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.

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?

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

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.

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I would think it would be a big fucking nightmare to have a VC on my board who simply doesn’t get what I do and yet my perception is this happens often. I know many VCs who don’t have operating experience and frankly some of them are fantastic. Simply put – I’d be in search of a VC who had an intuitive sense of my product, my customers, my organizational issues, my competitors, etc.

What I Would Look for When Choosing a VC – Knowing What I Know Now?” via Mark Suster’s blog.

I’m at my first true startup and am voraciously reading everything I can about VC’s and how to think about funding. I think Mark did a great job in this article summarizing some of the key points I’ve read and discussed about the space in the last year.