Premium Subscription Gifts – 2020 Edition

I work at LinkedIn. Our vision is to provide economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. One of our initiatives is called the #plusonepledge where every member of the LinkedIn team helps someone in their network with finding economic opportunity – finding a new job, a new contract, a new client, and so on.

As part of this initiative, I am able to gift 6 months of free LinkedIn Premium Careers subscription to 4 folks who are actively seeking a new opportunity. For example, LinkedIn Premium could be helpful if you’d like the ability to get in touch (selectively :)) with recruiters and hiring managers of jobs you believe you are a fit for.

After posting this last year, I received ~30 requests and ended up requesting (and receiving) help from a bunch of wonderful colleagues. I intend to do the same this year and will do my best to share these subscriptions with as many of you as possible – on a first come, first serve basis.

My only request is that you fill this form by Fri, 2/28. I’ll aim to get back to you by mid-March.

Job seeking is a tough process and, if you choose to use one of these subscriptions, I hope it’ll help you in some small way. If it doesn’t, I’d appreciate feedback on what we could have done better too.

Being lost and the path

“What if being lost is part of the path? What if we are supposed to tack across the surface of the lake, sailing into the wind instead of wishing it was only at our backs? What if feeling lost, directionless, and uncertain of the progress is an indicator of growth? What if it means you’re exactly where you need to be, on the pathless path?” | Jerry Colonna in Reboot

Being lost is part of the path. The challenge and uncertainty are its markers.

And, the obstacle is the way.

What is strategy and how do I build product strategy?

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a monthly series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

A quick overview of what we’ve covered on “Notes on Product Management” so far –

What is strategy?

The best definition for strategy that I’ve come across is that good strategy answers 2 questions –

    1. Where should we play?
    2. How will we win?

The “where should we play” question defines our target customer/segment/market and the “how will we win” question tackles how we will differentiate ourselves from our competition.

A clear and well articulated strategy makes it possible to do fewer things better by helping everyone on the team separate signal from noise and easily articulate the trade-offs involved. So, if you’re hearing about or feeling a lack of focus or alignment within your product team, it is likely because of the lack of a coherent strategy.

That said, a well articulated strategy is still just the first step. A well executed strategy is the next step. When a strategy is well executed, it becomes easy for the team to reflect that understanding in their prioritization – i.e. the team can go from understanding the trade-offs to living those trade-offs. A well executed strategy requires the leadership team to align incentives (success metrics, pay, recognition) in a way that makes it easy for folks on the team to make the strategy come alive.

A simple test of this is to ask members of the team a) what they are focusing on and b) what they are not focusing on and why. If you have coherent answers on both, you are witnessing an exceptional example of executing on a strategy.

An example

When Bob Iger took over the CEO of Disney, his strategic vision focused on 3 pillars –

1. Generate the best creative content possible

2. Foster innovation and utilizing the latest technology

3. Expand into new markets around the world

If your first observation is that this isn’t rocket science, you wouldn’t be wrong. That may just be the first takeaway as you’re thinking about strategy – it is easy to articulate a simple strategy. And, it also turns that good strategy is often simple.

Disney, at the time, had a flailing animation division and had fallen behind Pixar (with whom they had a failing partnership) in generating great creative content. They also didn’t have any technological edge to speak of. As a result, the acquisition of Pixar became a relative no brainer – in hindsight at least. Iger and team continued to acquire multiple creative studios with incredible IP – Marvel and Lucasfilm are great examples of this – to continue doubling down on the “best creative content” pillar.

Fast forward to the launch of Disney+ last year and you can see how this strategy came together. Disney+ was made possible by acquisitions above that gave Disney the library of creative content to become a formidable global streaming player right from the get go.

And, the Disney+ launch is also important because it offers a telling story about the difference between a clear strategy and a well executed one. In the year leading up to the creation of Disney+, Bob Iger needed every one of his executives to support this new bet. However, and this is the predicament most leaders of complex businesses face, it is impossible to change behavior when they’re already compensated on how well they manage their existing (successful) businesses.

So, Iger requested approval from the board to move all his executives’ performance based compensation from metrics based on the success of their existing businesses to an evaluation by him on how well they were supporting the Disney+ launch.

That was a master stroke and a demonstration of the art of incentive management by the Obi-Wan Kenobi of CEOs.

So, how does all this apply to me as an Individual Contributor PM?

Your product team could do with a strategy. If you have a clearly defined strategy defined for your organization by your product leader that you are already executing toward, that’s great.

But, if you don’t or if that strategy isn’t yet directly translatable to your team, read on.

Let’s start with the obvious – ideally, every organization has a clear strategy. That strategy, in turn, would enable every product team unit to focus on doing things that ultimately move the needle and win.

But, it doesn’t always work out that way. That isn’t always down to leadership incompetence (though, sometimes, it is). The more complex and large the business, the harder it is for leaders to make statements about focus without risking de-motivation of the areas of the business that aren’t the focus areas at the moment.

So, if you are faced with situations where you are unclear about the strategy, there are 2 things you can do – 1) Ask the leaders (this is the obvious first step) and/or 2) Look at the metrics that matter.

The metrics used to measure success are the simplest manifestation of the strategy. Even when a strategy isn’t articulated clearly, understanding which metrics are emphasized over others helps understand what matters to leadership.

Assuming you have clarity on the organization’s strategy, it is now time to write your own strategy doc.

So, how do I write that strategy doc?

Here is a structure I’ve found useful.

I. Outcomes:

User/Customer Problem: Attempt to synthesize the top user problem you are seeking to solve. And, if you are representing a multi-sided marketplace, lay out the top problem for both sides of the marketplace. Stick to one overarching problem to avoid a laundry list – the purpose of this exercise is to bring focus.

Outcomes you are seeking to drive: Lay out the top 2 “true north” metrics you choose to drive along with a guardrail metric or two. 2 things to keep in mind when choosing these metrics –

1. The true north metrics would ideally be the metrics that matter to your organization. If you have no way of moving those metrics, add “Signposts” that you can move and that you believe will eventually move the true north.

2. Be thoughtful about guardrails/negative metrics and companion metrics. A negative metric if your strategy involves sending customers more email would be unsubscribe rate. Once you’ve got negative metrics sorted, take care to ensure you have companion metrics. Great metrics often work in pairs – e.g. depth and breadth metrics (Weekly active users and time spent per login), revenue and RoI.

If the outcome section reminds you of the problem statement, that’s exactly what it is. Product managers are problem managers.

II. Strategy: Let’s go back to the two questions we laid out when we started – “where do we play?” and “how will we win?” Outside of cases when IC PMs are hired to work on a venture bet, the answer to the “where do we play” question should generally be part of the organization’s strategy. This answer defines the audience whose problems you solve as part of your roadmap.

Our focus, then, is figuring out how to win. And, we do that by taking a stand on where we will focus our team’s energy. It is helpful to articulate these focuses in the form of 1-3 themes or pillars that all contribute to the desired end outcome. These themes work well when they connect to a journey – e.g. acquire -> retain -> monetize – or similar. They can also work well when they clearly ladder up to solve the top user problems you’ve set out to solve.

When done well, the strategy helps everyone understand exactly what we are doing and not doing. So, if you find yourself attempting to organize a catch all list of everything without needing to make hard, sometimes painful, trade-offs, that is not a strategy. That is just a list.

A great way to bring this section to life is to illustrate the user/customer experience 12 or 18 months later after successfully executing on your strategy. Doing so can help folks on the team clearly visualize what success looks like.

An important note – a collection of product principles is not a strategy: It is easy to confuse a strategy with a collection of product principles. Your strategy helps you create a focused plan to ensure you are the go-to solution for the problems of the audience you choose to serve. Product principles, on the other hand, are the values of a product. Product principles are best agreed upon at the level of the entire organization and are analogous to the values of a company. You rarely change them and they represent the choices you make without considering the trade-offs involved. You commit to them because you believe they are the right thing to do.

III. Roadmap: The next step is to lay out what this means in terms of feature ideas. The goal here isn’t to have product specs ready – not yet at least. Instead, the goal should be to get a low definition set of ideas that both feel right and have the team excited. (We’ll aim to cover roadmaps in detail in the next post)

Write all this out in a 1 page document. If you’re not able to synthesize your strategy in a page (with 0.5 inch margins :-)), then you don’t have a clear strategy.

The final test of a clear strategy is that it will make it easy for every member of the team to differentiate between ideas that matter and ideas that don’t. And, if that’s happening, we’re through with the first step.

How, then, do we move to the more important step – moving from well articulated strategy to well executed strategy if we don’t control the incentives of the product team?

By winning the team’s hearts and minds.

This, in turn, happens when we involve folks on our team early and often. Get started with the door wide open (i.e. ask everyone for opinions and ideas), then write your first draft with the door closed, and edit and revise with the door wide open again.

The more the team is (and feels) involved, the more likely it is to be successful.

Therein lies the magic of the strategy creation process. When it is done well, it helps get the entire team aligned and rowing in the same direction. That in turn magically resolves disagreements that might otherwise have showed up in future product specs and prioritization discussions.

If we’re then able to celebrate instances when team members execute in ways that support the strategy, we make it all the more likely that the strategic process we followed has ensured these ideas have now moved from theory to practice.

Do this often enough and the odds are good that we’ll end up building a track record that includes a run of valuable and successful products.

A career and life sidebar: The test of a good strategy within the product team applies just as well to our life and career. If we’re able to consistently articulate what we focused on alongside what we are not focused on, we’re making great progress toward being effective.

And, if we’ve picked focus areas consistent to who we are and who we want to be while being comfortable with the trade-offs we are making as a result of those choices, we’re on the path toward the only kind of success that can leave us feeling fulfilled – the kind that we intentionally chose for ourselves.

On depression and anxiety by Johann Hari

Someone shared this TED talk on depression and anxiety by Johann Hari a few weeks ago.

I finally got to reading the transcript yesterday (I prefer reading transcripts to watching TED videos for some reason) and I thought his content was the kind that was both common sense and insightful.

There’s a lovely anecdote about a cow that explains his thesis.

There was a farmer in their community who worked in the rice fields. And one day, he stood on a land mine left over from the war with the United States, and he got his leg blown off. So they him an artificial leg, and after a while, he went back to work in the rice fields.

But apparently, it’s super painful to work under water when you’ve got an artificial limb, and I’m guessing it was pretty traumatic to go back and work in the field where he got blown up. The guy started to cry all day, he refused to get out of bed, he developed all the symptoms of classic depression. The Cambodian doctor said, “This is when we gave him an antidepressant.”

And Dr. Summerfield said, “What was it?” They explained that they went and sat with him. They listened to him. They realized that his pain made sense — it was hard for him to see it in the throes of his depression, but actually, it had perfectly understandable causes in his life. One of the doctors, talking to the people in the community, figured, “You know, if we bought this guy a cow, he could become a dairy farmer, he wouldn’t be in this position that was screwing him up so much, he wouldn’t have to go and work in the rice fields.”

So they bought him a cow.

Within a couple of weeks, his crying stopped, within a month, his depression was gone. They said to doctor Summerfield, “So you see, doctor, that cow, that was an antidepressant, that’s what you mean, right?”

If you’d been raised to think about depression the way I was, and most of the people here were, that sounds like a bad joke, right? “I went to my doctor for an antidepressant, she gave me a cow.” But what those Cambodian doctors knew intuitively, based on this individual, unscientific anecdote, is what the leading medical body in the world, the World Health Organization, has been trying to tell us for years, based on the best scientific evidence.

If you’re depressed, if you’re anxious, you’re not weak, you’re not crazy, you’re not, in the main, a machine with broken parts. You’re a human being with unmet needs. And it’s just as important to think here about what those Cambodian doctors and the World Health Organization are not saying. They did not say to this farmer, “Hey, buddy, you need to pull yourself together. It’s your job to figure out and fix this problem on your own.” On the contrary, what they said is, “We’re here as a group to pull together with you, so together, we can figure out and fix this problem.” This is what every depressed person needs, and it’s what every depressed person deserves.

He then goes on to discuss two key causes of depression and the solutions that emerge from them. They were loneliness and consumerism.

The solutions that emerge are investing time to find a group that exists for a purpose that is bigger than ourselves and figure out how we can find ways to focus more on things that enable us to move toward love, meaning, and connection.

Most importantly, he explains that depression and anxiety are signals. Their presence tells us something.

And, in his words – “We need to start listening to these signals, because they’re telling us something we really need to hear. It’s only when we truly listen to these signals, and we honor these signals and respect these signals, that we’re going to begin to see the liberating, nourishing, deeper solutions. The cows that are waiting all around us.”

Opportunities as parking spots

A friend recently shared how he thinks about interesting job opportunities similar to how he thinks about finding a parking spot.

As it is easy to get suckered into a zero-sum mindset, he chooses to view every interesting job opportunity that didn’t work out at this time as a parking spot that just got occupied.

There’s no good obsessing about spots that are taken. It just means it is time to drive around a bit more and find a new spot.

Who knows – it might even be better than the one we considered previously.

The analogy resonated.

But I had good intentions

“But I had good intentions” only counts for the first misstep.

If our good intentions don’t translate to good outcomes the second time, it is time to ignore said intentions and, instead, focus on the outcomes we want to drive.

Then, work backwards to the learning, actions, and intentions that will make those outcomes possible.

Effective responses to product feedback

Effective responses to good product feedback from stakeholders that matter (key customers/power users/executives) tend to have two ingredients –

1. An acknowledgment of the pain they’re feeling. This indicates both an awareness of the problem and the willingness to take responsibility for it.

2. An ETA for a fix or an ETA for that ETA. When we add a date, we transform our words into a commitment for follow up again. In the absence of that date, all we’re left with are words.

And, as the Westerosi might say, “words are wind.” :-)

Firing the crow

“I took a few writing courses in college. The extraordinary poet Marie Ponsot would talk about the crow sitting on your shoulder saying things like: “That sucks,” ”How could you write that?” and “Are you kidding me?”

Diminutive, chain-smoking Marie would jut her tobacco-stained finger into the air, punctuating every word: Shoot. The. Damn. Crow.” | Jerry Colonna

While that analogy may be a touch too violent for some, Marie Ponsot’s advice is poignant, powerful, and on point.

There are occasions when our inner critic helps us ship better work.

But, when we find those criticisms move from the realm of constructive feedback to the kind that results in inaction, the inner critic needs to be fired.

HT: Reboot by Jerry Colonna

Getting started as soon as you know you need to write one

A practice that helps with writing better memos/documents – get started as soon as you know you need to write one with a dump of ideas or questions you have in mind. Even a line or two counts.

This act turns out to be far more effective than waiting for the doc to appear fully formed in our heads because it triggers our ability to subconsciously process ideas.

Without realizing it, we work through these questions and ideas as we sleep, relax, commute, and stare into nothingness. Each time we get back to work on the doc with a few additions, the more subconscious processing we inspire.

This, in turn, enables us to get the cycles required to transform the doc from one that tells ourselves the story (our first version) to one that communicates the story in a way our intended audience understands it.

Subconscious processing is a powerful practice in our writing toolbox.