Book Review: “Shape Up” by Ryan Singer

Basecamp is a project management and communication platform, widely known for its innovative software development practices and novel ways of working. Ryan Singer, Basecamp’s Head of Strategy, recently captured Basecamp’s approach in Shape Up, which is freely available online and as a PDF. The product development process at Basecamp consists of three distinct stages: shaping, betting and building.

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/4.1-appendix-02

Basecamp typically work in six-week cycles, building and releasing new features within that timeframe. The work is shaped first before it’s given to a team to work on. A small senior group works in parallel to the cycle teams. They define the key elements of a solution before considering a project ready to bet on. Interestingly, shaping is less about traditional estimation of development work, and much more about appetite. Instead of asking how much time it will take to do some work, people at Basecamp will consider how much time they want to spend on a specific piece of work; how much is this idea worth?

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/4.1-appendix-02

 

Shaping

When shaping a solution, the aim is to strike the right balance between ‘too vague’ and ‘too detailed’. Wireframes are deemed too concrete, whilst words are often too abstract. The reason why this balance is important is that the scope of a project needs to be flexible enough for the team to come up with appropriate design solutions whilst not running the risk of growing out of control due to a lack of boundaries.

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/1.1-chapter-02

These are the main steps to shaping:

  1. Set boundaries – First figure out how much time the raw idea is worth and how to define the problem. This provides the basic boundaries to shape into.
  2. Rough out the elements – Then comes the creative work of sketching a solution. At Basecamp, they do this at a higher level of abstraction compared to wireframes in order to move fast and explore a wide enough range of possibilities. The output of this step is an idea that solves the problem within the appetite but without all the fine details worked out.
  3. Address risks and rabbit holes – Once there is the feeling that a solution has been found, the goal is to find holes or unanswered questions that could trip up a team. The solution gets amended accordingly, tricky things removed from it, or specified details at tricky spots to ensure that a team doesn’t waste time or gets stuck.
  4. Write the pitch –  When the solution is shaped enough to bet on, things are packaged up formally in a pitch. The pitch summarises the problem, constraints, solution, rabbit holes, and limitations. The pitch then goes to Basecamp’s betting table for consideration.

Ryan Singer writes about how Basecamp uses the technique of breadboarding, a concept borrowed from electrical engineering. When breadboarding, three things are drawn:

  1. Places – These are things you can navigate to, like screens, dialogs, or menus that pop up.
  2. Affordances – These are things the user can act on, like buttons and fields. Interface copy is considered to be an affordance too, as reading it is an act that gives the user information for subsequent actions.
  3. Connection lines – These show how the affordances take the user from place to place.

I like how words are used instead of pictures, focusing on the solution’s components and the connections between them and allowing you to figure out an idea. Importantly, this technique allows you to judge if the sequence of actions serves the use case you’re trying to solve.

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/1.3-chapter-04

 

If the idea being considered is a visual one. In this case, breadboarding would be insufficient because the visual representation is the fundamental problem. At Basecamp, wireframes wouldn’t be created in this circumstance, but fat marker sketches would be created instead. A fat marker sketch is a sketch made with such broad strokes that adding detail is difficult or impossible.

 

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/1.3-chapter-04

 

Bets, Not Backlogs

Singer explains how at Basecamp backlogs are viewed as time wasters; the time spent constantly reviewing, grooming and organising ‘tickets’, working on a list of items that might or might not get done. By contrast, Singer talks about holding a betting table before each six-week cycle. At the betting table, stakeholders evaluate pitches from the last six weeks, or any pitches that somebody purposefully revived and lobbied for again.

 

Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/2.2-chapter-08

 

The betting table at Basecamp consists of the CEO, the CTO, a senior developer and product strategist (Ryan Singer himself). The main reason why Basecamp use bets instead of plans, is the difference in expectations set when talking about bets:

  • Bets have a payout – Solutions are deliberately shaped into six-week projects so that there’s meaningful finished at the end. The pitch defines a specific payout that makes the bet worth making.
  • Bets are commitments – If a bet is made for six weeks, then the relevant people will get six weeks to work exclusively on that thing for six weeks, without distractions.
  • Bets have a cap on the downside – When a bet is made to work on something specific for six weeks, the most that you can lose is six weeks and thus avoiding a situation where you’re spending multiples of the original six-week commitment on a solution.

Build your way uphill

                     Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/3.4-chapter-12#build-your-way-uphill

 

This section of “Shape Up” starts with a great and very true point about the unpredictability of development work: “This goes back to the notion of imagined versus discovered tasks. In our naive notion of a list that’s planned up-front, somebody populates it with items that are gradually checked off. In real life, issues are discovered by getting involved in the problem. That means to-do lists actually grow as the team makes progress.” Also, numeric estimates of pieces of work often don’t take into account the level of uncertainty involved in different tasks. Basecamp have recognised this and instead use the metaphor of the hill, which concentrates on what’s unknown and what’s solved:

 

                      Taken from: https://basecamp.com/shapeup/3.4-chapter-12#build-your-way-uphill

 

The idea behind this hill is that anyone in the company can see at a glance where things are at. If a task been ‘uphill’ for while, why is that? What unknown is holding it up? Or perhaps the item on ten hill consists of a number of smaller items. The hill helps to see what is stuck and what has been done, or getting close to being completed.

Conclusion: I found “Shape Up” a very helpful and insightful book. Not only does it provide a great insight into Basecamp’s approach to developing products, it also made me reflect on my own ways of working – and the teams that I’m part of. Highly recommend reading “Shape Up” if you’re interested in learning about alternative ways of developing software products or collaborating during the product development lifecycle.

 

My product management toolkit (39): go-to-market checklist

 

Thinking about how to best launch a product or feature to market can easily become an afterthought. I’ve certainly made the mistake of being so immersed in the execution of an idea that I forgot to think about how to best take a product to market. It doesn’t matter whether your product or feature is consumer facing or aimed at internal customers, I recommend considering the following as part of your go-to-market checklist:

Pre-Launch

  • Positioning statement – Write a positioning statement which explains succinctly who the product is for, what the product does and why it’s different from other products out there.
  • Internal announcement – Do an internal announcement of some sorts – e.g. at a staff meeting or via email – to let people know that a new product or feature is coming. This helps to build momentum and excitement as well as get valuable internal feedback in the run-up to launch.
  • Success criteria – Agree on the measures of success for your product, both quantitative and qualitative. What does ‘good’ look like post-launch and why? What kind of customer feedback are you hoping to receive once your product is live, which metrics are you expecting to be impacted positively? How do you manage ‘bad’ customer feedback? Upfront alignment on success or failure will also mean that you’ll be able to iterate quickly on your product or messaging if things aren’t heading in the right direction.
  • Training and demos – When launching a new product or feature, it’s important that people across the business have seen the product in action and have been trained on how to use it. Think for example about the people in customer support who might get inundated with customer questions once the product has been launched.
  • Launch date – Set a date and time for the launch and communicate to both people within and outside of your company. Your colleagues and a select group of customers can both provide you with valuable feedback prior to launch and spread the word. Also, make sure that your launch date doesn’t coincide with national holidays, other planned launches – by your company or a competitor – etc. as you don’t want the announcement of your new product to snow under.
  • Promotional content and FAQs – This covers all content and materials that will help explain the product, its benefits, who / what it’s for, and help (target) customers of the product. Drafting FAQs and sharing them internally and a select group of potential customers first, is a great way to make sure you’ve pre-empted any questions or concerns your target audience might have.
  • Media planning – As Pawel Lubiarz explains, launching a product without a media plan in place is a considerable risk. You’re only going to launch your product once, so you need to make the most of that occasion. Which digital and print media would you like to help message the launch of your product? Which journalists are likely to report on your product?
  • Press release – Draft a press release that captures the key aspects and benefits of your product and share with journalists and media outlets that you’ve identified (see my previous point).
  • Test. Test. Test – I know it sounds obvious but even if you think have tested your new product or feature, please make sure you test again in the run-up to a big launch. get people who aren’t as close to your product as you and your team to use the product, and look out for any glitches and gotchas.
  • Social media strategy – Create the launch announcement and content to be posted on relevant social channels, and think about appropriate content formats and frequency for the different channels that are relevant to your brand. The content you share on TikTok is likely to differ widely to what you put out via TechCrunch, for example.

Post-Launch

  • Launch evaluation – How did your product launch go? What did we learn? How we can iterate on our product and marketing our product, based on the initial numbers and customer feedback.
  • Reach out to customers – Customer learning doesn’t stop once the product or feature has been launched. Reach out to customers who have bought or used the product, people that left feedback or raised support questions. Consider creating new content to share now that the product is out in the market.

Main learning point: I’m sure that there’s a lot more items that could be added to my go-to-market checklist so please feel free to leave a comment or reach out with any suggestions of things to include!

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.aha.io/roadmapping/guide/release-management/what-is-a-good-product-launch-checklist
  2. https://tinuiti.com/blog/ecommerce/product-launch/
  3. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/product-launch-checklist
  4. https://moz.com/blog/product-launch-checklist
  5. https://backlinko.com/product-launch-checklist

 

 

Book Review: “Red Teaming” by Bryce Hoffman

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Related links for further learning:

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

 

Product review: ZocDoc

I’d never heard of ZocDoc before until I heard someone recently mention it on a podcast. The person in question mentioned something about an app that lets you find your local doctor. Intrigued to learn more, I decided to do a product review:

My quick summary of ZocDoc before using it – I expect a mobile app which lets me find local doctors and book appoints through a single interface.

How does ZocDoc explain itself in the first minute? Unlike other apps, I’m not entirely clear about what ZocDoc is all about. Perhaps I’m slightly distracted by the overlay message which asks me whether I want to accept notifications to “Get important reminders and wellness updates”:

 

How does ZocDoc work? Once I’ve dismissed the notification alert, I can view ZocDoc’s homepage in full. It enables me to search by illness, filter by location and availability:

 

Once I click on “Find” I get a load of results local to me, and available today:

This interface feels intuitive, although I personally could have done without the sponsored result at the top of the screen. This is where ZocDoc’s sorting functionality comes in handy, although I doubt whether I can completely filter out the sponsored results 🙂

Instead, results can be sorted based on “relevance” – although when I do this I start getting results with dentists who aren’t available today (which was one of the original filters) – “distance” and “wait time rating”.

 

Did ZocDoc deliver on my expectations? Yes. The app feels intuitive and does make it easier to book a medical appointment. I nevertheless feel that the app can work harder in terms of enabling customers to sort results, e.g. by price (with and without insurance) and availability. I believe this additional sorting ability will make the results feel even more relevant to the user.

Review: Shift

Having worked on a number of online marketplace products, I’m always curious about other online marketplaces out there. So you might be able to imagine my excitement when I came across Shift, a US-based marketplace for new and used cars. Having bought used cars before, I feel that the used car industry is ripe for disruption and my hunch is that Shift is aiming to do just that.

I can see plenty of room to improve transparency and trust when it comes to buying and selling used cars and I’m keen to learn more about how Shift tries to tackle both areas:

My quick summary of Shift before using it: I expect a platform that enables consumers to discover, compare and buy used cars. Unsure whether cars are bought from dealerships or from Shift directly. Also, wondering whether I can get finance through Shift to help purchase my car.

How does Shift explain itself in the first minute? The landing page of the site shows two women, seated in a car and looking happy. The main strap-line on the site reads “Simplified car buying”, followed by “Great cars. Better prices. Test drives delivered to you.” The main navigation bar in the top right hand corner of the page shows “Financing” as one of the options for people to consider.

 

 

How does Shift work? Shift’s “Concierges” deliver test drives to customers on-demand. After a test drive one can arrange finance and purchase the car on the spot. Shift applies three driving principles to its business, as it aims to “bring trust and simplicity to the peer-to-peer used car market”: convenience, value and trust. Shift sees the Concierge as a pivotal actor as part of this experience as it’s the role of the Concierge “to be your guide. It’s not their job to sell you a car, it’s to help you buy one.”

 

 

When, for instance, I look at a used Mercedes GLE 350 to buy (see screenshot below), a few things stand out to me:

“No-haggle list price” – So there’s no room for a potential buyer to bring the price down!? From a peer-to-peer perspective, I can see how a fixed price creates a lot of clarity and trust for both parties involved in the transaction, car buyer and seller.

 

 

Compare price – I would have loved to compare prices for the specific car I’m interested in. When, however, I click on “Compare” for a a number of different vehicles on Shift’s site, I keep getting a message stating that price comparison info isn’t available.

 

 

Mechanical inspection – Would love to learn more about Shift’s process that precedes the mechanical inspection as shown for each model on the site. I deliberately looked for cars that didn’t just have a perfect list, i.e. all green marks, and I found one (see below). This Toyota Prius (2010) has three body related issues. When I click to see details, the three issue are being explained clearly, as well as their impact on both the exterior and the drivability of the car.

 

Wear & tear photos – For this nine year old Toyota Prius, Shift offers seven wear and tear photos so that I can see clear evidence of the body related issues listed in the mechanical inspection report. I can thus make up my mind – before arranging a test drive – whether I can live with these issues or not.

 

 

Having looked into buying car, I now want to see how one can sell a car through Shift:

These three steps involved in selling a car through Shift feel very similar to selling through Vroom:

 

 

Get an estimate – Getting a Shift estimate for a car to sell feels pretty straightforward (see screenshot below). My only question is how car sellers can quickly figure out whether they’re getting a good price for their car, and how this estimated price compares to what they could get elsewhere.

 

 

How and when do I get paid? Shift will initiate payment to the the car seller at the end of the appointment in which they evaluate one’s car to sell. This approach made me think of real estate platforms such as Opendoor and Nested. These companies will buy your property off you (Opendoor) or pay an advance (Nested) after they’ve thoroughly inspected and valued your home. The comparison with real estate made me wonder whether Shift refurbishes the interior of car or improves the exterior once it has bought the car off you.

 

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 09.18.27.png

 

Did Shift deliver on my expectations? Yes. Refreshing to see the level of simplicity and transparency into an experience which has traditionally put the (uninformed) car buyer or seller on the back foot.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.autogravity.com/
  2. https://www.lingscars.com/
  3. https://www.vroom.com/
  4. https://shift.com/cars/
  5. https://www.drivemotors.com/
  6. https://broadspeed.com/

Book review: “The Messy Middle” by Scott Belsky

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Scott Belsky, The Messy Middle

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Related links for further learning:

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

Book review: “Powerful”

“Radical honesty” is easier said than done. In her latest book “Powerful; Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility”, former Netflix’ Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord delivers a great plea for the importance and benefits of a culture of “radical honesty”, one of the many things McCord helped put in practice whilst at Netflix. This element of always speaking the truth is one of the tenets of the Netflix culture which McCord was instrumental in shaping and which she writes about in “Powerful”.

McCord looks back on the Netflix culture as one of freedom and responsibility, and describes Netflix’ approach to creating “the leanest processes possible” and “a strong culture of discipline.” I’m keen to unpick the main elements of Netflix’ culture and McCord’s approach to co-creating a ‘powerful’ culture:

  1. Transform organisational culture – McCord outlines where to start with transforming organisational culture: “identifying behaviours that you would like to see become consistent practices (…) then instilling the discipline of actually doing them.” This is very much an evolutionary process, consisting of lots of small steps. The book lists the core set of practices that underpinned the Netflix culture McCord co-created (see Fig. 1 below).
  2. Great teams contribute to success – McCord singles out contribution to success as the greatest motivation for the majority of people and teams. She talks about the energy teams get from meeting a challenge and states “great teams are made when things are hard.”
  3. Hire ‘high performers’ only (1) – My simple adage when recruiting is that if I’m not sure about a candidate or if I / we feel a persistent doubt about the candidate, it’s probably best to refrain from hiring that person. McCord goes one step further by saying that one should only hire high performers; people who do great work and challenge each other. This made me wonder whether this introduces a barrier to entry for less experienced or more junior hires? These people might become very good at their job and will – eventually – benefit from an environment that is both challenging as well as supportive.
  4. Hire ‘high performers’ only (2) – McCord’s point about the importance of “having a great person in every single position on the team”, and how this makes for a highly performant team, reminded me of Steve Jobs’ famous quote. “A players hire A players, but B players hire C players and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. The trickle down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.” Perhaps it’s because I don’t know the exact traits of an A player and how to best look out for them, but I struggle with the A player concept. As a result, I felt that the makeup of great teams was the least convincing aspect of McCord’s book. I wondered what McCord make of some of the thinking by Andy Rachleff, a well-known VC and founder, who argues that “when a lousy team meets a great market, the market wins.”
  5. Treat people like adults – McCord also makes the point that we should treat all employees like adults. I know this sounds obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of environments where people aren’t being treated as such. At Netflix, McCord and her colleagues got rid of a whole lot of process, and instead relied much more on people’s own good judgment. For instance, at Netflix they stopped onerous processes such as annual budget and roadmap planning. This introduces a large dose of “trust” into the mix which I believe is invaluable for any business or team.
  6. People don’t want to be entertained at work; they want to learn – McCord’s makes a point about how employees want to learn things at work; they want to solve problems and deal with challenges. Instead of employees spending a lot of time away from their jobs for off-sites or formal training classes, McCord argues, employees benefit from truly learning on the job. She also covers the importance of all employees fully understanding how the business works; this being “the rocket fuel of high performance and lifelong learning.”
  7. Radical honesty (1) – As mentioned above, “radical honesty” plays a key role in Netflix’ company culture. Whether it’s about telling the truth about the company (e.g. its challenges, problems, etc.) or to each other, it’s important that the truth is being shared at any given time. For example, McCord encourages people to be fully transparent about their decisions and where they went wrong.
  8. Radical honesty (2) – The power of asking questions is another important hallmark of the Netflix culture of freedom and responsibility which McCord describes. At Netflix, people were taught to ask questions such as “how do you know that’s true?” or “can you help me understand what leads you to believe that’s true?” People thus learned first hand about what McCord refers to as “the ethic of asking”.
  9. People have power, don’t take it away – McCord dismisses any talk of empowering people. Instead, she argues that people have power and companies shouldn’t take that power away from them. The company’s job isn’t to empower people; companies need to make sure all conditions are in place for people to exercise their power. As a business leader, McCord explains, your job is “to create great teams that do amazing work on time.” She mentions the importance of great leaders ability to spot people’s growth potential and to nurture this potential.
  10. Build the company now that you want to be then – When recruiting people, McCord advises company to focus on future, as opposed to just hiring for the here and now. Can the people you’ve got in your team now do the job at scale? Are you going to need them to do tomorrow the same job they’re doing now? What’s your plan for them? McCord shares a “fast-forward six months forward” exercise which she uses to shape teams for the future of the company (see Fig. 2 below).

Main learning point: I can see how some of the elements that McCord describe describes in “Powerful” might not be applicable to all companies or to specific challenges that readers might be facing. However, I believe that we can all learn from the underlying mindset which McCord describes in her book; whether it’s the importance of ‘radical honesty’ or letting people exercise their power.

 

Fig. 1 – Core set of practices that underpinned the Netflix culture – Taken from: Patty McCord, “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility”

  • Open, clear and constant communication: across the entire company about the work to be done and challenges being faced.
  • Radical honesty: telling one another, and management, the truth in a timely fashion and ideally face to face.
  • Debating based on fact based opinions: at Netflix, employees are expected to have strong, fact based opinions and to debate them avidly and test them rigidly.
  • Customer and company first: people to base their actions on what’s best for the customer and the company, not on attempts to prove themselves right.
  • Preparing teams for the future: hiring managers take the lead in preparing their teams for the future by making sure they’ve got high performers with the right skills in every position.

Fig. 2 – “Fast-forward six months” exercise –  Taken from: Patty McCord, “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility”

  • Imagine six months from now, you have the most amazing team you ever assembled and you’re saying to yourself, “Wow, those guys are awesome! I can’t believe what they’re accomplishing.”
  • First write down what the team will be accomplishing six months from now that it’s not accomplishing now. now. Use all the figures you want.
  • For those different things to be happening, what would people need to know how to do? What kind of skills and experience would it take for the team to operate the way you’re envisioning and accomplish he the things you’ll need to do in that future?

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://jobs.netflix.com/culture
  2. https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664
  3. http://pattymccord.com/netflixs-patty-mccord-on-being-a-great-place-to-be-from-protect-the-hustle-ep-1/
  4. https://visualsynopsis.com/uncategorized/powerful-by-patty-mccord/
  5. http://firstround.com/review/this-is-how-coursera-competes-against-google-and-facebook-for-the-best-talent/
  6. https://recruitloop.com/blog/steve-jobs-top-hiring-tip-hire-the-best/
  7. https://daedtech.com/a-players-dont-hire-a-players-they-partner-with-a-players/
  8. http://web.stanford.edu/class/ee204/ProductMarketFit.html
  9. https://medium.com/parsa-vc/7-lessons-from-andy-rachleff-on-product-market-fit-9fc5eceb4432