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.

4 Reasons Why I Still Wake Up at 4:22 A.M.

screenshot-2016-11-14-07-42-11Photo by flickr user FotoArt MB

This originally appeared on my column at Inc.com on 10/27/2016.

I love waking up when it’s still dark out. I feel the most productive when I can get several things done before most of the world is even awake. Eighteen months ago, I wrote a post about why I do that, called “Why I Wake Up at 4:22 A.M.,” and the response I received from readers all over the world was incredible.

I was talking last month to one such reader about how he could make some small changes in his morning habits to increase his productivity. The first question he asked me, however, was “Are you still waking up that early?”

A lot has changed in my personal and professional life over the last year and a half–I’m traveling more for work, my job has changed in scope as our company has grown, and I have several new responsibilities. Through all of this change, one of my most important constants is that I still wake up at 4:22 each morning.

Why?

Many people I encounter are a mixture of impressed and confused, or scared, by the fact I spring out of bed when most everyone else is still sleeping. But I actually find it pretty easy to get out of bed that early. That’s because I’ve discovered that determination and commitment to regimens are crucial–even during times of change.

1. I’ve recognized that things have changed

Since I published the piece referenced at the top of this article, Fuze has changed significantly. The company’s grown. My team has grown. I have more direct reports. The list goes on.

Throughout all that, I’ve kept my center by staying healthy, starting my day off right, and dedicating even more of my time to planning to make sure everything is as smooth as it can be.

Remember, having more or different responsibilities doesn’t mean you have to change what got you where you are.

2. I’ve embraced my constants

While a number of things have changed in my life since March 2015, there are a lot of things that haven’t. I still wake up at the same time–something I’ve been doing for more than a decade.

I find that the early morning hours are incredibly productive. Although my day-to-day roles and duties have changed, I’ve kept my early-morning hours free to devote the peaceful time to free thought. I also use my mornings to catch up on industry news and find out what our competitors are up to. I still vacuum twice a week. There’s also time for nonwork stuff, too. I’m still doing CrossFit every day at 6 a.m. and have started running on Friday mornings in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

3. I’ve learned to be adaptable

I spend my days running the product management team at Fuze here in NYC. I also spend about half the month traveling, to our headquarters in Boston as well as our various customers and sales offices around the world. During normal work hours, I don’t have time to just sit down and write anymore.

Rather than accepting that reality, I’ve chosen to be proactive in the early mornings. I use the time to write position papers, do competitive analysis, and try new products. I also do a considerable amount of planning, using Evernote to catch ideas that relate to product strategy. Once I make it to the office, I cue up what I’ve found and discuss it further with my team.

One of the biggest changes I’ve had to adapt to is the fact that I travel a lot more. Despite long flights and changes in time zones–think landing in Europe at 10 p.m. local time–I still force myself to wake up early and exercise.

You might think it’s a little obsessive to only book hotels that are within running distance to a CrossFit gym. I have found that no hack for fighting jetlag works better than taking a melatonin to get a deep sleep upon arriving, and then forcing myself to go to a 6 o’clock class the next morning. With a little bit of planning, you’re much more likely to work out and stick to your schedule. Your body remembers the pattern and starts to boot up much more quickly than if you’d given in to your jetlag and stayed in bed.

4. I know that staying healthy makes me happy

The bottom line is that no matter what comes your way or what changes in your personal or professional life, you need to take care of yourself. You need to take time for yourself and your job that allows you to plan better and become a more effective leader.

So many of us deal with changes by adjusting our whole routines. But, it turns out, sticking to some parts of your original regimen will help you adapt to the changes you face. There’s no sense in changing your entire life around just because you had a change in your life or job. Stick to what got you where you are, and chances are it’ll take you even further.

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

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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.

Back From Hiatus (a.k.a Being Flexible)

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When I am very passionate about something I find it hard to stop doing it, whether that being playing soccer in my Brooklyn Bridge Park league or mentoring startups here in NYC. Writing is one of those areas of passion for me and it’s why I really enjoy writing on my blog. I find it’s a great way to share concepts and ideas, and I love the feedback that I get from readers of all different industries and backgrounds.

I’ve talked in several previous posts about how I manage my time, like using “GSD” blocks on my calendar during the day or capturing early-morning time to blog and read the news. I also believe that you need to be flexible with you whatever systems you use for your personal productivity. The list of things you need to accomplish and the list of things your passionate about have to actually “fit” into your available time.

Earlier in my career I found I would get super stressed out when a significant change in my life threw a wrench in my personal productivity. I’m talking things like promotions, new jobs, giant new projects, or even new relationships. I would have to “change” my perfect email system or alter my by-the-minute fixed morning routine. Over time I’ve realized that the true productivity ninja is someone who can recognize when a big enough wrench is thrown into system and then react accordingly.

At the beginning of the summer I took a new role inside of ThinkingPhones that made my responsibility and scope grow by what felt like 100x. I also took on an Instructor position at General Assembly (more on that soon) that added four hours of class and six hours of prep time per week to my schedule. This had the predictable effect of disrupting my time management system almost immediately.

What changed? On the work front, my new role caused me to have to learn and be responsible for a much larger portion of our product portfolio and in parallel increased the amount of people on my team. My need for time to just read material on my own and also the time needed to hire and coach increased several fold. Teaching was an incredible experience, but there I quickly realized that to effectively prepare my lessons for class I needed to spend significant time on the weekends creating the core material and then a few hours the morning of each class rehearsing.

Something had to give. I looked at my tasks and my calendar and realized that the time I spent writing and curating was about what I needed to prep for class. So I decided to take a break from writing and use that time to tackle my new role at work and my class at GA. It was stressful in the short term because I missed writing and don’t like stopping things I enjoy doing, but that feeling quickly switched to relief as the amount of effort I needed for both work and GA increased over the summer.

I’ve been looking forward to writing again and I’m glad I had this London-bound-no-internet-trans-atlantic flight to write this post and get back at it. Talk to you all soon.

Thanks!
-m