Hypotheses and the synthesis process

I started this mini-series on synthesis with a post on moving from summaries to synthesis. This was the excerpt of the post that talked about the difference.

When we write a good summary, we ask ourselves the question – what were the main points of what I read/heard/saw? A good summary boils what we read, heard or saw into a few bullet points that outline the central thesis.

A good synthesis, instead, involves asking the question – how do I make sense of what I read/heard/saw? This is a fundamentally different exercise because a good synthesis involves combining ideas to form a theory or point of view.

But, this post raised the obvious question – how do we synthesize? Or, put differently, what tools can I use to transition from summaries to synthesis? We touched on the first tool yesterday – theories. A theory is an idea or a system of ideas that are intended to explain something. Theories aren’t intended to explain everything about the topic. But, they explain enough for you to understand it. I mentioned that theories are one of the tool good synthesizers use.

The other more dominant tool is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for the next investigation. The synthesis process typically involves tons of hypotheses because it isn’t easy going from something you just read/heard/saw to a theory. Hypotheses bridge the gap. Below is what the process looks like.

Let’s work with a live example. I saw a talk with Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson on their new book – “Altered Traits.” Altered Traits is about what they’ve learnt from a lot of the scientific research on meditation. I’ve thought of and tried practicing meditation for over a year. When I reflected on both what I read about meditation and my experiences around meditation, there were 3 hypotheses that emerged –

  • Meditation feels like a route to mindfulness and equanimity
  • Writing every day feels like meditation to me
  • There are multiple ways to meditate or get to mindfulness – we should find a way that works for us

Ever since the hypotheses emerged, I’ve been looking for various ways to test these hypotheses. And, as I listened to the two authors speak, I found my hypotheses to be consistent to how they described the benefits of meditation. I expect to continue to find ways to test these hypotheses (I am in no hurry for now, of course). Over time, I’d expect a theory around meditation and mindfulness by writing to come together.

A hypotheses driven approach to life sounds, on first glance, like something that would only work in a lab. But, in truth, our life is the grandest experiment we run. Like all grand experiments, it is the sum and product of many small, daily experiments. We can choose to unintentionally stumble through them or do our best to be intentional about them.

And, should we choose to be intentional about them, it is critical to go into experiments with a hypotheses and learn from them. That’s what the process of synthesis helps us do.

That is also why it is a very powerful habit in the long run.

Grit and Theories – Synthesis tools

In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth lays out 3 theories.

Skill = Talent x Effort

Achievement = Skill x Effort

Grit = Passion + Perseverance

A theory is an idea or a system of ideas that are intended to explain something. Theories aren’t intended to explain everything about the topic. But, they explain enough for you to understand it. Theories are a classic tool for better synthesis of ideas.

In this case, Angela Duckworth helped us synthesize plenty of literature around skill, achievement and grit into 3 simple models. Again, they’re necessarily imperfect. But, they are very instructive all the same. Theories are a great example of what makes synthesis incredibly powerful. And, they are one of the two powerful tools that good synthesizers use.

(Hopefully that’s enough intrigue in advance of tomorrow’s post :-))

From summaries to synthesis

We learn by developing mental models. And, a technique to fast track the creation of mental models is to move from summaries to synthesis.

When we write a good summary, we ask ourselves the question – what were the main points of what I read/heard/saw? A good summary boils what we read, heard or saw into a few bullet points that outline the central thesis.

A good synthesis, instead, involves asking the question – how do I make sense of what I read/heard/saw? This is a fundamentally different exercise because a good synthesis involves combining ideas to form a theory or point of view. The ideas you drawn on for synthesis need not even be from the from the material you are synthesizing and could be from prior experiences or lessons.

As you can imagine, summarizing is easy. It is like riding a bike on training wheels. It takes all the risk away. But, in doing so, it takes away all the reward as well.

So, how do we move from summaries to synthesis? Just like we move from riding a bike with training wheels to riding without – ditch summaries. Synthesis takes effort and requires us to pause, reflect and bring together ideas in our heads. It is, by nature, risky.

But, it is only when we take that risk do we allow ourselves to fall and learn.

Connecting aspects of great products and great product strategy | Thinking Product

I started the Thinking Product series by sharing my hypotheses for the 3 core aspects of great technology products and great product strategy.

This evolving theory, like all theories, is necessarily imperfect. There’s a ton of nuance that goes into building technology products – e.g., products for enterprises and consumers are designed very differently. But, theories are important because they end up simplifying things. And, that’s particularly important as we begin exploring a new topic. I started this series with this image.

And, over the past weeks, we’ve explored each of these pieces. We began with aspects of great products.

  1. Nail job to be done
  2. Well designed
  3. Sticky

Then, we looked at great product strategy.

  1. Growth – i.e. bringing new users
  2. Onboarding – i.e. converting them to power users
  3. Retention – i.e. making them stay (with a note about the dark side of engagement)

For each of these, we explored 1-3 key questions that should help drive our thinking.

So, today, I wanted to bring this all back in an overview image of sorts. There’s a strong parallel between the core aspects of great products and great product strategy. That is by design of course – they exist together and feed into each other. So, when we look at them together, we arrive at the following 3 core principles –

  1. Find a niche segment of users with a problem and focus on solving it. (Nailing job-to-be-done and growth)
  2. Use the onboarding period to convert new users to power users. (Delight to use and Onboarding)
  3. Continuously improve ability to surface and drive value. (Stickiness and retention)

We have many exciting topics to explore as we dig into the nuance. But, these will likely serve as the building blocks through our journey.

For the next few posts, we will take a break from products and product strategy and move to discussing my hypothesis for the building blocks of great product management and product leadership.


Waiting for the IRS

The Internal Revenue Service or IRS has the sort of fearsome, even legendary reputation, that good tax agencies have. A good proxy for this is the number of scammers who pretend to be the IRS. I get a call from at least 1-3 scammers every week – some human, some automated voices – who tell me I’ve committed serious tax fraud. They seem to get past do not call lists or any attempts to block them. Some of these are downright amusing as they involve Indian accented guys calling as “Officer Smith.”

But, I digress.

I took the first such scam call seriously until I realized something was wrong. A bit of follow up google searching told me that the IRS will always send you a note by physical mail and won’t just call you and threaten arrest.

So, you can imagine the trepidation when a friend of mine received an actual physical letter from the IRS saying there were inconsistencies in her tax return and that she owed them money. They said they would get back to her in a few weeks on the exact amount. This friend happens to be a former CPA who does her own taxes. So, she paid a tax pro to audit her financials and began working through her taxes over the past few years. She wasn’t sure what she had done wrong but this all sounded serious.

A few weeks turned into a couple of months. And, this issue continued to niggle with occasional worry and anxiety.

They finally got back to her this week. The outstanding amount of 26 dollars.

We had a good laugh.

There’s a life lesson about focusing on things we control in here somewhere.

Lazy nations and indolent national cultures

Having toured lots of factories in a developing country, an Australian management consultant told the government officials who had invited him: ‘My impression as to your cheap labour was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so; to see your men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied easy-going race who reckon time is no object. When I spoke to some managers they informed me that it was impossible to change the habits of national heritage.’ 

This Australian consultant was understandably worried that then workers of the country he was visiting did not have the right work ethic. In fact, he was being quite polite. He could have been blunt and just called them lazy. No wonder the country was poor—not dirt poor, but with an income level that was less than a quarter of Australia’s. For their part, the country’s managers agreed with the Australian, but were smart enough to understand that the ‘habits of the national heritage’, or culture, cannot be changed easily, if at all. As the 19th-century German economist-cum sociologist Max Weber opined in his seminal work, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, there are some cultures, like Protestantism, that are simply better suited to economic development than others.

In a book written by an American missionary who’d lived in this country for 25 years, he observed that the people ‘give an impression . . . of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the passage of time.’

The country the Australian consultant and American missionary were talking about is Japan in the early 1900s. Irony abounds, doesn’t it? :-)

Similarly, in the 1800s, books from the British and the French frequently described Germans to be dull, “indolent” and incapable of the kind of cooperation required for enterprise. (H.T. The Bad Samaritans by Ha Joon Chang for these examples)

There are many powerful lessons in these anecdotes – two of which stand out to me. First, when we are exposed to cultural stereotypes, we often take them as truth that has been passed on to us over the centuries. In truth, however, stereotypes are a recent phenomenon. Most nations didn’t exist in their current form just 200 or so years ago. And, their people didn’t behave the way we think they’ve always behaved. This is a great lesson in being wary about stereotypes.

And, second, cultures are more malleable than we think. That two of the most productive and hard working nations on the planet were labelled lazy not very long ago in our human history should give anyone striving to make change in their organizations and communities heart.

And, just think, if cultures with millions of people across generations are so malleable over the course of roughly one human’s lifespan, what does this say about our ability to change ourselves?

Breaking email and interconnected systems

I broke my rohan at rohanrajiv dot com email over the weekend. I tried making a change around email forwarding on wordpress’ admin panel and that overrode the Google Apps set up that I use. A couple of interesting lessons as I reflect on this –

1. Our gut is often ahead of our brain in spotting issues. Something felt wrong with my email account. I felt it because it is unusual to go 2 straight days without receiving a single email from someone in the ALearningaDay community. Second, I expected some reactions to the post on “Calm” as it is the type of thing I normally get reflections and lessons learnings about from many of you on similar journeys. So, again, I felt something was wrong but did nothing.

Finally, thanks to Philippe Alexis, who tracked me down on LinkedIn to tell me that emails were bouncing. And, no surprise, he shared his reflections on the Calm post along with the heads up. :) Thanks so much, Philippe.

2. Making changes on interconnected systems takes work. This is a nice example of what happens when you change something with interconnected systems without testing it. This is such a simple system – with 2 variables. And, yet, changing one variable affected the other.

The lesson here is around the challenges of driving change in large organizations with many interconnected systems. I’ve been working for a relatively large organization for a year now and I’ve found some of my assumptions around speed to be challenged. Many assume that large companies are slower than small companies due to organizational politics and less driven people. The former is generally, but not always, true (more people) while the latter is definitely not a given.

They generally overlook the fact that the most important driver of slower pace, in my opinion, is due to interconnected systems. When you make a change in a system with 15 other interconnected systems, you need to ensure all of the rest continue to work after you make the change. That takes time. As a result, you can easily build a risk averse culture if you get penalized for breaking things.

That’s also why “move fast, break things” is an intriguing motto. It flies in the face of how large interconnected systems work. But, it is clearly the kind of motto you need to emphasize speed over caution.

The 18 degree swim

A few years ago, I swam when the temperature outside was 18 degrees Celsius / 64 degree Fahrenheit. For someone who’d spent most of my life in temperatures above 30 degrees C / 86 degree F, this was a huge deal. The water in warm places is nice and warm.

I’ve been living in cooler temperatures since and I generally need to summon a good bit of resolve to dive in to cooler waters.

Here’s the funny thing – just before I jump into water that feels cool, I tell myself – “I swam when it was 18 degrees once. I’ll be fine.”

While I’m not sure I would consciously wish adversity or extreme experiences on anyone, this experience is a reminder that surviving extreme experiences (even less extreme ones like swimming in slightly cooler water :)) comes to define us in ways we can’t imagine when we’re going through them.

So, if you’re going through a tough experience right now, take heart. You’ll likely stretch your abilities to persevere while you’re at it. And, once you’re done, you’ll realize that your new found strength to persevere will actually make many other experiences in life easier to handle.

Lessons learnt from buying the Quartz book

The excellent Quartz newsletter turned 5 years old a few days ago. As part of their 5 year anniversary celebration, they announced they’re selling a book – “The Objects that Power the Global Economy.” They described it as a book that is “equal parts art and journalism.”

I bought it immediately. I didn’t bother reading the rest of the page with more details about the book.

I read the Quartz newsletter every Monday-Saturday and have been doing so for 2 years. It is my go to for news and it always delivers great content while also being easy to read. Buying the book was just a natural next step.

I took away two lessons from watching myself take action on this book.

First, our reputation often precedes us. Quartz has a stellar reputation in my world. And, I expect the book to be no different. This expectation comes without having read a single page.

Second, there are many ways to build a great reputation. But, one of the most reliable ways is to show up every day and do good work.


Calm, as a quality, is one I’ve been attracted to for the longest time. We tend to be attracted to qualities we don’t possess ourselves. And, calm is no exception in my case.

Looking back at the past 3 years, however, I’ve observed growth in my ability to be calm. Even if I have a long way to go before it shows up in every aspects of my life, I found myself reflecting on what drove this growth.

I think learning of any kind typically comes from 3 sources – from reflecting on your own experiences, from books / synthesized information that you read and from people you meet. And, I think this growth in my ability to summon calm has come from each of these three. But, I think there have been 2 important drivers that have reinforced each other.

The first is confidence. Confidence has been an important overarching theme over the years on this blog. I started writing here because I believed I was becoming too insecure for my own good. My hypothesis was that writing everyday and sharing my failures would help me put things in perspective. And, it undoubtedly did. Confidence, I’ve come to realize, is about consistently acting from wholeness and not from our wounds. Practicing it requires acceptance of your insecurities, self awareness and thoughtfulness. It doesn’t come easy. In my case, for example, I needed to disengage from a relationship that seemed to only serve one function – reminding me of my insecurities.

The second driver is perspective. If confidence is about consistently acting from wholeness, perspective makes it easier for us to get in touch with that wholeness. I’d attribute most of the perspective I’ve acquired in the past 3 years as a compound effect of writing every day for nearly a decade. I’ve written through challenging times and good times over the years. And, I’ve finally begun to understand that “you never know if a good day is a good day.” Things have a way of working out, or not. Trying to second guess how life will turn out is a waste of our time. We’re better off plugging away.

I’ve shared a note from Seth’s “The Icarus Deception” in the past.

“One of the things the professional artist gives up is the thrill of the manic high. I used to be manic, about twenty years ago, when there was a sliver of something working. Things were really brutal at work, with rejections and near-business-death experiences coming daily, and I grabbed hold of any positive feedback really tightly.

Now, I’m delighted to say. not so much. Which means the highs aren’t as high. The successes are about the privilege of doing more work, not about winning. When my Kickstarter project for this book met its funding goal in less than three hours. I didn’t do the line-kicking dance reserved for TV celebrations. Instead. I took out my laptop and got to work. That is the greatest privilege I can imagine.”

I vividly remember reading this note on a flight 5 years ago and wondering – “Wow, what must that feel like?”

I have a better idea now. I’ve not read too much stoic philosophy but have read enough to understand that this is what it is about. And, from my limited experience of this in the recent past, I can attest to the fact that it feels great.

We spend most of our lives in the process of doing stuff. Success is when we enjoy that process. Wins and losses just exist tell us if our process is right. They are signal – nothing more, nothing less. Confidence involves being our best self and acting from wholeness whether we’re on an up or a down. It comes from understanding that even this will pass. Perspective involves reminding ourselves that we never know if a good day is a good day. The combination of the two helps us keep a level head, roll up our sleeves and get back to work on building a life we consider worth living.

There is really no greater privilege than that.