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.

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.

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?

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

How To Improve Your Networking With Goal Setting (Video)

It was a blast to work with the folks at SkilledUp to put together this fun video on how to network more effectively using goal setting and a little bit of a system. Big kudos to my extremely talented movie-producing-and-entrepreneur-extraordinaire friend Rich Boehmcke for shooting, editing, and producing this video!

The original video on SkilledUp is here.

Why I’m Teaching

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It was 10th grade in high school and I was taking a class called “College Marketing.” It was a college-level course being taught as a part of a business program our school was piloting. The teacher, Mrs. Stein, pushed our class to explore potential career paths through cool projects and presentations. Mrs. Stein was always encouraging me to explore fun side projects and to network with everyone that I met. She eventually gave me advice when I started “MicFlash Enterprises” that fall (my 1-person desktop publishing ‘company’), and through our conversations that year she helped me understand what a career in business and technology could be. Mrs. Stein later introduced me to her husband at a class field trip to his office at Viacom in NYC, and some follow-up conversations with him led to my first internship at Viacom headquarters in Times Square. I can trace almost every job (and a best friend) since then back to the people I met at that first internship.

Mrs. Stein played a seminal role in my life. As an educator she taught me skills about business and professionalism that I still remember and use today, and as a mentor she gave me guidance about my career and connected me to my first job. I can never thank her enough for the path she showed me.

Twice a year for the last nine years, I have been going back to my old high school on Long Island and giving a talk to the students in Mrs. Stein’s classes. I call the talk “You Don’t Have To Be The Valedictorian To Have A Career You Love,” and it’s my attempt to show them how important the experiences, people, and relationships they make will be to their life. I do this by walking the students through a bit of my career journey: building web pages at a leather gun holster manufacturer in New Hyde Park when I was 14, DJ’ing, building web apps for Viacom, being a personal fitness trainer, then mainframe programming for insurance companies, eventually going to Microsoft, then Contactive, and now ThinkingPhones. I share how every opportunity, every job, and every success (or failure) was the result of a relationship I had made with a key person in my life.

Throughout my career I have continued to look for ways to coach and mentor others. As a manager at Microsoft I quickly realized and embraced that much of my role was teaching and coaching my team so they could grow and perform as quickly as possible. Working in the NYC startup scene at Contactive was a big change since our team size made it so I had a very tiny team and almost no time to manage. That wound up being a great impetus to jump into mentoring and advising other companies, and it’s something I continue in earnest now at ThinkingPhones.

Recently a mutual connection introduced me to one of the founders of General Assembly, Matt, at an event in NYC. He told me about GA and their mission, and almost immediately I said “Sign me up!” I loved the idea of working with a set of industry veterans to teach and coach others who were passionate about Product Management and design.

I’m now extremely excited to be joining the General Assembly family as an Instructor for their part-time Introduction to Product Management course. You can check out the details here on the GA site.

I can’t wait for the summer. I look forward to learning as much from the students as they (hopefully) learn from me.

Thanks!

The Friday List at #neato – 2015.06.05

A few interesting articles I’ve bumped into this week, curated from my Pocket and shared for your enjoyment. Some cool finds this week about the *giant* market for wearables in the enterprise, autonomous cars and the destruction of our car economy, Google I/O, and real-life drug fiction.

Augmate“Smart glasses begin to take hold in the enterprise”

My fascination with what wearables will do in the enterprise is increasing every day that I wear my Apple Watch to work. There are some cool contextual scenarios that can be improved by having a device as present as a Watch. I think that as the glasses form factor shrinks to something that IWs would wear (and not just folks in manufacturing), there will be all sorts of new productivity scenarios – my fav idea is what remote whiteboarding would look like.

“Autonomous cars will destroy millions of jobs and reshape the US economy by 2025”

Yes, they caught my eye with the title. But the article has some astonishing data points in it, like the average car owner only drives there car for 4% of the year. Talk about wasted capacity.

“Google I/O 2015 Recap”

I’m not sure if I’m going to switch to the new photos storage system just yet, but that announcement plus Android M made this a good set of releases from Google.

“The Untold Story of Silk Road, Part I”

Part of me wishes I had at least seen Silk Road live just once. Every time I read a story like this I can’t believe how big and significant Silk Road was without almost ever being known outside of those who used it.

The Friday List at #neato – 2015.05.22

A few interesting articles I’ve bumped into this week, curated from my Pocket and shared for your enjoyment. I read some cool stuff this week around new use cases for the Apple Watch, real-life startup soap operas, and Slack’s product/market fit. Happy Friday!

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“How the Apple Watch is opening up new ways to communicate”

There have lots of back-and-forth commentary on how hard the Apple Watch is to use, how the interface is weird and non-standard, etc. It’s great to see a more expansive look at how wearables will impact different groups of users.

“731 Slack Users Reveal Why It’s So Addictive”

A good look at what users find so compelling about Slack, and a set of analysis that highlights how important product/market fit is.

“Clinkle Implodes As Employees Quit In Protest Of CEO”

I learned about Clinkle and its storied past a few months ago and find the saga super interesting. Massive early funding, unclear product direction and a discerning amount of secrecy have caused this to be what sounds like a terrible experience for their team.

“Workflow Hints At The Future Of The Watch As A Computing Platform”

Another post about the Apple Watch, can you tell I’m getting mine soon? I think it’s fascinating to see lightweight workflow scenarios that could really change how we use mobile and wearable computing. IFTTT changed how I used my Android when I first got it and apps like Workflow could open up similar scenarios for the watch platform.