Solution space to Problem space

The common approach to solving problems is to get a team together, brainstorm, and agree on a prioritized approach to get to the solution. Spending time in solution space can be both fun and energizing. This is what we were trained to do as kids in school after all – solve problems.

But, as I look back at the many occasions in which the solution space failed to yield a solution that worked. I realize that it wasn’t because of the intelligence of the team or the effectiveness of time spent in the solution space. It was because of a poorly defined problem.

While good problem solving is undoubtedly important, we get the opportunity to make disproportionate contributions when we hold back these natural impulses to jump to the solution space and, instead, take the time to define the question.

Problem space >>> Solution space.

2 million points and counting

I recently met someone who collects points as a hobby. He mentioned he currently has more than 2 million points – enough for fully funded airfare and hotel stays for more vacations than he has time for.

But, that doesn’t stop him from collecting points. He does it because it feels like play. The process is far more interesting than the outcome.

This exchange reminded me of the power of combining passion and purpose. Passion asks “what has the world got to offer that fits my interests?” while purpose asks “what have I got to offer the world that has value?”

We’ve seen a lot of good rebuttals to the “follow your passion” advice over the past few years. The central theme is that we don’t often know what our passion is. Instead, we’re better off focusing on purposefully getting good at something that has value as passion often follows expertise.

While it is the pragmatic approach and one that at least ensures we’re not waiting around for the universe to reveal our passion, it has its downsides too. For example, if collecting points was a lucrative profession, I could become an expert at it. But, the process will never feel like play.

Ergo the power of combining passion and purpose.

It is magical when we’re able to get good at something we care deeply about. For most of us, that may mean a long and winding road to understand what this is and a lot of trouble to eventually get there – but, the juice tends to be worth the squeeze.

That root cause

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve analyzed people/relationship problems only to realize that the root cause is misaligned or unstated expectations.

It is amazing how many potential problems – in relationships at home, at work, and even that all important one with ourselves – can be nipped in the bud by the act of proactively understanding and then setting expectations.

The new year is a great time for revisiting, resetting, and realigning many of these expectations. Here’s to that.

Behaviors in permanent shortage

In practically every organization around the world, there is a permanent shortage of 3 behaviors – great attitude, constructive dialog, and consistent follow up. We are yet to find a CEO or talent leader who claims to have enough of these.

As we think about how we can level up in the next year, it is worth pondering how we might incorporate these behaviors into our day-to-day. Specifically, the questions we might ask would be –

What would it take for me to show up with a world class attitude every day? It might be some combination of enough sleep, healthy body, good relationships, etc.

What would it take for me to master constructive dialog? It might be mastering “Nonviolent Communication.”

What would it take for me to follow up consistently? It might mean designing a better productivity system or the presence of a daily commitment that gives us confidence in our ability to follow up.

The path to standing out may never be clearer.

Knowing thyself – the foundation of long term career progress (feat. user manuals)

We kicked this series off with a look at the 4 core skills of an individual contributor Product Manager – problem finding, problem solving, selling, and building effective teams. Then, we defined what a product manager doesa product manager brings a team of cross functional stakeholders together to build a product that is valuable, usable, feasible. Today, we’ll dive into that small matter of career progression and explore the foundation of long term career progress – knowing thyself.

Khe Hy, a blogger at “RadReads,” had a useful illustration on a general career arc.

As Khe’s illustration demonstrates, there’s a lot to be gained from exploration early in the career as it helps us figure out what we’d like to be good at. Then, we invest in becoming specialists. And, finally, if we’re interested and able, we get to zoom out again as executives who oversee multiple specialist areas.

While these ideas translate well for product manager careers, my version of the the career arc for product managers would look something like this.

Individual contributor/IC PMs start with a focus on narrow features and small products. Over time, they take on larger products and product areas. Larger product areas are typically led by people managers (“Group”) or senior ICs (“Principal,” “Staff”). And, product executive teams typically oversee entire marketplaces and ecosystems.

Now, if we were to visualize this career trajectory as a building, the foundation would be self awareness. The deeper the foundation, the sturdier the building.

While this holds for careers across industries and roles, it is very pertinent to any role building technology products. Building a technology product takes a village – with team members across functions coming together to ship a finished product. Given the critical nature of teams and people in this process, emotional intelligence is a key asset. And, self-awareness/knowing ourselves is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

(Note: There is the alternative approach to building product teams which we can call the Steve Jobs v1.0 approach. This involves “my way is the highway” + some reality distortion + hopefully backed by once-in-a-generation product intuition. This post is for the rest of us.)

What is self-awareness and how can I get more of it?

There are two kinds of self-awareness –

i) Internal: This represents how clearly we see our own motives, values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions, and impact on others.

ii) External: This represents our understanding of how others view us.

My observation is that external self awareness is crucial for career progression while internal self awareness is correlated with career fulfillment and happiness.

The challenge with both kinds of self-awareness is figuring out how to get more of it. Approaching this topic can feel very daunting. Ergo, my favorite tool to make this process easier – a “user manual.”

How do I creating my own User Manual?

Step 1 – Create a first draft user manual: Block out 60 minutes of your calendar next week and take a crack at a 1 pager that has some or all of the following –

1) Getting responses and work done: E.g. share your preferred work hours, preferred communication channels, and best times to schedule meetings.

2) My style: 3-4 must know characteristics about your working style

3) What I don’t have patience for: Focus on specific behaviors that drive you nuts.

4) How to best communicate with me: Share how you prefer to consume information – e.g. some prefer written memos or sketching on a whiteboard while others prefer verbal pow wows.

5) What people misunderstand about me: These typically involve flip sides of your signature strengths.

6) Things I’m trying to get better at: 2-3 improvement areas you are focused on.

7) Random Quirks: Something fun. :)

Step 2 Share with close teammates for feedback: Share with a few folks (/work friends) who know you well and see if this one pager accurately represents you.

Writing the first draft involved drawing on both your internal and external self-awareness. While very few can help you better articulate what you care about, feedback from close colleagues can help give you a measure of your external self-awareness.

Step 3 – Set up 30 mins to review with yourself every month: The power of the first draft of the user manual is that it marks the beginning of the journey. We never “achieve” self-awareness. We just get on the train with our first draft user manual.

As you spend more time with it, you will find yourself tweaking the user manual after every review and crystallizing your random thoughts (at least at first) into themes. For example, I ended up synthesizing the 3 aspects of my personal culture (hungry, thoughtful, learning focused) as I iterated on sharing “my style” as part of this process.

As a bonus step, you might even want to consider reviewing your user manuals jointly as a team. We did this on one of our cross functional teams recently and it turned out to be a very powerful team building exercise.

Conclusion: While short term career progress tends to be a function of good on-the-job skills, long term career (think: decades) progress tends to be correlated to our self awareness. The beauty about self awareness is that it is a skill that is foundational to better relationships – which has implications well beyond our time at the office. And, I’m a fan of using user manuals to aide the development of the skill.

If you find yourself stuck with creating that user manual and would like to see an example, please feel free to check out the Quartz article below for further reading. I’ll also be happy to share mine if that might help – please feel free to send me a note on rohan at rohanrajiv dot com.

Further reading:

i) Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and executive coach, assembled a team to share her findings on both kinds of self-awareness. If you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend reading it here (you can also see my 5 point synthesis here).

ii) This Quartz article on user manuals is a helpful starting point.

iii) If you are curious about more resources to figure out your motives and values – here are a couple of posts (motives, values and mission statement) that might help.

MVR

I love asking folks who’ve done well in their careers for their “standard” career advice. It is always fascinating to hear about the principles they believe matter most in career success. I heard a piece of advice recently I call MVR (similar to MVP) – Most Valuable Report.

This piece of career advice was – “Develop an understanding of what your manager is evaluated on, what she/he most needs help on, and become their most valuable direct report.”

I loved this piece of advice as I thought it was both practical (versus, say, “follow your passion”) and powerful in its implications. Everyone has managers – if you don’t report to anyone, you likely have to deal with a board, shareholders, or powerful customers.

Managing that relationship well is among the highest value things we do

The Exec Q&A communication Jedi progression

Most folks respond to questions from an executive or folks who’ve got a higher ratio of impactful things to do/time than we do in the course of their work week. Handling Q&A, verbal or written, is a skill and I’ve become mindful of the following progression as I work on my own abilities to do so. Each stage builds on the other.

(1) Padawan learner: We are prompt. We answer questions promptly but tend to bury the answer in a blur of detail in our attempts to be complete.

(2) Jedi Knight: We deliver clarity over completeness. We answer the question first and provide just the amount of extra detail required for clarity.

(3) Jedi Master: We anticipate follow up questions. By putting ourselves in the shoes of the asker, our extra detail minimizes follow up questions and back-and-forth.

(4) Jedi Council: We see and answer the question behind the question. Awareness is the gift of competence and, at this level, we go beyond the question to the interests of the asker and, thus, to the question behind the question.

(5) Grandmaster: We become the one asking the questions. :-)

While this post has been focused on responding to executives/folks busier than us, I’ve come to appreciate the value this skill adds in life. Learning to listen for the interests of the asker, answer the question behind the question, and do so with clarity over completeness are very useful skills – both at work and at home.