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

 

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

‘The generic disengaged one-on-one’

Manager: “How are things?”

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

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

‘The full frontal attack one-on-one’

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

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

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

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

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

In preparation for a one-on-one:

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

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

Questions to ask during the one-on-one:

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

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

Following up after the one-on-one:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Questions that uncover concerns / issues…

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

Questions that elicit feedback about work performance…

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

Questions that help provide career direction…

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

Questions that foster a sense of personal connection…

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

 

Related links for further learning:

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

My product management toolkit (34): product principles

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobodies are the same but you leave them all over everything you do.” Elvis Presley 

“Values” – each organisation has got them. Whether they’re explicit or implicit, strong company values underpin everything a business does (and doesn’t do). “Serve Our Users” for instance is a core value articulated in the Google Code of Conduct: “Our users value Google not only because we deliver great products and services, but because we hold ourselves to a higher standard in how we treat users and operate more generally.”

 

 

As product managers we use product principles, a clear set of standards and goals that connect company values with the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve, both for customers and our company. Before we look at example product principles, I believe it’s important to cover some terminology first:

  • Product principles – Specific principles that affect product development and decision-making.
  • Design principlesSpecific principles that drive product design, both in terms of the user interface and the experience. For instance, companies have design principles around their app content or navigation.
  • General product principles – Those principles which apply to building great products and whicvh are agnostic to company values and apply to every product.

Granted, lots of of people seem to talk about design and product principles interchangeably, but I treat them very much as two distinct concepts. For instance, “we’re always 100% transparent with our users” I see as a good example of a product principle, and one that which subsequently drive the design of the product or service as well as many other aspects of the product. Here are some key things to bear in mind with respect to product management principles:

  1. What to use product principles for? – Product principles can be very valuable at each stage of the product lifecycle, whether the product is at the idea stage or being considered for termination. In my experience, product principles ultimately help with decision making. Questions such as “should we add feature A or B?” or “which channels should we use for this product?”, can all be determined with the guidance of the overarching product principles.
  2. Who should use product principles? – Everybody in the business. Just as much as company values apply to all employees, I believe that product principles work the same. To think that product principles sit exclusively within the domain of a product person feels limiting. People across the business are involved in the product and should therefore at least be aware of the product principles.
  3. What do good product principles look like? – In essence, good product principles should (1) link closely to the overall company mission and values (2) be concrete enough to enable decision making (3) be easy to remember and (4) be specific enough within the context of customer outcomes. For example, at ecommerce platform Shopify the mission is “to make commerce better for everyone, no matter where they’re located or their level of experience.” From this mission statement, Shopify has derived its (product) principles: (1) put merchants first (2) empower but don’t overwhelm (3) build a cohesive experience and (4) be polished but not ornamental.

                                                    Taken from: https://polaris.shopify.com/guides/principles

 

Main learning point: Whilst I appreciate that values, design and product principles are often being talked about in the same breadth, I do recommend looking at product principles as its own concept. Well defined product principles can add a lot of value to product development and collaboration throughout the product lifecycle.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2017/06/applying-product-principles-guide-better-product-decisions/
  2. https://svpg.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Example-Principles.pdf
  3. https://svpg.com/the-product-manifesto/
  4. https://uxcellence.com/2015/product-principles
  5. https://medium.com/@ElWexicano/product-principles-better-products-65e64f784c2b
  6. https://inside.6q.io/190-examples-of-company-values/
  7. https://abc.xyz/investor/other/google-code-of-conduct.html
  8. https://medium.com/etsy-design/creating-etsys-design-principles-4faf31914be3
  9. https://www.jasonshen.com/2014/no-silver-bullets-etsys-randy-hunt-on-product-design/
  10. https://polaris.shopify.com/guides/principles

My product management toolkit (33): launch and learn

“Build it and they will come!” I used to work once with a senior executive, who was of the opinion that a product or feature should just be launched, without any testing with customers beforehand. “I know that once it’s out there, people will want it” she’d explain to me, adding that “it’s what people want”.

 

 

Hearing this “build it and they will come” mantra time and time again did annoy me 🙂 At the same time, it did make me wonder whether it might be a good idea to (continuously) release product features without prior customer discovery … What if this executive is right and any new product, feature or service should just be launched, as a way of learning as quickly as possible!?

Being able to ‘launch and learn’ is a vital tool in any product person’s toolkit. I strongly encourage you to avoid ‘one-off product releases’ at any time; what are you going to learn from shipping a product only to then move on to the next thing!? One can debate about when to best learn – should you learn pre-release? – but the main point is that you’ll need to ship early and often to learn continuously.

Basecamp, a project management software compare, does take ‘launch and learn’ to the extreme, they don’t show customers anything until every customer can see it. In the book “It doesn’t have to be crazy at work”, Basecamp’s co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson describe how at Basecamp:

  • “We don’t beta-test with customers.”
  • “We don’t ask people what they’d pay for something.”
  • “We do the best job we know how to do and then we launch it into the market.”
  • “The market will tell us the truth.”

Fried and Heinemeier Hansson argue that anything you ask or test with customers prior to launch is hypothetical: “Real answers are uncovered when someone’s motivated enough to buy your product and use it in their own environment – and of their own volition. Anything else is simulated answers. Shipping real products gives you real answers.” Whilst I do agree with this line of thinking, I don’t believe in simply launching some crappy product or feature and see if it sticks (just as much I don’t believe in “build it and they will come”).

 

 

My suggestion would to ‘launch confidently and learn’. This means that for each new product or feature you determine – based on your confidence level – whether it needs some form of customer research before launch:

  1. Deliver value in order to learn – You want to be smart about the things you want to learn. The best opportunity to learn comes when you’re confident about the value that you’re delivering to the customer. Naturally, people might not buy or use your product despite the value it intends to deliver, but that’s a learning in itself.
  2. Minimum Level of Confidence (1) – How confident are you? What exactly are you confident about (and why)? The main reason why I believe in product managers adhering to a confidence treshold is to avoid launching products that don’t work or provide an awful user experience. The Newton MessagePad which came out in 1993 is a good example of the launch of an incomplete product, which didn’t live up to its promise. Larry Tesler, senior exec at Apple at the time of of the Newton MessagePad, described Apple’s promise about the Newton’s handwriting capability as a large nail in the Newton coffin. The lesson learned here is that you shouldn’t launch when you’re not confident about the capability and value of your product or feature.
  3. Minimum Level of Confidence (2) – I’ve come up with a number of basic questions and criteria to apply when you’re thinking of launching a product (see Fig. 1-2 below). In my experience, identifying your Minimum Level of Confidence shouldn’t result in ‘analysis paralysis’. In contrast, it’s an important conversation to have throughout the product lifecycle to ensure that everyone fully understands what risks or unknowns are associated with the upcoming release. As an outcome of such a conversation you can decide whether to get customer feedback pre-release.
  4. Make sure you learn! – Whether you do or don’t engage with customers before launch, being clear about what you’re looking to learn from a release is paramount. Like I mentioned above, I view releasing something without learning from it  as a cardinal sin. It’s very important to continuously learn from real users and actual usage (or not) about your key hypotheses. These learnings – both quantitive and qualitative – will give you the data points to iterate or terminate a product.

Fig. 1 – Questions and criteria to check your confidence about launching a product or feature:

  • Internal quality assurance – Have you tested your product feature to ensure there are no obvious bugs or gaps in the user experience? Even if you don’t test with customers prior to launch, you should test some key acceptance scenarios internally before launch to make sure the product works as intended.
  • Does the feature or product touch on core user experience? – If “yes” is the answer to this, then I recommend you do test with customers prior to launch to identify any major usability issues worth solving before launch. You typically need to test with no more than five customers to unearth any critical usability issues.
  • How confident are you? – The combination of low confidence in something which your business has got a lot riding can be deadly. Yes, one can always try to do damage limitation, but it might already be too late at the time of you trying to repair things! The idea behind determining your confidence levels upfront isn’t a scientific one. Instead, it enables a conversation, making sure that people have got their eyes wide open and understand the level of risk and unknowns involved in an upcoming product launch (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 2 – Basic confidence levels to consider before launch:

  • High Confidence: Our confidence in the upcoming release is high because we tested it thoroughly internally, have launched a similar product or feature before or if there’s an issue the fallout will be small.
  • Low Confidence: Our confidence in the upcoming release is low because we haven’t fully tested it, it’s based on new technology or creates a totally new user experience.

 

 

 

Main learning point: Even if you decide not to generate customer learnings before a product launch, make sure you at learn after launch. Launch and learn. Don’t launch without learning!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2017/02/the-life-of-a-product-manager-learning-by-doing/
  2. https://www.intercom.com/blog/shipping-is-your-companys-heartbeat/
  3. https://medium.com/@joshelman/a-product-managers-job-63c09a43d0ec
  4. https://uxplanet.org/10-things-i-learned-from-jason-fried-about-building-products-5b6694ff02aa
  5. http://time.com/13549/the-10-worst-product-fails-of-all-time/
  6. https://twitter.com/jasonfried/status/935555293014036480
  7. https://247wallst.com/special-report/2014/03/03/worst-product-flops-of-all-time/2/
  8. https://www.macworld.com/article/2047342/remembering-the-newton-messagepad-20-years-later.html
  9. https://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/26/business/the-executive-computer-so-far-the-newton-experience-is-less-than-fulfilling.html

Book review: “AI Superpowers”

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee is the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a China based tech focused investment firm. Previous to becoming a full-time investor, Lee held positions at Google, Microsoft and Apple. A large part of that career, Lee spent working on data and Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’), both in the US and in China. In “AI Superpowers – China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order” Lee bundles his experiences and insights to describe the progress that China and the US have made and are making in the field of AI.

AI Superpowers contains a heap of valuable insights as well as predictions about the impact of technology power that both the US and China have been racking up. These are the main things that I took away from reading AI Superpowers:

  • US and China, contrasting cultures – Lee starts the book by writing about the contrasts in business culture between the US and China: “China’s startup culture is the yin to Silicon Valley’s yang: instead of being mission-driven, Chinese companies are first and foremost market-driven.” Lee goes on to explain that the ultimate goal of Chinese companies is “to make money, and they’re willing to create any product, adopt any model, or go into any business that will accomplish that objective.” This mentality help to explain the ‘copycat’ attitude that Chinese companies have had historically. Meituan, for example, is a group-discount website which sells vouchers from merchants for deals which started as the perfect counterpart of US-based Groupon.
  • “Online-to-Offline” (‘O2O”) – O2O describes the conversion of online actions into offline services. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are great examples of the new O2O model. In China, Didi copied this model and tailored it to local conditions. Didi was followed by other O2O plays such as Dianping, a food delivery service which subsequently merged with the aforementioned Meituan company, and Tujia, a Chinese version of Airbnb. Lee also mentions WeChat and Alipay, describing how both companies completely overturned China’s all-cash economy. More recently, bike-sharing startups Mobike (see Fig. 1 below) and ofo which supplied tens of millions of internet-connected bicycles, distributing them across them about major Chinese cities and now across the globe.
  • China catching up quickly in the AI department – Having read the story of image recognition algorithm ResNet, and how its inventors moved from Microsoft to join AI startups in China, I can see how China as a country is quickly catching up with the technology stalwart that is Silicon Valley.  One of these image recognition startups, Face +++, has quickly become a market leader in face / image recognition technology, leapfrogging the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook along the way.
  • The four waves of AI – In AI Superpowers, Lee argues that what he calls the “AI revolution” will not happen overnight. Instead, AI will wash over us in four waves: internet AI, business AI, perception AI, and autonomous AI (see Fig. 2 below). This part of the book really struck a chord with me, as it brings to life how AI is likely to evolve over the coming years, both in terms of practical applications and use cases.

Main learning point: I’d highly recommend “AI Superpowers” to anyone interested in learning more about how China and the US are furthering the development of AI and the impact of this development on our daily lives.

 

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of the Mobike bike-sharing app – Taken from: https://technode.com/2016/07/07/mobike-uber/

 

Fig. 2 – The four waves of AI – Taken from: Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers, pp. 104 – 139:

  • First wave: Internet AI – Internet AI is largely about using AI algorithms as recommendation engines: systems that learn our personal preferences and then serve up content hand-picked for us. Toutiao, sometimes called “the Buzzfeed of China”, is a great example of this first wave of AI; its “editors” are algorithms.
  • Second wave: Business AI – First wave AI leverages the fact that internet users are automatically labelling data as they browse. Business AI, the second wave of AI, takes advantage of the fact that traditional companies have also been automatically labelling huge quantities of data for decades. For instance, insurance companies have been covering accidents and catching fraud, banks have been issuing loans and documenting repayment rates, and hospitals have been keeping records of diagnoses and survival rates. Business AI mines these data points and databases for hidden correlations that often escape the naked eye and the human brain. RXThinking, an AI based diagnosis app, is a good example in this respect.
  • Third wave: Perception AI – Third wave AI is all about extending and expanding this power throughout our lived environment, digitising the world around us through the proliferation of sensors and smart devices. These devices are turning our physical world into digital data that can then be analysed and optimised by deep-learning algorithms. For example, Alibaba’s City Brain is digitising urban traffic flows through cameras and object-recognition.
  • Fourth wave: Autonomous AI – Autonomous AI represents the integration and culmination of the three preceding waves, fusing machines’ ability to optimise from extremely complex datasets with their newfound sensory powers.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/07/chinas-meituan-dianping-confirms-4point4-billion-hong-kong-ipo.html
  2. https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/10/tujia-raises-300-million/
  3. http://www.forbesindia.com/article/ckgsb/how-tujia-chinas-airbnb-is-different-from-airbnb/48853/1
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobike
  5. https://towardsdatascience.com/an-overview-of-resnet-and-its-variants-5281e2f56035
  6. https://www.faceplusplus.com/
  7. http://www.iflytek.com/en/
  8. https://www.mi.com/global/
  9. https://www.happyfresh.com/
  10. https://www.grab.com/sg/

My product management toolkit (32): managing your frustrations

Every job or organisation comes with its own pressures and challenges. Millions of people will have a bad day at work, some people probably more frequently than others 🙂 That said, I believe that being a product manager can be one of the more frustrating roles out there. The same things that make product management such a great craft are the ones that can make the life of a product manager one filled with frustrations:

  • Constant navigation between all sections of the business
  • Interacting with a wide range of stakeholders
  • Being accountable without authority
  • Working in fast paced and high pressure environments
  • Regular dealings with complexity and uncertainty

Some product managers will suffer from frustration more than others and each person will have his or her own way of dealing with it but there are tools can help and so below I’m going to outline a number of tools that I use to try and manage some of the frustrations that I find can come with the day job.

A personal confession first

I definitely get frustrated. I like to think that I’ve come a long way in managing this, but I realise that it’s something I’ll always need to be mindful of and work on. When I reflect on some of the causes that have triggered my frustrations in the past, they tend to come down to the following triggers:

  • Things not going to ‘plan’ – I must admit, as much I know rationally that in product management things hardly ever go to plan or pan out the way you expect, I used to get quite frustrated when this was the case.
  • Taking things personally – Almost by default, as a product manager you’re accountable when a product isn’t performing or doesn’t live up to expectation. I really struggled with this, especially at the beginning of my product career as I’d take things highly personally. As a result, I’d get very deflated and defensive.
  • Missing a shared sense of urgency – Whenever I sense – rightly or wrongly – that other people are not pulling their weight, it can really get my back up. I love working in teams where there’s a shared sense of ownership and responsibility, and I sometimes find it tough when I feel that shared sense is missing somewhat.

Sounds familiar? I’ve come across plenty of product managers over the years who’ve been very open with me about their frustrations, so I know that I’m not unique in this respect and that it’s worth looking at some ways to cope with frustrations …

1. Learn about your triggers

The first ‘tool’, I’d highly recommend is to identify the situations or people that trigger a frustrated feeling within you. What triggers an emotional reaction in you, why? For example:

  • Meetings with ‘difficult’ stakeholders
  • Feeling that you’re stuck, struggling to see a way forward
  • A product or feature not performing as hoped
  • Colleagues feeling frustrated or pressured
  • A comment or criticism by a colleague
  • Other people not meeting your standards or values

If you know what tends to strike a nerve or when you might be at risk, you’re in a much better position to pre-empt the trigger from having an impact, i.e. causing a negative feeling. For example, when I know that a conversation with a stakeholder is likely to be a tricky one, I’ll catch a few minutes of fresh air beforehand or have think about how to best approach the meeting.

In an ideal world, we’d totally avoid situations which might trigger us. But this isn’t possible in reality, and knowing your coping mechanisms for when triggers do strike, can be incredibly helpful.

2. Big I / little i

Since I was first introduced to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (‘CBT’) about 20 years ago, I’ve been using CBT tools and techniques on a daily basis to manage my emotions and behaviours. For instance, where I used to take negative feedback very badly, I’m now much better at taking things on the chin and learning from feedback, using the “Big I / little i” method that’s commonly used within CBT (see Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – “Big I / little i”, Taken from: https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/category/cbt-cbc/

The “Big I / little i” technique is essentially about decoupling mistakes or perceived criticism from who you are as a person. For example, if I make a mistake in communicating with others, this doesn’t make me a bad person (“Big I”), it’s one of my many acts and behaviours, and one that I can look at and improve (“little i”).

3. Write. It. Down.

Have you ever been frustrated at work and your frustration turned into something much bigger: you feeling very deflated about your product, your colleagues, your job, etc. Before you know it, something that started as a molehill quickly evolved into Mount Everest. Whenever I want to stop my spiralling frustrations, I take a minute to grab my notebook and write it down.

I’ve learned how the mere act of jotting your thoughts down on paper quickly, can be incredibly helpful in gaining perspective and blowing off steam. If you’d like to add some more structure to your thoughts, then I’d highly recommend the “Cognitive Journal” which is part of the CBT toolkit (see Fig. 2). Journalling the “Activating Event”, “Beliefs”, “Consequence” and “Disputing” (‘A-B-C-D’) helps to not only capture what happened but also to look inward to figure out which personal beliefs were trigged and its consequences. For example:

A – Your boss tells you that she isn’t happy with the product feature that was just released to market.

B – You believe that your boss now sees you as incompetent and you feel that you’ve failed.

C – “Perhaps my boss will now fire me; I’ll be unemployed and I’ll never land another job as a product manager.”

D – “No way is my boss going to fire me!” Prior to this feature, I’ve helped create many products our customers love.

It’s easy and totally human to spiral into fatalistic thinking. Thoughts like “Perhaps my boss will now fire me; I’ll be unemployed and I’ll never land another job as a product manager.” Writing these thoughts down can help to make you reflect, and successfully challenge your negative thinking (“Disputing”). See it as a valuable “pause” moment, whereby you temporarily put a specific goal on hold and stop asking “What do I next?”

Fig. 2 – “Cognitive Journal”, Taken from: https://www.1alliancecps.com/wordpress/2013/09/02/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-cognitive-journaling-using-the-abc-model/

4. (Radical) Acceptance

In the book “Emotional Intelligence”, internationally renown psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about the process of ’emotional hijacking’, and describes how we as humans can be taken over by our emotions. In my view ’emotional hijacking’ implies that it’s ok for a person to accept their emotions and whatever caused the emotion to take over. Is there no limit to acceptance of your emotions!?

Upsetting others – deliberately or accidentally – is something I’ll always try to avoid. Naturally, I can’t control how other people perceive my sharing of emotions, but it’s something I’ve become more mindful of over the years. For example, when I just started out as a product manager I used to really voice my anger or frustration to such an extent that the other person would be fearful of me … Realising this, made feel upset in turn since my goal wasn’t to scare or upset people, in my mind I was just being honest and open.

I’ve learned a lot from reading “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, particularly about the best ways to accept the emotions I’m feeling or thoughts I’m thinking on my own, as this helps me to effectively take the sting out of the moment and have less of a negative impact on the emotions of others. Don’t get me wrong; this doesn’t mean that I’ve become a wallflower and that I only speak in dulcet tones 🙂 but I will take a minute or say to try and think before I talk or share my emotions (I’ve written about this previously).

 

 

Acceptance also means accepting your flaws and mistakes, and helps to accept things not going to plan or serious mistakes that you’ve made. Again, acceptance doesn’t mean that you simply resign to failure or a bad situation. In contrast, acceptance of a problem or a bad decision can make you see it for what it is, and be more constructive about it. For example: What can you do to solve a problem? What can you do to improve a situation? What will you do differently next time?

Amanda, a product person who I really look up to, told me once when I was upset that we as product managers act as problem solvers, irrespective of whether we’ve created the problem or not. And her saying this really helped me to understand that there’s no point just fighting or denying a problem. Instead, we should focus on what we can do to undo or improve things.

5. A word of warning

I wish I could say that I always lead by example when it comes to managing my emotions and practice what I preach 24//7.

 

 

It was only last week where I showed my frustration in front of my team and in hindsight I wasn’t happy with the way in which I’d expressed my frustration with what I felt was a lack of urgency and commitment. The point I’m making here is that eradicating frustrations or emotions completely is nigh-on impossible and possibly not even desirable.

“Honesty” and “Authenticity” are two of my core values which means that I’ll always try to say how it is and stay true to myself. I’ve therefore accepted that I might say or do things that might not sit well with other people and their personal values. However, I’m constantly learning to be mindful of other people, their beliefs and ways of doing things. Managing my own frustrations first helps me to better manage my own emotions, and get the most out of the people that I work with – in the right way. My hope is that you’ll find some of the aforementioned tools helpful in managing your own emotions.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/living-forward/201504/3-simple-steps-control-anger-and-frustration-others
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/happiness-in-world/201202/how-manage-frustration
  3. https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/cbt-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-techniques-worksheets/
  4. https://beckinstitute.org/get-informed/what-is-cognitive-therapy/
  5. https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/category/cbt-cbc/
  6. http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree
  7. http://www.danielgoleman.info/topics/emotional-intelligence/
  8. https://www.tarabrach.com/store/
  9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S000579671000238X
  10. https://beingwellcenter.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/9-traits-you-should-know-about-your-temperament/

The Product Manager Is Your Best Friend

Back in May I spoke at the annual Shift Conference in Split, Croatia and in my talk I looked at the collaboration between product managers and engineers. In “The Product Manager Is Your Best Friend” I tried to demystify some common perceptions about product managers and engineers alike.

For instance, the myth that all product managers are rockstars who can solve any business or customer problem single handedly:

 

 

Or the myth that all developers are fragile beings who just want to be left alone and write code:

 

 

In my talk, I examine what makes a successful collaboration between product people and engineers, and why. I introduce the product feedback loop and its individual stages, looking at roles and responsibilities at each stage:

 

You can watch the full talk below. Let me know your thoughts!

 

 

My product management toolkit (31): hiring product managers

More than 5 years ago now, I wrote about my first experiences with hiring product managers. In the piece I wrote about the key traits I look for in product managers and specific things to capture during the recruitment process. Since then, I’ve probably interviewed hundreds of product management candidates, compared notes with peers and read books about recruitment. All these inputs have made me realise the following:

Hiring good product managers is HARD!!!

There’s no set definition of what makes a good product manager – or what makes a product manager to start off with. Product managers tend to come in all shapes and sizes, and more often than not, they will have done a variety of different roles prior to turning to product management. Also, the demands of a product manager are likely to vary per organisation, based on size, maturity, type of product, culture, etc.

Over the years, however, I’ve developed a number of questions, though processes and tools which I use when recruiting product managers for my teams. Realising that recruitment is a very broad topic, I’m going to focus predominantly on the specific things to consider before you even kick off the hiring process.

What does good look like?

Good (product management) recruitment starts with asking a few key questions first:

  • Why do we need this role? – Especially when your organisation hasn’t hired a product manager before, this is a critical question to ask before you set the recruitment process in motion. For example, is your startup big enough for a product person to drive ongoing product development, and is the founder ready to let go of some of this responsibility? Or: is an organisation which has built successful products without a product management function ready for product managers to join?
  • What are the specific gaps that the product manager needs to fill? – The specific problems – short and long term – that a product manager is expected to solve are far and few between. The nature of these problems is unique to factors such as the maturity of the organisation and the position of your product within its lifecycle (see Fig. 1 below). Be clear about the specific value you expect the product manager to add (see also “What do you need to hire a product person for?” below).
  • Which are “must have” attributes that you need in a product manager? – Naturally, the specific hard and soft skills you treat as “must have” when hiring are totally subjective. I’ve nevertheless found it very helpful to distinguish between “must haves” – i.e. non-negotiable skills – and “nice to haves”. To illustrate, I’ve outlined some key aspects that I don’t want to compromise on when hiring product managers (see Fig. 2 below).
  • What type of product manager are you looking for and why? – I recently read the High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil and his great book contains a section about “The four types of product managers” (see Fig. 3 below). Often companies will need a mix of the four types or require a person to be one type only.

When do I need to hire a product manager?

Figuring out when to hire your first product manager is the million dollar question. Some people will start looking for product people when:

  • The input of the founder(s) alone is no longer enough to create a great product.
  • Your business is starting to frustrate or lose customers.
  • You’ve reached the point where the product starts to scale.
  • You’ve reached the point where the business starts to scale.
  • Too many good ideas, but struggling to decide about which one to focus on next?

Once your product hits market-fit – i.e. you’re in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market – I recommend having a dedicated product person to drive further product iteration and market growth. Also, when you find that you’re losing touch with your (target) customers and their needs, it’s time to hire your first product person!

 

 

Let’s look at the flip side, and zoom in on those circumstances when you don’t need to hire a product manager just yet:

  • The founder is in a position to drive to product.
  • The product hasn’t achieved any form of market-fit yet.
  • You don’t have customers yet (and you just want to see whether the product has got legs instead).
  • or: is worried about letting go of the product.
  • You need someone to simply execute on your product requirements.
  • There’s a need to implement ‘Agile’ in the business.

I’m all for executing ideas, making them a reality, but I’d argue that you don’t necessarily need a product manager to make things happen. For example, if you’ve got a clear specification of what needs to be built, then a good project manager can help you execute against this spec.

 

What do you need to hire a product person for?

I often come across companies which are on the lookout for a product manager without fully knowing what they expect from that person. Sometimes it will be down to the company’s investors telling them to recruit product managers or a strong desire to become more product centric. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with either motivation, it’s important to recognise that product managers come in all shapes and sizes, naturally excelling at certain aspects of product management and weaker in other areas.

As with any role, a number of characteristics make up a great product manager and unless you manage to find the perfect unicorn, you’ll have to decide upfront which characteristics are absolutely non-negotiable and which ones you consider to be a bonus.

 

 

Instead, I find the traditional product lifecycle model a useful guide when thinking about the specific problems that I’d like an incoming product manager to solve:

Market Development (Stage 1) – You’ll need a person who’s happy to start from scratch, unafraid of ambiguity and who is comfortable experimenting until the product achieves market-fit. Problems to solve here:

  • Creating a Minimum Viable Product in the truest sense of the word, demonstrating customer value and testing key business hypotheses.
  • Learning about customer needs and behaviours fast and translating these learnings in product iterations.
  • Developing a go-to market approach for the product, feed into initial product positioning and pricing.

Growth (Stage 2) – At this stage of the product lifecycle, I recommend looking for someone with experience of or appetite for scaling a product.

  • Continuously optimising the product based on data insights, both quantitative and qualitative.
  • Making tough tradeoff decisions and being able to say “no” to certain product requests.
  • Measuring performance of the product to ensure key goals are being met.
  • Localising or modifying the product, in case of new market entries or new customer segments respectively.

Maturity (Stage 3) – With a mature product, you’re unlikely to suddenly see a massive spike in your product’s customer base or usage. Problems to solve here:

  • Safeguard the product experience and value for existing customers.
  • Optimise the product and resolve any bugs or defects.

Decline (Stage 4) – Your product is at a crossroads as it’s declining. The customer base or usage are in decline. Problems to solve here:

  • Deciding whether to terminate a product or feature.
  • If you do decide to terminate, managing existing users of that product.
  • Transitioning customers to a new product.

By concentrating on different problems to solve at these product lifecycle stages, you can see how there’s no one size fits all solution with respects to the product manager skills required.

Fig. 1 – The Product Lifecycle by Theodor Levitt – Taken from: https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle

 

Main learning point: Granted, recruiting great product management is by no means an easy task. However, by doing some careful thinking about the what and the why of a product manager role for your business, you can make a well-informed decision about whether you need a product person and if so, what that person should look like.

 

Fig. 2 – Non-negotiable requirements when I hire product people:

  • Having the customer at front of mind – Do you truly care about the customer and solving customer problems?
  • Curiosity being a crucial driver – How curious are you to learn new things, to simply try things and learn?
  • Focused on solving problems – Can you demonstrate an inner drive to discover and solve problems?
  • Comfortable communicating up and down – Especially when things have gone wrong, and you have to explain things to people across the business, customers, suppliers, etc.
  • Not afraid to make decisions, big or small – How do you prioritise? Demonstrate tough tradeoffs you’ve made? Which decisions did you get wrong and how did you come back from those?

Fig. 3 – The four types of product managers – Taken from: Elad Gil, High Growth Handbook, pp. 252 – 253:

  1. Business product manager – These product managers are strongest at synthesising external requests into an internal product roadmap. Business product managers tend ton thrive at enterprise software  companies, or working on the partner-facing portions of consumer applications.
  2. Technical product manager – Technical PMs are often (but not always) deeply technical people who can work with engineering on areas like infrastructure, search quality, machine learning, or other inward-facing work.
  3. Design product manager – Most commonly found working on consumer applications, design-centric product managers are more user experience-centric. Some companies will convert a designer to be the product manager for a consumer product, just like they will convert an engineer into a technical product manager.
  4. Growth product manager – Growth product managers tend to be quantitative, analytical, numbers-driven, and in the best cases wildly creative and aggressive. The focus of the growth product manager is to (1) determine the critical levers needed to drive product adoption and use, and then (2) to manipulate those levers.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://pmarchive.com/guide_to_startups_part4.html
  2. https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle
  3. https://www.toptal.com/product-managers/product-management
  4. https://a16z.com/2012/06/15/good-product-managerbad-product-manager/
  5. http://growth.eladgil.com/book/chapter-7-product-management/characteristics-of-great-product-managers/
  6. https://stripe.com/atlas/guides/building-a-great-pm-org