Opening windows

I spent three months on a project in Shanghai in 2013. The Air Quality Index in Shanghai during that period was always “hazardous.” So, we spent a lot of time indoors and never opened the windows.

In hindsight, that time was a gift as it helped me appreciate fresh air in a way I hadn’t till then. Ever since, I’ve always been a proponent of keeping windows open wherever I am and generally choose fresh air over air conditioning when I get a chance.

For a few days last week, I was reminded of those months as we experienced poor air quality due to a bad forest fire near where we are. The air cleared up on Wednesday just as we headed into thanksgiving weekend and, in doing so, gave us another thing to be thankful for.

While the fire gave us plenty to think about from the standpoint of climate change, I’m going to leave that discussion for another day. For now, I’m going to give thanks for the ability to open windows and take in fresh air.

It is one of the many gifts we have that we tend to appreciate most when it is absent.

Letting small things remain small things

The things that mess with most relationships are rarely the “big” things / the fundamental disagreements. They’re an accumulation of the many small things that have been blown out of proportion.

It follows that one of the defining characteristics of relationships that both endure and thrive (high % of positive interactions/total interactions) is the often conscious commitment on both sides to let the small things remain the small things.

Happy thanksgiving

I fell in love with the idea of thanksgiving well before we moved the US. I loved the idea of a holiday that existed just for us to say “thank you.”

To me, this day marks the start of the end-of-year reflection season. I typically wind down any ongoing weekend projects (there used to be more of these pre-kids :-)), take a few weeks off from work in December, and take the time to read, think, reflect, and be present with family. And, I am really excited to do all of that this year.

I am the recipient of many blessings and privileges. As I reflect on them today, I find myself very grateful for the folks who’ve chosen to love me, for those who took a chance on me and gave me a break when I needed one, and for those who’ve been generous in sharing ideas and insights that have changed my life.

Finally, I remain very grateful to the many of you who take a few seconds (minutes?) of your limited attention to read these notes, share them with your friends and family, and even write back from time to time. Writing here has changed my life and it is your presence and encouragement that reminds me of the privilege of getting to share these notes with you while simultaneously pushing me to do this privilege justice.

Thank you. I remain very grateful.

And, I wish you a very happy thanksgiving.

The new kilogram and how scientists showed us the way

Scientists from 60 nations approved a new definition of the kilogram on Friday. For over a hundred years, the weight of a kilogram was based on a hunk of metal (Platinium Iridium to be precise) in France.

For industries and research that depend on pinpoint measurement accuracy, basing our measurement on a hunk of metal resulted in minor discrepancies over time. However, with Friday’s vote, the scientists agreed to base it on the “Planck’s constant” – a value that will stay constant over time.

Jon Pratt, one of the leading scientists, grinned with pride as he acknowledged a symbolic moment. As the Washington Post put it beautifully – “It is an acknowledgment of an immutable truth — that nature has laws to which all of us are subject. And it’s one more step toward a lofty dream — that, in understanding nature’s laws, scientists can help build a better world.”

To summarize, we had a certain approach to measuring something important. Scientists realized that there was a better way. So, they figured out a path to the better way and had peers from all over the world sign off on the change.

At this time of contention and discord, that is such a big deal.

I am grateful to the scientific community for showing us how change for the better gets done.

The pragmatic approach

I was in the midst of an engaging and perspective shifting conversation with someone who’d given thoughtful consideration to big ideas like the effects of climate change on our species, the effect of the evolution of modern medicine on the notion of  “death” (will it be a choice soon?), among others.

It was a fascinating conversation – one of those that gets you thinking about ideas well beyond your current host of minor problems.

As we approached the end of it, I asked this person how he balanced the perspective from thinking about problems like climate change with having to, for example, close a deal next week. He responded half jokingly – “Because this is the life I’ve been given and I want to make sure it doesn’t suck.”

I’ve reflected on that note a bunch since our conversation. It struck me as the definition of pragmatic. Through his career (a very successful one), he’s done a great job “making sure it doesn’t suck.” And, in doing so, he’s acquired the resources required over time to effect meaningful change to the causes he cares about.

There’s a lot of attention given to romantic pursuits of problems that disregard practical considerations. But, at least in my experience, the pragmatic approach – especially when combined with thoughtfulness and long term planning – is often very effective.

Shopping for clothing – mixing outcome and process

We went to a Target outlet recently to purchase a piece of winter clothing. We’d looked it up online and it was supposed to be in stock at this particular outlet. After combing through the relevant aisles, we finally learnt from the customer service desk that the “in stock” status on their app isn’t the most reliable.

The natural response here might be to say this was a bad outcome. We drove a bit longer to get to this particular outlet and failed to get what we wanted.

But, that would completely negate the process. We did our research, found the one spot where we’d find what we were looking for, and then learnt that their stock status isn’t the most reliable. There’s not much we’d do differently.

It is one thing to know that it is important to separate outcomes and processes. But, it is quite another thing to actually do it when we encounter small outcome setbacks everyday. I’ve learnt to view incidents like this one as practice sessions. As we build our muscle memory to evaluate processes instead of evaluating outcomes, we invest in more learning focused, thoughtful, and happier versions of ourselves.

PS: We ended up finding another version of what we wanted online. It easy to take it for granted – but, online shopping is such a game changer.

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.