Team of Teams – efficiency to leverage

I read “Team of Teams” by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and co. recently. The book makes the case that rigid organization structures – the legacy of the assembly line – need to be replaced by a more flexible model – a “Team of Teams.”

The book makes the case that rigid organization structures may have worked in a world where we dealt with complicated problems. But, they don’t work in today’s world characterized by complex interactions and rapid technological changes. And, it is inspired by the experiences of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s experiences leading the Joint Special Operations Command against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

I was skeptical as this is a topic many have attempted to tackle with limited success. But, the book came highly recommended and I think it justified the recommendation. I was positively surprised at the clarity of thought and found it applicable.

The book makes 3 recommendations to move from rigid organization structures to to a “Team of Teams” –

1) Shared consciousness: Replace attempts at blocking information based on access and seniority and embrace broad and open sharing of as much information as possible. The more shared the context, the better everyone on the ground will be able to operate.

2) Decentralize decision making: Once you’ve provided the context, enable folks on the ground to make decisions and strategic calls. They likely have more information than their leaders and any attempt at gaining approval will slow people down.

3) Gardener leaders instead of chess players: Rigid organization structures invoke the image of leadership as skilled chess players. They concoct amazing strategy and the pawns on the ground follow orders. In a team of teams, leaders act more like gardeners – tending to the system and organizational culture – and enable teams to be quick and decisive.

Management systems are hard to change. The assembly line model, as an example, has stuck around for more than a century. But, the book does a good job explaining that the days of celebrating efficiency are over.

We need to spend more time thinking about effectiveness and leverage.

Noticing and authorization

“If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.
But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice,
And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice
In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions.

Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what you notice is important?
It will have to be you.
The authority you feel has a great deal to do with how you write and what you write,
With your ability to pay attention to the shape and meaning of your own thoughts
And the value of your own perceptions.

Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization.
No matter who you are.
Only you can authorize yourself.
You do that by writing well, by constant discovery.
No one else can authorize you.
No one.
This doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s as gradual as the improvement in your writing.

There are moments in “Several short sentences about writing” when I find myself pausing and giving Verlyn Klinkenborg a hat tip for articulating a complex idea so beautifully.

I don’t think of myself as a “writer.” But, I’ve been writing for over a decade on this blog. And, his notes on the gradual process of paying attention to what we notice, valuing our perceptions, and going through the act of perpetual self-authorization summarize the journey beautifully.

The tree in front of our home

We have a big tree in front of our home.

As a result, we get less light than we would otherwise in our living room. And, it also means our living room and home is cooler than the temperature outside.

This was wonderful in the summer.

It won’t be as wonderful in the winter.

But, that’s how most things in life work. The best of things can be the worst of things in different situations.

We can’t have it both ways.

Getting into Product Management – I

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 – Overall: The PM RoleThe 4 key skillsRemote + Pandemic PM5 Decision Making frameworks/heuristicsProblem finding/solving with executives5 habits – high velocity product teams

– Skill #1 – Problem finding: Most important skillProblem statement and hypothesisBuilding StrategyValidating problem statements and hypotheses

– Skill #2 – Selling: Sales and MarketingWriting for executive audiences

– Skill #3 – Problem Solving: RoadmapProduct specs

– Skill #4 – Building effective teams: Knowing thyselfYour managerProduct team culture

I started writing “Notes on Product Management” nearly 2 years ago. The most requested post topic that I’ve received since then has been – how do I get in? 

I’ve waited all this time because I wanted to paint the picture of what the job is actually like before talking about how to get in. As a result, the past 17 posts have all about the 4 key skills required as an IC product manager – problem finding, problem solving, selling, and building effective teams. 

While the series is not yet done, I hope you have enough of an overview of the skills required to decide if you think you will be a good fit. And, assuming that is the case, I thought now might be a good time to talk about getting in. We will cover this topic in 2 parts. Today’s note will focus on the worst about product management and the 4 paths in.

(1) The worst about product management

I like to begin any discussion about getting in by laying out the worst about product management. The 5 biggest complaints I hear from folks at larger product driven companies are: 

1. I spend too much time attempting to align and influence large groups of people who all seem to have different priorities. Once I do that, I need to to influence my leadership to give me resourcing. Everything seems to political – it is exhausting. 

2. My manager/leadership keeps asking me to move faster. But, they don’t help with any of the alignment and they seem to keep changing their mind about about strategy and goals – this creates a lot of churn that I need to manage.

3. Some proportion of my cross-functional partners are either difficult or unhappy with me because they don’t feel as included in the product development process. Or, they think I’m making the wrong decisions. It is wearing me out.

4. I am in meetings all day. When do I get work done?

5. Does the product I work on really matter? I seem to be stuck dealing with minutiae about it every day and I’m not sure if it is improving the world in any real way.

And, the biggest complaints from those who are not in product driven organizations is – “How do I show the key function (typically engineering) that I can add value and that they should trust me?”

While they don’t show up all at once in every product team, they’re meant to paint a picture of the challenges involved in the product development process.

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At this point, I’ll digress for a moment to talk about segmentation. The key lesson in segmentation is – you need to find segments that love what’s good about you and don’t mind what’s bad about you. It is great marketing advice. It also happens to be great life advice – in picking a significant other, a co-founder, or even a career.

That, in turn, gets to why I like starting out conversations by outlining the worst about the job. Product management is a “hot” career in technology right now. There’s a lot written about the opportunity to drive impact, make key decisions, and lead. While some of that is true, it is easy to buy into an incredibly rosy picture.

Like all careers, it has its positives and corresponding negatives. And, like all choices, just because it is “hot” may not mean it is the right choice for you. We spend all our waking time doing our jobs. And, spending those hours doing things we don’t enjoy or don’t want to get good at is a sure-shot way to be miserable. 

So, the question that follows is – what is your reaction when you see the list of complaints?

There tend to be (variants of) 3 responses:

a) I don’t like the sound of it. But, I’m still interested to get in because I want to make decisions/think it will be good for my career.

b) I get that this stuff is hard. I think I will find portions of it hard too – but, I think I will also make it through because the upsides – i.e. being able to facilitate the product development process – are worth it.

c) I love obsessing about bringing groups of people together and obsessing about things to build. So, I think this will be great.

a) is a red flag. b) can work – especially in organizations and teams with cultures that fit you. c) is a sign that you’ll thrive.

(2) Getting an interview – the 4 paths in

The way into product management is a pain for most people. This tends to be the case with any “hot” career simply because the list of people trying to get in is much longer than the list of people actually being hired. This is especially the case at successful companies/companies with strong talent brands. 

This results in companies adopting some bizarre methods to filter people out. One such method that was in vogue for a long time was the Computer Science degree requirement. Another was the coding interview. And, some programs insist that you must start at an entry level position regardless of past experience – this makes it harder to switch if you aren’t early in your career. 

If you’re facing some of these hurdles, I feel your pain. The only consolation is that it isn’t personal. After watching folks go through this process for the past 5 years, I’ve learnt that there is one certainty. People who have both the drive and skills find a way in and have good outcomes. It may take longer than they expect but it tends to work out. 

And, it happens in one of these 4 ways. They are ranked from most probable to least probable with rough percentage estimates.

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i) Internal transfers (50%): This is the most common path into product management.

Why it works:

– You can build a reputation internally that helps you find a sponsor within the product management organization who will give you a shot.

– You can work on an internal product before becoming a product manager. This already proves you can do the job and helps in the internal interview process.

– It is agnostic of company size. In start-ups, you get a combination of fewer available roles and more flexibility/lack of any internal mobility bureaucracy. In larger companies, you have to deal with more rigid transfer processes but also will have more opportunities come by.

Who it works best for:

– Folks who work in functions with strong proximity to product managers. Function that are closely involved in the product development team – e.g., Engineering, Design, Biz Ops, Data Science, Product Marketing – tend to be the biggest beneficiaries of internal transfers.

– It tends to work best for folks who find opportunities in areas that are adjacent to their skillset. For example, a marketer can be great for a product that is trying to find product market fit with customers, a data scientist can do great in a data-heavy AI product, and so on.

Why it doesn’t work: Internal processes can make switching painful. And, cultures that are less open to internal transfers can exacerbate the pain.

ii) University hiring and APM/RPM programs (20%): This is most applicable to folks interested in larger companies (Amazon, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) with established programs.

Why it works:

– Such programs typically give you a clean slate/fresh start and typically offer a lot of mentorship along the way

– You are typically competing against people like you – so, you don’t have to deal with that company insider who has already been working on the product over the past 6 months

 Who it works best for:
– For folks in undergraduate or graduate school programs who either have companies come to them (campus recruiting) or proactively reach out to campus recruiters and potential hiring managers.

There are obvious exceptions to this. Amazon, for example, hires hundreds of MBA students every year but is famous for not being influenced by proactive reach outs to recruiters.

Similarly, Facebook’s RPM program is open to folks with experience in other functions (vs. just students). But, as a general rule, being proactive helps unless you’re sure your experience will stick out amongst a pool of hundreds of applications.

Why it doesn’t work: Lot of competition.

iii) Companies or hiring managers who are desperate enough to take a bet on you despite your lack of experience (20%):

Why it works: It is born out of need and it often sets folks who’re hired up for success because you’re hired to get a specific job done and can use the experience to build up PM skills.

Who it works best for:

– Companies with weak talent brands who are desperate to hire strong talent who would not break into PM roles directly elsewhere. (It is important to note here that having a “weak” talent brand isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most startups, by definition, have weaker talent brands compared to a Google.)

– People with deep expertise in specific areas that a company needs – e.g. growth marketing, SEO, enterprise security, etc.

Why it doesn’t work:

– These tend to be more common in smaller companies vs. bigger companies. As a result, they are often more custom and built on existing relationships.

– As these roles are more common in smaller companies, they often come with limited mentorship/coaching that can cause problems down the line.

iv) Starting a company (10%):

Why it works: While the product manager is the “CEO of the product” trope gets old very quickly, there are many aspects of the PM role that are similar to building a company – especially one that is trying to find product market fit or scale beyond a niche set of users.

Who it works for: Startup founders/CEOs who either get acquired, acqui-hired, or look for jobs after winding down their startups.

Why it doesn’t work: As you can imagine, this definitely not a recommended path into product management as this shouldn’t be a reason to start a company. But, it is a path in nevertheless.

The purpose of today’s post was to provide a lay of the land as you consider product management as a possible career while also providing an overview of the common paths in.

Next week, we’ll look at the process of preparing for that first set of interviews as well as examine 5 practices that I’ve found to be helpful in breaking into that first PM job.

The cheapest electricity in history

The Carbon Brief team had a nice summary of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2020. My favorite 3 nuggets:

(1) “For projects with low-cost financing that tap high-quality resources, solar PV is now the cheapest source of electricity in history.”

(2) India will build 86% less new coal power capacity than expected last year. Long seen as driving global coal growth, IEA now says India will add just 25GW by 2040.

The result? Global coal capacity will fall.

(3) This year’s version of the highly influential annual outlook offers four “pathways” to 2040, all of which see a major rise in renewables. The IEA’s main scenario has 43% more solar output by 2040 than it expected in 2018, partly due to detailed new analysis showing that solar power is 20-50% cheaper than thought.

Despite a more rapid rise for renewables and a “structural” decline for coal, the IEA says it is too soon to declare a peak in global oil use, unless there is stronger climate action. Similarly, it says demand for gas could rise 30% by 2040, unless the policy response to global warming steps up.

This means that, while global CO2 emissions have effectively peaked, they are “far from the immediate peak and decline” needed to stabilise the climate. The IEA says achieving net-zero emissions will require “unprecedented” efforts from every part of the global economy, not just the power sector.

For the first time, the IEA includes detailed modeling of a 1.5C pathway that reaches global net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. It says individual behaviour change, such as working from home “three days a week”, would play an “essential” role in reaching this new “net-zero emissions by 2050 case.

It has been awesome to see the IEA continually revise up the solar forecasts. I predict continued revisions in the coming years. Solar adoption will continue to rise quickly because it will be the obvious economical decision.

And, that’s fantastic.

Writing short sentences

“There’s nothing wrong with well-made, strongly constructed, purposeful long sentences.
But long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness.
They’re pasted together with false syntax
And rely on words like “with” and “as” to lengthen the sentence.

They’re short on verbs, weak in syntactic vigor,
Full of floating, unattached phrases, often out of position.
And worse – the end of the sentence commonly forgets its beginning,
As if the sentence were a long, weary road to the wrong place.

Writing short sentences restores clarity, the directness of subject and verb.
It forces you to discard the strong elements of long sentences,
Like relative pronouns and subordinate clauses,
And the weak ones as well:
Prepositional chains, passive constructions, and dependent phrases.

Writing short sentences will help you write strong, balanced sentences of any length.
Strong, lengthy sentences are really just strong, short sentences joined in various ways.”
| Verilyn Klinkenborg in “Several short sentences about writing”

A beautiful reminder of the importance of starting from the basics.

Upload speed

Internet service providers focus our attention on download speed when they advertise their plans.

Download speed is important. If you’re attempting to stream or download a movie, for example, download speed will ensure it happens quickly.

But, if you’re using the internet for video calls as so many of us are, it helps to pay as much attention to the upload speed.

We felt the effects of this recently as we realized our upload speeds were resulting in blurry videos for our parents. And, it was a fascinating journey to figure out how to get to a plan with a higher upload speed as the Xfinity/Comcast page on internet plans had no information on download speed.

After a call to the customer service number, we learnt that their tiers are 100/5 MBPS (Download/Upload), 300/5, 600/15, and so on. As we were on the 100 MBPS plan, this means an upgrade to the 300 MBPS plan would have done nothing for us. The 600/15 plan was the solution as a result.

And, it has made a massive difference in video call quality.

Win. :-)

We will make mistakes

No matter how hard we try, we will make mistakes.

Little good comes from attempting to prevent mistakes. All we end up with is fear and inaction.

Instead, the way forward is to know that we will make mistakes and be prepared to respond in a manner that is constructive, corrective, and, where possible, creative.

This focus on action and thoughtful responses helps us internalize the lessons we take away from these mistakes. Those lessons, in turn, help us avoid making the same mistakes in the future and often help us do better preventing bigger mistakes.

And, that is as good an outcome as any we can hope for.