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

 

App review: Tide

How did Tide come to my attention? – I vaguely recall receiving an email from Tide a while ago about signing up for Tide, and a chance to learn about this new service before launch.

My quick summary of Tide (before using it)? – I expect a bank account exclusively geared towards to small to medium size businesses. A bit like Varo Money or Simple, but aimed at SMEs.

How does Tide explain itself in the first minute? – When I googled Tide, the top search result has “the Business Current Account that saves you time …” as its byline (see Fig. 1).

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Fig. 1 – Screenshot of top search result for Tide Banking

When I then go to Tide’s website, the homepage’s key messaging explains how Tide provide a small business current account (see Fig. 2). Speed and costs are the main things I take away from looking at Tide’s homepage at a first glance. I’m immediately intrigued to learn more about Tide’s “powerful tools that save you time and money.” This perception is reinforced by a “Sign up in 5 minutes” call to action button, just below the fold on Tide’s homepage.

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Fig. 2 – Screenshot of the homepage of https://www.tide.co/

Getting started, what’s the process like? – I click on the “Sign up in 5 minutes” button and a popup appears, telling me that Tide is available on Google and Android (see Fig. 3). I (wrongly) assumed that Tide’s services would also be available on my desktop, but I’m happy to go the App Store and download the Tide app.

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Fig. 3 – Screenshot of Tide’s popup message, directing me to Google Play and the App Store to start creating a Tide account

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Fig. 5 – Screenshot of the opening screen of the Tide iOS app

I click on the “Get started” button and land on a delightful screen that shows me upfront what I need to open a Tide account. I like how the app informs me upfront of the documents and information I need to open a Tide account (see Fig. 6). As a user, there’s nothing more infuriating than starting the account creation process and learning halfway through that I don’t have the right documents.

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Fig. 5 – Screenshot of the second screen of the Tide iOS app

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I use the camera to take a picture of my driving license. Doing this makes me realise again how my passport is still registered to my old address, and I wonder if and how that’s going to impact my application for a Tide account.
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Clearly, something isn’t right and I see a popup message which explains how Tide was unable to verify my details automatically. I now expect a phone call or an email from Tide about my identity verification. The good thing is that I can still continue with the account creation process, by simply clicking on the “Continue” button.

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The bit where Tide links to Companies House feels very seamless and it automatically picks up my company.

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This is the point where I hit a spanner in the works as the app doesn’t seem to accept the security photo that I’ve taken of myself. There’s a circular type button which enables me to take my picture again … and again … and again. Meanwhile, I’m unclear as to what I’m doing wrong and there’s no tooltip to explain what I need to ensure my picture meets Tide’s criteria. Clicking on the “next” button in the top right hand corner of the screen doesn’t help unfortunately, so I feel a bit stuck here.

After contacting Tide, the issue gets resolved and I continue the onboarding process. “Terms And Conditions” is the next step I’m presented with. The calls to action are clear and I like how I can easily read through Tide’s “Member Terms” and “Account Agreement” if I wish to.

 

After clicking both tick boxes, I receive a notification stating that my account has been opened, but that Tide needs to do some extra checks before creating a sort code and account number for me. I suspect this is due the fact that my driving license is still registered to my old address and doesn’t correspond with my company address.

The additional checks get carried out pretty swiftly and I can see a confirmation screen within the app, containing my account number, sort code and balance.

 

Did Tide deliver on my expectations? – Yes, apart from the issue with my security photo, onboarding with Tide felt intuitive for the most part. I believe that the app and the overall user experience would benefit from some simple tooltips (e.g. when submitting security details) to further simplify things.

 

 

My product management toolkit (20): the art of saying “no”

Saying “no” is possibly one of the most challenging parts of being a product manager. There are so many great business and product ideas out there and ideally we’d like to do all of them. I can, however, only refer to one of the greatest product people and his views on the importance of saying no:

Fig. 1 – Taken from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/focusing-saying-avelo-roy

These are the main reasons why I believe in the importance of saying no:

Focus – We can’t do it all! What’s truly important, why? Will it move the needle? If so, how?

Constraints – Every business has constraints, e.g. people, time, money, opportunities, etc. As a result, saying no sometimes acts as an absolute necessity. 

Cost and risks – We need to say no from time to time to manage (opportunity) cost and risks.

As a consequence, every product person benefits from having a few ways of saying no in his or her toolkit. I’ll highlight five different options for when you want to say no:

Option 1 – Open the kimono

“Opening the kimono” is quite a popular phrase, but is effectively just stressing the importance of being fully transparent with others. As a product manager, you’re typically in a great position to provide full transparency on:

  • Vision
  • Strategy
  • Roadmap
  • Backlog
  • Tradeoffs
  • Cost (incl. delay)
  • Value (incl. ROI)

Open the kimono helps you to start an open conversation about the potential impact of certain decisions. For example, what will be the likely cost of delay if we decide to deprioritise feature A in favour of feature B.

 

Fig. 2 – Taken from: https://uk.pinterest.com/olivialatenight/lolita-harajuku-korean-streetwear/

Option 2 – Scope small and test assumptions

I absolutely love Peter Merholz‘ wedding cake analogy: there are two ways to bake a wedding cake (see Fig. 3 below). One way is to create a big wedding cake; starting with a cake base, adding the filling and icing. Alternatively, you can start with a small cupcake and see what the soon to be married couple think about it, after which you can decide to make a cake or a proper wedding cake.

The key here is that you’re not saying no and shutting the door on an idea or project. In contrast, you’re proposing to start small and get real user feedback ‘often and early’:

Scope small – “I suggest we don’t commit to the entire product or project upfront. Instead, I suggest we focus on a single feature or value component first and measure its impact. We can then always decide to do more and iterate.”

Test assumptions – “We assume that our users need a tomato juice to quench their thirst. How can we best validate this quickly before we commit to making tomato juice?”

Fig. 3 – Peter Merholz’ two ways of baking a wedding cake – Taken from: https://blog.intercom.com/start-with-a-cupcake/

Option 3 – Consider side effects

We all know how easy it can be to say “yes” to an idea or an improvement that sounds ‘small’. However, in doing so we often forget that even the smallest of features or changes can have a big impact. There are a number of potential side effects to consider before saying yes or no:

Development cost – What are the cost of creating this? What is does the expected ROI look like and why?

Maintenance cost – Can we maintain it? What are the cost involved in doing so?

Business model – How does this fit with our business model?

System impact – Are there any ramifications on the wider system?

Technical debt – Will we incur technical debt as a result of this feature or change?

Unhappy customers – By doing this, will we alienate clients?

Fig. 4 – Estimated vs actual cost of a small feature – Taken from: https://blog.intercom.com/product-strategy-means-saying-no/

Option 4 – Not now

It’s not a straight no, it’s something we could or should be doing later. For example, “let’s do this once we’ve implemented our new shopping cart feature, as it will be easier to add this feature on then. We will add this to the “next” section on our roadmap.”

One word of warning: I’ve seen many people using this approach to kick things into the long grass, burying things into the roadmap or backlog in the hope that it gets forgotten about. I believe this counterproductive and dishonest. If you already know that something isn’t going to get done, then it’s better to be transparent about this upfront.

Fig. 5 – Taken from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/terdata/287937963

Option 5 – Provide options

Instead of offering a downright no, provide options and explore the pros and cons of each option. I’ve found that this approach really helps in having a constructive conversation with business stakeholders about business goals and tradeoffs.

For example:

Option 1: build on top of existing APIs

Pros: speed to market, less costly, meet partner expectations

Cons: not scalable, opportunity cost

Option 2: create API framework first and then create new API endpoints

Pros: fully scalable, revenue and partnership opportunities

Cons: takes longer to develop, and will be more costly

Main learning point: Saying no and declining a request or an idea can be hard, but very necessary at the same time. Whilst it can feel a tad uncomfortable, there’s a lot of value in saying no in a more informed and constructive kind of way.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://blog.intercom.com/product-strategy-means-saying-no/
  2. https://www.prodpad.com/2014/05/saying-tough-love-product-managers/
  3. http://www.cleverpm.com/2015/02/24/saying-no-without-saying-no/
  4. http://www.mindtheproduct.com/2015/02/just-say-no-hard-decisions-in-product-management-2/
  5. https://www.productplan.com/how-product-managers-can-say-no/
  6. https://vimeo.com/110270432
  7. http://www.jamasoftware.com/blog/product-managers-you-can-say-no-and-still-make-people-happy/
  8. http://www.mironov.com/strat-priority/
  9. http://adaptivepath.org/ideas/cupcakes-the-secret-to-product-planning/
  10. https://blog.intercom.com/start-with-a-cupcake/
  11. http://www.peterme.com/2012/09/04/reframing-ux-design/
  12. https://www.under10playbook.com/blog/dealing-with-one-off-feature-requests

Learning more about what’s coming under PSD2

The second instalment of Payment Services Directory, “PSD2”, will come into effect on 13th January ’17. By that date, EU member states are expected to have implemented the new payment rules as outlined in PSD2.

I recently listened to a radio programme where ex Barclays boss Antony Jenkins described PSD2 as “an opportunity for third parties to access a person’s bank data and to do something with that data.” He thus captured the core what PSD2 is all about: opening up banking data and using that data to create better, more integrated customer experiences.

Jenkins also talked about how in the new PSD2 world banks effectively provide the utility components that other services build on, acting as the frond end and being more customers experience focused. One can already see from the success of Fintech startups such as Monzo, Remitsy, Varo Money and Abra the distinction between financial service players that focus more on front-end customer experience and those concentrating on the underlying ‘plumbing’. Jenkins mentioned the concept “a browser for your financial life”. Viewed within the context of PSD2, the idea of a central browser for one’s financial life really resonated with me.

All of this made me have a first stab at understanding the essence and ramifications of PSD2. This is what I’ve learned sofar:

Develop new payment solutions – Account Information Service

Ultimately, PSD2 aims to stimulate new payment solutions, using digital tools and infrastructure to create a more seamless payment experience. As a result of PSD2, there will be two new types of service providers: “account information service” (‘AIS’) and “payment initiation service” (‘PIS’).

Under PSD2, an AIS is defined as an “an online service to provide consolidated information on one or more payment accounts held by the payment service user with either another payment service provider or with more than one payment service provider”. As customers, we can benefit from AIS through its ability to offer an aggregated view of a customer’s accounts. Having this consolidated view should make it easier for customers to analyse their transactions and spending patterns across a number of their payment service providers (‘PSPs’).

Develop new payment solutions – Payment Initiation Service

Whereas AIS covers the aggregation of account data, a payment initiation service (‘PIS’) enables the movement of money between accounts with different PSPs. Under PSD2, a PIS is “a service to initiate a payment order at the request of the payment service user with respect to a payment account held at another payment service provider.”

In essence, a PIS acts as an online service which accesses a customer’s payment account to initiate the transfer of funds on the customers’s behalf, provided the customer has consented and authentication has taken place (see Fig. 1 – 2 below). Payment initiation services thus provide an alternative to paying online using a credit card or debit card. PIS aren’t allowed to hold payer funds or store sensitive payment data but can initiate payment transactions on behalf of customers.

To me, the future payment initiation capability for “merchants” feels like the most exciting opportunity that PSD2 offers. It means that merchants such as ecommerce marketplaces can access the payment accounts on their customers’ behalf and initiate payments, without the need for credit or debit cards. PIS will be allowed to communicate securely with the customer’s bank and seek information required for payment initiation.The PIS will use APIs to link to the merchant’s website or app with the customer’s bank.

Fig. 1 – PIS workflow, merchant acting as a Payment Initiation Service Provider (‘PISP’)  – Taken from: https://www.temenos.com/globalassets/mi/wp/16/temenos_psd2_whitepaper_v2.pdf

Fig. 2 – PIS workflow, merchant goes through a PISP to collect money from a customer’s bank account – Taken from: https://www.temenos.com/globalassets/mi/wp/16/temenos_psd2_whitepaper_v2.pdf

Reinforced customer protection

As a direct consequence of the data sharing and integrations that PSD2 enables, customer protection will be increased. For example, all payment service providers will need to prove that they have put specific security measures in place to ensure safe and secure payments. PSD2 requires “Strong Customer Authentication” (‘SCA’), which is also known as two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication is already a common feature of lots of digital products and services (see the Google example in Fig. 3 below). Typical components of two-factor authentication are (1) knowledge (something you know, such as a password) and (2) possession (something you have, such as a card or mobile device) or ‘inherence’ (something you are, such as a fingerprint or voice recognition). Each element must be independent from the others so that if one is breached this does not compromise the integrity of another.

Fig. 3 – Google 2-factor authentication example – Taken from: https://paul.reviews/does-two-factor-authentication-actually-weaken-security/

Main learning point: My biggest, initial takeaway from learning about PSD2 is that digital payment services will become a lot more seamless and easy. APIs will act as key ‘enablers’ of new opportunities to integrate customer’s financial activities and online behaviours.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/banking-apis-what-you-think-jason-bates
  2. http://www.eba.europa.eu/-/eba-paves-the-way-for-open-and-secure-electronic-payments-for-consumers-under-the-psd2
  3. http://www.iosco.org/library/pubdocs/pdf/IOSCOPD554.pdf
  4. https://www.finextra.com/blogposting/12668/psd2—what-changes
  5. http://www.pwc.com/it/en/industries/banking/psd2.html
  6. https://www.fca.org.uk/firms/revised-payment-services-directive-psd2/ais-pis
  7. https://www.temenos.com/globalassets/mi/wp/16/temenos_psd2_whitepaper_v2.pdf
  8. https://www.starlingbank.com/explaining-psd2-without-tlas-tough/
  9. https://www.fca.org.uk/firms/revised-payment-services-directive-psd2/consumer-protection
  10. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08hpwbz
  11. https://www.gmc.net/blog/banks-beware-impact-psd2-and-xs2a-accelerating-digital-disruption

My product management toolkit (19): Socratic questioning

One of the first things that I learned when I started out in product management was the importance of asking why, using the “5 Whys” to truly understand a problem or a situation:

  1. Why? — The battery is dead. (First why)
  2. Why? — The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)
  3. Why? — The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)
  4. Why? — The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)
  5. Why? — The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)

Fig. 1 — A simple way of asking the 5 Whys to look closer at a problem or an idea — Taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5_Whys

I felt, however, that the “5 Whys” technique only got me to a certain point, especially in situations where I wanted other people to get to the solution or the root of a problem by themselves.

I then learned about Socratic questioning, which is a disciplined approached to questioning and can be used to solve problems or explore complex ideas. Before I go into the specifics of Socratic questioning, I want to explain why I was so attracted by this systematic approach to questioning:

  • Supports learning — Whenever other people ask me Socratic type questions, I always feel that I’m learning loads — purely from going through the process of thinking. Also, I’ve noticed how my thoughts and decisions are more likely to stick if I’ve gone through a process of Socratic questioning.
  • True understanding — Even though it must drive some of my colleagues nuts at times, answering a question with a question does in my experience lead to a much more thorough understanding of the problem one is looking to solve.
  • Stay curious — Asking questions really helps keeping my mind sharp 🙂 It might sometimes be easier to answer a question straight away, but there’s a risk of ‘leaving questions or issues on the table’ when you’re not probing.

Fig. 2 — Taken from: https://twitter.com/noneedtothinkuk

These are the types of Socratic questions to consider:

Questions for clarification:

  • Why do you say that?
  • How does this relate to our discussion or the problem that we’re trying to solve?

These types of questions are meant to make sure that people are talking about the same thing or are looking at the same problem to solve.

Questions that probe assumptions:

  • Why do you think that?
  • What could we assume instead and why?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?

My favourite questions … It’s all about unearthing underlying assumptions and getting people to think their assumptions through, or at least acknowledge that they are making assumptions.

Questions that probe reasons and evidence:

  • What would be an example?
  • What would success look like and why?
  • Why is this a better option than that one (and why)?
  • What is this similar to?
  • What do you think causes this to happen (and why)?

Questions like these are very useful when you’re trying to understand where the other person is coming from and why. From experience, questions that probe reasons and evidence can be very powerful when looking to validate an idea or solution; it’s almost liking take a step back before delving into a solution.

Questions about viewpoints and perspectives:

  • What would be an alternative (and why)?
  • If you were to play devil’s advocate, how and why would you challenge this view?
  • What is another way to look at it (and why)?
  • Could you explain why it’s necessary or beneficial, and who benefits (and why)?
  • What are the strengths and weakness of this idea?
  • How are this idea and that idea similar? Why (not)?

One of the things I’ve learned is to spend more time understanding another person’s viewpoint or fully grasp the ‘why’ behind someone’s idea. Similar to the types of questions in the previous section. Asking questions about the other person’s perspective can help smooth conversations and collaboration since you are likely to have a much better understanding of the other person’s thinking.

Questions that probe implications and consequences:

  • What generalisations can you make?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption (and why)?
  • What are you implying? What are you not taking into consideration (and why)?
  • How does this affect that?
  • How does this tie into what we learned before?

Having previously made the mistake of not thinking things through properly, I always ask questions to encourage people to work out the possible consequences of a particular solution or approach. I’ve found that doing this in a more Socratic fashion helps the other person to truly realise and consider the outcomes of their approach.

Questions about the question:

  • What was the point of this question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • What does this mean?
  • How does this question apply to the problem you’re trying to solve?

These types of questions help you to reflect on the process of Socratic questioning. What’s the point of the questioning!? Why did I ask these questions? What did we learn (and why)?

Main learning point: I did a quick count and saw that the word “why” appears 15 times in this piece, not including the “5 Whys” technique. For me, Socratic questioning — in its simplest form begins and ends with that one word. Why.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.umich.edu/~elements/probsolv/strategy/cthinking.htm
  2. http://changingminds.org/techniques/questioning/socratic_questions.htm
  3. https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-role-of-socratic-questioning-in-thinking-teaching-learning/522
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5_Whys
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_questioning
  6. https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-role-of-socratic-questioning-in-thinking-teaching-learning/522

Book review: Yes To The Mess

In May last year, I attended a great talk by Ken Norton – partner at Google Ventures – titled Product Managers: Make Yourself Uncomfortable. In his talk, Ken talked about the book Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz by Frank J. Barrett, a management consultant and jazz pianist. Ken talked about feeling uncomfortable, his point being that uncertain and unstable times call for embracing uncertainty, improvising, learning and improving.

In “Yes To The Mess” Frank J. Barrett highlights the leadership lessons that can be learned from jazz music and jazz greats. These are the main lessons I learned from reading this fantastic book:

There’s no such thing as making mistakes

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Fig. 1 – Coleman Hawkins “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying” – Taken from: http://izquotes.com/quote/81208

How often do people get chastised for he mistake(s) they’ve made!? Having to lower one’s tune because of having tried something that ultimately failed? Or trying to cover up a mistake or an error? In contrast, jazz music is all about ‘failing’. Like the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins once said: “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying” (see Fig. 1 above). In jazz music and in business, Barrett argues, there’s no such thing as making a mistake.

Instead, the focus is on not missing opportunities and embracing errors as a source of learning. For me, Miles Davies is the ultimate embodiment of the courage to make mistakes; “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake” is one of Davis’ famous quotes. “Do not fear mistakes. There are none” is another one (see Fig. 2 below). As Barrett points out, Davis was talking about the importance of continuing to take risks and to try new possibilities. Because when you do, something new and unexpected is likely to happen.

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Fig. 2 – Miles Davis “Do not fear mistakes. There are none” – Taken from: http://www.ideachampions.com/weblogs/archives/quotes/

Informed risks and constructive learning

If mistakes don’t exist and we should all learn by trying, does this mean that we can just act recklessly and stop caring about what could happen!?

Absolutely not. Barrett explains how well conceived plans not always pan out as expected. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” as Mike Tyson once said (see Fig. 3 below). I came across an organisation once where project people probably spent a good 40% of their time drawing up great detailed project plans and 60% of their remaining time continuously adjusting timings on their project plans and “controlling the message” towards their stakeholders. Perhaps if they’d read “Yes To The Mess” they might have instead embraced unexpected factors or errors, and built on them. In jazz, the artists don’t correct mistakes as much, opting to recognise and ride with them instead.

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Fig. 3 – Mike Tyson “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth” – Taken from: http://quotes.lifehack.org/quote/mike-tyson/everyone-has-a-plan-till-they-get/

What I like about this approach is that jazz players will learn by leaping in, learn from taking action and adjust accordingly. Barrett describes this approach as taking informed risks, taking action based on something that happen before and discover as you go. Jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus once famously said: “You can’t improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something.” Even improvisation needs rules and some kind of order. As a result, especially in jazz bands, improvisation will lead to collective discoveries.

In my experience, improvisation isn’t easy. It can be pretty daunting when something doesn’t go according to plan – or when there isn’t a plan to begin with. An understandable first reaction is to try and fix the error, make sure the plan can still be executed upon. However, the results of not following this instictive response can be amazing, and can lead to new insights and approaches.

Generous listening

A key point Barrett makes is how improvisation requires jazz musicians to do lots of listening. Jazz players need to be attentive not only to the music they’re playing, both individually and as a group, but also to what isn’t being played. When Miles Davis was asked how he went about improvisation, he explained that he listened to what everyone in the band was playing and would then play what was missing.

Although I’m not yet great at it, generous listening is all about listening more then talking, or asking questions even when you might already know the answer. As a product person, it means not trying to be a rockstar or to push through your opinion. In contrast, it’s about truly listening to what someone else is thinking or might have to offer. In jazz, there’s even a term for this: “comping” – the rhythms, chords, and countermelodies with which the other players accompany a solo improvisation.

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Fig. 4 – Duke Ellington “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen” – Taken from: https://www.apassion4jazz.net/quotations4.html

Affirmative competence

Taking informed risks and listen generously leads to organisations developing “affirmative competence”, where the organisational system is no longer top down and deliberate, but much more emergent. As Barrett stresses, “an emergent system is smarter than the individual members.” Andy Grove applied this approach whilst at Intel when being faced with the challenge of Intel’s existing business drifting away. Since that experience, Grove’s advice is to “set aside everything you know.” Organisations and teams will thus learn while doing and by building up an underlying confidence in the competence of their group of people, taking the following steps in the process:

  • Take action
  • Revise assumptions
  • Value learning from failures
  • Try again
  • Discover as you go

Main learning point: I absolutely loved both Ken Norton’s talk and “Yes To The Mess” by Frank Barrett. The idea that well conceived plans are fallible and that that it’s ok to learn from one’s mistakes really resonates with me. Even if you’re not a jazz lover, it’s really worth reading “Yes To The Mess” and studying the lessons we can learn from jazz and its musicians.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.mindtheproduct.com/2016/05/product-managers-please-make-uncomfortable/
  2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2012/08/10/leadership-lessons-from-the-geniuses-of-jazz/
  3. https://hbr.org/2012/08/what-leaders-can-learn-from-ja
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/jun/13/grand-wizard-invents-scratching
  5. http://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/pdf/10.1287/orsc.9.5.543
  6. http://fortune.com/2012/09/10/what-biz-leaders-can-learn-from-jazz/
  7. http://jazztimes.com/articles/134503-beyond-the-music-what-jazz-teaches-us

Cobalt uses Blockchain tech to process FX trades

It was around this time last year when I first started looking into blockchain technology and its capabilities. Even though blockchain technology was initially developed to accommodate Bitcoin transactions, my personal interest has been much more in its potential to act as “shared ledgers” for a wide variety of transactions or ‘contracts’ (see Fig. 1-2 below):

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Fig. 1 – High level outline of smart contracts via shared ledgers – Taken from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/492972/gs-16-1-distributed-ledger-technology.pdf

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Fig. 2 – High level outline of distributed ledger technology – Taken from: http://www.thegeniusworks.com/2016/02/blockchain-from-geeky-bitcoin-technology-to-a-revolution-in-everyday-processes/

In the past year, I’ve seen a lot of initiatives and companies pop up in the shared ledger space. I’ve looked at the likes of Abra, Ripple and R3. London based Fintech startup Cobalt is another promising player in the shared ledger arena. Andy Coyne, Cobalt’s Co-Founder and CEO, explains the problems that Cobalt is looking to solve:

“The speed at which trades are executed between participants across every corner of the globe has altered on a scale that previously seemed unimaginable, while competitiveness has increased and costs related to market access and execution have shrunk.

In contrast with execution technology, associated post-trade infrastructure has failed to keep pace. Legacy systems and practises being used to support these processes have changed little since their inception; they are now so inefficient and unfit for purpose that they introduce risk and unnecessary cost, having a serious impact on trading institutions’ profitability. This comes at a time when there is a move away from revenue to a real focus on true profitability.

The root cause is a glaring mismatch, where back office processes that evolved to support profitable voice and proprietary trading of 25 years ago are failing to support high volume, low margin electronic trading.

This is exemplified by the huge degree of unnecessary replication. A single transaction executed in today’s trading environment creates multiple records for buyer, seller, broker, clearer and third parties, introducing inconsistencies throughout lifecycle events such as affirmation, netting, allocations and confirmation, through to trade finality and nostro reconciliation. This hugely increases the probability of creating discrepancies, caused by multiple system hand-offs, normalisation and reconciliations. High frequency trading firms are particularly vulnerable, incurring huge costs for high volumes of low value tickets.”

Fig. 3 – Andy Coyne, Co-Founder and CEO of Cobalt on his company’s mission – Taken from: http://www.cobaltdl.com/blockchain/

In short, Cobalt are trying to remove any inefficiencies and unnecessary (operational) costs or risks related to the processing of foreign exchange (‘FX’) trades. Using the blockchain and its shared ledger functionality, Cobalt aims to simplify the way in which foreign exchange transactions are being processed. Instead of creating multiple records for one and the same transaction, Colbalt creates a single view. It this thus looks to significantly reduce the number of system hand-offs and reconciliations for one transaction, typically inherent in current processing of FX trades by legacy systems.

Cobalt’s focus is predominantly on the “post-trade” phase, and the risks and costs currently associated with this phase (see Fig. 4 below):

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Fig. 4 – Potential benefits of Blockchain for capital markets – Taken from: http://www.oliverwyman.com/content/dam/oliver-wyman/global/en/2016/feb/BlockChain-In-Capital-Markets.pdf

Main learning point: By providing a single view of a transaction between multiple parties, Cobalt aims to significantly increase the transparency of FX trades and remove complex back-end systems and processes i.e. banking legacy systems.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-banks-forex-blockchain-citigroup-idUSKBN14413A
  2. http://uk.businessinsider.com/citi-invests-in-foreign-exchange-blockchain-startup-cobalt-dl-2016-12
  3. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/492972/gs-16-1-distributed-ledger-technology.pdf
  4. http://www.chyp.com/sharing-ledgers/
  5. http://www.thegeniusworks.com/2016/02/blockchain-from-geeky-bitcoin-technology-to-a-revolution-in-everyday-processes/
  6. http://www.cobaltdl.com/blockchain/
  7. http://www.fxweek.com/fx-week/news/2475678/first-commercial-dl-solution-to-handle-14bn-daily-transactions
  8. http://financefeeds.com/this-is-not-a-noise-this-is-serious/
  9. http://cobaltdl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Blockchain.pdf
  10. http://www.oliverwyman.com/content/dam/oliver-wyman/global/en/2016/feb/BlockChain-In-Capital-Markets.pdf