The orphanage routine

Someone I know conducted a learning session for young kids at an orphanage. As part of the virtual session, they decided to watch a video of the rhyme – “This is the way we…”

The kids loved the video and watched with great enthusiasm.

But, our facilitator found herself cringing as the video featured kids in a “normal” family with parents.

At the end of the session, she asked the caretaker of the orphanage about how the kids responded to such examples. It turned out the caretaker hadn’t noticed. Such moments are the norm in the life of a kid in an orphanage.

As the video was about routines, she also asked the caretaker about the kids’ routine. To this, the caretaker explained that the first thing the kids did was sweep the entire place.

As we spoke about this experience, we became intensely aware of the many things we take for granted in our lives, of the massive impact the ovarian lottery has on our life experience.

Most of all, we realized that there is much more to be grateful for than we even realize.

Braintrust meetings

“All our movies suck at first. Braintrust meetings help us figure out why they suck and how to make them not suck.” | Ed Catmull (paraphrased)

I love this note from Ed Catmull. It does three things at once.

First, it speaks to the power of systems (in this case, the Braintrust meeting) that help provide a steady flow of constructive feedback.

Second, it reminds us of the power of feedback that helps us diagnose problems and thus help us fix them.

And, finally, if all of Pixar’s movies suck at first, it is likely our first attempts will suck as well. Best to just assume that to be the case and learn to welcome any and all insight that helps us ship better work.

Walgreen, Rite Aid, and CVS – the mission statement story

Walgreen’s mission statement: “To champion the health and well-being of every community in America.”

Rite Aid’s mission statement: “To improve the health and wellness of our communities through engaging experiences that provide our customers with the best products, services and advice to meet their unique needs.”

CVS’ mission statement: “To improve the lives of those we serve by making innovative and high-quality health and pharmacy services safe, affordable and easy to access.”

These are 3 of the largest pharmacy chains in the United States. Their mission statements and professed values are understandably fairly similar.

CVS, however, chose to stop selling cigarettes in 2014 to be consistent with their mission. They lost 2 Billion Dollars in the short term. Walgreens and Rite Aid, on the other hand, reluctantly increased the age limit to buy cigarettes to 21 after years of violations last year.

Values aren’t values until they cost us money.

A long PS: I intentionally decided against writing about the outcome of CVS’ decision for the business. There are many reasons to think it has paid off* – but, it is also hard to isolate the benefits from one decision.

However, studies have since found that cigarette consumption did decrease. So, it is safe to say that – regardless of the business outcome – it likely resulted in better outcomes for the communities around these stores.

Once again, values aren’t values until they cost us money.

(*More in The Long Game by Simon Sinek)

The Culture of the Product team

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a 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 valued member of our product team recently shared they’re leaving. The logic was sound – an interesting career pivot opportunity came up and the timing felt right.

While I was happy for this teammate, I was sad for me.

When you work at a large organization, goodbyes are a natural part of life. For the most part, you smile, wish the person good luck, and go your respective ways. On occasion, the goodbye is accompanied by relief (often for both folks involved :-)). And, every once a while, you find yourself experiencing a jolt of sadness when you hear the news.

Those jolts of sadness are important moments as they signal how special that relationship/person was to you. And, as I was reflecting on what made this relationship special, I realized it came down to how I think about the culture of a product team.

The culture of a product team

Culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, and behavior of a team. It shows up in the decisions a team makes on behalf of the user/customer and the organization. It also shows up in daily conversation in refrains that implicitly say – “This is how we do things here.”

Every team has a culture. This culture, by definition, is different from the culture of the company because the culture of a team is most driven by the people and processes on the team. While companies with strong cultures can have a high degree of uniformity in decision making process and the kinds of people they hire, the influence is, at best, loose at the level of an individual team. The people in the team and the leaders on it determine the culture.

No alt text provided for this image

If culture determines how decisions are made, the team’s culture becomes the team’s strategy in the long run. So, thinking intentionally about the product team’s culture is among the most powerful levers we have as an individual contributor PM or IC PM.

How can an IC PM impact the culture of the team?

Let’s start with the obvious – there is no way an IC PM can walk into a team and make a proclamation on the team’s culture. :-) This is less about talking and more about doing. And, there are 3 things we can do to help influence the culture of our product team:

(1) Figure out the top 3-4 behaviors we desire in our product team – bonus points for articulating them in a way that sticks (e.g. “It is still day 0 at Amazon”)

(2) Set the right example by embodying these behaviors – bonus points for adopting a few quirks that draw attention to these behaviors

(3) Hire and celebrate members of the team who embody these behaviors and thus become ambassadors of the culture – bonus points for telling stories about these behaviors that are retold.

No alt text provided for this image

As ideas like this are easier to digest with examples, I thought I’d share how I attempt to implement these in my day-to-day.

One IC PM’s culture-shaping process

The 3 behaviors I’ve come to desire on a product team are:

(a) High velocity data-informed experimentation: 

A product team’s velocity is its super power. 3 quirks/obsessions that drive home this behavior –

(i) Problem statements: Velocity is different from speed because velocity also includes direction. We set the direction on the team with the problem statements we articulate. No project starts without every member of the team understanding what problem we’re attempting to solve.

(ii) A focus on experiments/ramps: We spend a lot of time discussing experiments, holding ourselves accountable around ETAs, analyzing results, and celebrating iterations. Very few of these experiments actually hit gold – but, with some thoughtfulness and a focus on rapid iterations, we drastically improve our odds

(iii) Team diligence on operational metrics (email/dashboards): We do our best to create daily email reports and/or dashboards that are sent to the team. And, we use these daily email reports and/or dashboards to ask questions and understand what is going on. A simple rule – whenever there is variance (week-on-week or year-on-year), it is always worth understanding what happened.

(b) Deep cross-functional collaboration:

The two biggest drivers of deep cross-functional collaboration are psychological safety and shared/aligned context – this section focuses on the latter. 3 quirks/obsessions that drive home the point:

(i) Making peace with/welcoming large meetings: Most meaningful projects involve large cross-functional product teams.

No alt text provided for this image

I’ve learnt that there is no chance of accomplishing deep cross functional collaboration if members of the team don’t feel they’re part of the journey. And, ensuring that happens means making peace with (and even getting good at managing) large meetings.

A key lesson around meeting size is that the decision is binary. Either choose a small and efficient meeting where you prevent the meeting invite from being forwarded (and possibly annoy a few people). Or, set the topic and agenda and don’t worry about the size. It may feel less efficient at first – but, the shared context generally leads to higher long term effectiveness.

(ii) Responsiveness on email/Slack/Teams to avoid communication bottlenecks: In organizations where the Product Manager has the privilege to be the hub of the product team, responsiveness goes a long way in ensuring others have the context they need to operate effectively.

I don’t recommend taking this to extremes as it means you’ll never find the time to focus. But, if team members know to expect they’ll hear back on questions and also know how to reach you when they need to get unblocked, it helps.

(iii) Emphasis on planning and documentation: This is another behavior that is key to everyone having shared context. The better the documentation, the more independently everyone operates.

Second, as we work on a larger and more ambiguous product areas, it is likely we’ll have to deal with plenty of conflict and disagreement in the product development process. There’s no getting away from it – especially in organizations with teams with different incentives.

In such situations, habitually starting with a document helps us quickly get to the source of the disagreement (e.g. do we disagree on the problem statement, hypothesis, or success metrics?) and move the discussion to productive conflict and alignment faster.

No alt text provided for this image

(c) Small things done with extraordinary care:

I first heard this idea a few years ago – “You can’t always do big things. But, you can do small things with extraordinary love.” It was love at first sight.

This “extraordinary care” idea isn’t easy to embody but here are 3 quirks/obsessions that attempt to do so:

(1) Invest in getting to know every member of the team: I do my best to start every collaboration with a 1×1 conversation where the only agenda is getting to know the other person. As part of this, I ask 3 questions – (i) Would love to know your story starting from where you were born to now (typically gets a laugh), (ii) What do you do when you have free time?, (iii) What is the dream?

It is amazing how much we learn about people from just one such conversation. More often than not, we just realize that we work with fascinating humans – and that we’d never have known if we hadn’t dug deeper.

(2) Collecting and responding to feedback: We aim to have at least one feedback conversation every few weeks. This is done casually – e.g. just a question in a stand-up about how everyone is feeling. Every one of these conversations tends to result in some pointed feedback that I/we aim to respond to immediately. The more folks understand they’re being heard, the more feedback I/we get, and the better we learn to operate.

(3) Appreciation: The lesson I’ve learnt around appreciation is that it is far more effective when it happens naturally. I’ve seen and attempted versions of “kudos” during regular meetings – but, somehow, forced appreciation doesn’t work anywhere as nicely as when we just learn to notice when folks do something good and ensure they’re celebrated for what they did. Frequently.

The quirks and notes above are all manifestations of my personality and what I care about. However, the core principle underneath it all is that it is important to be intentional about the cultural norms and behaviors we inspire. Culture is always being created – so, it is on us to consciously create one that we desire.

Now, of course, the above notes are all about actions we can take to shape culture. However, the far more effective method of shaping the culture of a group is by finding ambassadors who consistently demonstrate the behaviors we desire. If we find members in the group who exhibit some or all the behavior, we can both celebrate them and tell their stories. Doing so helps the rest of the group take inspiration from “how things are done here.”

Every once a while, we might even find ourselves fortunate to work with a “bar raiser.” Such a person doesn’t just exhibit the behaviors we desire, they do it in a way that raises the bar for everyone else – including us.

This was why the goodbye I mentioned at the start of this note was particularly painful. When I started working on a new set of products 9 months ago, I was blown away by this team member’s velocity, desire to collaborate and learn, and depth of care for all the small details. My time on this team promised to inspire me to set the bar higher for the culture of the team and also learn plenty along the way.

It lived up to its promise.

That, in turn, is the most amazing thing about being a student of culture. As it is a set of aspirational behaviors, we keep meeting people over the years whose behavior helps us better articulate what we desire and show us how we can set the bar higher. No matter their current title, these folks are the true leaders of any team. They lead by setting high standards and expect everyone else to follow – often by believing more in them than they do in themselves.

Working with someone who relentlessly raises the bar is often painful at first – especially if we’re one of those who needs to shape up. It might even seem as if it isn’t paying off for the longest time.

Until it does… big time.

Teacher’s Day

We celebrated Teacher’s day on September 5th growing up. The day was full of wishes of “happy teacher’s day” and small notes of appreciation for our teachers.

At the time, we had no idea how formative those experiences were, how we were learning important lessons on the importance of focus, hard work, and craftsmanship from the many wonderful folks who’d dedicated their careers to helping us learn.

I am a day late here – but, here’s wishing all teachers a very happy teacher’s day! Thank you for all you did and continue to do. When it comes to making a dent in the universe, teaching as a profession is unmatched in its impact.

Much gratitude also to the many incredible folks in our workplaces and communities who take the time – formally and informally – to help others learn. There are few more powerful forms of service…

Space Jam and the All Star game

I shared a few reflections after watching “The Last Dance” – the documentary on Michael Jordan’s career. I ended up watching it again over the past weeks and had a few more notes to share.

Today’s reflection is about my favorite story from the series.

MJ had just made his comeback for the Bulls late in the 1994-95 season. After a loss in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, he realized he needed to train very hard to get back the muscles needed for basketball (vs. baseball).

But, he had also committed to Space Jam. So, he started by requesting Walt Disney Studios to set up a training facility. And, so they did. They had a well equipped gym and full length basketball court ready when he arrived.

As the shoot lasted between 7am and 6pm, he spent all the free time in between with his trainer. In addition, they also decided to invite top NBA players for pick up basketball with Michael Jordan every evening.

So, the summer leading up to the 1995-96 season involved starting the day at 7am, shooting till 6pm with training in the breaks and then ending the day with the equivalent of an NBA All Star game every evening between 6pm-10pm.

The Bulls went on to both win the title next season while also setting a regular season record of 72 wins out of 82.

I like to think of myself as someone who isn’t afraid of hard work. Good performance takes skill. And, developing skill tends to take time.

But, even with that mindset, I found this to be awe-inspiring.

The new abnormal

Of late, every time I see mentions of “the new normal,” I’ve begun mentally replacing “normal” with “abnormal.”

Just because we’re having to deal with this longer than we ideally would doesn’t mean we need to call it “normal.”

PS: Another observation – the better the business impact of the pandemic/physical distance/remote-everything, the sooner the executive team came out with policy changes and statements to support “the new normal.”

Attempting to give

I was responding to a question from a few business school students today about how folks can make the most of the experience.

As I thought about the question, I was reminded of an observation from my final quarter before graduation. In this final quarter, I took only 1.5 credits (I had 4 on average in the past 5). I did this for one primary reason – the past quarters had been relatively intense and I wanted a more relaxed spring quarter.

As a result of the extra time this afforded me, I caught up with a lot of folks I hadn’t spent much time with. We typically went on walks and, during these walks, I asked about their reflections on the experience. And, as I did a few of these, I began noticing two kinds of narratives.

The first kind involved high expectations on what they wanted to get from the experience. This was totally rational – after all they’d invested $200K+ for this 2 year experience. So, these narratives focused on ensuring a high return on this investment investment and, for the most part, folks felt they’d done okay in this regard.

The second kind, however, tended to focus on what they attempted to give to the experience. They typically had a powerful anchoring experience they’d dedicated time and energy to and looked back at the fun and learning from that experience fondly. While this group were the minority in the student body, they consistently seemed happier, more fulfilled, and a whole lot more grateful.

Somehow, in the act of attempting to give, they had gotten far more than they realized. That happened to be my experience as well.

I’ve since come to observe this in all avenues of life. The more we focus on what we can give, the more learning and happiness we find along the way.

Executives and the top 3 company priorities

Inc. magazine once asked executives at 600 companies for an estimate of the percentage of their workforce who could name the top 3 company priorities.

The average executive estimate: 64%.

Actual: 2%.

While this could be a discussion on executive disconnects, the truth is that such disconnects are the default state for all of us.

As a consequence of spending most (all?) of our time in our own heads, we overestimate how many of our users understand our product, how many of our key stakeholders understand our priorities, and how often we make a point that sticks.

The only path forward: when we attempt to build or communicate something, simplify + over communicate by a factor of 10.

Will and resources

“In any game, there are always two currencies required to play – will and resources.” | Simon Sinek in “The Infinite Game”

It is natural to focus on the more tangible “resources” when we think of accomplishing what we want to accomplish.

But, will counts for a lot. Impact driven by great teams is as much a result of their collective will as it is from the resources they possess.

And, at elite levels of performance, it is often will that makes the decisive difference.