Monday, July 27, 2015

Just a quick note. As many of you know, I'm involved in ProductCamp Atlanta this year as a volunteer. I've been working to push existing ProductCamp videos into a YouTube Channel and thought that you might be interested. You can find the Channel here:

(also published to LinkedIn)

-- John

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Adapting to Change

Adaptation is Essential

Stating the Obvious

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
― Albert Einstein

It may sound obvious, but in healthy systems things change often and frequently. The fact that change exists is less important than how we respond to change. I've worked for several companies that have a poor response to change - it's both treated negatively and the unfortunate requesting the change is treated as a pariah. I've worked for other companies that embrace change as opportunity, treating change as a normal consequence of doing business in an ever changing world.

So what am I writing about here? I'd like to explore how you can help change the attitude of your team regarding change (so it's more positive) and review a few methods to embrace change for a better outcome. I'm using the larger context of "company" in what follows as I believe for this stuff to work it needs to spread across the enterprise. However, what I'm going to write about can apply at the team or macro level too.

First we should establish a list of assumptions:
  1. Businesses that are successful, with very few exceptions, are constantly dealing with change, whether in the market, through competition or ideally due to company innovation.
  2. How a business responds to the changes listed above, can often have a critical impact to company success.
  3. Many times changes are external, a response is required and the speed of that response becomes critical to success.
  4. With software development and new technologies changing the market landscape so quickly, multiply everything above by several factors.

Don't be Oblivious

"I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed."
- George Carlin

Before talking about change I think we first need to have a frank discussion about why companies have such a hard time recognizing that they need to change. I've found that there's a very bad trait that becomes inherent in some companies that are very successful - it's the fallacy of success. What happens is that for whatever reason, a company is extremely successful (often through timing and luck and NOT through skill) regardless of questionable practices, to the point that the executive management doesn't take criticism well if at all. This is exhibited when employees recognize inherent flaws or risks in the business, the information is disseminated and consequently ignored. It becomes a "we can do no wrong" attitude that can actually be quite self-fulfilling as long as the market doesn't change, or there are little to no external forces exerted on the company's success. Because of the success management argues that their initial plan is doing well so why change? These are companies that are often blindsided - when change happens they're left in the proverbial creek without a paddle.

It was this mindset that propelled many a start-up during the dot-com era - pretty much unlimited funding, a good idea and huge growth in numbers led many companies to expand quickly with little idea of revenue acquisition. It was all about registrations and not real users. Think about how many of those companies have survived, or better yet, how many of those companies you remember that were hugely successful, only to wither on the vine or become acquisition targets with little benefit to the founders on exit. I have three boxes of swag in my basement - they are full of stuff like frisbees, squeeze toys, pens, mouse pads - you name it and I have it. I acquired this stuff at any number of gigantic conferences (remember Internet World?) and not one of those companies is still around. Someday I hope someone will be interested in that stuff as a research project - or I may just take it to recycling...

Before exploring change factors, we should consider company culture.


“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.”
― John Dryden

Just as the example above provides some insight about how a company can fail, there are some very good habits that can lead a company from moderate to great success. In most cases, these companies are very good at dealing with change. For it to work, the company's corporate culture has to drive the ideal of change and responsiveness from the top down through example. This needs to be reinforced via company core values, communication and message delivery style; and every level of the company needs to buy into the idea. It also needs to be an automatic response - more good habit than reflex, to proactively look for the opportunity to any change rather than finding reasons not to change. Not that you should jump every time someone says frog, but you have good processes to evaluate change with a managerial support structure to effectively deal with it.

Too often business have complex change control procedures that act as a barrier to change rather than determining if change is first necessary and second worthwhile. Instead its become the norm to only take on change after some upper level management type has "signed off" - more as a CYA technique than as a considered opinion. This often results in someone holding the bag, so to speak, if things "Go South." You'll often see old-school management types keep some unqualified sycophant around so any big problem can be pinned on that unfortunate soul so he/she can be sacrificed if needed.

“It's too late to be studying Hebrew; it's more important to understand even the slang of today.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walking


“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
― Bruce Lee

So how to be successful or at least survive change? It's called adaptation - just as some cultures found that survival could be found in assimilation, it's often necessary to consume a change rather than spitting it out. This is most important when confronted by an external pressure, like a change in the market or the presence of a new, disruptive technology. I've always liked that term "Go with the flow" but not in the original context (which as I recall was more of a concession to events), but rather as the idea of adding your voice to the chorus to make beautiful music! Take the positive aspects as opportunity and you can survive devastation - you may get bruised a bit along the way but even those bruises can be turned into learning experiences. If the task looks insurmountable, try breaking it up into smaller, more manageable pieces. Remember, a journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step!
A good recent example of adaptation is the current incarnation of used-to-be internet giant AOL. The platform has lost most of its user-base and has become little more than a landing page - however due to brand recognition and fairly-decent news feeds, the portal still gets a worthwhile number of visitors, which equate to eyeballs and advertizing revenue. The company adapted and parlayed that adaptation into a $4B+ acquisition by Verizon - not bad!

Being Nimble

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
― Charles Darwin

Being nimble is a bit different from being adaptable - in my mind being nimble is defined by your ability to respond to change quickly. If your company has a host of processes you have to go through to make even small changes, then you're probably always going to be behind in execution. Somehow, you have got to spearhead an effort to get things into production environments quicker, remembering the resource triangle (cost, time and quality) and determining what a release can take advantage of to increase speed (hopefully it's cost and not quality, but at times quality can be relaxed - it's all about what you're trying to get out quickly).

To illustrate this idea, how many of you have heard about garage-style start-ups who have pushed what amounts to beta software into the public for the sake of speed. If they are lucky, they'll gain a ton of market share and not lose it due to crappy quality. These start-ups are much more nimble than most large corporate entities - while those are still writing requirements and making marketing plans, the smaller companies are scooping up all the customers, effectively diminishing the pool of fish .

"When you're finished changing, you're finished."
- Ben Franklin

Change Can Be Painful

“We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity.”
― H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

So what's the plan, man? How, with all this opportunity hanging around there can we best use what's happening to be successful, and make great software? This is fairly old-school, but I recommend as a first step to perform the SWOT exercise. I won't go into too much detail about how to do that - it can be a topic on its own and there's plenty of information available online. You're basically coming up with an analysis of the company's current state and how it stands in its current environment. Please look it up and it will give you some ideas. I do have a recommendation - use the largest pool that you can to come up with your SWOT - that includes executives, middle-management, your core employee pool and anyone else that half-way knows your business, even vendors. Make sure you are clear with everyone that there are no wrong answers and that there will be no repercussions to those who express honest opinions. This needs to be a frank look in the mirror.

I remember the first SWOT I attended. I had never heard of the technique, which was brought to one of my first companies by the COO who was a GE alumni. We got the entire company (about 50 employees) all together in an auditorium, explained what we were about to do and then proceeded to come up with an honest assessment. From that analysis, we had a foundation that we integrated into our company plans, software and sales roadmap, and initiatives and thinking of our leadership - shake well and you have something worthwhile. We ended up being extremely successful and became profitable within 3 years, surviving the dot-bomb. I won't attribute our success to the on-paper results of the SWOT, rather to the interaction that helped to shape our habits, creating a consistent message across all levels of the business, and aligning a program that considered all aspects: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. We were also very adaptable and nimble (it's also how I got my first taste of agile software processes and frameworks). Not to say it was all gravy - there were certainly mistakes made, however we were fairly good at learning from those mistakes, improving our business and processes; and having some fun along the way. Thanks for reading.

-- John

"Adaptability is not imitation. It means power of resistance and assimilation."
- Mahatma Gandhi

(also posted to LinkedIn)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Writing a White Paper

Writing a White Paper

I think that most of us have seen white papers before - I know the first time I was exposed to one it was in relation to what amounted to a sales promotion. Basically the company was defending its marketing position through the use of a white paper (I believe it was Forrester or perhaps Gartner, who both seem to write quite a few of them and in general are both fairly well respected in the industry). I believe the original concept behind a white paper was to produce an authoritative research document with the end goal of creating correlations or interpretations of raw data. Historically most of these were used by government (and in particular US government) to identify trends and produce some type of synthesis of the information that would then be used to form recommendations; and often the task would involve the use of university researchers - basically experts in fields that could make sense of the data and then produce a report that could be easier to consume, presumably by governmental branches (note that a lot of this type of research has been given to data scientists who have even more training in looking at trends and anti-trends). I'm not sure about why they are "white" but my conjecture is that it's supposed to mean that the opinions are external and objective; as opposed to regular reports which tend to be subjectively sourced for internal use only.
As I've already indicated, most of the white papers I've seen up until the last 10 years or so were put together by companies that specialize in producing them. Conceptually, government and most companies tend to make some assumptions that support a position or action and it's easier to defend those assumptions when an independent resource has produced a data-based opinion. If you read my last article on Inductive communication you'll see a trend. Academia tends to take a lot of raw data and while scientifically examining trends and anti-trends, tries to make sense of what is being observed and provide some reasoning or hypothesis regarding what is happening. The next step is to narrow the data set or look for additional data points to support the hypotheses - you start wide then narrow things down to proof your ideas. With the most current trend and approach, you first make some guesses then find data to support those assumptions - it takes out the appetizer which tends to be less rewarding and very time consuming, and goes directly for the entree, so to speak. Think of this as more of a marketing document and less of an objective research paper.

I'm not here to explore the validity of the approach - as with anything it can be flawed and if you're one of those companies that professionally writes white papers as an output, especially to get paid, you'll tend to find data and correlations that match assumptions. Sometimes this can lead companies into making strategic mistakes, but more often than not the initial assumptions are sound and the white papers help to get projects funded and off-the-ground. And the whole point is often to start with something instead of a back-of-the-napkin idea. I've been describing the development of the white paper concept and how I've seen it change over time:
  1. White papers as independent data analysis, correlation and theory using deductive reasoning and making sense of it all.
  2. White papers as proof using inductive reasoning to defend a hypothesis
  3. The latest trend, doing internal research to find information defending projects.
My focus will be on that third trend as I find it very interesting and I've experienced it first hand very recently. How did something which is supposed to be from independent AKA 3rd Party resources become an internal construct?
Most recently I've been asked to develop a series of white papers - these were asked for by our executive committee to be presented to help defend our division's current product roadmap and how ti relates to the overall company vision. I had witnessed a different group go through this exercise and frankly wasn't very thrilled to be caught up in a bunch of documentation and research. From my observations of this other group I noticed, very superficially, a consistent trend that involved: intent, due diligence (research), craft in writing, submission, review and rejection for edits, repeat ad nauseam. I could tell by the reactions, day-to-day from some of my product management coworkers (other teams, not my own) that what they worked upon was a bit of an exercise in futility. Most of the papers had gone through a revision history in excess of 30 versions, some exceeded 50 and many of the edits were really what I would call nitpicky - e.g. moving text two pixels to the right, changing the object color by a shade or recreating tables for consistent font size and usage. Stuff that for most of us who work in the agile world would find excruciating and yes, the outcry was robust, at least within our small sub-community within the company. This was all piled on top of a huge list of requested white papers - in fact there was so much research going on that there was a Senior Product Manager in charge of the project - sort of a PdM of White Papers (a paper crown would be appropriate, no?). Not to say that there isn't any value in consistency, presentation and messaging, but when you think about what's being asked for as content, you would also think that it would be more important to deliver good information rather than perfect, meticulous formatting? But I digress...
So with a bit of hesitation and a list of white papers being asked for from my group, I began tackling the task at hand. Originally I had three to do, but with a new hire to our team that went down to two. Fortunately, as with most projects there were already several artifacts available to me in the form of analysis by various business units and in some cases earlier attempts at white papers (at least they were labeled thus).
So how did these white papers turn out? Well, as you may infer, I started writing the papers with a bit of a negative mindset - no one wants to do "make work" for the sake of doing work. What was the most interesting was that in preparing my work and doing research, I actually found out a lot of useful information that began to change my perception of the entire task. It started to transform from boring documentation into something else, something much more useful. As with any research I first start with a diagram. It's my opinion that if I can't explain a process using a basic flow diagram, then what business do I have trying to explain it in detailed requirements? As with anything, one diagram suggests another and another and then you find yourself editing the diagram as you discover new ways of representing what's happening. You also start to see exception cases and allow for those. You also have a better view of what's important and what isn't so your MVP is much better.
Acting as a Product Owner for agile software teams causes you to become very focused on the task at hand. You end up often in a state where you can't see the forest for all the trees - this process of producing a white paper helped me to put things into perspective from a macro level. Rather than taking the least path to implementation, you begin to see where you might miss something that's part of the overall picture. Wow, I was suddenly propelled into the best aspect of Product Management - taking information and creating a strategic treatise on the "ideal product" and figuring out what baby steps need to be in place to get the whole product into production. That's the first real benefit of white papers - it's not the document your produce, it's the underlying research and thinking about the project that's important. It provides both better context and better overall product vision, that in turn produces a better product roadmap.
So what's next? One of the problems with working in a very tight team of product managers is that we all trust each other quite a bit. When we present to one another we accept much of what is presented and instead focus questions on the implementation rather than questioning some of the basic premises. As a result, when we distributed out white papers to each other there wasn't a lot of useful feedback. It wasn't until we shared papers in review meetings with a much larger group (that included both the BU head and also heads of engineering) that the really hard questions began. It was at this point that the next really useful benefit of the white papers became apparent - that the vision at the top began to be aligned with the thinking at the product level. The feedback and comments had us grumbling at first, however it did more to align our overall efforts, our product roadmap, and our thinking with the head of our division than during any other presentation or meeting. To me this was much more than a happy accident, this was a clinical example of how to align everyone for success! In turn, the message was passed to our corporate executives and now the unified message is passed in everything we say, do or release. This more than made the effort worthwhile and in effect transcended the dull work of writing white papers into something much more.
So White Papers... a waste of time? To answer this question, it really depends on what you are doing, the reason you are doing it, and what you ultimately do with the information. I started with the idea that these white papers were a waste of time, but in doing them found something more. The key to making these something other than words on paper is having the discussions that make them useful. In my case, the experiences became something much better than the sum of their parts. If everything worked this way, we would all be successful and every product would compete for greatness - we would make mediocrity history and raise the bar on all products. I think these papers had that level of impact on us and can only hope you too experience the same.
-- John

(also published to LinkedIn)

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Fallacy of Converting Requirements into User Stories

Borrowed from

The Fallacy of Converting Requirements into User Stories

I don't know how many of my Product Management peers (or those others of my friends who work with scrum teams) have experienced a transmogrification/migration of a waterfall/RUP team to agile, but one common element seems to be the initial attempt of moving existing requirements into User Story format. Invariably a list of requirements is simply moved into an agile project with little or no editing - and it's amazing how many shops think that this completes the transfer. I also had a very interesting experience while working with a fledgling team in a new jira implementation which I'd like to relate.

The story of Excess

I had come into a new team that was trying to adopt to a scrum framework. While the product manager had some agile experience, it turned out to be rather sub-optimal to what would be considered a good, best-practices based agile approach (that PdM wasn't me, by the way). The requirements that he had inherited when hired defined a fairly large online application with multiple components include most of those you usually find: user creation, onboarding and maintenance; order lifecycle management; business process management; reporting and analytics, etc. Those requirements had been collected via existing business analysts and put into a traditional requirements document by an outsourced company via a product management requirements application (I don't recall which one, but basically each topic, section, sub-section, use casee, etc cascaded in an orderly fashion using numbering: - you've probably encountered this before).

In a rush to get these into user story format, this PdM had all the data exported from this tool into a flat file (spreadsheet) and then imported into the adopted agile management software (in this case, jira). Since very little manipulation of the data was done before the import, this resulted in line items defining topic headers turning into User Stories with little to no content. I'm talking thousands of user stories with hundreds of summaries and no descriptions. Trying to sort this out, this PdM then had the company license a plug-in called "structure" (or something similar) that would then straighten out all the stories into some type of readable hierarchy. The whole process ended up taking several months. At some point I was asked my opinion about the whole thing (or perhaps I saw the result in conversation and just opened my big mouth, I don't recall which) I asked "Why don't you just start with the first component and decompose it into useful stories, describing an MVP to get the project going?" - actually my question wasn't that elegantly phrased, but I want to get this story going). The argument against doing this method was that so much time had already been spent with the current export/import mess. Of course this went on for several months - and the development team wasn't very happy with these stories or the way things were being prioritized. I eventually convinced the PdM to try my way and junked all those existing stories into an unused project.

So what went wrong, exactly? 

  1. The product manager was pushed into doing something with the existing requirements so the project could get moving. For the sake of speed and being able to claim "There's 2000 user stories in the backlog" the export/import wasn't thought out very well. At minimum, when you use this type of approach, you should consider how the data is formatted (perhaps by doing a few sample records and seeing how things go?) and making adjustments on either side of the ETL or via a manual clean-up of the data file. To me pulling in requirements like this is probably a good way to have starting, stubbed-in topics but lack just about everything else necessary for a good agile backlog of user stories.
  2. Trying to fix this kind of mess causes it's own time-suck - months were used in trying to first interpret the lack of canonical structure, then by selecting software that made an agile tool more like a traditional waterfall requirements tool, the stories themselves gained very little (it ended up just making things easier to read for the PdM, otherwise there was little to gain). Months ended up being used to fit all the user stories into the hierarchy that the structured tool provided. That time would have been better spent establishing a method of establishing MVP for each project phase and working with the scrum team to determine the best approach (this last bit was made difficult as the team was still being hired - the product manager did the best he could with what he had).
  3. The third factor had more to do with time pressure and the need to derive some value from the work that had already been done. I'll focus on that a bit in the next section as a potential process solution.

So what is a better way?

It's always easier to look back and figure out what went wrong and fortunately we all survive to learn from mistakes. I'm going to cheat a bit and limit the solution to converting existing documentation rather than go all high-and-mighty about how the requirements were derived. We who have been practicing agile and scrum for a long time realize that there are many approaches to translating requirements into user stories and much depends on the expectations of the team, company and established principles. Some methods are good, some not so good, and sometimes we have little choice in the matter. For me, I like to have conversations with the people using the software (the business, consumer or end-user) and work backwards towards the solution, focusing on the desired outcome rather than on the tactical implementation - that latter part I think ideally should be determined by the entire team. Unfortunately in shops that are adopting agile, there's a lot of baggage that we all have to contend with and sometimes it's just not worth the effort to overhaul the entire process - better to make small improvements that lead to big changes over time. So how would I approach a similar scenario as my story above?
  1. First I would carefully read and try to understand the existing documentation. Presumably it's been done well and is worth circulating to engineering and executive leadership - after all someone had to go to the effort of putting it together. I would also do some spot checking against any critical requirements to ensure that enough due diligence was done while putting the document together, by validating those assumptions with end-users.
  2. Next, I would circulate the overall effort with engineering leadership to help define the near and future goals of the software. This is to establish some design principles and at least create a contextual framework focused on data, objects, interfaces and general principles, especially around the moving, calling and updating of data. Your engineers usually already have some coding standards - now is the time to get buy-in from the group so there's a bit of consistency in implementation against the overall project scope. The outcome of this should be some good architectural diagrams of the various components necessary to get to the endgame. This can then suggest the best method of execution and the start of user story creation.
  3. Using the existing document, I would then see if the topic headers fit the suggested method of execution - the higher-level topics become epics that are further decomposed into user stories. Sometimes the sub-topics fit well, and other times they don't so they may not be very helpful (generally they are).
  4. The guts of the requirements are then used to write the user stories, which should be abstracted. Typical requirements are too specific - they tell the user what to do. Instead the approach should be one that tells the developer what the end-user want's to accomplish as a foundation of a collaborative user story. The baseline requirements could still be useful in determining the number of field values that may be required due to some external dependencies, etc but in general the perspective of the story itself should focus on who has a need rather than what needs to be done.
  5. At this point the high-level topics for the near-term should be fairly well defined, with less definition for the other parts of the project. As each component part is elevated in priority in the backlog, each story is evaluated by the entire scrum team with a focus on context and what the feature is trying to solve. The story is edited to make sure that we're all on the same page and there's a clearly defined acceptance criteria so we all know whether the story has been successfully completed.
So easy, right? Like I wrote earlier, its much easier to determine what went wrong and suggest something better in retrospect, rather than while things are happening. The fallacy that I refer to in the title is the assumption that a Requirement from traditional waterfall or RUP development means the same thing as a User Story in Agile/scrum. They simply don't, and because the intent of each is different, relabeling doesn't work.
Borrowed from
I remember my first experience with agile - we did exactly the wrong thing. I basically took a traditional requirements document and did a search-and-replace of "Requirement" to "User Story" - see, since we were also doing scrums, we're doing agile! It actually took quite a bit of time and experience to realize that what we were doing was adopting some of the ceremonies and artifacts without really understanding how things fit together. The problem is that often even adopting small parts of the agile framework can produce a positive result where a development team sees improvement. It's my opinion that there are as many teams that think they have successfully adopted agile as there are those where agile adoption has failed, each for the same lack of understanding.
-- John
(also published on LinkedIn)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Using Inductive Thinking to Communicate Strategically

The Problem Statement

You're making a presentation before your company executives and two slides into the deck the CEO says "Can you just tell me how we're going to fix it?" The first time you encounter this you may be surprised and full of anxiety (nothing like being challenged). I'm here to tell you that if you don't prepare your presentations to cater to your audience, you've failed as a product manager. When we all start our careers in product management we are rarely afforded the opportunity to interact directly with executives (I know there are exceptions, particularly in start-ups where teams are small, but this is an exception rather than the rule). As our careers progress, we have more and more of these encounters and I'd like to introduce a concept that may be unfamiliar to many of you - or in many cases you've already figured this out but I'll formalize the concept a bit. In general the topic is about inductive thinking and applying the technique to communication, especially in presentation.

The Pyramid Principle

The interaction we have as product managers with technology teams, customers and executive management can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, we are placed right in the middle of where all the action occurs, where we can have the most influence on the outcome and great visibility towards progress, sort of a 50 yard sideline view (for those of you familiar with American Football). For most who have product management roles, that provides great incentive to "get out of bed in the morning." So if you're like me and have been doing this for a while, you've already come up with some of these techniques - in particular I relate these ideas to some journalistic training I was exposed to in school called the Pyramid Principle to communicating (specifically in how to write an article for the traditional print media newspaper - I may be dating myself here). The Pyramid Principle is fairly simple and many of you may already be using it, whether you realize you are or not. Basically, you begin your writing with a very short summary of what your article is about. This is usually just a few sentences or a short paragraph. The second section expands on what you have summarized with additional, second level details - basically the "meat" of what you are trying to communicate, providing enough details that the reader can understand your opening statement (the tip of the pyramid). Finally, you provide all the details that underlie your assumptions, providing the foundation or base of the pyramid. In journalism this technique provides two functions. The first is to provide a summary for those that are just reading headlines so the largest amount of topics can be included on the front page or first few pages. If the reader is interested he'll continue reading and if it's of great interest look towards the back sections of the paper to find all the details. The second function it provides is to fulfill this mantra: "Tell the reader what you're going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them." While in general that last idea is a bit different (it's very effective to reinforce teaching, but in regards to the Pyramid Principle it's not exactly the same concept) fro pyramiding, it does have a similar effect, just a different impact. Inductive thinking and communication takes the Pyramid Principle and applies it a bit differently by placing the solution first.

The Difference Between Deductive and Inductive Thinking

So how does Inductive thinking apply? Let's first go over the what most of you are already familiar with, deductive reasoning - made most famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective character Sherlock Holmes. In The Sign of the Four, Homes says "...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth (sic)" In deductive reasoning, you use top down logic based on premises assumed to be true to reach a logical conclusion. Doyle's detective takes this concept and uses a series of elimination steps to remove possibilities until a single conclusion emerges - the issue with this type of analysis is that sometimes you're asked to "boil the ocean" to get to an answer. With inductive reasoning just the opposite occurs. You select examples to supply evidence for your conclusion and use logic to support the answer. Deductive reasoning works best when the problem has a limited number of factors and the process of elimination leads to a definitive conclusion. Inductive reasoning works best when time is of the essence against a large number of data or factors; and you have a good understanding of a solution based on what you know to be true, using cases to support your conclusion. Sound familiar? I think deductive reasoning works very well for troubleshooting and fixing bugs, as in software development we often know the context of existing systems. Inductive reasoning resonates well when making decisions on new features, especially those that have little or no existing context (think new opportunities or "green field" development).

Applying What You've Read

So how does this apply as a strategy for communication, especially when communicating upward? You need to understand what's happening in the minds of those vaulted executives. In general, executive management is bombarded with information, often on subjects where there is little context, experience or time to invest, making it very difficult to come to a quick, reasoned decision. There's usually also a huge backlog of information and decisions needing to be made from multiple sources, vying for time and attention. Using inductive principles, you can best apply your thoughts to appeal the most efficiently to people who make decisions that are saddled with too much information. You open your communication with both a summary of the problem or opportunity, and a definitive solution. The rest of your article or messaging provides supporting arguments derived from the artifacts and any details are either pushed to the back or made available as appendices. I use the term solution with article and presentation for a reason - in general your format is as important as your message. It's my opinion that to fully illustrate a problem and solution, using diagrams or graphs of information are easier to both communicate effectively and for the reader to absorb. If you can get all this into a few PowerPoint slides, all the better, as that software has great utilities for diagramming and representing information graphically.
This technique is also sometimes called "Answer First" - instead of building to a conclusion you state the problem and solution first, then use the rest of the information to build your case(s). This all starts with a hypothesis as "the answer" and to support your decision, you should focus on two questions: What is it? (Hypothesis) and Why should you do it? (Controlling Idea/Answer) To make sense of this you start with a controlling ideal like "The hiring of FTEs should be increased in 2015 to execute the new service level strategy worth $300M in cost savings." You then apply a controlling structure in everything you communicate to reinforce your supporting ideas, justify your decisions and get buy-in to what you are asking to be done. An effective structure involves two aspects and two key benefits:
  1. Arranges ideas into distinct, logical groups so it's easier for the reader/viewer to absorb and remember the information
  2. Putts emphasis on the supporting logic so the reader/viewer arrives at the conclusion you intend.
  3. Serves as a roadmap for analysis to help you drive toward a finished product
  4. Enables syndication of the story prior to analysis to allow you to get that coveted "buy-in" so you can make changes easily - the fail early and often scenario.
You'll notice that you can apply this structure to everything you do, from analysis, to presentations, to business cases to messaging.

So what are the pitfalls of this approach?

  1. It's still very possible for the problem and solution to be confused and/or challenged if it's over-simplified.
  2. Sometimes it's better to develop a more deductive approach rather than an inductive one, depending on the audience.
  3. Inductive reasoning itself can be flawed - by myopically selecting only those cases that support the argument it's easy to disregard competing cases which can lead to a poor outcome.
  4. PowerPoint (slide) format is great for communicating small amounts of information but you don't want to fall into the habit of 100+ slide decks - you're basically ensuring that most of the information won't be read. A general rule-of-thumb is that if the information is to be presented live, try to keep the ideas within the first 20 slides or so. If there's special emphasis on the data and means to a conclusion, it's probably more appropriate to use a different format.
  5. Decks are no substitution for actual conversation. Think if your presentation first as a means of conveying ideas (diagrams and charts), second as a pre-presentation resource (it's great when those you're presenting to have good, relevant questions) and finally as a leave-behind (your executives will want to cross reference your information in the future).
In any case, I hope that I've provided something for you to think about.
And now for some disclaimers. This article merges some of my experiences with some ideas garnered from training I was exposed to several years ago. I tried to keep most of the terms used fairly generic and broad of scope as I don't want to infringe on anyone's IP. I'm also not sure who derived the training so if there is an attribute please let me know - the diagrams and images used are my own.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Product Management Soft Skills

You old softy...
As a preface to this, I was asked recently about how I had come up with a solution to a problem and I started explaining my thought process and the rationale behind my recommendations. Much of my explanation was around the use of insight and experience to dissuade or direct the conversation to a mutually beneficial conclusion, somehow getting my way (which I considered the best solution) rather than what the client was specifically asking to be done. I was asked "How do I learn how to do that?" This led me into thinking about soft skills and how they can impact a project and the success of the product manager. It seems a lot of hiring managers put great emphasis into experience and degrees and yes, these can go a long way towards your career goals, as does training (for instance, I'd recommend to any aspiring product manager to take the CSPO course). The more environments, the more applications, the more businesses you've had the fortune of working with and within, the better you'll be able to use those experiences and apply them to product management. However that is only part of the story. I think the traits best explored for improvement have to do with soft skills that really amount to a single concept - that's how well you develop relationships. In general I'm referring to the tool kit everyone carries around and uses whether you are aware of it or not, that enables you to be effective to and with those around you. I'll break these down into several categories: communication, empathy, context, data, shared ideas and goals, passion, and trust.
In nearly all product management job listings there's a common element that's generally wrapped up in a couple of lines that have to do with effective communication. As a product management professional, our job is really to delight the customer or consumer with what we are building - this applies to software, hardware or just about anything else. The first soft skill that is essential to being good at our job, is having the ability to translate what we hear, develop an understanding, and be able to retell what you have heard in your own words. This, combined with thoughtful conversation that includes back-and-forth questioning, leads to a shared understanding and allows you to further relate your understanding effectively to those on your team responsible for executing the objective, in my case, great and usable application software. From a high level, we call these requirements and some of the artifacts may turn into SOWs, functional requirements, epics and user stories - whatever works for your group. Everything begins with conversation and some type of validation process to develop a shared understanding, which you will do multiple times through the life of a project, whether small or large. In regards to communication, I believe it's more important to develop the skill of listening rather than speaking - it's difficult to understand what's being said if you spend all your time talking. The follow-up skill is to ask good questions. I like the adage, "There are no stupid questions" - you should take this to heart and make no assumptions. If you are constantly fielding questions from development and having to pass them along to a business contact for clarification, then you have probably not asked enough questions at project inception, nor do you fully understand the project. It's OK for this to happen if you have little context (like in the very beginning or if you are new to product management), however it's part of your job to have this context beforehand so you can anticipate those questions. More on this later.
The next soft skill to develop is empathy. A fairly generic description is to place yourself in the shoes of those asking for the feature or those experiencing the problem. Until you fully understand what is being experienced, it's really difficult to create a good solution. I think in general we in software development spend too much time coming up with the next new, cool feature and not enough time understanding what is useful or needed. We tend to take for granted those that are using the software we create on a day-to-day basis - the proof is all around us - how many times have you heard of some application releasing something that's held in so little regard it seriously impacts the company negatively? Sometimes we try to make things too complicated and this kills adoption. Other times we just plain miss the mark by providing something that no one really cares about. We need to use empathy to understand how our products are used and to access how important features are to our users. This will help us in developing good behavior-driven design in our products and we need to be able to provide this as context to our teams. Empathy also is very important when interacting with our team members. You need to understand what they are doing to some extent, or more importantly you need to be able to detect when someone is frustrated, either with a task or in trying to execute against their understanding of a user story or requirement. Have you ever had a story fail over to the next sprint over-and-over, greatly exceeding the original point estimate? Have you tried to empathize with those executing the story to attempt an understanding of why the story isn't done, or do you start complaining? It's through empathy that we become better understanding, and consequently, better at delivery.
I'll go on to context next, as I've already mentioned it in the two preceding soft skills on my list. Understanding how to use context is important as it provides the environment from which you will become the most successful. So how is this a soft skill? I think we take for granted when writing requirements how important context is to your team members. Often when I get a question like "why do they need this?" or "what are they trying to accomplish" it identifies a contextual problem - your team should already understand where a user story or requirement is going prior to the start of coding. To become skillful with context, a product manager needs to fully understand why the requirement exists. To understand why it exists, one needs to comprehend what problem or opportunity is being solved. Just as a good book needs a setting to establish the framework of a story, a good requirement needs context to fill in the gaps so there is a common understanding of what underlies the requirement. As a soft skill, to be effective the product manager needs to both understand the context and relate it meaningly to the team. It's this latter bit that identifies the execution of context as a skill and it's something that's often missing when working with a team. To me, being able to use affinity to something that's already been built, or using common analogies to illustrate concepts is very important. These may be supplemented with process diagrams but for me, white boards are essential to both describe the action, provide context and to answer questions - they're also a great way to identify gaps or issues.
How is data a soft skill? It's not in itself, rather it's a reference that needs to be recognized as important for many reasons. For those of you who have read my blog or other posts, you'll know I harp on data all the time, and for a reason. As a soft skill, you must recognize the importance of data, develop methods of acquiring it; and engender skills to interpret, refine, filter and express that data into a useful outcome. What I like the best about data is that if you know and understand it, you will be able to influence everything. As a tool, data is more of a crowbar that allows you to intersect with existing efforts, interject new thinking when needed and break heads as a last resort. Noting wins an argument faster and more completely than having the data on hand to support your position. If you're ever done any debating, you'll know that having quotable references provides huge advantages and can deter long and heated arguments - the same goes with having data on hand and some analysis on how it impacts your projects. If you live by the need to have data for your decisions prior to pitching them, this tool can take you a long way in executing your product vision successfully.
Which brings us to the next soft skill, being able to foster an environment of shared ideas and goals. You might think of this as teamwork, but I don't consider teamwork a soft skill so much as how a good product manager provides insight to contribute to the ideal team. So from my perspective, teamwork itself isn't a soft skill, but rather having an ability to instill a common goal in the team so everyone is working towards the same outcome. Many of the artifacts around scrum are there to get the team working together within a sprint - what the product manager can bring to the table is an alignment from overall corporate goals, to business unit goals, to team goals and finally to sprint and release goals. The good product manager constantly reinforces those goals throughout the process and helps to redirect the team's thinking to achieving those goals throughout the development process. If you've ever worked in a very efficient team, you'll know what I'm referring to here - it's often displayed when someone on the team asks the question "How does this fit into the overall effort?" or "This seams contrary to the drive for revenue" or something similar. The question itself isn't as important to what it implies - that someone is thinking about how everything fits together instead of blindly coding specifically what is being asked to be built. Once again, there are no stupid questions...
It seems we all want passion in our lives - I think as a soft skill it's more about how that passion is expressed and how it communicates to others on the team and to your customers. At the deepest level, as a product manager you should be passionate about what you are doing - if you're not, then why are you doing it? I think many would disqualify passion as a soft skill, and I'm sure all of us have encountered people who were so passionate that they were actually detrimental to a project. The quality or soft skill we want to develop is to make use of that passion to reinforce the team, the project, and in general use it to focus and influence all participants into aligning into a common goal - success and enthusiasm in creating great products! Just as we use the other soft skills as parts of the product management tool kit, passion can be used to either bludgeon or enhance a team. As such it's both a sledgehammer and a micro-screwdriver (but typically it's the former and not the latter). The difficult part is learning when to let the passion out-of-the-bag and when to save it for later - for instance, using it at the wrong time can lead to confusion and accusations of "emotional problems" (nothing like being accused of bipolar disorder!) - instead I think we should use that passion as a general enthusiasm of the project and team; and save real outburst for when they can be the most effective. We also must be very careful not to get carried away and allow it to have the opposite effect (what happens when it's used inappropriately).
The final soft skill and perhaps it's more an outcome of all the rest than a skill itself, is trust. Everything that we do as product management professionals leads to building relationships. To have good relationships, each party needs to trust the other. I often hear about transparency, communication, face-to-face meetings, etc to improve the design and build process, but really all of these are vehicles for the same thing - building trust. It's much easier to empathize with team members on a project when you have met them personally. When you have the trust of your business, your customers and your team, there's very little you can't accomplish. It's even possible to come in on time and under budget! So how do you get this trust and how can it be leveraged? if you think back to how I began with the idea of relationships, it's something that's difficult to quantify, but we all tend to have some idea about how well things are going. When things are going extremely well, the trust level tends to be very high. The opposite it true when things are going poorly. When you are questioned regarding a product decision, it's usually because there is no trust or that trust is in question. This becomes a culmination of all the other soft skills - when you use all other tools effectively trust is enhanced. And also the opposite is true - if you fall short on one or more of these soft skills, if you have already developed a high degree of trust, then much of that lack is forgiven.
That's about it for me - understand I'm not saying that these are the only qualities or soft tools that we need to be successful, I'm sure there are many more. These are just those that I've thought about during the last 30 minutes or so.
-- John