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?

 

Book review: “Influence without Authority”

As product managers, we’ve all experienced it: a sense of frustration when you’re accountable for delivering value without having any authority over the people that are critical to delivering that value. Whether’s it’s stakeholders, customers, developers, designers, there’s only so much we can do to influence and create the level of buy-in or cooperation required to create successful products.

In Influence without Authority (2005) Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford explore ways in which we can influence others without having authority over them. Cohen and Bradford’s “Model of Influence without Authority” forms the backbone of this book (see Fig. 1 below).

 

Fig. 1 – Summary of the Cohen-Bradford Model of Influence without Authority – Taken from: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/328270260312405687/

“Influence without Authority” outlines the key components of this model, illustrating the scenarios in which the model can be applied. These are the three learning points I took away from reading this book:

  1. The currencies of exchange – The aforementioned Cohen-Bradford model is based on exchange and reciprocity – making trades for what you desire in return for what the other person desires. There are number of potential currencies that one can use to trade (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Gaining clarity on your objectives – For the Cohen-Bradford model to work effectively, it’s important that you figure out exactly what you want, and prioritise your goals accordingly (see Fig. 3 below).
  3. Deciding with whom to attempt exchanges – The ability to consider and decide potential allies to exchange is a critical part of the Cohen-Bradford model and the book outlines some valuable considerations how to exchange directly with a potential ally (see Fig. 4 below).

Fig. 2 – Frequently valued currencies – Taken from Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford, “Influence without Authority”, pp. 36 – 51

Inspiration related currencies:

Inspiration related currencies reflect inspirational goals that provide meaning to the work a person a does.

  • Vision – You can help overcome personal objections and inconvenience if you can inspire the potential ally to see the larger significance of your request.
  • Excellence – The opportunity to do something really well and pride in having the chance to accomplish important work with genuine excellence can be highly motivating.
  • Moral/ethical correctness – Probably most members of organisations would like to act according to what they perceive to be ethical, moral, altruistic or correct thing to do.

Task related currencies:

Task related currencies are directly related to getting the job done. They relate to a person’s ability to perform his or her assigned tasks or to the satisfactions that arise from accomplishment.

  • New resources – Resources such as budget, people, space, equipment or time are important currencies when it comes to enabling someone to get the job done.
  • Challenge – The chance to work at tasks that provide a challenge or stretch is one of the most widely valued currencies in modern organisational life.
  • Assistance – Although large numbers of people desire increased responsibilities and challenge, most have tasks they need help on or would be glad to shed.
  • Organisational support – This currency is most valued by someone who is working on a project  and needs public backing or behind-the-scenes help in selling the project to others.
  • Rapid response – It can be worth a great deal for a colleague or boss to know that you will respond urgently to requests.
  • Information – Recognising that knowledge is power, some people value any information that may help them shape the performance of their unit.

Position related currencies:

These currencies enhance a person’s position in the organisation and, thereby, indirectly aid the person’s ability to accomplish tasks or advance a career.

  • Recognition – Many people gladly will extend themselves for a project when they believe their contributions will be recognised, so it’s importance to spread recognition around and recognise the right people.
  • Visibility to higher ups – Ambitious employees realise that, in a large organisation, opportunities to perform for or to be recognised by powerful people can be a deciding factor in achieving future opportunities, information, or promotions.
  • Reputation – Reputation is another variation on recognition. A good reputation can pave the way for lots of opportunities while a bad one can quickly shut the person out and make it difficult to perform.
  • Insiderness – For some members, being in the inner circle can be most valued currency. One sign of this currency is having insider information, and another is being connected to important people.
  • Importance – A variation on the currency of inside knowledge and contacts is the chance to feel important. Inclusion and information are symbols of that, but just being acknowledged as an important player counts for the large number of people who feel their value is under recognised.
  • Contacts – Related to many of the previous currencies is the opportunity for making contacts, which creates a network of people who can be approached when needed for mutually helpful transactions.

Relationship related currencies:

Relationship related currencies are more connected to strengthening the relationship with someone than directly accomplishing the organisation’s tasks.

  • Acceptance / Inclusion – Some people most value the feeling that they are close to others whether an individual or a group/department. They are receptive to those who offer warmth and liking as currencies.
  • Understanding / listening / sympathy – Colleagues who feel beleaguered by the demands of the organisation, isolation or unsupported by the boss, place an especially high value on a sympathetic ear.
  • Personal support – For some people, at particular times, having the support of others is the currency they value most. When a colleague is feeling stressed, upset, vulnerable, or needy, he will doubly appreciate – and remember – a thoughtful gesture.

Personal currencies:

These currencies could form an infinite list of idiosyncratic needs. They are valued because they enhance the individual’s sense of self. They may be derived from task or interpersonal activity.

  • Gratitude – While gratitude may be another form of recognition or support, it is a not necessarily job-related one that can be valued highly by some people who make a point of being helpful to others. For their efforts, some people want appreciation from the receiver, expressed in thanks or deference.
  • Ownership/Involvement – Another currency often valued by organisational members is the chance that they feel that they are partly in control of something important or have a chance to make a major contribution.
  • Self – concept – These currencies cover those that are consistent with a person’s image of himself or herself.
  • Comfort – Some individuals place high value on personal comfort. Lovers of routine and haters of risk, they will do almost anything to avoid being hassled or embarrassed.

Negative currencies:

Currencies are what people value. But it is also possible to think of negative currencies, things that people do not value and wish to avoid:

‘Withholding payments’

  • Not giving recognition
  • Not offering support
  • Not providing challenge
  • Threatening to quit the situation

‘Directly undesirable’

  • Raising voice, yelling
  • Refusing to cooperate when asked
  • Escalating issue upwards to common boss
  • Going public with issue, making lack of cooperation visible
  • Attacking person’s reputation, integration

Fig. 3 – Gain clarity on your objectives – Taken from Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford, “Influence without Authority”, p. 82

  • What are your primary goals?
  • What personal factors get in the way?
  • Be flexible about achieving goals.
  • Adjust expectation of your role and your ally’s role.

Fig. 4 – Deciding with whom to attempt exchanges – Taken from Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford, “Influence without Authority”, pp. 134 – 136

  • Centrality of the ally – How powerful is the other person? Power means more than hierarchical position: What needed resources does he or she control? How exclusive is the person’s control of those resources? How dependent are you on that person for success?
  • Amount of effort / credits needed – Do you already have a relationship with the person, or will you be starting from scratch? Is the person likely to insist on trading in currencies you do not command or cannot gain access to? Will the person be satisfied as long as you at least pay your respects and stay in touch, without asking anything directly?
  • Alternatives available – Do you know anyone whose support will help gain the support of the potential ally? In other words, who can influence the ally if you are not able to directly? If you can’t influence the person in the right direction, can you find a way to neutralise him or her? Can you reshape your project to take the person’s opposition into account or to skirt the person’s worst concern?

Book review: “The Art of Active Listening”

Listening. Listening. Listening. I know how important it is, but I also know how hard I sometimes find to truly listen. I guess I’m not unique when I miss half of what the other person is saying because I’m so preoccupied with what I’m going to say in response. This realisation prompted me to read The Art of Active Listening by Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker. These are my key takeaways from reading this book:

What is active listening?

The difference between “active listening” and “normal listening” was my first learning from reading “The Art of Active Listening”. The authors of the book, Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker, make it pretty clear from the outset that there are only two communication states: actively listening, and not really listening. Gibson and Walker then go on to explain that active listening is the art of listening for meaning; active listening requires you to understand, interpret, and evaluate what you’re being told.

With active listening, your attention should be on the speaker. This means that whenever you feel an inner urge to say something, to respond, try to stop this urge and instead concentrate on what’s being said. Just to give you a personal example from how this urge often manifests itself when I listen:

Speaker: “So we decided to do X, Y, Z.This felt like the best approach, because …

Me – thinking: “Why did they decide to do XYZ, that doesn’t make sense!”  – Thus completely ignoring the “because” part of the speaker’s statement

It’s easy to see from this example how people like me run the risk of missing critical bits of a conversation, purely because the focus is on the response instead of on listening actively.

Importance of active listening

In the book, Gibson and Walker explain why it’s so important to actively listen:

  • Active listening encourages people to open up.
  • Active listening reduce the chance of misunderstandings.
  • Active listening helps to resolve problems and conflicts.
  • Active listening builds trust.

To me, active listening is the key to empathy and relationship building. I liked Gibson and Walker’s simple breakdown of human communication: “In simple terms, speaking is one person reaching out, and listening is another person accepting and taking hold. Together, they form communication, and this is the basis of all human relationships.”

7 common barriers to active listening

Learning about the seven common barriers to active listening was my biggest takeaway from “The Art of Active Listening”. In the book, Gibson and Walker point out the typical barriers that most of us deal with when listening:

  1. Your ignorance and delusion – The first barrier to active listening is simply not realising that listening isn’t taking place. Gibson and Walker make the point that most of us can get through life perfectly well without developing our listening skills, deluding ourselves that listening just involves allowing another person to speak in our presence.
  2. Your reluctance – When you actively listen to another person, it may be that you become involved in their situation in some way. There might be instances where you’re reluctant to get involved and as a result fail to lend a sympathetic and understanding ear.
  3. Your bias and prejudice – Your personal interpretation of what you’re hearing may cause you to respond negatively to the speaker. You either assume that you know the situation because you’ve had a similar experience in the past or you allow your preconceptions to colour the way you respond.
  4. Your lack of interest – You may simply not be interested in what the speaker is saying. We all know that this can happen when you feel the conversation topic is uninspiring.
  5. Your opinion of the speaker – Your opinion of the speaker, as a person, may influence the extent to which you’re happy to pay attention and give your time to the speaker. Often when you don’t like the speaker, this is likely to affect your desire to listen to the speaker. I’ve also noticed how in certain places, the status of the speaker has a big influence on whether he or she is being listened to. In these places, the CEO tends to be listened to automatically, whereas ‘people of lower rank’ might struggle to be heard.
  6. Your own feelings – Your ability to listen to other people can easily be affected by how you’re feeling at a particular moment. For example, if you’re in a good mood you might feel more inclined to listen actively and offer your best advice based on what you’ve just heard. In contrast, if you’re in a bad mood, the last thing you might want to do is listen to someone else’s thoughts and offer advice in response.
  7. The wrong time and wrong place – These are the physical factors that influence whether you’re willing or able to actively listen to what you’re being told. For example, having a heart to heart conversation in a busy coffeeshop is unlikely to positively affect your ability to listen actively.

4 components of active listening

With the four components of active listening that are pointed out in the book, the onus is on the listener to develop these components:

  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.

Tips to improve your active listening skills

The book provides some useful pointers on how you can best improve your active listening skills, explaining the essence of each tip outlined here:

  1. Minimise external distractions
  2. Face the speaker
  3. Maintain eye contact
  4. Focus on the speaker
  5. Be open-minded
  6. Be sincerely interested
  7. Have sympathy, feel empathy
  8. Assess the emotion, not just the words
  9. Respond appropriately
  10. Minimise internal distractions 
  11. Avoid “me” stories
  12. Don’t be scared of silence
  13. Take notes
  14. Practice emotional intelligence
  15. Check your understanding

The main principles of reflective listening

Once you’ve listened actively, “reflective listening” is what comes next. Reflective listening is concerned with how you process what you’ve heard. The four components of active listening – acceptance, honesty, empathy and specifics – all work towards creating reflective responses in the listener. The main principles of active listening are:

  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Deal with personal specifics, not impersonal generalities.
  • Decipher the feelings behind the words, to create a better understanding of the issues.
  • Restate and clarify what you have heard.
  • Understand the speaker’s point of view and avoid responding from your own viewpoint.
  • Respond with acceptance and empathy, not coldly or with fake concern.

Main learning point: Understanding more about the common barriers to active listening – and how to best overcome these – was my biggest takeaway from reading “The Art of Active Listening”. The book does a great job at offering practical tips on how to listen actively and how to better process the things you’ve heard.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.ted.com/talks/evelyn_glennie_shows_how_to_listen
  2. https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/active-listening.html
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_listening
  4. http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/active-listening

 

Book review: Mobilized

I recently read “Mobilized” by SC Moatti, “an insider’s guide to the business and future of connected technology.” SC Moatti is a mobile veteran from Silicon Valley, having developed successful mobile products and services at the likes of Nokia, Facebook and Trulia. Moatti makes the book’s intentions clear in the first chapter: with businesses increasingly shifting their strategic focus to mobile, there’s a need to create a truly mobile culture and mindset within the business. To help companies become mobile first, Moatti introduces the “Mobile Formula” which contains the three rules for successful mobile products:

SC Moatti

SC Moatti’s “Mobile Formula”, the three rules of successful mobile products – Taken from: https://www.leanplum.com/blog/mobilized-on-mobile/

The Body Rule – The best mobile products operate by beauty: Contrary to what one might expect, the beauty in mobile products isn’t about aesthetics, it’s about eliminating waste. ‘Efficiency’ is the keyword here and Moatti refers to the Birkhoff formula in this respect: M=O/C. In this formula, M is a measure of beauty, O of simplicity and C of complexity. Beauty will increase with simplicity and will decrease through complexity.

Measure simplicity through the “thumb test”: Ultimately, the best measure of simplicity is to create a product that’s easy to use by everyone. The so-called “thumb test” is a great way to test whether your product is easy to use. To pass the thumb test, a task should be easily completed by a user with a thumb of average size and without incidentally hitting an unrelated link, button or design element by mistake. Take a look at AnkiDroid for instance. The flash cards on AnkiDroid’s Android app make it easy to learn words in a different language, with clear buttons and calls to actions (see Fig. 1 below).

AnkiDroid-1

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of AnkiDroid – Taken from: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/6-flash-card-apps-for-android-compared-which-is-the-best/

Even the “thumb test” will become redundant (eventually): With voice command software like Apple’s Siri ,GreenOwl’s service TrafficAlert and virtual reality all being hands free, the thumb test will eventually become a thing of the past (see Fig. 2 below). Moatti argues that the principle underpinning the thumb test will still apply: beauty on mobile means that all user interactions need to work effortlessly and efficiently.

TrafficAlert

Fig. 2 – Screenshot of TrafficAlert – Taken from: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.greenowl.ta.android

The Spirit Rule – The best mobile products give us meaning: When describing ‘meaning’ in the context of mobile products, Moatti identifies ‘personalisation’ and ‘community’ as the two key factors that add meaning. One might argue that these two factors contradict each other, but Moatti makes compelling arguments for both. Firstly, ‘personalisation’ is all about the user feeling cared for, by giving the user total control of the mobile experience. Contrary to what one might think, recent research shows that mobile products create deeper bonds between users and their communities. For example, a study by Kyung-Gook Park at the University of Florida illustrates how mobile products make people feel more connected to those around them.

Building for meaning – Mobile products as extensions of our spirit: Moatti makes some great points about the use of internal and external filters to create mobile products with meaning. Internal filters, Moatti explains, can be as simple as our location or address book. These internal filters help in connecting users to their environment; using location or user based data to create a personalised experience for the user (see example in Fig. 3 below).

Personalisation

Fig. 3 – Personalisation through onboarding on Beats’ mobile streaming service – Taken from: http://www.appvirality.com/blog/personalization-in-retail-apps/

External filters come into play once it’s understood what users care about through internal filters. External filters allow the experience to be shared and enjoyed with other people. For example, a privacy policy is an external filter, in place to outline what a product can and cannot reveal about its users.

The Mind Rule – The best mobile products learn as we use them: The mind rule is the final component of Moatti’s Mobile Formula. Mobile products constantly adapting is of the essence here. This adaptation can happen either fast or slow. Messaging app WhatsApp is a good example of adapting fast. The team at WhatsApp have adopted a culture of ‘continuous learning’ where they learn from users and their behaviours on an ongoing basis, adding new features constantly. This is driven by a realisation that in order to keep up with the competition, they’ll need to adapt relentlessly.

In contrast, slow learning is all about breaking new ground, focusing on new users or launching new offerings. It basically comes down to taking one’s fast or iterative learnings to the next level; creating new mobile divisions to conquer a new target market or value proposition. Whereas an existing mobile product or business might not be the best place to explore new territory, due to a fear of alienating an existing customer base, a completely separate app might be a better place to do so.

Main learning point: “Mobilized” really made me think about how to approach the creation and improvement of mobile products. Most books on mobile products concentrate on design. The great thing about SC Moatti’s book is that it focuses on the mobile user instead, and provides great insights on how to best create a great user experience.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/using-mobile-apps-the-one-thumb-one-eyeball-test-for-good-mobile-design
  2. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/measure-beauty
  3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sophiecharlotte-moatti/the-7-design-elements-of-great-mobile-products_b_8175942.html
  4. http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/6-flash-card-apps-for-android-compared-which-is-the-best/
  5. https://uxmag.com/articles/personalization-the-pillar-of-the-mobile-user-experience
  6. http://www.appvirality.com/blog/personalization-in-retail-apps/
  7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sophiecharlotte-moatti/3-best-practices-to-get-c_b_5910572.html
  8. http://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/UF/E0/04/35/17/00001/Park_K.pdf

Book review: ValueWeb

Chris Skinner – author of the bestselling book Digital Bank – recently published ValueWeb: How FinTech firms are using mobile and blockchain technologies to create the Internet of Value. The ‘”ValueWeb” covers the rise and importance of blockchain technology, describing it as a key technology for authentication and transactions. Skinner positions blockchain technology as a means to an end, with the ValueWeb being the ultimate outcome. The ValueWeb, being closely linked to to the Internet of Things, allows machines to trade with machines and people with people anywhere, in real-time and at virtually no cost.

The blockchain can be used as a shared ledger for shared economies. One of the things I liked about the ValueWeb book is how Skinner removes all sense of buzz around blockchains by stressing the fundamentals which underpin this new technology: “The blockchain creates a marketplace for globalised value exchange that is trusted, secure and irrevocable.”

These are the main things that I took away from reading Value Web:

  1. Mobile as an authentication tool – Skinner makes the point that mobile “makes invisible banking visible.” He also explains how mobile serves as a very effective authentication tool, based on four key mobile attributes (see Fig. 1 below).
  2. Africa shows the way to the future – The book’s chapter titled “Africa shows the way to the future” felt the most inspiring. In this chapter, Skinner zooms in on the success of M-PESA in Kenya. M-PESA is a pioneer with regard to facilitating mobile money transfers between people in Kenya, through mobile network operator Safaricom, a subsidiary of Vodafone. Through M-PESA, a mobile wallet, the mobile phone is acting as a ‘value exchange mechanism’, making it easy for people to send and receive money. M-PESA’s “agent network” is the key component here. Agents in Kenyan towns take money and text the agent in the location the money needs to be delivered. The agent in the receiving location gets the text message and then issues cash to the target recipient.
  3. Digital currencies –  The ValueWeb is based upon two key technologies. Firstly, mobile, which enables people to exchange value in real-time and facilitate real-time authentication (see point 1. above). Secondly, digital currencies, to provide a store of value to exchange. Bitcoin is the key value currency which started it all. The key thing to know about bitcoins, and the different variations of this cryptocurrency, is that it was the first ‘enabler’ of online value exchanges, conducted in real-time and at very low processing cost. Skinner offers a good overview of what the bitcoin is (see Fig. 2 below).

Main learning point: In “ValueWeb”, Chris Skinner does a great job of demystifying some of the buzz around blockchain technology and bitcoins. By focusing on the value that people can now exchange in real-time, Skinner paints an exciting picture of great opportunities that are are already starting to happen.

Fig. 1 – Mobile as an authentication tool, four key mobile attributes – Taken from: Chris Skinner, “ValueWeb”, p.  47

  • Tokenisation – You can check the customer is who they say they are by locating if they have a second token – a mobile registered to their account – with them.
  • Geo-location – You can geo-locate customers using location. For example, a company called XYVerify does this using telecom masts, rather than a mobile device. The system will establish a person’s location based upon where their signal can be located between different mobile transmitting masts.
  • One Time Passwords (‘OTP’) – You can authenticate who the customer is interactively OTP by text messaging. An interactive text or app-based OTP process means that mobile can offer a great second level authentication tool.
  • Mobile biometrics – Using mobile biometrics can become a very effective way to authenticate customers. For example, Banca Intesa in Spain was using mobile apps for iris recognition and Voice Commerce offer voice verification by mobile.

Fig. 2 – A quick overview of bitcoin – Taken from: Chris Skinner, “ValueWeb”, pp.  81-86

  • New bitcoins are generated by a network bode, and these network nodes are created each time a solution is found to a specific mathematical problem.
  • The people trying to solve these math problems are called miners, and each time they successfully solve the problem they create a new bitcoin.
  • This math challenge is so difficult to solve that there are businesses dedicated to this, with data centres running thousands of computers focused upon bitcoin mining.
  • The reason they do this is that each tine a bitcoin is created, the company or person who solved the problem receives 25 bitcoins, which were $250 each as of August 2015. Hence the bitcoin miners do this to earn virtual currency rewards.
  • Before you can buy any coins you must create a wallet to store them. You can do this by installing the bitcoin client, the software that powers the currency, or use an online wallet, where this data is stored in the cloud.
  • A bitcoin transaction is recorded on a public ledger system called the blockchain. The blockchain is a shared ledger system that means all of our bitcoin wallets can be see publicly.
  • No one knows who made the transaction, but the fact there is an electronic shared ledger ensures transactions cannot be made twice.
  • All confirmed transactions are included in the blockchain. This way, bitcoin wallets can calculate their spendable balance and can be verified to ensure they are spending bitcoins that are actually owned by the spender. The integrity and the chronological order of the blockchain are enforced with cryptography.

 

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Book review: “The Lean Enterprise”

Most of the product people or businesses that I speak to all seem to want one thing: to be ‘lean’. They all nod when you talk about wasting resources on making products that no wants to buy. They’ve picked up on the approach adopted by many successful startups who have got the capacity to learn and adapt rapidly to what customers want.

However, large corporations have struggled to adopt ‘lean’ practices and to create a culture in which the focus is on “continuous learning”. Are big corporates geared towards releasing products in small iterations and accepting failure in the process? Trevor Owens and Obie Hernandez have published The Lean Enterprise, which is about large corporations adopting a lean startup mindset and which provides practical tools on how to best do so.

Why The Lean Enterprise? What is it?

“Why do large companies need to adopt a lean attitude to product development?” is the first question that the “The Lean Enterprise” raises.  Here are some common characteristics of large companies :

  • Need to improve speed to market
  • Losing against faster, more nimble competitors
  • No room for innovation or quick response to market or consumer changes
  • A culture of “decisions take ages” or, worse, “things don’t get done around here”

I guess the main message which underpins “The Lean Enterprise” is that big businesses need to adopt “lean” practices which have been adopted by lots of (successful) startups.

“Lean Startups” (a term coined by Eric Ries in the eponymous book) are geared towards determining “product/market fit” in the quickest and most efficient way possible. “The Lean Enterprise” is all about big businesses becoming more like lean startups.

But can large companies really become leaner?

The main premise of “The Lean Enterprise” is that large enterprise can:

  • Create or acquire a company which is like a large company’s ‘lean playground’
  • Act like a “lean startup” by applying lean startup practices

I agree with Owens and Hernandez’ point that large corporations at their core are not geared towards fast pace innovation. To overcome this, the book suggests creating an “Innovation Colony” via internal incubation, acquisition or investment:

“An innovation colony is an outpost where entrepreneurially minded employees and talented marketers, engineers, and designers from outside the enterprise can build new products and services, bring them to market and, share in the fruits of their success.”

However, the idea of an “Innovation Colony” seems to be closely modeled to “Skunkworks”, which dates back to the Fifties. The Skunkworks concept has had varying degrees of success. Even if large businesses succeed in creating an autonomous unit, I wonder if the mindset and autonomy is really there for these skunkworks to launch great innovative products.

How do you inject a lean mindset of experimentation and ‘failing fast’ into organisations that have a long lasting legacy of a slow speed to market or a well ingrained culture of bureaucracy. The Lean Enterprise provides a lot of detail around lean concepts such as “product / market validation” and “innovation thesis”, but I wish it could have elaborated more on the mindset required to be be truly lean and autonomous.

I wonder if it might not be easier to create a lean mindset in-house and across the organisation, rather than going down the route of creating a skunkworks unit where the large company issues might still resurface. I would love to know more about how to best tackle some of the aforementioned problems ‘at source’ and at scale.

How do you transform a large company with an ‘oil tanker mindset’ into a nimble speed boat? What does it take to get people to buy into such a transformation? I expected The Lean Entrepreneur to focus more on such questions, as I am just not convinced that creating an Innovation Colony is the best way to making large companies more lean. Having listened recently to a talk by Shah Shelbe in which he spoke about introducing an entrepreneurial mindset into large corporates such as Boeing, I’m curious to find out more about best ways to transform cultures and mentalities of large companies, making them more nimble and entrepreneurial.

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