The 3 hour power outage and 5 reflections

We had a 3 hour power outage in the middle of the night yesterday. It spurred a few reflections. Here are my top 5 –

1) Our first instinct when the power went out was to figure out if it was an issue only in our home. A quick check confirmed our whole neighborhood was affected. The next instinct was to get on Google/check our power authority’s website which, in turn, pointed us to their Twitter feed. Within minutes, the Twitter feed came alive with official updates and reports from folks who saw sparks outside their home (caused by falling branches). It was a wonderful example of what Twitter the product does a great job facilitating.

2) Our sleep was very disturbed for the next 3 hours. And, its effects showed through the day. I’ve written plenty about the effect sleep has on optimism and positivity. And, today was definitely one of those days I held on longer to any negative inputs.

3) As I tossed and turned, I recollected fond memories of frequent middle-of-the-night power outages during a summer two decades back. During these outages, many of our neighbors used to get out onto the road and onto their terraces/rooftops. As sleeping in the sweltering Chennai heat was impossible, this transformed an uncomfortable situation into a fun, communal, gathering.

4) That in turn reminded me of a crazy fact – I can’t remember the last time I experienced a 3 hour power outage. It has definitely been more than a decade. A sign of accumulated privilege I take for granted.

5) In the midst of the outage, we wondered if it’d last long enough to mess with our workday and/or spoil the food in the fridge. It reminded me again of the invisible nature of accumulated privilege (this note made me ponder that some more) – I take so much for granted on a daily basis.

There is so much to be grateful for.

Richard Feynman on the process of looking for a new law

“Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it.

Then, we compute– well, don’t laugh, that’s really true. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law that we guessed is right, we see what it would imply. And then we compare those computation results to nature. Or we say, compare to experiment or experience. Compare it directly with observation, to see if it works.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. And that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.” | Richard Feynman

Such a simple and beautiful articulation of the scientific method.

It has lots of powerful parallels to building and designing technology products.

Strong character and the painful failure

Character is the set of mental and moral characters that are unique to a person. And, it shows up as a composite of our daily habits and behaviors.

Every once a while, we have the pleasure of meeting folks with a strong character – the sort that seems to revel in adversity and never lose sight of the importance of doing the right thing.

And, one of the things I’ve learnt about folks with strong characters – nine times out of ten, they experienced a painful failure or loss that made them who they are.

This painful failure or loss isn’t unique to these folks – most people on the planet experience them.

Instead, these folks are unique in their determination to grow from these experience. They use the heat and fire to forge themselves and get made.

So, the next time you encounter someone with unusually strong character and mental strength, just ask them to tell you their story. Look out for a story about a defining failure or loss.

It’ll be a good one.

Worrying about shots not taken

Asked about whether taking shots in clutch/last minute situations ever worried him, Michael Jordan responded – “Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken?” 

It is a question I intend to ask myself more often.

After all, worrying about things that haven’t happened is a guaranteed way to lose twice.

All we control is what we do in the here and now. Best to pay attention to that.

Vanmoof and bike boxes

In 2016, ~25% of the packages from Dutch e-bike company Vanmoof arrived damaged. These numbers were particularly high in shipments to the US. And, despite trying multiple shipping partners, the results weren’t any different.

That was until their cofounder realized that their boxes were the size of flat screen televisions – and those never arrived damaged because of how carefully they were handled.

Ergo their new packaging -> they placed their bike in a flatscreen television image on the box.

Shipping damage dropped ~80%.

Small creative changes can have disproportionate impact.

Lack of clarity at the end of a day

It is natural to feel stuck/sense a lack of clarity at the end of a day when things didn’t go our way.

On such days, it is tempting to attempt to push through and make some progress.

But, the right response is to generally stop what we’re doing and get some sleep.

The combination of rest, renewed optimism, and fresh perspective have a way of making the puzzles that troubled us the previous day feel much more tractable and approachable.

The Frozen pizza explainer

We recently bought some frozen pizza from Costco. As we didn’t grow up in the US, we had no idea that frozen pizza was a 5 billion dollar industry (!).

And, we subsequently got curious as to how frozen pizza is made.

After watching the above video, we realized that it could be surprising/amazing/shocking/totally expected (/insert other emotion) depending on your point of view.

If you’re one of those who believes industrial kitchens operated by robots is the future of food, you’ll likely love what you see.

For the uninitiated (like us), it is fascinating insight into how frozen food is made.

PS: Very grateful for explainer videos like this one – we’re going to be exploring these kinds of videos a lot more in the coming months.

Five frameworks/heuristics for higher quality decision making

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 –

A product manager brings a team of cross functional stakeholders together to build products that are valuable, usable, and feasible.

In past notes, we’ve spent time on the 4 core skills that help us achieve these outcomes – problem finding (the most important), sellingproblem solving, and building effective teams.

Our abilities in each of these 4 skills shows up in the quality of decision making we enable in our teams and organizations. And, that decision making quality is at the heart of the value we bring.

Typically, high quality decision making shows up in two important ways –

1) A track record of products that users/customers find valuable (and maybe even love)

2) A consistent ability to build high performing product teams that are happy and motivated (and maybe even inspired)

In sum, a simple way to think about our value as a product manager to our organization is to ask – what is the quality of the decision making I help facilitate?

The word “facilitate” is an important one because it isn’t just about the decisions we make. A big part of the job is facilitating high quality decision making within our cross-functional teams and in our organizations more broadly. That can only happen if we’re able to consistently bring clarity to the problems we attempt to solve. And, today’s post is going to be about decision making clarity.

Decisions – Existential and Reversible.

Jeff Bezos once shared that he approaches decisions based on how they show up across 2 axes –

    1. How existential/important is it?
    2. How reversible is it?

Using this framework, here’s how IC PMs typically fit in..

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It is rare (maybe even disfunctional) for an IC PM in any organization to make decisions that threaten the existence of the company. That is what the C-Suite were hired to do. In the rare cases where we’re involved in reversible but existential bets, our role typically lies in helping craft the strategy and the reason for the bet.

Existential decisions aside, we do often make decisions that are hard to reverse – typically as a result of the effect our decisions have on product or technical architecture. Aside from ensuring we’re giving difficult-to-reverse decisions due consideration, our role is often to identify them and provide clarity on the trade-offs to the relevant executives who can then make the right decision with appropriate context.

That leaves us with decisions that are neither existential nor irreversible. While that sounds innocuous, the truth is that these decisions make or break the product. Even if each of these decisions may be small in impact, these are large in volume and have compound effects on the quality of the product.

Here, I’d argue that the single most important ingredient to getting to high quality decisions is a combination of high speed decision making combined with reflection.

And, a key enabler of high speed decision making is a set of frameworks/heuristics that help us both clarify our thought process and help us communicate/facilitate appropriate action. Here are five decision making heuristics I have found most useful.

(1) Start every meeting and every discussion about building product with the Fundamentals (Problem Statement -> Success Metrics)

That I am starting here should come as a surprise to no one who has been reading these notes. Everything begins with the problem statement. Clarifying the problem statement, hypotheses, and success metrics at the start of every meeting, strategy doc, and spec alone will step change the quality of our products and discussions.

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I was reminded of this recently when I nearly derailed a meeting by making assumptions about what we were solving and took us down the wrong path. Luckily, a couple of others reminded me to go back to the problem we were solving. And, before we knew it, we were moving quickly toward a far better solution.

The power of the fundamentals is that they help us cut through the noise to focus on solving problems and driving outcomes for our users/customers.

(2) When faced with a strategy question, map the trade-offs into a 2×2 chart

A 2×2 chart is a simple chart with two important decision criteria in the X and Y axes. Just as we looked the existential vs. reversible decisions in a 2×2 above, there are many classic 2x2s – e.g. urgency vs. impact, breadth vs. depth, metrics vs. mission, scale vs. type of problem, etc.

2x2s can also be extra versatile by enabling you to capture up to 4 criteria when you add in the size and color of the bubbles (example below). You can also extend this optionally to 3x2s depending on the nature of the problem being discussed.

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We often need to make facilitate discussions on key strategic decisions that involve trade-offs. Every time we attempt to have a conversation about trade-offs, we’ll likely be able to have a higher quality conversation if we mapped the trade-offs into a 2×2.

(3) Let every discussion on roadmap priorities be grounded by the funnel/equation

No matter what product you work on, there likely is a funnel or equation that maps what you drive to outcomes that matters. Here are 2 simple examples:

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Mapping this funnel/equation or its equivalent helps us have 2 kinds of conversations –

    1. Where is the bottleneck?: There’s always one bottleneck that can help deliver a 10x improvement versus others where the potential may just be incremental. Understanding this helps us focus.
    2. Where can we simplify?/what can we clarify?: For consumer products, simplicity and clarity result in better outcomes. Internalizing our funnels helps us create products with intuitive defaults, fewer steps/unhelpful choices, and clearer copy.

(4) Become more effective at collaborating by accelerating the process “Know -> Understand -> Trust or mistrust”

In most organizations, trust is the single biggest determinant of a team’s speed. The trust between the executives involved determine how quickly organization level misalignments are resolved. Then, the trust between and within the working teams determine how quickly all the small/daily issues are resolved.

While there’s little we might be able to control in terms of executive relationships, we have plenty of daily influence on the relationship between and within the working teams.

So, what is trust and how do we get more of it?: The best definition I’ve come across for trust is – “trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.”

We are trusted by others when they choose to make themselves vulnerable to our actions. In teams we are part of, this happens when our teammates share sensitive information, express thoughts and emotions that matter to them, and/or leave decisions in our hands. And, we earn or lose this trust by virtue of how carefully or carelessly we deal with what they’ve placed in our care.

While there’s no replacement to being worthy of this trust in the long term, there is one way to speed up the process of building trust. Invest in getting to know the folks you work with closely.

Once we know someone, it becomes easier to understand them based on their actions. As we have some context as to what makes them tick, it becomes easier to understand why they do what they do and how they make decisions.

And, assuming their approach is aligned with how we approach key decisions, we arrive at trust… or, if not, mistrust (let’s face it – it doesn’t always work out). Either way, the faster we get to understanding the nature of the relationship, the better we can operate.

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And, we can get there by spending 30′ at the start of a project to do an introduction with everyone we will work with. Here are 3 questions I ask (as an example) –

    • I’d love to get to know your story. Where were you born and what happened between then and this conversation? :-)
    • What do you like to do in your free time?
    • What is the dream?

As simple as this introduction process sounds, I can’t begin to explain the number of times I’ve run into trouble because I’ve skipped it – consciously or unconsciously – in the interest of moving quickly.

(5) Visualize the Peer NPS question and ask the two leading indicator questions to become a collaborator who is worthy of trust

As we work on building products, we often work with peers – fellow Product Managers on other teams and cross-functional partners. One of the questions I visualize asking these peers at the end of the project is the NPS questions – “How likely is it that you would recommend working with me to your peers?”

It becomes evident at the end of a project if we’ve left it with folks who are detractors, neutral, or promoters. The more the promoters, the better our reputation. The better our reputation, the easier it is for us to be effective in future projects because other collaborators start by assuming trust and good intent.

But, while asking the question at the end of the quarter is useful, it is more useful to look for leading indicators while we’re in the midst of execution. Outside of making good decisions as a product manager, there are 2 questions that tend to be good leading indicators of our ability to be good collaborators –

    1. Am I persuading my peers based on the merits of the argument? (vs. “I have decision making authority here” or “Executive X wants it done this way”)
    2. Am I going up my peer’s chain of command in my attempts to make progress and doing so without her/his knowledge or presence?

Checking in often on these two questions help us do two things at once. First, they help prevent honest mistakes. And, second, they help us operate in a way that makes us worthy of trust… and respect.

COVID-19 and the global leadership test

One of the fascinating things about the COVID-19 crisis is that it has been a global leadership test.

It involved humans – with all our idiosyncracies – needing to come to terms with an invisible enemy that we learnt was capable of rapid spreading and devastation.

Faced with this, in the so called “developed” world, we saw three kinds of leaders emerge.

The first kind chose to quickly come to terms with reality. In doing so, they listened to their leading scientists and medical professionals and immediately enforced mandatory shut downs. They then set up their local leadership to enforce contact tracing and face masks while setting expectations that the economy would only reopen when cases went down.

They chose to tell their people the hard truth upfront and take actions that were painful in the short term. And, when the reopening after the first wave happened, it went relatively smooth.

As a lot of the early commentary around nations like South Korea touted their experience with SARS to be the major factor, I thought I’d pick Germany and Italy in category 1. Italy was hit first, had a brutal first few weeks, and had to learn quickly. But, learn they did.

Germany were a touch more prepared. But, let’s take nothing away from the masterclass in fact based leadership that Angela Merkel delivered.

The second category decided the scientific approach was too conservative. They believed governments needed to weigh the trade-offs of public health and the economy and decided to experiment with unconventional approaches. The UK initially thought they’d try to get to herd immunity while Sweden refused to enforce a lock down.

The test results have now confirmed that these experiments were expensive/dismal – depending on your point of view. Per million people, Sweden has suffered 5-10x more deaths than its neighbors with just as much economic damage.

I expect these leaders to see the wisdom in the German approach and just adopt the Merkel playbook in the coming weeks.

The third category is a special category defined by the United States. The approach here was – ignore the facts, focus all decision making on short term wins that will maximize chances of winning the election in November, present a wildly positive/self congratulatory outlook, and pretend the problem will go away.

This approach started off looking rather promising thanks to the decentralized structure of the government and the fact that the early crises were in States with governors who tried to replicate the Merkel playbook. But, it was always only going to be a matter of time before the full impact of a leader who has thus far refused to take responsibility (this timeline ends in May) was realized.

So, just as deaths from the first wave looked like they’d be headed down, we began to see a resurgence coming from states that had decided to work with the “pretend it will go away” playbook.

The consequence is a chart of new cases that looks like this.

And, while a combination of heroic efforts from the healthcare system combined with demographics (older populations = higher death rate) have kept the US death rate relatively low, we’re still talking about 4.2 deaths out of every 100 people infected.

Sadly, though, I expect the positive news to end there. As deaths are a lagging indicator and as we’re far from flattened curves in states like Florida, I expect the death rate to go up in the coming weeks along with a devastating increase in the total number of deaths. As is the case with these predictions, I really hope I’m wrong.

To bring all this home, here’s a simple stat about new cases that stuck with me. It took 99 days for the first million cases in the US, 43 for the second million, and 28 for the third million.

I have many reflections from spending time with this data. But, as this post has already run long, I thought I’d share my top three.

First, if it isn’t evident yet, for those of us living in the US – we are living in the most dangerous place in the developed world and among the more dangerous places on the planet. I hope you’re mentally preparing yourself for a rough 12-18 month ride. I have begun doing so.

Second, science/facts/truths don’t care if we believe in them. They are what they are. Relatively to the climate crisis, this pandemic is actually a much more tractable problem. To see us stumble the way we have is scary. I am hopeful we will learn a few lessons when all of this over – at least in the type of leadership we elect.

Third, leadership matters. And, needless to say, elections have consequences.