that the problem isn’t due to some inflexible personality flaw, and share stories when you’ve been criticised for something similar.

Main learning point: Being radically candid doesn’t mean that you can just be rude and upset people. Instead, “Radical Candor” does a great job of offering readers with lost of valuable tips about how to care personally and challenge directly.

Fig. 2 – Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous comment about sometimes having to piss people off – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/389983648959114509/ 

 

Fig. 3 – Unpicking the responsibilities that come with being a boss – Adapted from: Kim Scott. Radical Candor. pp 6 -7

  1. Guidance: Guidance is often called “feedback”. People dread feedback – both the praise, which can feel patronising, and especially the criticism. However, in order to solve problems or make the most of opportunities, people do need to solicit guidance from others, and encourage it between them.
  2. Team-building: Building a cohesive team means figuring out the right people for the right roles: hiring, firing, promoting. Once you’ve got your team in place, the focus should be on engaging with your team (without micro-managing) and keep people motivated.
  3. Results: Ultimately, it’s all about achieving results. As a boss it’s your responsibility to guide your team towards achieving key results.

Fig. 4 – Radical Candor’s “Care Personally Change Directly” matrix – Taken from: https://www.radicalcandor.com/about-radical-candor/

Fig. 5 – Examples of the four quadrants of Radical Candor’s “Care Personally Change Directly” matrix – Adapted from: Kim Scott, Radical Candor, pp. 22-42

Radical Candor:

“I admire that about that you” is a great example of radical candid praise. It’s relatively easy to say “thank you” or “you’re awesome”, but it can be much harder to really think about the praise you want to give, personalise and contextualise it. For example, “I think the mentoring that you do is really impressive, I admire the way in which you take your own learnings and share them with people who are the stage that you were at a few year ago.”

Coming up with criticism when you’re being successful is probably a great time to apply radical candid criticism. I recently spoke to a senior executive whose company had just gone through a difficult patch, probably for the first time in its existence. “We’ve had it easy for so long” he explained to me. This comment made me wonder whether he and his colleagues would have benefited from a healthy dose of radically candid criticism whilst they were still winning. For example, “we just achieved over $10 million in revenue, and it has been a record year, but I think it’s important that we look at how to reduce our operational margins in the coming year so that this growth can become more sustainable.”

Obnoxious Agression:

A word of warning: “Radical Candor” isn’t about offering bosses a blank cheque to be rude or aggressive and act like a jerk. This is a lesson that I’ve been trying to take to heart, as I’ve experienced that there’s often a very thin line between being assertive and aggressive. Whilst I believe in directness over sugarcoating things , I’ve learned that 100% directness doesn’t work for everyone and can easily be perceived as aggressiveness. Scott’s point about the debilitating nature of Obnoxious Aggression therefore really resonated with me.

Manipulative Insincerity:

Manipulatively insincere guidance happens when you don’t care enough about a person to challenge directly. People give praise and criticism that’s manipulatively insincere when they are too focused on being liked or think they can gain some sort of political advantage by being fake – or when they’re just to tired to care or argue anymore. When you challenge directly, as Scott explains, you truly care about the people that you challenge; “let go of vanity and care personally.” The flip side happens when you don’t care and end up simply wasting your and everybody else’s time by trying to fake it.

Ruinous Empathy:

Scott claims that most people want to avoid creating tension or discomfort at work. Purely based on personal experience, I think Scott’s right; over the years, I’ve seen quite a few managers who actively try to make everyone happy. Whilst this is a laudable intention, I believe it hardly ever works like that. My personal mantra is that healthy tension doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it can actually help people grow and make teams more effective. You can’t be friends with all your colleagues nor can you make people happy all the time. Scott’s points about Ruinous Empathy made me think about how to best solicit feedback from team members, and ask for criticism. Scott urges all bosses to “start by asking for criticism, not by giving it!”

Fig. 6 – Soliciting impromptu guidance – Adapted from: Kim Scott, Radical Candor, pp. 130-136

  • Have a go-to question: In order to make it easier and less awkward to ask your direct reports for performance feedback or guidance, Scott suggest using a go-to question. She learned this technique from Fred Kofman, who used to be her coach at Google and is the author of “Conscious Business”. “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would it make it easier to work with me?” This is just a sample to go-to question, the key goal here is to get the conversation going and to remove any feelings of awkwardness.
  • Embrace the discomfort: In case your go-to question fails to have the desired effect, and the other person answers that everything is fine or struggles to come up with something, remain quiet. It can be tempting to say “We’ll that’s great then” (or something along those lines) but that’s not going to help anyone in my opinion. Leaving some silence or suggesting to rearrange can help in getting your direct reports over their – understandable – hurdle.
  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond: If you’re anything like me, i.e. not super comfortable with asking people for feedback, your initial response might well be to act defensively and respond to the criticism. Scott urges us not to do that; don’t start criticising the criticism! Instead, she suggests saying something like “So what I hear you saying is …”
  • Reward criticism to get more of it: If you did get feedback, the next important thing is to follow up and show that you really welcomed the feedback. If you agree with what was said, you should make a change as soon as possible. If the necessary change will take time, do something visible to show you’re trying.
  • Gauge the guidance you get: I love Scott’s suggestion to try and keep a tally of the number of times people reporting to you have criticised you. Equally, measure how often they praise you. Scott mentions, that you should be weary it it’s all praise and no criticism! It means that you’ll have to work harder to get people to criticise you.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.radicalcandor.com/about-radical-candor/
  2. http://codingwithempathy.com/2016/08/23/examples-of-radical-candor/
  3. https://www.radicalcandor.com/blog/radical-candor-not-brutal-honesty/

Book review: “Just Enough Research”

Back in 2013, Erika Hall, co-founder of Mule Design, wrote “Just Enough Research”. In this book, Hall explains why good customer research is so important. She outlines what makes research effective and provides practical tips on how to best conduct research. Reading “Just Enough Research” reminded me of reading “Rocket surgery made easy” by Steve Krug and “Undercover UX” by Cennydd Bowles, since all three books do a good job at both explaining and demystifying what it takes to do customer research.

These are the main things that I learned from reading “Just Enough Research”:

  1. What is research? – Right off the bat, Hall makes the point that in order to innovate, it’s important for you to know about the current state of things and why they’re like that. Research is systematic inquiry; you want to know more about a particular topic, so you go through a process to increase your knowledge. The specific type of process depends on who you are and what you need to know. This is illustrated through a nice definition of design research by Jane Fulton Suri, partner at design consultancy IDEO (see Fig. 1).
  2. Research is not asking people what they like! – I’m fully aware of how obvious this statement probably sounds. However, customer researcher is NOT about asking about what people do or don’t like. You might sometimes hear people ask users whether they like a particular product or feature; that isn’t what customer research is about. Instead, the focus is on exploring problem areas or new ideas, or simply testing how usable your product is.
  3. Generative or exploratory research – This is the research you do to identify the problem to solve and explore ideas. As Hall explains “this is the research you do before you even know what you’re doing.” Once you’ve gathered information, you then analyse your learnings and identify the most commonly voiced (or observed) unmet customer needs. This will in turn result in a problem statement or hypothesis to concentrate on.
  4. Descriptive and explanatory research – Descriptive research is about understanding the context of the problem that you’re looking to solve and how to best solve it. By this stage, you’ll have moved from “What’s a good problem to solve” to “What’s the best way to solve the problem I’ve identified?”
  5. Evaluative research – Usability testing is the most common form of evaluative research. With this research you test that your solution is working as expected and is solving the problem you’ve identified.
  6. Casual research – This type of research is about establishing a cause-and-effect relationship, understanding the ‘why’ behind an observation or pattern. Casual research often involves looking at analytics and carrying out A/B tests.
  7. Heuristic analysis – In the early stages of product design and development, evaluative research can be done in the form of usability testing (see point 5. above) or heuristic analysis. You can test an existing site or application before redesigning. “Heuristic” means “based on experience”. A heuristic is not a hard measure; it’s more of a qualitative guideline of best usability practice. Jakob Nielsen, arguably the founding father of usability, came up with the idea of heuristic analysis in 1990 and introduced ten heuristic principles (see Fig. 2).
  8. Usability testing – Testing the usability of a product with people is the second form of evaluative testing. Nielsen, the aforementioned usability guru, outlined five components that define usability (see Fig. 3). Hall stresses the importance of “cheap tests first, expensive tests later”; start simple – paper prototypes or sketches – and gradually up the ante.

Main learning point: “Just Enough Research” is a great, easy to read book which underlines the importance of customer research. The book does a great job in demonstrating that research doesn’t have to very expensive or onerous; it provides plenty of simple and practical to conduct ‘just enough research’.

 

Fig. 1 – Definition of “design research” by Jane Fulton Suri – Taken from: https://www.ideo.com/news/informing-our-intuition-design-research-for-radical-innovation

“Design research both inspires imagination and informs intuition through a variety of methods with related intents: to expose patterns underlying the rich reality of people’s behaviours and experiences, to explore reactions to probes and prototypes, and to shed light on the unknown through iterative hypothesis and experiment.”

Fig. 2 – Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics for User Interface Design (taken from: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/)

  1. Visibility of system status – The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
  2. Match between system and the real world – The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.
  3. User control and freedom – Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
  4. Consistency and standards – Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
  5. Error prevention – Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
  6. Recognition rather than recall – Minimise the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use – Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design – Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
  9. Help users recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors – Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
  10. Help and documentation – Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

Fig. 3 – Jakob Nielsen’s 5 components of usability – Taken from: Erika Hall. Just Enough Research, pp. 105-106

  • Learnability – How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they come across the design?
  • Efficiency – Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability – When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors – How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction – How pleasant is it to use the design?