Book review: “Principles” by Ray Dalio

“Principles” is the latest book by Ray Dalio – founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund. In this rather hefty tome of a book, Dalio offers an insight into the principles which he’s applied throughout his life and work, and his underlying reflections. He kicks off the book by explaining that “Good principles are effective ways of dealing with reality” and that “To learn my own, I spend a lot of time reflecting.”

 

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“Principles” consists of three parts. In the first part, titled “Where I’ coming from”, Dalio looks back on his career and the founding of Bridgewater. “Life Principles” is the name of the second part, and covers Dalio’s approach to life’s challenges and opportunities. Finally. part three covers Dalio’s “Work Principles”. Let me share the key things I’ve taken away from “Principles”, starting with Dalio’s Life Principles:

  • Embrace reality and deal with it – Dalio shares an important equation which in his view makes for a successful life: Dreams + Reality + Determination = A Successful Life. For the ‘reality’ component of this equation to work, Dalio encourages his readers to be radically open minded and radically transparent.
  • Pain + Reflection = Progress – Dalio’s point about “going to the pain rather than avoiding it” resonated with me (see Fig. 1 below). It’s easy to dismiss this statement because it’s coming from a highly successful investor, but I’d flip that as I can see how someone like Dalio has gone through his own share of pain to get to where’s he gotten to, and learned along the way.
  • Using the 5-step process to get what you want out of life – Start with having clear goals (step 1), followed by identifying but not tolerating the problems that stand in the way of your achieving those goals (step 2), then you accurately diagnose the problems to get at their root causes (step 3), design plans that will get you around them (step 4) and, finally, do what’s necessary to push these designs through to results (step 5). Dalio depicts this as a continuous process and people can benefit from applying this model to achieve their goals (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Understand that people are wired very differently – Dalio stresses the fact that all people are wired very differently, and zooms in on the differences between left and right brained thinking (see Fig. 3 – 4 below).

 

Fig. 1 – Going to the pain instead of avoiding it – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 154

  • Identifying, accepting, and learning how to deal with your weaknesses.
  • Preferring that the people around you be honest with you rather than keep their negative thoughts about you to themselves.
  • Being yourself rather than having to be strong where you are weak.

 

Fig. 2 – Ray Dalio’s 5-step process – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 171

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Fig. 3 – Differences between left and right brain – Taken from: https://visme.co/blog/left-brain-right-brain-marketing/

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Fig. 4 – Understand the differences between right-brained and left-brained thinking – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 223

  1. The left hemisphere reasons sequentially, analyses details, and excels at linear analysis. “Left-brained” or “linear” thinkers who are analytically strong are often called “bright.”
  2. The right hemisphere thinks across categories, recognises themes, and synthesises the big picture. “Right-brained” or “lateral” thinkers with more street smart are often called “smart.”

 

Dalio’s Work Principles are dominated by the concept of an Idea Meritocracy – i.e. a system that brings together smart, independent thinkers and has them productively disagree to come up with the best possible collective thinking and resolve their disagreements in a believability-weighted way (see Fig. 5 below). Dalio successfully implemented an Idea Meritocracy at Bridgewater and shares the components of such a system in his book:

Idea Meritocracy = Radical Truth + Radical Transparency + Believability – Weighted Decision Making

  • Radical Truth – Talking openly about our issues and have paths for working through them.
  • Radical Transparency – Giving everyone the ability to see everything. Radical transparency reduces harmful office politics and the risks of bad behaviour because bad behaviour is more likely to take place behind closed doors than out in the open.
  • Believability – Dalio defines believable people “as those who have repeatedly and successfully accomplished the thing in question – who have a strong track record with at least three successes – and have great explanations of their approach when probed.”
  • Thoughtful Disagreement – The concept of Believability is closely linked to the art of Thoughtful Disagreement; the process of having a quality back-and-forth in an openminded and assertive way to see things through each other’s eyes.
  • Weighted Decision Making – At Bridgewater, employees have different believability weightings for different qualities, like expertise in a particular subject, creativity, ability to synthesise, etc. Dalio explains that in order to have a true Idea Meritocracy one needs to understand the merit of each person’s ideas.
  • Prerequisites for an Idea Meritocracy – To have an Idea Meritocracy three conditions need to be in place. Firstly, put your honest thoughts on the table. Secondly, have thoughtful disagreement (see above). Thirdly, abide by agreed-upon ways of getting past disagreement.
  • Mistakes are part of the game – Dalio has a refreshing outlook on the role and value of mistakes, which he treats as “a natural part of the evolutionary process”. It’s important in this respect to assess whether people recognise and learn from their mistakes. Dalio distinguishes between people who make mistakes and who are self reflective and open to learning from their mistakes and those who are unable to embrace their mistakes and learn from them.
  • Get people to focus on problems and outcomes – Assign people the job of perceiving problems, give them time to investigate, and make sure they have independent reporting lines so that they can convey problems without any fear of recrimination. To perceive problems, compare how the outcomes are lining up with your goals. Dalio also offers some valuable tips on how to best diagnose problems (see Fig. 6 below).
  • Avoid the “Frog in the boiling water” syndrome – Apparently, if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out immediately, but if you put it in room-temperature water and gradually bring it to a boil, it will stay in the pot until it dies. If one uses this syndrome as a metaphor for professional life, it signifies people’s tendency to slowly get used to unacceptable things that would shock them if the say them with fresh eyes.
  • Don’t just pay attention to your job – Instead, pay attention to how your job will be done if you’re no longer around. Dalio talks about the ‘ninja manger’ as “somebody who can sit back and watch beauty happen-i.e. an orchestrator. If you’re always trying to hire somebody who’s as good as or better than you at your job, that will both free you up to go on to other things and build your succession pipeline.”

 

Fig. 5 – The Idea Meritocracy as is the best way to make decisions – Taken from: https://twitter.com/RayDalio/status/1066357616350253057

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Fig. 6 – Diagnose problems to get at their root causes – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 484 – 490

To diagnose well, ask the following questions:

  • Is the outcome good or bad?
  • Who is responsible for the outcome?
  • If the outcome is bad, is the Responsible Party incapable and / or is the design bad?

 

Main learning point: Whilst “Principles” feels a tad repetitive at times and some of Dalio’s ideas might not be easy to implement, I feel that Dalio’s principles can provide great direction for all people working in organisations, big or small.  His reflections on things such as transparency and decision-making will be valuable to anyone reading this great book.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://youtu.be/c1OoWdqbKdg
  2. https://www.ted.com/talks/ray_dalio_how_to_build_a_company_where_the_best_ideas_win
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9XGUpQZY38
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7hNda9DVxo

 

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/

Book review: “Radical Focus”

Christina Wodtke’s latest book, “Radical Focus”, is probably the most valuable ‘business’ book which I’ve read thus far this year. The full title of the book reads “Radical Focus – Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results” and Wodtke provides a great story – literally – as well as useful tips about the importance of goal setting. The book starts with a fable about a Silicon Valley startup, and offers a good narrative about how (not) to use of objectives and key results (‘OKRs’). This fable, which felt very close to the reality of being in startups – sets the scene for the practical tips that Wodtke offers with respect to using OKRs effectively, irrespective of whether you work in a startup or at Amazon.

 

 

What are some of the most common reasons why key things don’t happen? Wodtke offers a number of insights here:

  1. No prioritisation or stack ranking of goals – Everything is deemed important and critical things don’t get done as a result.
  2. No obsessive and comprehensive communication of the goal – Wodtke suggests that for key goals to be achieved, it’s important to reiterate the goal daily and having regular commitment meetings, where the team talks about the key goal and commit to specific activities directly related to the goal.
  3. There’s no plan to get things done – Often, companies will have lofty goals but no plan or process to actually achieve these goals. Wodtke introduces a number of useful ceremonies which teams can use to keep goals relevant and top of mind: commitment meetings, check ins and celebrations.
  4. No or insufficient time carved for what really matters – Love how Wodtke refers to the “Eisenhower Box” which helps identify and prioritise those things that must be done (see Fig. 1 below).
  5. A tendency to give up instead of iterating – Business often give up at the first attempt, canning a goal if it isn’t achieved (fully) first time around. Instead, Wodtke urges, try to avoid a lack of followthrough by iterating constantly.

Fig. 1 – The Eisenhower – Taken from: https://jamesclear.com/eisenhower-box/eisenhower-box-2

As the book title clearly suggests, Wodtke advocates the use of OKRs to achieve focus and making sure that key goals are being realised:

  • Objectives are bold and qualitative – Set a bold, inspirational and qualitative Objective each quarter. Wodtke provides examples of both good and poor Objectives (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Key Results are tangible and quantitative – Each Objective will have three quantitative Results that let you know when you’ve hit your Objective (see Fig. 3 below). Wodtke stresses that Key Results are “hard goals, the kind where you only have a 50/50 shot of achieving.” These ‘stretch goals’ are hard to achieve but not impossible, and you indicate for each Key Result how confident you are of achieving it.
  • OKRs and health metrics – In the book, Wodtke makes a helpful distinction between OKRs and health metrics. OKRs are “the thing you want to push, the one thing you want to make better.” I’d add an emphasis on the word “one” here as I find working with a single business Objective to be most effective. In my experience, having multiple business Objectives starts muddying the water in terms of focus and prioritisation. Instead, start with setting one Objective for the company. Secondly, set OKRs for each team that ty back to the company goal. Health metrics are the key things to continue to watch, these metrics are more concerned with ‘hygiene’.
  • Set OKRs together, pick Key Results as a team – Identifying and agreeing on Objectives and Key Results is a collaborative process. Clearly articulating and sharing the business Objective is a critical first step. The different teams can then set those Key Results which they believe will contribute to the business Objective.
  • Progress monitoring – I particularly liked the 4×4 matrix that Wodtke suggests as a way of monitoring progress with respect to achieving your business and associated team OKRs (see Fig. 4 below). This matrix is a very simple but effective way of committing to (weekly) priorities and capturing progress.
  • Setting a rhythm of execution – Wodtke introduces a number of weekly ceremonies which you can use to keep OKRs relevant and to ensure that you keep to them (see Fig. 5 below). The risk with goal setting is that it remains a one off exercise and I believe that having weekly ‘commitment’ and ‘win’ sessions will help massively keeping OKRs front of mind.

Main learning point: In “Radical Focus”, Christina Wodtke does a great job of explaining the role and value of OKRs. Not only does she provide valuable tips on how to best define OKRs, Wodtke also offers useful methods of keeping track of progress against OKRs. If you feel that you and your business are doing too much of everything, or not achieving anything, then Radical Focus is a must read!

Fig. 2 – Examples of good and poor Objectives – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, p. 110

Here are some good Objectives:

  • Own the direct-to-business coffee retail market in the South Bay.
  • Launch and awesome MVP.
  • Transform Palo Alto’s coupon using habits.
  • Close a round that lets us kill it next quarter.

and some poor Objectives:

  • Sales numbers up 30%.
  • Double users.
  • Raise a Series B of 5M.

Fig. 3 – Key Results – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, pp. 111 – 112

Key Results can be based on anything you can measure, including:

  • Growth
  • Engagement
  • Revenue
  • Performance
  • Quality

For example, if your Objective is to “Launch an Awesome MVP” you could have the following Key Results:

  • 40% of users come back 2X in one week
  • Recommendation score of 8
  • 15% conversion

Fig. 4 – Example of Christina Wodtke’s 4×4 OKR matrix – Taken from: https://medium.com/@cwodtke/one-objective-to-rule-them-all-1058e973bfc5

Fig. 5 – Setting a rhythm of execution – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, pp. 120 – 123

Monday Commitments

Each Monday, the team should meet to check in on progress against OKRs, and commit to the tasks that will help the company meet its Objective.

  • Intention for the week – What are the 3-4 most important things you must get done this week toward the Objective? Discuss if these priorities will get you closer to the OKRs.
  • Forecast for the month – What should your team know is coming up that they can help with or prepare for?
  • Status toward OKRs – If you set a confidence of five out of ten, has that moved up or down? Have a discussion about why.
  • Health metrics – Pick two things you want to protect as you strive toward greatness. What can you not afford to eff-up? Key relationships with customers? Code stability? Team well-being? Now mark when things start to go sideways, and discuss it.

Fig. 6 – OKR Fundamentals – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, pp. 109 – 112

Your Objective is a single sentence that is:

Qualitative and Inspirational

The objective is designed to get people jumping out of bed in the morning with excitement. And while CEOs and VCs may jump out of bed in the morning with joy over a 3% gain in conversion, most mere mortals get excited by a sense of meaning and progress. Use the language of your team.

Time Bound

For example, doable in a month, a quarter. You want it to be a clear sprint toward a goal. If it takes a year, your Objective maybe a strategy or even a mission.

Actionable by the Team Independently

This is less of a problem for startups, but bigger companies often struggle because of interdependence. Your Objective has to be truly yours, and you can’t have the excuse of “Marketing didn’t market it.”

An Objective is like a mission statement, only for a shorter period of time. A great objective inspires the team, is hard (but not impossible) to do in a set time frame, and can be done by the person or people who have set it, independently.

Fig. 7 – Quick tips on OKRS use – Taken from: Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus, self-published, 2016, p. 153

  • Set only one OKR for the company, unless you have multiple business lines. It’s about focus.
  • Give yourself three months for an OKR. How bold is it if you can do it in a week?
  • Keep the metrics out of the Objective. The Objective is inspirational.
  • In the weekly check in, open with company OKR, then do groups. Don’t do every individual; that’s better in private 1:1s.
  • OKRs cascade; set company OKRs, then group’s/role’s, and then individual’s.
  • OKRs are not the only thing you do; they are the one thing you must do. Trust people to keep the ship running, and don’t jam every task into OKRs.
  • The Monday OKR check in is a conversation. Be sure to discuss change in confidence, health metrics and priorities.
  • Encourage employees to suggest company OKRs. OKRs are great bottom up, not just top down.
  • Make OKRs available publicly. Google has them on their intranet.
  • Friday celebrations is an antidote to Monday’s grim business. Keep it upbeat!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://eleganthack.com/the-art-of-the-okr/
  2. https://medium.com/@cwodtke/one-objective-to-rule-them-all-1058e973bfc5
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aW5gdRRn_U
  4. http://fortune.com/2018/05/21/john-doerr-measure-what-matters-okr/

Book review: “Inspired: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love”

About four years ago I read and reviewed Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan, who I regard almost as the ‘founder’ of modern tech product management – along with Steve Jobs of course 🙂 Cagan has now released a second edition of “Inspired” in which he captures two aspects he’s uncovered since writing the first edition.

The first aspect is a critical need to focus on the specific job of the product manager, aiming to clarify which elements constitute the role of a product manager in a tech company. The second aspect is the importance of creating the right product culture for success, and understanding the range of product discovery and delivery techniques available to solve customer and business problems.

Whilst the book contains a wealth of valuable content about product management and how to create great products; in this review I’ll primarily focus on Cagan’s recommendations with respect to product discovery and delivery. Before I do that, it’s important to first look at Cagan’s take on the “root causes of failed product efforts” (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – “Root Causes of Failed Product Efforts” by Marty Cagan  – Taken from: https://www.mihneadb.net/notes-on-craft-conf-2015/

Cagan sees a very sequential, “Waterfall” type approach as the underlying reason why many products fail. This approaches comes down to companies using a ‘feature heavy’ and preplanned roadmaps, as well as and using regular planning sessions to negotiate and prioritise the roadmap. Cagan shares some home truths to explain why this approach is now obsolete (Fig. 2).

 

Fig. 2 – 10 problems that companies using a Waterfall type approach suffer – Adapted from: Marty Cagan, Inspired: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love, pp. 17-21

  1. Stakeholder-driven products: It’s a top down approach which leads to stakeholder-driven products and teams that don’t feel empowered
  2. Business cases are mostly fictitious: I couldn’t agree more with Cagan when he argues that the two main business case inputs – how much money we’ll make and how much it will cost – are complete unknowns. We can’t know how much money we’ll make because that depends entirely on how good the solution turns out to be. In contrast, a lot of products end up making no money whatsoever! One of the most critical lessons in product, Cagan explains, is “knowing what we can’t know.”
  3. Product roadmaps –  There are two problems with traditional, feature led product roadmaps. Firstly, the reality is that half of our product ideas are simply not going to work. I always cringe when I see product roadmaps that contain detailed features prioritised prioritised for an entire year … In my experience, until you start discovering, implementing and launching product ideas, you’re not going to know whether your product is actually going to work. Secondly, even when ideas do prove to have potential they’re likely to need several iterations to reach the point where they deliver tangible business value. Cagan introduces the term “time to money” to refer this evolutionary process.
  4. It’s not about gathering requirements for engineers to implement – I recently came across an organisation where they employed an entire team of project managers and business analysts whose main job it was to gather stakeholder requirements, and document them for designers and engineers to implement. Cagan rightly makes the point that “this is 180 degrees away from the reality of modern tech product management.”
  5. UX designers are getting involved way too late – Don’t involve designers only once the requirements have been gathered, it’s simply too late as the designer won’t be able to add much value add this stage.
  6. Engineers are getting involved way too late – If you’re just using your engineers to code, you’re only getting about half their value. I love the ‘little secret’ that Cagan shares with us: “engineers are typically the best single source of innovation.” He’s totally right!
  7. Agile for delivery only – Cagan talks about “Agile for delivery”, whereby product development teams work in an Agile fashion, but the rest of the organisation isn’t.
  8. Project-centric processes – The company usually funds projects, pushes projects through the organisation, and finally launches projects. Unfortunately, projects are output and product is all about outcome. I’d add that most projects are one-off pieces of works whereas products have a continuous lifecycle, until the product is being discontinued.
  9. Customer validation happens way too late – Cagan points out the biggest shortcoming of the old waterfall process, which is that all the risk is concentrated right at the end and that customer validation happens way too late. Instead, customer validation or discovery should be continuous and needs to happen early and often.

 

Cagan offers three overarching principles which help overcome the aforementioned root causes of failed product efforts:

  1. Risks are tackled upfront, instead of at the end
  2. Products are defined and designed collaboratively, rather than sequentially
  3. Finally, it’s all about solving problems, not implementing features

“Continuous Discovery and Delivery” is a great way to translate these three principles into a process and mindset for people to adhere too (Fig. 3). You can see how Cagan has taken the eight steps involved in the traditional waterfall approach (Fig. 1) and condensed them into to three, continuous stages: Objectives – Discovery – Delivery (Fig. 3).

 

Fig. 3 – Continuous Discovery and Delivery – Taken from: Marty Cagan, Process vs Model, https://svpg.com/process-vs-model/, 7 August 2017

 

Ultimately, this process enables you to to get answers to four critical questions:

  1. Will the user buy this (or choose to use this)?
  2. Can the user figure out how to use this?
  3. Can our engineer build this?
  4. Can our stakeholders support this?

Apart from these four critical questions, I like the emphasis Cagan puts on business context over a traditional product roadmap. In the book, Cagan covers two main components that provide this business context:

  1. The product vision and strategy
  2. The business objectives

The “risk” aspect feels like a crucial one to me, and thinking about ways to identify and mitigate risks early and often. For example, I’ve found the pre-mortem technique to be a great  way to unearth key risks right at the outset. Cagan describes some common risks to consider:

  • Financial risk – Can we afford this solution?
  • Business development risk – Does this solution work for our partners?
  • Marketing risk – Is this solution consistent with our brand?
  • Sales risk – Is this solution something our sales staff is equipped to sell?
  • Legal risk – Is this something we can do from a legal or compliance perspective?
  • Ethical risk – Is this solution something we should do?

Cagan then goes on to describe three of his favourite discovery framing techniques:

1. Opportunity Assessment

The idea is to answer four key questions about the discovery work you’re about to undertake:

  1. Objective – What business objective is this work intended to address?
  2. Key results – How will you know if you’ve succeeded?
  3. Customer problem – What problem will this solve for our customers?
  4. Target market – What type of customer are we focused on?

2. Customer Letter

Cagan refers to Amazon and their working backward process, where you start the product effort with a fictitious press release.

3. Startup Canvas

The “Startup Canvas” is particularly useful when you work at an early stage startup and are staring from scratch, both with the business and your product or service. There are lots of these canvases around for you to have a closer look at; I’d suggest having a look at the Business Model Canvas (by Alex Osterwalder) and the Lean Canvas (by Ash Maurya; Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 – Ash Maurya’s “Lean Canvas” – Taken from Ash Maurya, “Running Lean”: 

Cagan explains how you can use a canvas for any product change, no matter the size, but you would likely quickly find a risk of duplication once you’ve got an existing business and product. I agree that the law of diminishing returns kicks in once you’ve already established your business and products, since you’ll have already figured out things like your cost structure or distribution strategy.

Finally, Cagan explains about “testing value” as a key thing to consider when planning your customer discovery. The main thing here, Cagan stresses, is to learn whether customers perceive your product to be substantially better than the competition. So many companies and product teams think all they need to do is match the features of the competitive alternatives. This idea of “feature parity” being enough to woo customers has proven to be a false one. The reality is that for customers to switch from an existing product, they need to  perceive the new product as a much better alternative.

For example, sometimes it’s not clear whether customer want what it is that we’re going to build and it can be very risky to simply think “we’ll build it and customers will come.” In the book, Cagan talks about how you can quickly and cheaply test whether there’s demand for instance through launching just a landing page. On the landing page, we describe the new offering exactly as we would if we were really launching the service. The difference is that if the user clicks the call to action, rather than getting the expected outcome, the users sees a message that explains that you’re thinking of launching the new service and that you’d love to get initial input from the user. It all falls under the mantra “Do Things that Don’t Scale”, first introduced by Y Combinator Founder Paul Graham. A good example is this one from Buffer:

Fig. 5 – Buffer example of a ‘smoke and mirrors’ landing page – Taken from: Christopher Bank, 15 ways to test your minimum viable product, https://thenextweb.com/dd/2014/11/12/15-ways-test-minimum-viable-product/, 12 November 2014

Main learning point: Marty Cagan has written a great followup to his first edition of “Inspired”. In this edition, he offers valuable tips and examples in relation to important themes as product discovery and delivery. Whether you’re new to product management or have got some good product management experience under your belt, “Inspired: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love” is a great and valuable read.

Book review: “Product Roadmaps Relaunched”

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed how people can cling on to product roadmaps. Some people seem to derive the same sense of certainty and predictability from a roadmap which they used to get from a Gantt Chart. One could argue that a detailed roadmap is a remnant of the traditional Waterfall approach to product management, an approach which favours detailed documentation upfront.

As a result, a lot of roadmaps tend to be very detailed; filled with specific features and timings, with product managers getting hung out to dry if they fail to deliver on features promised in their roadmaps. The hard everyday reality is that both business environments and product development are too unpredictable and volatile to be able to plan an entire roadmap upfront. This is one of the reasons why great product people like Marty Cagan and Brad Murphy argue that OKRs are a viable alternative to (traditional) roadmaps. Instead of focusing on outputs, product teams should be given the autonomy to focus on critical business outcomes instead.

Product Roadmaps Relaunched, a book published in 2017 by C. Todd Lombardo, Bruce McCarthy, Evan Ryan and Michael Connors, aims to achieve a bit of a reset of flawed perceptions of what a roadmap is and isn’t. Lombardo et al. start “Product Roadmaps Relaunched” with the following statement:

“A good roadmap is not so much a project plan as a strategic communication tool, a statement of intent and direction.”

And the authors subsequently set out requirements for Roadmap Relaunch — A product roadmap should:

  • Put the organisation’s plans in a strategic context
  • Focus on delivering value to customers and the organisation
  • Embrace learning as part of a successful product development process
  • Rally the organisation a single set of priorities
  • Get customers excited about the product’s direction

A product roadmap should not:

  • Make promises product teams aren’t confident they will deliver on
  • Require a wasteful process of up-front design and estimation
  • Be conflated with a project plan or a release plan

I found it very refreshing seeing a roadmap as a two-way communication device, steering your company to delivering on a company strategy to achieve an overarching vision.

In the book, the authors distinguish between primary and secondary components of the roadmap. The primary components are necessary for an effective roadmap (see also Fig. 1 below):

  • Product vision — This is the overarching vision that guides the product roadmap.
  • Business objectives — Having well defined goals on the roadmap, will help you and your organisation to measure progress.
  • Broad timeframes — Broad timeframes like calendar quarters or Now, Next and Later offer guidance about timings without committing to very specific deadlines.
  • Themes — I like the authors’ suggestion to ask the question “What would need to be true for our product to realise its vision and attain its business activities?” Themes can be defined as customer needs or problems for the product to address.
  • Disclaimer—Roadmaps can have a caveat just to make it very clear to any stakeholders, other team, etc. that anything in the roadmap is subject to change and evolve.

Secondary components:

  • Features — Personally, I’m not a big fan of having lots of features on a roadmap, mostly because it will limit you and your team to come up with solutions, with people expecting whatever is on the roadmap to get delivered. The book explains that “features and solutions are the specific deliverables that will fulfil the needs and solve the problems identified in the roadmap themes.
  • Stage of development — By including labels such as “discovery”, “design”, or “prototyping” on a roadmap, stakeholders and other people not close to day-to-day product development — should be able to see at a glance where the product is at.
  • Confidence — Indicating the level of confidence you have in your availability to address each item or theme on the roadmap in the next release is a great way to help offset the sentiment that once it’s on paper, it’s a promise.
  • Target customers — Highlighting which customer segment(s) your product is looking to address, really helps with the ‘communication’ aspect of your product roadmap. Instead of just seeing a bunch, you can now tell more of a story about upcoming themes and impact on specific customers.
  • Product areas — A large and complex product — or a new product where basic functionality is still being laid down in many areas — many benefit from a roadmap where themes or features are annotated per specific area of the product.

Fig. 1 — A roadmap helps manage outcomes, underpinned by primary components — Taken from: “Product Roadmaps Relaunched”, p. 25

It’s worth highlighting the book’s chapter on ‘Themes’, which I’ve written about previously. Themes are described as “an organisational construct for defining what’s important to your customers at the present time.”

The difference between themes and subthemes is granularity, or level of detail:

Theme: a high level customer need; “content access across devices” for example

Subtheme: a more specific need; “visibility of which device is in use” for example

One can link specific features to these themes and subthemes on the roadmap, but it’s worth considering first whether features should be added to the roadmap in the first place. The book contains a number of useful questions to consider in this respect:

  • Do we have enough understanding of the need and possible solutions to feel confident in a particular solution?
  • Do we have any validated solutions from previous release plans that did not get completed and need to be carried over?
  • Do we have any validated infrastructure needs?
  • Do we have any mandates from decision-making stakeholders that must be addressed?
  • What is the likelihood that this solution will be changed, postponed, or dropped from the schedule (i.e. what is your confidence)?

In the light of the roadmap acting as a two-way communication tool, the authors make some valuable point about the different stakeholders, and how they benefit from and contribute to roadmaps. For example:

Customers — benefit: Get excited about how they will benefit in the future

Customers — contribute: Provide feedback on value and priorities

Executives — benefit: Understand how resources are being used and potential ROI

Executives — contribute: Provide strategic context for product direction and priorities

These stakeholders are likely to work with what the authors call the “Product Core”. This is a small group consisting of those who work directly on the product: product manager or product owner, designers, and engineers. The book introduces the “Shuttle Diplomacy Canvas”, as a practical way to plan and conducting “shuttle diplomacy”, tracking stakeholder meetings and moving one toward to final roadmap buy-in and alignment.

Main learning point: I’d highly recommend Product Roadmaps Relaunched  to anyone keen to learn more about how to best communicate product vision, business objectives and associated themes. Lombardo, McCarthy, Ryan and Connors offer some useful insights and practical pointers if you’re looking to relaunch your product roadmap!

My product management toolkit (26): PAUSE and LISTEN

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Example

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

Me – before understanding a single thing about listening and empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

What to listen for:

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

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

Guiding Principle: Belief that guides decisions.

Follow the peaks and valleys:

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

Be supportive:

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

Be respectful:

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

Neutralise your reactions:

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

 

 

Book review: “Zero to One”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related links for further learning:

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