Product Management

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.

3 Steps to Make Virtual Meetings Actually Productive

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Photo Credit: StudioC

This post originally appeared on my column on Inc.com on July 18, 2016.

Videoconferencing is revolutionary. It allows people in the East Village to connect with international colleagues in real time–not only hearing what they have to say, but also seeing how they gesticulate when they’re talking. Seeing as though much of human communication is nonverbal, this is nothing to take lightly.

At Fuze, I manage a team of Product Managers spread across four different time zones. And I’m proud of the fact that I’m able to use my company’s software to connect with my team. I spend about 50% of my time traveling since I believe face-to-face meetings are immensely important. However when I’m back in my office in NYC, my days usually consist of joining back-to-back virtual meetings from my office for hours at a time. How exactly can you and your coworkers stay productive when you’re in videoconferences all day long?

Setup your office correctly

Believe it or not, making a few changes to the way you configure your work environment can have a tremendous impact on your videoconferencing productivity.

Not surprisingly, videoconferencing drives engagement during remote meetings. Those who attend videoconferences hold their attention 52% longer than those their peers who meet via conference call. What’s more, in a recent survey, 56% of respondents indicated that they multitask often during phone meetings. Compare that to only 4% of respondents doing the same during videoconferences, and you begin to see how these modern meetings are more productive.

But this all doesn’t mean that switching to videoconferences will automatically make your meetings more effective. You have to set yourself up for success. Here’s how:

Use your hands

Having a wide-angle camera (I use this Logitech webcam) allows you to be standing in full frame three or four feet back from your computer. Other attendees won’t just see your face. Wide-angle cameras make videoconferences more authentic because they enable you to talk with your hands, making it feel as though you’re in the same room with remote team members. Authenticity comes from engagement; when your meeting attendees see you actively talking and gesturing they know you’re being serious. Since people can see you in totality, they’re not worried if you’re hands are off-screen typing or using your phone. Remember, just because videoconferences are more productive doesn’t mean attendees won’t browse the web here and there. A wide-angle camera cuts down on those unproductive habits.

Sketch it out

There’s certainly a lot of digital whiteboarding software out there and it tends to work well when needed. To best mimic the in-person experience, however, you may be better off pairing your wide-angle camera with an actual whiteboard that’s facing it. That way, other attendees feel that much closer to being the same room as you. Sketching is a great way to get your creative energy going and help come to consensus faster when brainstorming with another person.

Stand up

The last thing you want is to doze off during a videoconference–something that becomes more likely when you have to go long periods of time without talking. To mitigate the risk, utilize a standing desk. This will make you more alert–and more importantly, less likely to embarrass yourself or the speaker by falling asleep!

Get up and walk out

Lastly, above all else, don’t forget to get up and out periodically. Though you may be tempted to stay in your office all day when you have back to back meetings, sometimes it’s okay to change the environment even though it seems to be working well.

It’s easy to get caught up in back-to-back meetings where you end one videoconference and launch another. In some instances, this may be unavoidable.

You should block yourself small chunks of time you can use to go for a walk, bounce ideas off a colleague, or have a one-on-one meeting. Movement encourages motivation. So take a break, get water, or interact with a local barista to make sure you’re not sitting (or standing) in your office all day.

Videoconferencing can seriously improve productivity. But you have to set yourself up for success. Follow these tips and you should see your videoconferences become much more effective.

5 Design Lessons You Can Use to Make Any Part of Your Company Beautiful (and User-Friendly)

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The appification of everything has made everyone an early adopter.

That being the case, companies cannot afford to let the user experience of their apps, services, IT admin portals, their website – or anything else for that matter – suffer as they go about building their products.

Companies that build apps and sell B2B products often get bogged down in the sale, shifting their focus to the next customer instead of understanding how they can make existing relationships even stronger.

Instead of following that path, companies would be wise to take a step back and first realize the importance of specifically focusing on the design functions of other areas of the company.

Luckily, by taking a holistic look at the user experience at every level and understanding the design process, companies can ensure each facet of their operations is fortified. With that in mind, let’s take a look at five design lessons that can take your company to the next level.

The most important lesson to learn from design is the power of clearly defining your audience.

Fuze went on a mission to focus on who used our products and which ones they used. At the highest level, we validated that our users work in several disciplines (sales, marketing, support) at medium and large companies. But we needed to dig deeper and find out more about our audience. What is a day in the life of the average user like? Why, specifically, will they be using our products? Why do they use our apps instead of our competitors or consumer apps?

The more thoroughly you answer these questions, the easier it will be for you to solve your customers’ problems effectively.

Make Sure That Your Entire Team Is On the Same Page

It’s certainly not difficult to get caught up in over-designing a solution to technology problems. But whether it’s revamping internal IT systems for billing and auditing or recreating a new feature, you need to be listening to the people who interface with use it directly. They’re the ones who understand best how the product works and how it can be improved through your design.

At Fuze, we recently looked at ways to build more self-service into our new customer onboarding process. Our product team spent several days watching over the shoulders of the engineers that work directly on the onboarding process, given us a much deeper understanding of their pain points and what opportunities there are to improve the process.

Use Metrics That Will Actually Tell You How Your Customers Are Using the Product

It is critical to track KPIs to determine precisely how engaged your users are. This data can help you determine, among other things, whether your users are coming back—and if not, why.

Consumer apps do this in every part of their app. Top-tier consumer apps like Instagram and Facebook meticulously study their engagement funnels and onboarding. Instagram tries to think about the way users actually use the app and where they get delight. You can apply these concepts to every type of product at your company. For example, at Fuze we track metrics like “Total messages sent and received”, “Total phone vs. video calls”, “Time to start a meeting”, and many others.

Similarly, you can use a net promoter score (NPS) during your users flows to determine how well, on a scale of 1 to 10, an interaction went. You can combine this with engagement data from Mixpanel to gauge whether people are happy with your product. Those who aren’t will go somewhere else to find a better experience. You need to understand why.

Get all Employees Involved

When we went through the rebrand of ThinkingPhones to Fuze, our design team built an internal website to allow anyone in the company to understand and interact with the new corporate language and logo. This site also went into detail as to why the rebrand was occurring in the first place.

The end result? Employees felt as though they were involved in the rebranding process and that their opinions and ideas mattered.

Craft a Personality

In the world of enterprise software, we often don’t think about the voice of the product.

Building a product personality allows people to interact with it. To determine the voice of your product, ask yourself what the application does and what kind of tools it uses.

Because voice comes from language, tone, and personality, everything from billing invoices to the language in your mobile app updates are opportunities to drive up emotional engagement with your users. In Fuze’s case, we build and test things like the audio conferencing tone people hear when waiting to join a Fuze meeting. This enables us to provide a better, more wholesome experience that drives user engagement and delight with our products.

Takeaway

At Fuze, the fundamental principles of design impact everything we do as a company across all of our business units. It’s no longer just about designing a good product anymore. Everything your company designs—from internal tools to websites and everything in between—needs to be exceptional, too.

Check out the full post on my Inc.com column.

How to Smoothly Transition from Project to Product Management

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The Fuze Product Management team has grown a lot in the last year. I recently shared a slide at our weekly all-hands meeting that showed our team’s growth mapped out over the last 14 months. It was really cool to see the mix of people that joined via hiring, networking, acquisitions, and internal transitions.

Over those last 14 months, several of our Product Managers transitioned over from the Technical Product Ownership role we have in our engineering teams. Now, they are all amazing PM’s because of their deep technical knowledge and keen understanding of our engineering teams. More importantly, all of them transitioned over after having “lived the PM life” in addition to their TPO responsibilities. In almost every case this dual-role happened because of the lack of a Product Manager in their area combined with their own desires to interact with customers and create solutions for them.

If you’re working in project management or technical product ownership, making the switch to a product management role might seem overwhelming due to the various differences. While change can be difficult, it doesn’t have to be completely jarring. The most effective way to make the transition is to experience the key aspects of product management in your current job.

You may already be dealing with some product management responsibilities in your current role. If you are, then you’re already a step towards gaining fluency. If you’re not familiar with any product management behaviors, then you’ll need to gain as much experience as possible.

Granted, there’s a lot to know about product management. So here are a few things that might help you learn before deciding to make the career switch.

Always Learn from Customers

One of the best ways to prepare yourself for a product management job is work towards becoming a consumer advocate. To do this, you’ll need to get out of the office and interact with customers. Having informal discussions with customers will give you insight that you could never gain from your coworkers.

During these talks, you’ll get a good idea of what your customers are like and what they need. Pay special attention to their challenges in order to find solutions that could benefit them. Being able to deliver on customers’ needs will make you invaluable in product management.

Get In-Depth Knowledge

Before you switch jobs, take the time to get extensive knowledge about the product you’re working on. Immerse yourself in the market (including the competition) whenever you get a free moment. To get a really good feel for the product, participate in a teardown to get an invaluable look at what you’re working with.

Knowing everything about the product is important, but so is learning about the shelves. Learn about how the products are packaged and the prices.

Learn from Others

A smart method to gain some knowledge about product management while still working your current job is to sit in on an interview. A product management interviewer might be happy to let you join an interview and see what sort of questions are asked of candidates.

At some point, ask the manager for a mock interview to see how your fluency is coming along.

Try What You’ve Learned

Don’t be afraid to test yourself in everything that you’ve learned, try to create something practical. Design something based on your customer conversations, interviews, and personal research. This can be anything from new features to minor enhancements that could make the product better.

Once you fully enter the field you’ll have more time to participate in this process, but for now it’s a great exercise to see what you’ve learned. Simply sketching or spec’ing these changes is useful. Even if none of these preliminary ideas are likely to make the final cut, you’ll be glad that you started thinking creatively.

Tying it all Together

It’ll take some time and a willingness to learn in order to make a smooth transition into product management, but the results will be worth it.

If transitioning to a product management role, you want to be able to hit the ground running in your new position. To do that, you’ll need to wrap your head around some of these concepts and strategies while working your existing job. It’s certainly not easy, but with a little creativity and effort it can be done.

#UCExpo Series: A Q&A with Michael Affronti

This was originally posted on the Fuze corporate blog on Tue Apr 19.

We sat down with Michael Affronti, VP of Product for Fuze, to dig deeper into the michael affronti“appification” of the enterprise ahead of his upcoming session at the UC Expo in London.

Attending the show? Click here to check out Michael’s conference session.

How have you seen the industry shift to address more user-centric technology? What have companies gotten wrong when it comes to applying this thinking to new innovation?

Several years ago the phrase “Consumerization of IT” caught on as early-adopters inside of companies were pushing IT to adopt new products and services. It then became “Consumerization of the Enterprise” as it extended beyond the IT function and into the everyday apps and services used by every information worker (IW). IWs spend nearly 65 percent of their time at work communicating and only a fraction of that time (20 percent) creating and editing content.

Smart companies embrace a BYOD philosophy, while picking the right tools for core collaboration scenarios. It is great to allow your teams to bring their own mobile phones to work, but having their work communication scattered across a smattering of consumer tools is both inefficient and dangerous. The smartest companies look at what and why their employees are doing with consumer apps and then bring in the right enterprise-grade tools to be used in place of them.

Fuze recently conducted research in Europe, indicating that two-thirds of those surveyed thought workplace technology needed to catch up with personal technology. What can businesses learn from user preferences outside of work?

The “appification” of consumer services has now fully bled over to the enterprise. The pattern that a user employs at home is what they expect to happen at work: if their work tools don’t provide the right functionality, they will just find an app in the app store that does the job. It used to be the case that only a handful of companies, usually small/medium-sized businesses, allowed for users to bring their own devices and use their own apps. We’re now seeing financial firms and healthcare companies moving services to the cloud and allowing for their teams to use more and more modern apps. This is often in conjunction with a mobile device management strategy.

This sounds like a BYOD issue. What should employers keep in mind when navigating unsanctioned app usage in the modern workforce?

Having a clear and enforceable BYOD strategy is important. Even more critical is deploying apps and services that your employees actually want to use. If you roll out poorly designed apps, your users will vote with their feet and find a way to use the apps they love (even if they’re consumer-based and insecure). I’ve even seen users rubber-band two iPhones back to back – one locked down too tightly by their company, the other a personal device where they use WhatsApp to talk to their co-workers!

How can companies support the modern worker to be more collaborative by using technology?

Listen to your workers! Ask them about their favorite apps and find out why they’re using them. This will directly impact your rollout plan for introducing new apps and help you communicate it in a way that will be receptive to teams. Next, find out what line of business apps they want linked into their new apps. A critical part of rolling out new collaboration tools is having them connected into the important systems they use on a daily basis.

If you’re heading to UC Expo, come visit us at stand H805 and learn more about our presence here.

What to Look for When Hiring a Product Manager

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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.

 

Morphing Your Management Style To Drive A Growing Product Team

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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

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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.

A Product Manager Should Be The Most Curious Person In The Room

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image (C) Tauntaunwampa

I was talking earlier this week with a new product manager on my team. It was our 1:1 and we were discussing his latest project. It’s the first big product area that this PM has taken on and it’s very important for our next release, so we were using our conversation to make sure everything was on-track. I was peppering him with questions after he shared his update:

“How do you feel the project is going?”
“What challenges have you hit working with your feature team?”
“Is the spec ready for review?”
“Okay, can you show me the diagram for the main use case that you’re stuck on?”
“What about this part of the lookup, can we also double-back with the phone number?”
“I just thought of these two uses cases, have you considered them?”
“What’s left between now and the spec review?”

Later that same day I was in a feature team meeting discussing the status of a new product offering. The lead developer was sharing his detailed update, which included a few specific areas that had risk and ambiguity.

“Why did you choose that implementation path?”
“Will this scale if we 10x the amount of users in a year?”
“Is there a faster way to do it?”
“What if we added more resources?”
“What are the biggest remaining risks?”

Folks who have worked with me before know that I love to ask questions. A lot of questions. 🙂 The questions I asked during the 1:1 with my PM (and their resulting answers) helped me quickly understand the status of the project and where he was blocked. It also set the stage for the type of information I’d want to hear in the next update I get about the project. He and I then spent a few minutes talking about questions, curiosity, and why they’re both so important for Product Managers to be effective in their careers.

Awesome Product Managers have an unrelenting sense of curiosity. They’re equally curious about the latest competitive apps, their own project statuses, industry news, how a piece of backend technology works, the reason a bug occurred, or why a partner team is late on delivering. A great PM should use precision questioning to drill into every conversation and problem to understand what is really going on and what they can do to move things forward. This can reveal gaps in use cases, technical knowledge, or even a partnership agreement that need to be addressed.

Checking for curiosity is critically important when evaluating a PM for a role on your team. Many parts of my PM interview process, from the “What’s your favorite app?” question all the way through the product design case study, are used to see how curious the candidate is. Do they start out the case study by immediately jumping into a solution on the whiteboard based on something they know, or do they open with a set of questions back to me to help understand what they don’t know.

Ultimately your use of precision questioning as a PM must be balanced with the amount of investigation and discovery you do on your own. You will also gain a lot of experience over time simply from being in more and more product cycles.

The simplest way I can frame this advice? Don’t wait if you’re curious about why something is. Get curious and ask the question.

Eat Your Dogfood

sleeping-rottweiler-puppy

“Employees should use the products and services produced by the companies that employ them. They should be emphatic fans of their company’s products. Nothing less.”

— “How to Get People to Eat Dog Food” by Ethan Mayers at AlleyWatch.

I remember when I first heard the question “Are you dogfooding?” shortly after arriving at Microsoft in 2004. I was puzzled for a second about why anyone would not use their own company’s products, especially when they were on the product team that was building them.

Fast forward a few months to the mid-point of the Outlook and Exchange 2007 release. Our dogfood email environment would periodically go completely down for days at a time and we would resort to using IMs and our bug reporting system to exchange important messages. I remember that some of our execs were not in the dogfood environment, but when they heard about the issues we were having they asked to be moved in their with us. They wanted to see for themselves what was going on and to give us a little pressure by having their dogfooding right next to us. Want a quick way to get your day-to-day product stability in shape? Inject a few executives and put their real email on the line and you’ll get blunt feedback, ‘fo sure.

My point here is not that we were in terrible shape in early Office 2007 engineering (we weren’t), nor that we weren’t dogfooding (we all were), or that execs are the best way to do Q/A (they’re not). My point is that as a product manager it’s easy to get stuck staring at the trees and to forget about the forest when working on a specific feature in a larger product. It’s something that can happen more frequently as startup teams get bigger and product managers get more specialized.

In another example from that team, I remember being heads down working on a specific and critical issue in Instant Search in Outlook (one of my features), and I assumed that someone else was seeing the reliability issues I was having with sending email in this specific configuration. I remember bringing up one of those reliability issues to the team that owned Mail Transport, and they determined that it was the specific way that I setup Outlook that was causing the issue (it was having multiple POP accounts loaded into a profile while searching across profiles), and no one else on the team was seeing it because it was setup- and timing-related. It was a critical bug because many of our customers would eventually have a setup similar to mine and therefore could have been susceptible to the issue once we rolled out the new feature.

As teams get bigger and more specialized it’s critically important that product managers dogfood their specific feature or product. It’s equally important, if not more so, to make sure you are always dogfooding end-to-end experiences outside of your feature ownership and across the entire breadth of products you build. You should also look for unique ways to get a fresh perspective while dogfooding. For example, we found that by adding the execs in at a time of difficult product stability during Outlook 2007 development, we were able to inject some “new eyes” into our day-to-day work and get some great objective feedback. This also helped us get dogfood coverage on features like Delegate Access, a setup that only happens when someone else manages your inbox and calendar in Outlook (a setup very unique to VP-level and higher users). In another case, we asked the entire product team to unplug their mouse for an hour to try and use Outlook via the keyboard only, helping us find a bunch of good bugs in our accessibility code.

Here on the Contactive team at ThinkingPhones, as our products get more complex and our team grows, we continue to dogfood every day and constantly come up with new ways to get those fresh perspectives. One of our favorites are weekly team-wide dogfood bashes to help get fresh eyes on new areas of our code. One of our product managers puts up a whiteboard, cranks the music (usually 80’s workout montages from Spotify), and everyone writes the bugs they find up on the board. We sometimes award “most interesting bug” and other fun prizes. You’d be amazed by what you can find with that kind of intense focus. We also have a “Bugs” email alias that gets traffic at all hours of the day, as we have all adopted the habit of sending screenshots and bug reports the minute we see them. We find that these types of efforts help increase the focus of the whole team on the quality of our products.

Our goal at ThinkingPhones is to be proud of our products and deliver amazing experiences to our customers. We believe pride comes from quality, and quality comes from eating your own dogfood.

Yum.  🙂