Leadership

Left-Brain or Right-Brain: Which Builds Better Products?

This post originally appeared on my Inc.com column on February 16, 2017.

Left-brain vs. right-brain. Calculated, precise, and mathematical vs. creative, flexible, and emotional. Two opposing hemispheres locked in an internal battle to determine what from within makes it out into the world.

It’s a perceived struggle that has raged on for the entirety of human existence, and for the most part, the war has been balanced. However, never has the fight been more one-sided than in the current world of business.

The dawn of the tech giants and big data has thrust us into an era of emphasis on STEM and its introduction into a person’s education as early as possible. Some argue that to be successful is to be technical. Once revered backgrounds in the humanities, arts, and social sciences are so underrepresented in the workplace that the majority of undergraduates have begun to avoid such degrees altogether for fear of being unemployable.

But to invoke a few key ideas from these forgone disciplines, the overemphasis on technical prowess in business is a tragic, and often – especially when it comes to entrepreneurship – fatal flaw.

What Can The Humanities Offer Businesses?

As with many of the concepts in the realm of the humanities, the question of what value hiring right-brained employees can add to a company has a largely open-ended answer.

This is simply because the areas where those well-versed in the liberal arts can help a company thrive – such as in understanding what customers want, how they want to be treated, and how to anticipate their future behavior – are either hard to quantify or intangible altogether.

But understanding culture and being able to readily assess and interpret the ever-changing perspectives of society is something that can help drive successful innovation in today’s increasingly competitive marketplaces.

To substantiate this claim, look towards the startup industry’s insatiable desire for being “disruptive.” By definition, dreaming up a disruptive idea requires an ability to redefine or even create a new industry altogether. In truth, such a thing can only be achieved if one has the ability to challenge traditional theories, predict outcomes based on concepts rather than data, and then effectively communicate how and why this idea is important, to both colleagues and customers alike.

A few leaders I follow who have tapped into their humanities backgrounds in order to achieve this way of thinking: Reid Hoffman (Founder of LinkedIn), Mike Krieger (Founder of Instagram), Chris Cox (Former Product Officer at Facebook), Marissa Mayer (Former Yahoo Head), and Scott Forstall (Creator of iOS).

The Critical Balancing Act

Does this mean having employees with technical prowess is not important in business? Definitely not.

What’s more likely is that it’s best to have people who are adept at balancing both their technical and humanist sides when making decisions.

Going back to the aforementioned individuals, all of whom were graduates of Stanford’s Symbolic Systems major – a degree focused on studying psychology, logic, and linguistics – it seems the best product leaders tend to be equal parts philosophy and computer science.

This balance is useful because it allows individuals to bridge the gap between the more social, empathetic, qualitative challenges a business faces, and the more data-centric, quantitative ones which dictate a business model.

With both approaches in hand, individuals that drive a business, such as Product Managers, can have a higher level of vision when assembling the pieces of their idea into a coherent strategy. And this superior point of view ultimately leads to a product or service that not only knows what its customers want, but can also understand why – two importantly separate things.

Fuzzy vs. Techie

Sticking with Stanford for a moment, where students self-identify and differentiate between “fuzzy” (i.e. arts, humanities, social sciences) and “techie” (self-explanatory) disciplines, we can see further evidence of how each way of thinking remains at odds with the other.

At the end of the day the real benefit of a Liberal Arts background comes from its student’s abilities to re-think how something can work, and communicate this idea in a compelling manner. And an often overlooked fact is that the Liberal Arts also includes natural sciences.

I got a chance to read an early version of The Fuzzy and the Techie, a new book by Scott Hartley that comes out in April. He explores this idea that product leaders must balance empathy and psychology with design and development in order to be best poised for success. He attempts to debunk this faux opposition of technical versus non-technical by describing what it takes to create our best products, companies, and organizations. It takes both. Give it a read when it comes out.

And as tech grows increasingly complicated, it will become essential to have individuals who not only can understand how to build something, but who can also maintain a solid grasp on a product’s ultimate goals and direction amidst the often chaotic changing tastes and moods of its customers.

1 Simple Change to Make Your One-on-One Meetings Instantly More Productive

14566-71819-486.jpg
This post originally appeared in my Inc.com column on August 12, 2016

Why I Fell in Love With Walking

I’m the VP of Product at Fuze, a tech company in the enterprise communication space. I’ve been an athlete and fitness enthusiast for about as long as I’ve been a geek, and in a past life I became a certified personal trainer at my local gym during college. Over the years I have learned that there’s a science behind feeling better as a result of moving and being active. Working as a personal trainer got me excited to help my clients be happy and healthy–which ultimately resulted in them feeling inspired and excited. Nothing made me happier than to see my clients achieve their fitness goals and then get ready for the next challenge.

Several years later while working at Microsoft I remember getting restless during a 1:1 with one of my team members; it was a gorgeous Seattle summer day outside and I hated being inside the office. I decided to try something simple and different during my next 1:1. Instead of sitting in my office for the meeting, I asked my team to try walking around campus and talking with me instead. Microsoft had these wonderful soccer fields that made it easy to do some laps around.

Not only did this turn out to be a healthy activity, the resulting conversations were also incredibly more personalized and free-flowing than they’d be if we just sat around in the office going over the same content.

I quickly found that walking meetings served as a great way to merge my passion for physical activities with the needs of management, meetings, and other work tasks. There’s a benefit from a business perspective, and a clear benefit with respect to you and your teams’ healthiness.

Build a Healthy Team

Right around the time I started walking for my meetings at Microsoft, the first of the quantified-self set of companies launched and, being a data and gadget geek, I bought a Fitbit to start tracking my steps during runs, soccer, and daily activities. Sometimes after meetings I would share the step count graphs from my FitBit profile with my employees to celebrate that we hit funny milestones like “longest meeting of the week in steps” or “fastest meeting in mph.”

My employees quickly took notice. Many of them bought their own devices and we started to enjoy a fun little competition. One of my team members at Microsoft was so inspired by some of our conversations that she got a Fitbit and a nutritionist to help focus on her health and wellness. We talked each week about her progress and I shared tips and insights from my own experience to help. It was wonderful to see her achieve a number of her personal health goals while excelling at being a product manager.

If walking meetings aren’t your thing, there are a number of other ways you can bring your team together while encouraging healthy behavior.

During my Microsoft days, I organized intramural soccer events between different teams in our group as we had those soccer fields nearby. In almost every city there are soccer fields and parks where you can easily organize a pick-up game for your team.

When I was at Contactive, my team and I joined an intramural dodgeball league that played in the Lower East Side. Playing dodgeball as an adult was hilarious and exhausting, but competing as a team every week kept us active and was a welcome stress relief from the 20-hour early-startup-days we were working.

Now, at Fuze, it’s not uncommon to catch me and my team doing a group run after work through the Flatiron here in New York City. We hit a milestone last month when we ran from our office to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, celebrating the 6-mile run with some wings and a beer at my favorite pub.

Healthy Thinking

I challenge you to take one of the things you like about an activity, sport, or exercise that you personally enjoy and find a way to share that with your team. It can be soccer, dodgeball, or even a simple walk around your neighborhood. Create active cultures and you’ll spur healthy thinking in your employees.

We all spend 40 or more hours working in an office each week. To drive health and wellness–and therefore create a more productive organization–you can incorporate daily fitness- or health-oriented activities into your workflow. Not only will your team be healthier, they’ll also be more happy and productive–a truly win-win scenario.

Header image from Advanced Aquatic PT

What to Look for When Hiring a Product Manager

Screenshot 2016-02-10 08.05.23

Product managers can make or break organizations, which is why hiring managers must spend time landing the most talented PMs. Great hires help their companies level-up.

So, what exactly should you look for in a PM?

When I’m hiring, I look for candidates who are what I call “smart chameleons.”

These people immediately impact a particular product. They adapt quickly and efficiently whenever new ideas or initiatives emerge.

To this end, a candidate’s experience—alongside examples that demonstrate his or her ability to adapt—are the key qualifications that I explore during the interview process.

No One is Born a PM

A master blacksmith teaches an apprentice how to shape metals. Similarly, PMs need to get their hands dirty while on the job to learn their craft.

At Fuze, we typically hire PMs with at least three years of experience. It’s great when that experience comes from places known for producing great PMs, like big software companies that have established PM disciplines and training programs. Amazing PMs can also come from medium-sized tech firms and often have very cool and interesting backgrounds that led them to Product Management.

Some of the best Product Managers I’ve worked with have the most amazingly diverse backgrounds: an art history major, a finance manager, and once even an astrophysicist. You can also often find great PMs inside of Sales and Sales Engineering teams; they often have amazing customer empathy given the amount of interactions they have with them.

I also seek candidates with relevant domain experience to our industry and technology. It simplifies the onboarding process when new hires have a basic understanding of our tech, B2B sales, and enterprise platforms from the beginning.  

Adaptability

Anyone who’s worked in the startup world knows how quickly things change. PMs need to be versatile enough to keep pace with those changes.

During the hiring process, I ask candidates to provide examples about how they’ve shipped their products. More specifically, I ask candidates to describe times when they had to get creative to ship something. Maybe they had to deal with missing information. Maybe there was no existing process. Maybe they were competing for resources.

Whatever the case may be, the more creative the candidate’s response, the more likely we are to proceed to the next round of interviews.

Great PMs Empathize with Customers

Those who know me have heard me talk about how important customer empathy is for a PM. Let’s reiterate.

When I’m hiring, I look for candidates who have extensive experience talking to customers. I seek out people who can provide examples of turning those interactions into products and feature improvements.

Empathy is one of the most important skills for anyone in any industry. Candidates who can place themselves in their customers’ shoes and see problems (and solutions) from their perspectives tend to succeed in PM roles.

Communication Skills are Critical

If candidates can’t communicate effectively, how can you expect them to ship on time?

One part of our Fuze interview process involves homework. We give candidates an assignment and ask them to present their response to us. Topics change periodically, but they always focus on a real business challenge that we’re facing.

Forcing candidates to prepare presentations in a relatively short period of time is a great way to ascertain how well they think on their feet and whether they can communicate content clearly and concisely.

Thanks to this component of our interview process, we can gauge whether candidates have the communication skills that are necessary to thrive.

Although different candidates appeal to different companies, strong PMs will be experienced and quick on their feet. They are empathetic and communicative. Keep this in mind and with luck you’ll make amazing new hires.

For more on the topic, check out Steven Sinofsky’s post on hiring your first PM.

 

Why Face-to-Face Meetings Are Essential For Distributed Teams

Screenshot 2016-01-04 04.29.32

Image by Flickr user heisenbergmedia

It’s easy (but wrong) to avoid in-person meetings.

It’s especially easy if you work in remote teams and don’t have all of your coworkers or peers nearby. While it’s expensive and logistically difficult to bring distributed teams together, you need to.

There are serious benefits to in-person communication. I believe it’s the only way to align your team with your business’ strategic objectives. It’s also the best way for your team members to feel connected with one another.

Our Product and Engineering organizations at ThinkingPhones is spread across four different cities. Here’s how, when, and why we bake physical meetings into our team’s schedule.

Start with Video

To bridge the physical gap with our coworkers, we use video conferencing. It’s the only acceptable alternative to meeting face-to-face.

Video makes remote working way more efficient than just using texting or a conference call. Effective, to us, is a measurable reduction of time in meetings and increased engagement in the actual meeting content. Video helps us do both those things.

We use Fuze, a video collaboration product of ours. I use it for 90% of my remote meetings.

If your teams are spread out, make video meetings a requirement.

Get on the Calendar

Put scheduled meetings into a calendar so all participants don’t miss or forget anything. It sounds simple, but it makes a difference.

My directors and I get together every four weeks for a leadership meeting. We do it in-person and rotate which office hosts the meeting. Besides getting together, we also prepare. We keep a rolling agenda in a Google Doc. If we have something new to brainstorm, we add it.

By sharing an ever-evolving agenda, we get important items out of our email and in front of our team. It’s reduced my stress levels a lot.

Now, we’re experimenting with something new: Breather spaces. Vacating the office lets us physically and emotionally leave our day-to-day issues behind to focus on the tasks at hand.

Kickoff New Products in Person

Whenever we’re about to start a new product development effort, I ask myself a question: is it worth it to get together all the key stakeholders? For the big projects, definitely.

Two days of working on a whiteboard side-by-side will replace weeks of struggle. It’s a lot easier to align on design principles and key technical decisions when you can hash out minute details with your colleagues in the room.

Meet Customers

When I travel to our different offices, I try to squeeze in one or two customer house calls. It might cost me an extra day, but meeting with them is far too important. Catching up on the phone won’t substitute.

Budget for It

We’ve already walked through why it’s necessary to get together. You need to plan if you want those meetings to happen. Flights, hotels, and Uber rides cost money. It adds up quickly. Figure out how much money you’ll need, set it aside, and maximize those trips.

If you don’t budget these costs, you’ll never have the opportunity to meet with your colleagues in the flesh.

Face-to-face meetings allow your distributed teams to really connect. If you care about business results or team chemistry, then you must plan for it.

Morphing Your Management Style To Drive A Growing Product Team

Screenshot 2015-12-05 16.19.22

Image by DeviantArt user JR19759

A great outcome of any hiring strategy is when it works. You’re pulling in amazing people and they’re growing and supporting each other to build a great product organization.

That’s the world I’ve been living in over the last several months. Our product team at ThinkingPhones has literally tripled in size over the last year.

Given all we’ve learned during this hyper-growth period, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the best practices and processes we’ve implemented during that time.

So let’s start with the most important step:

The “Gravity Hire”

I use what I call the “gravity hire” methodology to build product teams quickly. This means that my early hires are product rockstars that will be able to attract other amazing PMs. And then I have them spend 50% of their time hiring other rockstars.

As the team forms – and then grows – it becomes critical to open up new internal and external communication processes to keep everyone marching in the same direction.

Here are some of the specific methods we’ve used successfully…

Product “All Hands” With An Open Mic

When you’re hiring so many talented people in a short period of time, it can be challenging to make sure all of them feel like they own a mission-critical part of the product portfolio.

Enter the Product “All Hands” meeting.

It’s held for 30 minutes once a week. Everyone in the Product Team joins and we have just two agenda items:

  • I share info about the company as a whole and take questions.
  • There’s an Open Mic portion where anyone can “virtually” stand up and share information or ideas.

The meeting puts my team on the same page regarding:

  • Exactly what is going on in the company
  • What deadlines are pending
  • Roles and goals across the team
  • How the team can help each other achieve or exceed those goals

Cross Team Lunch And Learns

We do frequent “Lunch and Learns” at ThinkingPhones, so my team and other teams can show each other what they have achieved in an informal environment.

For instance, our international sales leadership recently gave an update on our business outside of the US over sandwiches and soda. This was great for my team because it provided additional context for upcoming product roadmapping and prioritization decisions.

These sessions help my team, and other teams within the company, feel more connected with the mothership – and also ensure everyone sees how their work is impacting other areas of the company.

1-on-1

All of the directors in my organization have weekly 1:1’s with their team, and I personally do skip-level 1:1s every other week with individual product managers. They are an incredible management and motivation tool if used properly (Ben Horowitz’s post on 1:1’s has some excellent tips on the subject).

Regardless of how you run your 1:1’s make sure you use it as a forum for the employee to say what they want or need to say. It is not a meeting to pass judgement or evaluate performance.

Managers get to know the more junior employees and the areas they work in, find out what’s working and what’s not in the company, and learn how to do their own job better.

Employees and junior managers have a chance to voice any concerns or worries, they get to know the senior managers, and feel valued as a result.

Measure PM / Customer Contact

In a rapidly growing product team, individual contributor PMs often get buried in the details of building and shipping. And this leaves them little time to engage with customers.

So consider measuring each of your Product Managers on how much in-person time they’re spending with customers on a weekly or monthly basis.

The feedback they’ll take back into the organization from those touch points will be pure gold for your product team and for the rest of your company.

Connecting is Key

The more informed your PMs are about what their colleagues and customers are doing, the better product you’ll build. It really is that simple.

How are you managing your product teams to scale up as your company grows?

Let me know your best practices in the comments below.

How Teaching Tech Can Make You a Better Innovator and Leader

Screenshot 2015-10-23 17.47.20*https://www.flickr.com/photos/ryantylersmith/

This past summer I decided to teach a part-time course at General Assembly.

I love mentoring and coaching others, and public speaking, so I wasn’t surprised to realize how rewarding and fun teaching can be.

But what I didn’t expect was how much this new experience would teach me about leadership and innovation.

Being Prepared Really Helps

When I first started teaching, I thought I could quickly throw together my lesson plans the day before class.

Boy, was I wrong.

I needed three to four hours to prepare for each class, even though I already knew the content. I had to develop the primary lesson content, supporting personal stories, plus extra alternative points in case the other content didn’t land well.

Takeaway: This preparation style is equally useful for training and teaching your team outside the classroom.

Now when I prepare a meeting or workshop with my team, I think about:

  • weaving a story that team members can connect and relate to
  • knowing alternative paths ahead of time
  • having facts and personal stories on hand as examples

My favorite feedback from my students was when they told me: “Michael seems so well prepared to help us understand each lesson.”

You should strive to have your team feel that way about you as a leader.

Check for Understanding to Avoid Mistakes

You can give hours of lectures with supporting examples, but there is no guarantee that your listeners have understood and absorbed the information given to them.

The students at General Assembly had to comprehend each topic if they were going to have a shot at completing their projects.

I learned to check for that comprehension.

The best way to do this was to frequently ask questions during my lectures, get students to verbally fill in the blanks, and just outright ask if anyone needs further clarification on a topic.

Takeaway: To effectively and efficiently convey information when training or instructing your team, you have to make sure your team members understand what you are asking them to do by actively confirming that understanding.

When I’m training my team, here’s what I do:

  • regularly ask questions to see whether what I’m saying makes sense to them
  • use prepared alternative points to back up and reinforce content if there is a lack of understanding
  • make sure they get the nuances of the topic

Investing this time up front will save you more time and avoid mistakes in the long run.

Teaching by Example: Clarify Expectations

One way I teach students is through the “I Do, We Do, You Do” framework.

The idea is:

  • You (the teacher) show the students how to perform a specific task
  • You perform that same task with the students’ participation
  • You ask the students to perform the task on their own

I’ve found this method works brilliantly for both simple and complex topics in the classroom – like our lesson on calculating the Lifetime Value (LTV) of a customer.

Takeaway: This is an effective way to teach new concepts, processes, or frameworks to your team. It ensures team members know exactly what you expect of them.

To make this model work at ThinkingPhones, I encourage all of the managers on my team, myself included, to routinely “get into the trenches” and do the work our product managers do – build a competitive deck, write PRDs, or do market analysis.

This gives all our managers the tools and skills to use the I, We, You model, so we can train and get new product managers up to speed.

How This Applies to Innovation

Overall, teaching reinforces the importance of communicating effectively to your team through:

  • being more prepared than you think you need to be
  • actively checking to make sure your team members understand what they need to do
  • demonstrating tasks so your team members know what is expected of them

Do this well and less time will be spend on re-explaining concepts, or rectifying problems.

Then, when your team is performing their jobs efficiently, and without mistakes, you’ll have more room and time for innovation.

4 Things Every Product Person Should Do

Image by Flickr user 42614915@N00

Image by Flickr user 42614915@N00

It would be a shame if growing in your career took you further away from having an up-to-date perspective of what’s happening with your product.

You can quickly forget what life is like in the trenches. If you want to be an effective product manager, you need to actually work on the product. Some people estimate you should spend 30% of your time with hands-on work in engineering roles.

I would suggest that it’s paramount for product managers of all levels to be do-ers.

It’s crucial for managers in the Product space to:

  • Get out of meetings
  • Walk away from product roadmaps and strategy
  • And lead by example by consistently getting into the weeds

How to get your hands dirty

Write a Spec

Product Requirement Documents drive the efforts of the entire product team. Its hard to come by a more important, higher leverage piece of work for a company. Every quarter I make sure to take one project or feature and write the entire PRD and spec for it.

This includes writing up wireframes, mockups, business case, scenarios, technical discussion, and timeline. I also put it through the same process  my PM’s need to go through: review, iterations, sign-off, etc.

Teardown a Competitor

When I see a competitor that seems interesting or a technology that could be useful to our products, I will spend an hour on a Friday performing a teardown.

A good teardown will involve – where possible – getting hands on time with the tech or product in question, taking relevant screenshots, and writing up evaluative feedback. I then provide some ideas about how we can either beat the competitor or, failing that, integrate with them. I post these ideas into our wiki and share with the team. 

Triage Bugs

About once a week I will jump into JIRA, pick a product, and review the Priority 1 and 2 bugs. Do they match my expectation of priority? Great. If there are any questions, I will sit down with the individual PM and ask them about it.

Attend Individual Scrums

There are too many projects on my team to go to every scrum, so instead I pick one day each week to attend a different product’s meeting. I usually sit and listen quietly, then afterward will use my one-on-one with that PM to ask questions about what I heard. Theres a lot you can tell about a team just by occasionally showing up to their daily standup.

Why would you do this?

Respect

Students in my Product Management class at General Assembly this semester heard me start every lesson with some form of “This stuff is so cool! I love building products.” One of the first things I look for when hiring PM’s is their raw passion for wanting to build cool stuff.

Doing individual work like this shows your team, your peers, and your management that you are fired up about building products. You’ll earn their respect, which can be especially helpful when onboarding into a new team.

Improved efficiency

The first time you write a spec as a newly promoted manager (especially if you haven’t written one in a while), youll instantly discover what in the spec process needs improvement. Fixing these issues will make your entire team more efficient.

On our team, I realized that we had four different flavors of PRDs. I worked with Alex (one of our Directors of Product Management) to unify them into a single format. We then came up with a template for the new PRDs and put it into our wiki. That’s the spec process we use on all of our products today.

A Dose of Realism

It’s easy to think projects and products will execute extraordinarily well. As a manager in the Product organization, your goal is to balance your optimism for completing a project against your pessimism, your previous experience telling you how complex it is going to be.

Periodically writing a spec, attending a scrum, and triaging bugs can help you stay much closer to what’s actually happening inside your products and code.

Spend your time wisely.

Which will be more expensive: time spent on non-managerial work, or the risk of failure stemming from a knowledge gap between strategy and execution?