I read a story about “the trouble tree” over a decade ago that has stuck with me.
David’s plumber had just had a rough day. He had a flat tyre on his way to work, his drill quit and his truck refused to start. David drove the distraught man home.
Just before they entered home, the plumber paused briefly at a tree, touching its tips. He then opened the door and underwent an amazing transformation. He hugged his kids, kissed his wife and was all smiles!
Afterwards, when David was walking out, he asked his plumber about his behavior. The plumber he said – ‘Everyday, I leave all my work troubles at the tree before walking in. The funny thing is when I come in the morning to pick them up, there aren’t as many as I left.’
I love this idea and it has stayed with me despite my many attempts at finding a similar routine.
Or perhaps because of it.
I don’t have a solution that works as well as yet. But, I hope to get there. It was time for a reminder.
Periodic reminder to self: Perfection is not the goal. Thoughtful engagement is.
Perfection is an illusion because the pursuit of things that matter will require us to experiment. Those experiments will inevitably result in mistakes. Those mistakes, in turn, will inspire the learning that will improve the next set of experiments.
Progress > Perfection. And, progress is a byproduct of thoughtful engagement.
“For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
This ending to Amanda Gorman’s poem gave me goosebumps. It offers great perspective for our careers and lives by reminding us that there is always light and hope. And that, if all seems bleak, that we can choose to be that light.
As we go face inevitable struggles disappointments, and runs of bad luck this year, here’s to having the courage to see it… and be it.
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 –
One of the most common questions posed to product teams – “How can we go faster?”
Default response – “We need more resources.”
It is a perfectly logical response to that sometimes dreaded question.
The only problem is that it is right only around 30% of the time at best (anecdotal estimation). Assuming your company has a good engineering hiring bar and decent processes, the reality is that more accurate answers probably are – a) “We need more executive/cross-org alignment” or b) “I need to become a better product manager.”
If the answer in your situation is b), that is a painful pill to swallow. It hurts. But, after acknowledging that, the next question is – how do we move forward?
Today’s note offers a path to just that.
Solving for feasibility
A product manager brings together a cross-functional team to build products that are valuable, usable, and feasible.
Once we find a valuable problem to solve and figure out a usable solution, the final step is solving for feasibility. Feasibility means shipping a quality product as quickly as possible with the engineers on our team.
It is important to recognize here that feasibility is the minimum bar for a product team. Velocity is the goal. In the long run, velocity is an important source of the team and organization’s competitive advantage. (The previous post in this series is all about velocity in product teams – so, I won’t belabor this point)
So, how do we increase the velocity of the engineering team? I think there are 5 levers under 2 buckets:
a) Adding new folks
(1) Increasing the hiring/performance bar
(2) Increasing resourcing
b) Enabling existing folks to move faster
(3) Simplifying engineering processes
(4) Reducing exec misalignment
(5) Improving our product management abilities
Two of these – (1) Increasing the hiring/performance bar and (3) Simplifying engineering processes – are in the domain of how to run a good engineering organization. We won’t discuss as much because our influence as IC PMs is limited. That said, there are ways we can contribute:
Increasing the hiring/performance bar: Help with engineering hiring where possible and ensure you’re participating in the performance management process. Take the time to write thoughtful feedback, celebrate top performers, and so on. Share in the responsibility of improving the performance of the IC engineers on the team and support your engineering partner.
Simplifying engineering processes: Keep an eye out for the impact of existing engineering processes – documentation, code reviews, deployment – on the velocity of the team. Listen for complaints from IC engineers and help ensure they’re getting surfaced appropriately.
(2) Increasing resources
As I mentioned at the start of this post, this is the most common lever product teams focus on. This is probably the right lever 30% of the time. And, it is definitely the right lever if you are leading a high performing team working on important projects with complete executive alignment that need to be developed faster.
If this is you, there are 3 things to keep in mind:
(1) Make your ask as soon as you realize the resource gap. Unless you’re in hyper growth, it typically takes a few attempts before resources come your way. And, it also takes a few extra months to hire the right folks. So, get ahead of the game.
(2) Tie your resource ask to concrete outcomes – typically improvements to y/y growth on metrics that matter. Using commonly used/true north metrics helps the executives involved prioritize your ask relative to others (and there always are others).
(3) The most helpful tool in your team’s arsenal is the reputation of punching above your weight. If you have proven your ability to do more with less in the past, it becomes easier for executives to trust you. If you aren’t there yet, don’t be surprised if you aren’t getting the resources you need. You will need to work on that first.
An important, if obvious, point to make here is that the culture of your team will change as the team grows. An engineering team I worked with grew from 6 to over 15 engineers in 12 months. Challenges with scaling the culture are real – we’ll cover this in next week’s post. This isn’t an argument against asking for resources – it is just a heads up that your role and responsibilities will change significantly.
(4) Reducing exec misalignment
Executive misalignment stunts velocity and damages morale. Executive misalignment plays out in many ways – slow funding decisions, uncoordinated efforts across teams, unnecessary internal competition and politicking, and so on.
I called out this lever as one you can influence. Your influence will vary depending on the culture of the company –
If the culture is toxic, your influence will be proportional to the political power of the executive you report into. This executive’s power can help you move mountains… or not.
If the culture is one that promotes transparent discussion, you can have a lot of influence by simply laying out areas of misalignment early. Many companies have variants of “clean escalation” processes that are designed to do just this. Similar to asking for funding, the most important thing in such situations is to learn to pay attention to areas where there is misalignment. Once you spot it, act quickly.
PM roles come with a reputation of having decision making power. This reputation leads a lot of PMs astray. That’s because some of the highest value work an IC PM does is to call out the importance of the decision, lay out the framework, options, and make a recommendation for product leaders to decide. IC PMs are thus decision enablers vs. decision makers on the decisions that matter. Embracing that role goes a long way in reducing executive misalignment and improving the quality of decisions in your organization.
(5) Improving our product management abilities
It is not possible to do justice to our most important lever in this post. So, we’ll cover this in two posts over the next two weeks. But, I’d like to leave you with a recent example that will explain why I believe this is the most important lever we have.
One of the flows in a project I’m working on involves a few permutations. While we did spend time on mapping these permutations when we were designing the flows, multiple permutations stirs that tingling sensation within. That sensation is a sign that we need to take the time to work out the possibilities. That, in turn, will help us build the product right. For example, if there’s a lot of business logic, we’ll make sure this logic is handled in the API layer instead of the clients.
I have my excuses for ignoring that tingling sensation here. But, they are excuses. All that matters is that I didn’t invest the time to bring the team together to map it out and document our plan.
Luckily, we’ve been in the process of rigorous testing and identified an issue through that process. But, reworking this involves a lot of wasted work. If doing it right took us about 5 engineering weeks, the reworked flow is going to end up taking 2x the time.
It sucks. We could all look around wondering why we didn’t catch this. But, the buck stops with me. And, it hurts to know that I wasted 6 weeks of engineering time.
This is how poor product management hurts a company. In every software company, engineering time is the most valuable time. And, poor problem finding and problem solving can result in a LOT of wasted engineering time. Some wasted time is unavoidable on a large project. But, wastage can go out of hand. It is the responsibility of senior PMs and product leadership to keep a close eye on this.
I am past the stage where such mistakes resulted in moments of debilitating imposter syndrome. That is useless – I have learnt that. When these things happen, I repeat this line to myself – “Do not fear mistakes. Fear only the absence of a creative, constructive, and corrective response to these mistakes.” I read this line over a decade ago in my favorite book (Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits) and I still find it comforting and useful.
I now focus on using the pain to improve in my abilities. In this case, the lesson learnt is to not ignore that tingling sensation – that is experience telling me to pay attention. It is also a reminder to not fall for the pretext that there isn’t enough time to get it right.
After all, if we don’t have the time now to do it right, how will we have the time to do it twice?
When we started teaching our older kid to bike, I started with the assumption she’d do it as I/we did – start with training wheels and take them off over time.
My wife did a bit of digging and shared that there was a new approach to teaching kids to bike that was making the rounds these days. This involved starting her out without pedals as a “balance bike.” My response to this new piece of information was something along the lines of – “But, that’s how I did it!”
As I had more conviction in my approach (she hadn’t tried it yet after all), we started with the training wheels approach for two weeks. We then decided it was time to give this new method a try. By the second day, it was apparent her attempt was beginning to work. She had our 3.5 year old pedaling without training wheels within a week.
This was a memorable experience for me. Being proven woefully wrong has that effect on many of us. As I shared that experience last year, I remembered an older post of mine hypothesizing that the training wheel approach to learning isn’t a good one.
Ha. I’d written about this idea. But, when it came to applying it, it took me two weeks to get over my bout of “But, that’s how I did it!”
The good news is that there was no debate with our second. Recently, he made the jump to pedaling at the ripe old age of 2.75 years. I didn’t think it to be possible. But, I’ve learnt a new trick and will be recommending the balance bike approach to any curious parent.
This experience has made me more conscious about how often I use variants of – “But, that’s how I did it” – as a parent.
Experience is a useful tool in any toolbox.
I just have to be careful to make sure it isn’t my only tool.
Three weeks back, I wrote Notes on Blogging for folks interested in blogging. In response to my question – “are you blogging for yourself or blogging for others” – a few folks wrote in wondering why someone would blog for oneself. What’s the point if you aren’t spending time building a following?
So, I thought I’d share what I’ve gained from the process. As the list is long, I thought I’d share my top 5:
(1) Discipline: I committed to writing every day in May 2008. I struggled for most of 2008 and 2009. I used to cheat by just sharing a quote for the day in those years to just get my post for the day in. I finally got the confidence to write “long form” (i.e. not cheat by sharing a quote) every day in late 2010. Every day since then, my belief in my discipline has grown.
That belief means I never question my ability to follow through on a commitment. If I can write every day, I should be able to do just about anything I set my mind to. Integrity is making and keeping commitments. Disciple is the foundation of integrity.
(2) Learning curve: We learn from 3 sources – from books or posts that share synthesized information, from people who share synthesized information, or when we synthesize information. Synthesis requires us to reflect on what we’ve done, boil what we’ve learnt to its essence, and incorporate that lesson into how we operate.
The word “essay” comes from the French word “essayer.” Essayer means “to try.” We write to try and figure things out. The process of attempting to figure things out every day has helped me synthesize.
And, this practice of daily synthesis has taught me how to learn. As an outcome focused competitive kid, I hadn’t learnt how to do this in the first twenty years of my life. I didn’t realize that learning requires an intense focus on the process – without regard for the outcome. Ironically, ignoring the outcome turns out to be the best way to consistently achieve good outcomes.
Learning how to learn has been a gamechanger. It has made my life richer.
(3) Writing: Aside from writing to figure things out, writing is a highly valuable professional skill. I work as a product manager at a technology company and writing is a key part of my job. Writing comes easily after all these years. It helps me do my job significantly better.
(4) Learning mindset: I hated screwing up before I started writing here. After I started writing here, every mistake gave me a blog post topic I could write about. I wasn’t just screwing up now. I was reflecting, figuring out how I could do better, and reminding myself to do so. Writing here has changed how I perceive mistakes.
Mistakes still hurt. But, channeling that pain into learning helps me make progress and appreciate the importance of pain in the process of learning. It has also helped me become much kinder to myself.
I realized later that being kinder to ourselves is the path to becoming kinder and more compassionate to everyone around us.
(5) Meditation. Practitioners of Zen buddhist/Hindu meditation focus on clearing the mind when they meditate. The stoics, on the other hand, talked about another variant of meditation – the kind where you reflect on your day and analyze how you lived. I haven’t found a better description of what writing here everyday means to me. It is how I meditate. It grounds me, reminds me to be grateful, and gifts me perspective.
These reasons are why I recommend committing to writing regularly. You can do it on a blog or do it on a journal. Pick what suits you.
Yes, there is the possibility that it may not work for you. As with all good things, it isn’t for everyone. At least you’ll have tried.
I would however posit that, more often than not, a person who commits to regular writing will find that it was one of the best commitments they’ve ever made.
Our World in Data had a series of interesting charts recently on working hours, wealth, and parenting.
The first chart looks at “Annual working hours” per worker. In wealthy countries, the average number of hours in a work week have gone from ~60 hours to ~35 hours in the past 100 years (assuming 3-4 weeks of vacation).
With the exception of the United States, vacation days in these countries have gone up over time. It is interesting to see the US lose ground in the 1990s.
Next, we look at the relationship between the wealth of a country and working hours. This is as expected – wealth correlates with fewer working hours. The exceptions are rich Asian countries (Singapore, South Korea, etc.). Culture matters too.
The more the labor productivity, the less workers can afford to work.
And, finally, we have a chart that looks at time parents spend with their kids. The trend is clear.
In sum, as countries got wealthier thanks to increased labor productivity, everyone began working less. They used this time to spend more time with their kids.
A fascinating collection of charts. Thank you, Our World in Data team, for your continued good work in improving our understanding of the world using data.
Charlie Munger regularly shares a powerful story about Warren Buffet’s investment advice.
When Warren lectures at business schools, he says, “I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches—representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all.”
He says, “Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about. So you’d do so much better.”
“Fewer things done better” is one of those ideas that is 3 things at once – 1) broadly applicable, 2) nearly always great advice, and 3) so bloody hard to actually execute on.