Book Review: “UX Strategy” by Jaime Levy

Do you know the difference between an assumption and a hypothesis? 

An assumption is something that you suppose to be true, such as “Often PMs are engineers.” A hypothesis is also something that you suppose to be true, but it is stated in an unambiguous way so that it can be tested

This is the second edition of the famous book UX Strategy by Jaime Levy. While I wanted to read the first one, that never happened! There are a lot of tactical level details in this book which are omitted, in my view, because of the conciseness of the book, nevertheless it should serve as a good reference point! In short, if you want to give structure to your product development philosophy, you should give this book a try. One important caveat the author makes is that the UX strategy practice she described in the first edition is now synonymous with product strategy. So relax all the product managers out here!

Cover Image of the Book “UX Strategy” by Jaime Levy

I have tried capturing the essence of the book in the following headers

A. On Business Strategy, UX Strategy and Product Vision

A shared product vision means that your team and stakeholders have the same mental model for your future product

A good business strategy is one centered around the customer. This is why you must validate your presumed customer segment and their unmet needs. 

  • User experience (UX) strategy lies at the intersection of UX design and business strategy
  • It’s an empirical process! 
  • Experience strategy is the combination of business strategy and UX strategy. The “user experience,” or “UX,” is how a human experiences a digital product while attempting to accomplish a task or goal
  • A stellar UX strategy is a means to disrupt the marketplace through mental model innovation

As a product matures with a growing user base, it’s crucial to revisit your strategy. Conducting validation experiments to discover new customer segments, marketing channels, and revenue streams is a job that is never done

B. On Components of UX Strategy and Lean Startup

Four tenants of UX strategy are 1. Business strategy 2. Value innovation 3. Validated user research 4. Frictionless UX

The discovery phase is where UX strategy begins. The output of the discovery phase should be based on empirical evidence, such as getting direct input from target users before going straight from an idea to wireframes and development

The business strategy identifies the company’s guiding principles for how it will position itself and still achieve its objectives while beating the competition. For this to happen, the business must continually identify and utilize a competitive advantage

For a more mature company, the strategy is about building on the company’s core value proposition while trying to evolve the company’s infrastructure and internal processes to support that growth, often called digital transformation!

Business Model Canvas—customer segments, channels, value propositions, revenue streams, and customer relationships—are elements that are essential to creating a product’s online and offline experience

Lean startup made conducting validated user research a make-or-break aspect of moving forward on a product’s strategy. Validation is the process of confirming that a specific customer segment finds value in your solution

Lean Startup was proposed by Ash Maurya in 2010. Its components are 

  1. Customer segments 
  2. Problem 
  3. Unique value proposition 
  4. Solution 
  5. Channels 
  6. Revenue streams 
  7. Cost structure 
  8. Key metrics
  9. Unfair advantage

C. On User Research

Research hypotheses are the answer to the question “What are the most important things I need to learn to determine if my solution is desirable and viable?”

Use your research to validate your decisions and ensure that the product vision is aligned with the end user’s needs

  • The purpose of conducting user research is to understand the needs and goals of your target customer in order to inform the product’s value proposition
  • Confronting your target customers is nonnegotiable. We must learn as quickly as possible if the idea we are working on is stupid and worthless
  • Don’t take what your stakeholders or team says at face value. To learn what potential customers want, hunt them down in person
  • It’s contested if you should ask a customer what they would pay for a product. Customers may lowball you or have no idea. however, getting a sense of what customers expect to pay may be helpful for informing marketing and pricing strategies

Customer discovery is about listening and not selling. The customer interview is actually made up of three parts: the introduction, the screener, and the interview. When you ask the money-shot question, just capture the essence of the person’s response and, if appropriate, ask any relevant follow-up questions

Qualitative research relies on the observation and collection of nonnumerical insights such as opinions e.g. focus groups, contextual inquiries, and ethnographic studies.

  • Ethnographic research—the study of people in their natural environment—is all about getting to the deep, dark places, much like the qualitative personas
  • Do not begin interviews with small talk. Be professional!

D. On Value Proposition

A value proposition takes the form of a concise statement that summarizes the unique benefits customers can expect from your product or service i.e. value proposition is what a company promises to deliver to the customer

But value propositions are not valuable if they do not solve a real problem. The followings are the steps to define a value proposition

  • Define your primary customer segment
  • Identify your customer segment’s (biggest) problem
  • Create provisional personas based on your assumptions
  • Conduct customer discovery to validate or invalidate your provisional persona and problem statement
  • Reassess your initial value proposition based on what you have learned!

E. On Customer Segmentation and Value Creation

The customer segment is a group of people with a common need. These segments can be identified by a combination of demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes. For B2B products, you should create two personas: one for the person who will be paying for the product (i.e., the CTO) and one for the person who will be using the product

The problem statement should not presuppose a solution until the problem has actually been validated. By having product teams focus on the problem statement, they are more likely to have an open mind when ideating on solutions

Don’t confuse persona archetypes with stereotypes. Because personas provide a precise design target and also serve as a communication tool to the development team, the designers must choose a particular demographic characteristic with care

Because the provisional persona represents a group of people rather than one person, think of a concise, descriptive name to characterize the segment, such as “Gen X Parents in Los Angeles” or “Jewish Expats in Berlin.” It is useful to articulate common demographic denominators. Location is useful because it forces your team to pinpoint where a market for your product might exist instead of targeting the entire world

Motivation and behavior lie at the heart of value creation. Whatever product you are devising, it is crucial to understand what will motivate people to use it

F. On assessing customers’ needs and goals

What are their product-relevant hopes and dreams? What do they need to solve their primary pain point? What specific needs or goals aren’t being satisfied by available solutions or workarounds? What are the limitations they face? What is the job they are trying to get done?

  • This section is particularly important to get right because it will inform your product strategy the most. You want actionable statements that address underlying customer concerns

G. On Competition, its definition and analysis

Direct competitors are companies that offer the same or a very similar value proposition to your current or future customers. Indirect competitors offer a different value proposition, but somehow their solution may satisfy the needs of your target customer

Investigate your competition

  • What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? Why should customers come to you?
  • Conducting research on the competition is a crucial component of business strategy
  • The most efficient way to do a comprehensive competitive analysis is to collect all of the data in a matrix
  • Scour YouTube and Vimeo for publicly available demonstrations, tutorials, and product reviews. If you need more information than what you can find online, you may need to bring in an outside agency
  • For native mobile apps, you can currently get the last month’s downloads without an account using Sensor Tower
  • One always needs to be on your toes, agile, and ready to scrutinize your competitor’s newest ideas and immediately see how they might affect your product vision
  • By benchmarking the competition, you’ll find opportunities to create value by either innovating or optimizing the best UX and business model practices of other competing products
  • If something looks incomplete or missing, did you or whoever did the research overlook an obvious competitor that needs to be considered?
  • SWOT analysis of a nonexistent product or business moves us into the land of make-believe. This is why it’s more meaningful to use it for evaluating competitors from their perspective

H. On what to build?

Reaching beyond existing demand is a key component of achieving value innovation

To get your idea juices flowing on the key features, ask yourself these questions:

  • What will make your provisional personas (hypothesized customers) love this product?
  • What is the aha moment or part of the user’s journey online or offline that makes this product unique?
  • What is a major pain point that you are trying to solve that is not currently being solved by competitors?
  • What kind of workarounds are your potential customers currently doing to accomplish their goals?
  • What is the core benefit for your customers that is derived from the output or manipulation of either your proprietary algorithm and/or data set?
  • What is the functionality or page/screen layout that needs to be designed from scratch because there is no reference for it in any other digital product?

A product recommendation should answer the following questions

  • Can a specific feature be majorly improved or new technology integrated to help customers do something that currently is too complicated or time-consuming for the existing alternatives?
  • How can you make the product experience more personalized or “smart” to increase adoption and engagement?
  • Is there a new revenue stream or disruptive business model that can be experimented with?
  • How can you achieve a competitive advantage that your competitors can’t easily replicate?

If your analysis reveals that the initial value proposition is facing certain risks, your recommendations may need to suggest a pivot on the targeted customer segment or the specific problem

Your future customers need to want to choose your solution over any other because 

a) it’s significantly more efficient than what’s currently out there, 

b) it solves a pain point they didn’t know they had, and/or 

c) it creates an undeniable desire where none existed before

I. On Prototyping

As we prepare to prototype, we’re finally juggling all four of the tenets at the same time. Don’t burn your time, money, or efforts on a product that has not been tested and validated with target customers

These are the critical questions that we need our prototype to answer:

  1. Does the solution solve the problem or major pain points that the target customer expressed?
  2. Does the target customer find the key features valuable?
  3. Would the target customer pay for the product or use it in a way that can be monetized?

The answers to questions 1 and 2 help us validate our value proposition. The answer to question 3 will help us validate our business model

To keep the long story long, this line from the book has resonated well with me. Sometimes, people have fixed ideas, and no amount of research will change their minds. <Then ask yourself> Will I help this person make their product regardless of the research, or do I walk away?

Tough words, how many of us have the courage to walk the talk?! If you don’t get this part right – costs will have to be borne by the team, company and often careers of the people involved whether or not they realise it at that point. In short, don’t solve wrong problems for your own good!

—–

PS: Pop Quiz for UX Geeks!

Q. Do you know the difference between concierge, Wizard of Oz and mechanical turk? 

A. These are the techniques for conducting value proposition experiments!

  • Unlike concierge, customers don’t know that a human is in the loop in case of Wizard of Oz
  • When someone says they are mechanical-turking a product, it typically means they are building a frontend with a human-powered backend to manually simulate a complex digital product. It’s like a crowdsourced version of Wizard of Oz

Book Review: “Product-led SEO: The Why Behind Building Organic Growth Strategy” by Eli Schwartz

Did you know that the collective value of all organic traffic in the world is more than a trillion dollars!

First a little story. In 2011, when I started my product career with Naukri.com (India’s largest public Internet company by market cap as of Apr 2021 and leading classified site for over 20 years), I had ZERO idea about anything called SEO. Anyway I was tasked to work on the jobseeker acquisition and engagement funnel at the classifieds leader and happened to work with an inhouse SEO team. Frankly, I did not know anything about the term called “Product-Led SEO” or that term existed in wider usage until I happened to chance upon this book

As I progressed through this book “Product-led SEO: The Why Behind Building Organic Growth Strategy” by Eli Schwartz, I harked back to those times a decade back and could retrospectively see the work our team did fit well into the paradigm this book describes. Little surprising now that Naukri was able to fend off any impending threat from many job aggregators like Indeed, Mitula or Jooble as well LinkedIn to a certain extent during that time while successfully managing to navigate the web to mobile transition. The absolute traffic from SEO grew by 3x in those 4 years and in my assessment a sound SEO position remains a competitive moat for the company till today!

Book cover of "Product-led SEO" by Eli Schwartz
Cover Image of the Book: “Product-Led SEO…” by Eli Schwartz

Coming to this book, it is a good concise one arguing essentially that product-driven growth when combined with SEO’s strategic application can unlock growth for most companies. One should not expect hands-on SEO domain knowledge from the book, for which there are umpteen online resources one can refer to. However this book does neatly describe challenges any SEO leader and practitioner faces in a complex org and offers clear tips to navigate the org dynamics. The author, in my view, remains honest in recognising the limitations of SEO craft in driving low-cost growth which makes his advice throughout the book even more credible. So let’s dive in!

General Background about SEO

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization, and that it is a process of taking known rules of how search engines work and building it into a plan to improve upon the visibility

  • Product-Led SEO builds a great product for users first and optimizes for search second
  • Maximizing SEO visibility requires taking the known rules about search engine best practices and applying a level of creativity and logic to develop a strategic approach
  • Focusing efforts on technical SEO, on-page factors, or user-experience optimization together is essential to drive results through SEO

In general, these are the 5 stages of how Google or any search engine works 

1. Discovery 

  • Discovery is the algorithm that crawls the web to identify new pages and sites that Google has not previously indexed

2. Crawling 

  • Once a URL is discovered, Google has to decide whether it wants to expend the resources required to crawl the URL. It’s typically constrained by crawl budget for every site that Google enforces

3. Indexing 

  • The indexing algorithm determines how to cache a web page and what database tags should be used to categorize it
  • The indexing algorithm will decide whether to trust the content or not based on technical SEO signals on the page
  • The most important part in any SEO audit is to check whether links are getting indexed by Google

4. Ranking 

  • Ranking uses the information from the first three algorithms to apply a ranking methodology to every page

5. Intent understanding (BERT)

  • This NLP algorithm launched in 2018 doesn’t directly impact the rankings of websites for queries, it rewrites the actual queries to what Google believes the user is searching

Latest trends in SEO

1. Complaints that SEO is only getting harder are a byproduct of all the AI already included in the algorithm

  • Google doesn’t just have a better understanding of what its users want, it has used AI to dramatically change how it values links
  • This is the change with the biggest impact on users

2. Frequent software updates from Google including the the two biggest updates to its algorithms

  • The first update was called Panda rolled out in 2010. The goal of Panda was to flush out sites that used keyword matching just to rank on highly searched terms without providing content of any value to those keywords on the page
  • The second algorithm update was called Penguin and was released in 2012. Penguin’s target was manipulative link-building practices. When Google discovered unnatural links, it levied a penalty on the site

3. Mobile SEO and Trends in Voice Search

Google ranks websites on mobile optimization the same way it does on a desktop. Google recommends having a mobile-responsive site that will look and function great on a mobile, tablet, or desktop environment. The nuances between SEO for desktop and mobile are in how users interact with search and websites after they click

  • However, on mobile there are fewer results, meaning a number-five slot on mobile is essentially like being on page two of results
  • A mobile-first index merely means Google is ranking the content of a website that is visible to a crawler that emulates a mobile browser

4. While mobile was last decade’s big paradigm shift in SEO, this decade is going to be all about voice and smart assistants

  • Also the number-one reason voice search is never going to replace multiple results is voice must be perfect, and perfect is never possible in our changing world
  • Also as voice assistants get increasingly more powerful, having a proper schema is important

What’s product-led SEO?

The key part of building a Product-Led SEO strategy is that it is a product (an offering of any sort) that is being built. An ideal Product-Led SEO strategy is programmatic and scalable, creates something new, and addresses untapped search demand i.e. build an experience that is useful for users first, and the search engines will follow

Product-Led SEO requires thinking of the reader and why they should spend their precious time enjoying the content

  • Create the content that you know there is untapped demand for. Google will reward you and will direct users to you with search-query suggestions
    • Nevertheless unlike other marketing methods, content is inherently trackable and should justify its RoI
  • Bad content for paid marketing channels is less prevalent than that in SEO since marketers know that the costs are high in case the content is not engaging their users enough

Should SEO be the focus area for early stage companies? 

  • The author recommends that early-stage companies first spend as much as they are comfortable allocating toward paid marketing before they shift to SEO. Also SEO investments should not be made by businesses that are close to the edge on survivability
    • Paid marketing will help quickly determine product-market fit, identify customer journeys, and generate revenue. Knowledge gained from paid marketing will help SEO maximize its success
  • In later-stage companies where the new hire will only work on SEO projects, prioritizing skill sets is critical
  • The business category and type of customer are two of the biggest factors in how one should invest in SEO. Visibility only matters when you are visible to the right user. For many categories, especially long-sales-cycle B2B, SEO is absolutely the wrong investment
  • SEO is an optimization channel, not a demand-creation channel. SEO efforts improve the visibility of a website when the demand is already there

Competition and SEO

1. For SEO, the competitor is any site targeting the same search terms. Also one should assess whether she is targeting queries that real humans would actually write? Since search is all about queries written by users, the underpinning of any tactical effort is keywords

2. Pay attention to your competitor’s specific tactics, whether in the content type or technical setup. How, specifically, is that site driving growth?

3. Predicting how the competition might react should be an essential part of how you develop your SEO strategies

What’s an SEO persona and how to identify it?

SEO persona is the one that pays you (or whatever the conversion element might be), and one should track those people back to the original acquisition source. Those people will be aggregated into the persona buckets that should be your focus

  • Persona research should answer questions, such as where in the buying funnel a user might be when they’re visiting a particular piece of content

Channel Strategy and SEO

1. Brand traffic is great, but it doesn’t indicate SEO success. Growth of branded traffic will plateau at the natural penetration level of the brand. The focus of SEO should always be on non-branded search since their potential is immense while branded search grows with brand awareness.

  • Consider also that good ranking on targeted keywords is often aspiration and may never be achieved
  • Paid could dominate brand placements at a very inexpensive cost in a way that organic never could. OTOH SEO is a hybrid between branding and performance traffic
  • Word of mouth is also not a sustainable strategy since that can dissipate quickly

2. SEO and paid marketing are very similar from a performance standpoint. Ultimately SEO is done by humans for humans and it takes a unique person to be able to combine customer empathy with creativity layered in SEO knowledge

Duplicate Content and SEO

How is duplicate content generated? 

  • One area that is a common source of duplicate content is the lingering legacy of site moves and updates. So, when undertaking any big update or migration, it is vital to get it right
  • A full site migration should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary for legal purposes or branding needs. One major consideration to keep in mind with all redirects is the redirects likely have to be maintained in perpetuity
  • The primary takeaway on updates and migrations is that they should be done carefully, slowly, strategically, and with full consideration of the risks

How to identify duplicate content?

  • Google Search Console can be particularly helpful in identifying problems with duplicate content
  • It’s possible that so much of a website is duplicate, it could fall into the realm where the Panda algorithm might think the website is of too low quality to be included in Google’s index

Linking Strategy and SEO

1. Links are a critical part of Google’s ranking algorithms, as a link to a page is a vote of popularity and contextual relevance. Quality is not created by a website alone. The page giving the link will also have its own authority, which will be determined solely by the search engine

  • Every domain has to stand on its own within the web, based on its own backlinks. Google claims to view hundreds of factors in determining rankings, links have always been a very prominent part of the calculation 

2. Attract links instead of acquiring them. Most social media links (Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc.) do not count as quality SEO backlinks. To generate links, just do what a PR agency would. Build relationships with journalists, understand what they like to write, and pitch stories

  • Some of the best link builders use PR methods
  • In your link-building efforts, be creative and generate unique data

3. Externally, page rank is a two-way street, so a site that wants to hoard all of its page rank would nofollow all its external links. Many websites inundated with spam links, including Wikipedia, opted to make all their outgoing links nofollow by default

  • It’s very likely there’s no real difference between a follow and a nofollow link, so one should not place much stock in the classification of a link

4. A site directory does not have to be a visually well-designed page to be effective. It can truly be an alphabetized list of every category and page on a website

  • The ideal internal-link graph looks like the route map of a budget airline that thrives on point-to-point connections

5. Featured snippets: This is when Google takes a portion of a website’s content to answer a user’s question and puts it in a box in the first position. If you are just looking for awareness, this might be a feature; otherwise, else avoid ending up in these boxes

Stakeholder Management and Navigating Org Dynamics for SEO Leaders

1. Justifying RoI. SEO should be measured the same way any product is measured: by adoption and engagement

  • Much of effective SEO Product management, especially in a large company, is about diplomacy
  • For smaller companies, if you are competing on search with a large competitor, know that you have the advantage, as they can never adapt to change as fast as you. Negotiating the system in a larger company is part of the essential skill set
  • Most sites cannot do statistically significant A/B testing on SEO because of traffic significance. Large sites can, and a change might lead to lower average ranking positions on search, but if its net result is higher conversions, it is a winner

2. One has to consider that rankings alone, as a KPI for SEO, is a vanity metric and should never be used in budgeting, or financial modeling. Also since paid and organic searches are both going after the same user, the author recommends strategizing each channel’s core competencies and having each focus on its strengths

3. A good metric in growth in impressions on search pages. Use the data you have and not the data you think you should have. Then, find a way to test and trial until you build the data you need

4. Using keywords as a predictor of how much search traffic you can expect to generate is not a viable option for a few reasons since there is competition for high traffic words and some keywords may not even exist

  • Without the ability to rely on keyword search as a north star for your new product, you need to find a proxy instead. Use a tangential product that might have similar demand, and use the search volume for that site

5. For a growth-minded Product manager or marketer, the bureaucracy can be negated by embracing incremental wins as a method to succeed. SEO should be viewed as a Product in and of itself

  • Instead of asking the engineers to update a whole bunch of SEO requirements, ask for engineers (or content or money) to build X for SEO

All in all it’s a great book for product leaders and founders to understand and lay foundations around as to how SEO can potentially unlock growth for their product! For really low level details about the art and science of SEO, author refers to very authoritative sources which can be explored. Hope you enjoy reading this book!

Book review: “The making of a Manager” by Julie Zhuo

Finally I got hold of this book “Making of a Manager: What to do when everyone looks to you” by Julie Zhuo, I heard about it from Twitter and got intrigued. I recommend reading this book to all managers, especially the ones newly-minted as well those who want to ensure they are not reinventing learning from wildly successful companies like Facebook where the author has learnt the ropes – rising from an intern to VP of Design. Seeing the recommendations from Silicon Valley stalwarts in the first few pages of this book would probably motivate you to dive into as it did for me!

Cover of the Book: “The making of a Manager” by Julie Zhuo

You would find this book easy to read (can be finished over the weekend), situations relatable and advice quite sensible to put into action immediately. That said, the overall tone of the subject matter is generalist in nature and may not especially cover for the peculiarities that PM managers face. That should however not deter you from imbibing the deep lessons embedded in the short 10 chapters of this book. What follows is my key takeaways in the order in which they appear in the book

A. What is management?

  • A manager’s job is to
    • build a team that works well together,
    • support members in reaching their career goals, and
    • create processes to get work done smoothly and efficiently
  • Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together and therefore if the team’s outcomes are mediocre, you cannot be termed as a great manager
  • Being awesome at the job means playing the long game and building a reputation for excellence
  • Manager’s tasks can be filled into 3 buckets – people, process and purpose (making the team aware of what success looks like and ensure they care about achieving it)
    • Your role as a manager is not to do the work yourself, even if you are the best at it, because that will only take you so far. Role is to improve and process people or the purpose of the team! However if you are in survival mode, do what it takes!
  • How to know if you will be a great manager?
    • Do you find it more motivating to achieve an outcome or play a specific role?
    • Do you like talking to people?
    • Can you provide stability for an emotionally charged situation?
  • While manager is a specific role, leadership is the particular skill of being able to guide and influence other people and therefore in order to be a great manager, one has to be a leader!
    • If you can pinpoint a problem and motivate others to work with you to solve it, then you’re leading
    • Also leadership is not something that can be bestowed. It must be earned. People must want to follow you

B. What to do in the first 3 months as a manager?

The playbook varies depending on whether one is a freshly minted manager (apprentice), founding team member grown into a managerial role, new boss leading the team internally or an external hire or a successor replacing someone

  • To have hard conversations, it is essential to internalise that you own your team’s outcomes
  • To get honest feedback from your reportees, ask how their dream manager looks like
  • You need to proactively invest in building relationships. Being vulnerable sometimes helps in generating trust
  • You will be far more successful aspiring to be the leader you want to be and playing to your strengths than trying to live up to some other ideal

C. How to lead a small team?

  • No matter what work you do or the size of your team, knowing how to diagnose and solve problems with your reports is critical to your shared success
  • Trust is the most important ingredient
  • If the answer to your questions around “How are you” is fine for multiple weeks from a report, take it as a sign to prod further!
  • If you don’t truly respect or care about your team members, you cannot fake it! Managing is caring!
  • Supporting and caring for someone doesn’t mean always agreeing with them. What caring does mean is doing your best to help your report be successful and fulfilled in her work
  • If your report feels that your support and respect are based on her performance, then it will be hard for her to be honest with you when things are not going per expectations
  • If you can remove a barrier, provide a valuable new perspective, or increase their confidence, then you’re enabling them to be more successful
  • Your report should have a clear sense at all times of what your expectations are and where he stands
  • Help people play to their strength. However it does not have to always work since sometimes success is a function of personal and org priorities! 
  • When you decide to let someone go, do it respectfully and directly. Don’t open it up to discussion
    • Change is hard, but trust your instincts. Would you hire this person again if the role were open? If the answer is no, make the move
    • The end goal of management is to get better outcomes. When someone isn’t a great fit for his role, there is a cost
    • The growth mindset has taught us that anyone can get better at anything given the will, hard work, and time. The question is, how long would it take? And how would that affect the team?
  • Don’t tolerate brilliant assholes on your team, it actually is better off when they leave! In general, you should make people moves quickly!

D. How to be a great manager? Art of giving feedback

  • For a leader, giving feedback—both when things are going well and when they aren’t—is one of the most fundamental aspects of the job
  • Four common ways to inspire a change in behavior 
    • Set clear expectations in the beginning
    • Give task specific feedback as quickly as you can
    • Share behavioral feedback thoughtfully and regularly 
    • Collect 360 degrees feedback for maximum objectivity
  • Every major disappointment is failure to set expectations
  • You feedback only counts if it makes things better
  • The best way to give critical feedback is to deliver it directly and dispassionately
  • Own the decision, be firm and don’t open it up for discussion!

E. How to manage yourself better?

  • Being a great manager is a highly personal journey, and if you don’t have a good handle on yourself, you won’t have a good handle on how to best support your team
  • No matter how often imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, it doesn’t have to derail you
  • Be brutally honest with yourself
  • The first part in understanding how you lead is to know your strengths—the things you’re talented at and love to do. This is crucial because great management typically comes from playing to your strengths rather than from fixing your weaknesses
  • Develop a growth mindset i.e. be motivated to seek out the truth and ask for feedback because you know it’s the fastest path to get you where you want to go
  • When a negative story takes hold of you, step back and question 
    • Is your interpretation correct? 
    • Are there alternative views you’re not considering? 
    • What can you do to seek out the truth?
  • To fight self-doubt, visualise success. It is a powerful tool!
  • Maximize on the job learning. Treat your manager as the coach and not as a judge!
  • Take advantage of formal training! Or maybe professional coaching
  • When you invest in your personal learning and growth, you’re not just investing in your own future but also the future of your team

F. How to organise meetings?

  • Analyse efficacy of meetings by their purpose. It could be broadly of 5 types 1. Making a decision 2. Information sharing 3. Providing feedback 4. Generating ideas 5. Strengthening relationships 
  • A great decision making meeting has the following components
    • Gets a decision made
    • Includes the people most directly affected by the decision as well as a clearly designated decision-maker
    • Presents all credible options objectively and with relevant background information, and includes the team’s recommendation if there is one
    • Gives equal airtime to dissenting opinions and makes people feel that they were heard
  • Invite right people to the meeting
  • Give people a chance to come prepared. Float a pre-read if possible 
  • Before concluding the meeting, summarise next steps
  • Make it safe for people to contribute. Sticky notes or having a round-robin around the table are helpful
  • Some meetings don’t need you and be ruthless in culling ineffective meetings
    • If you trust that the right outcomes will happen without you, then you don’t need to be there

G. How to hire well?

  • Hiring doesn’t just matter at scale—even a single great hire can make a big difference in your team’s outcomes.
  • The most important thing to remember about hiring is this: hiring is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to build the future of your organization
  • Design your team intentionally. Have a thoughtful one-year hiring plan in the beginning. Tweak as you go along
  • Hiring is your responsibility. Align with your recruiter in defining the role, sourcing, the onboarding process and onboarding really closely
  • Describe the role as clearly as possible and deliver an amazing interview experience
  • Examine a candidate’s past experience. They are probably the closest predictor of performance at the job!
  • Hiring is a gamble but do make smart bets! And since it’s a gamble, reject weak hires!
    • If you are going to make a bet, bet on someone who has at least a few passionate advocates in the interviewing panel!
  • References matter the most, contact your common connections towards the same
  • Prepare your interview questions in advance. Take a long term view with top talent!
  • Build a team with diverse perspectives, hire people who are more capable than you!
  • You can’t create great outcomes without consistently attracting talented people and ensuring that they can also hire well
  • Make it clear that building the team is not just one person’s job, it’s everyone’s job!

H. How to make things happen?

  • Start with a concrete vision. An inspiring vision is bold. It doesn’t hedge. You know instantly whether you’ve hit it or not because it’s measurable. And it’s easily repeated, from one person to the next. It doesn’t describe the how, it simply describes what the outcome will be
  • Create a believable game plan i.e. strategy
  • Craft a plan based on your team’s strengths
  • Focus on few things well, prioritise
  • Define who is responsible for what
  • Treat big projects like a series of small projects. Keep in mind the planning fallacy: our natural bias to predict that things will take less time and money than they actually do
  • Choose perfect execution over perfect strategy
  • Good process is ever evolving. A resilient organization isn’t one that never makes mistakes but rather one whose mistakes make it stronger over time

I. How to lead a growing team?

  • Differences between big and small teams
    • People treat you differently. They’re less likely to tell you the ugly truth or challenge you when they think you’re wrong, even if you’d like them to
    • Context switching, everyday
    • You pick and choose your battles i.e. what are the most important topics for you to pay attention to, and where are you going to draw the line
    • At higher levels of management, the job starts to converge regardless of background. Success becomes more and more about mastering a few key skills: hiring exceptional leaders, building self-reliant teams, establishing a clear vision, and communicating well
  • Delegation is an art. It doesn’t mean you walk away!
    • The rule of thumb for delegation goes like this: spend your time and energy on the intersection of 1) what’s most important to the organization and 2) what you’re uniquely able to do better than anyone else
    • Anything your report can do just as well or better than you, you should delegate
  • People trump projects—a great team is a prerequisite for great work.
  • Beyond people, you and your report should be aligned on why you’re doing what you’re doing and what success looks like
  • The act of constantly trying to replace yourself means that you create openings to stretch both your leaders and yourself

J. How to nurture culture?

  • As you manage more and more people, you’ll play a bigger role in shaping culture. Don’t underestimate the influence that you can have
    • Pay attention to your own actions—the little things you say and do—as well as what behaviors you are rewarding or discouraging
  • Make a list of the aspects of culture that you admire about other teams or organizations. Why do you admire them? What downsides does that team tolerate as a result?
  • Never stop talking about what is important
  • If you say something is important to you and you’d like the rest of your team to care about it, be the first person to live that value
  • When a report does something difficult that is in the spirit of your team’s values, recognize them for it
  • Invent traditions. Rituals are powerful

This is a great book, do read and internalise the lessons. Almost all of those are universally applicable across roles!

PS: Additional recommendations from the author for frequent referencing are the book “Crucial Conversations”, articles like High Output Management and How to Win Friends and Influence People

Book Review: “Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products” by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones

The book “Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products” by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones is a must read for all product and business leaders. Marty’s earlier book “Inspired”is probably the most-referred book for aspiring / noob product managers, authors need no introduction to the authentic insights they bring!

What follows next is my recollection of broad themes, key takeaways and compelling arguments the authors put forth. Authors have relied on their learning from 500+ organisations of different scales, what they state is generally applicable. That the book was published during Covid times is testimony to the new realities we are all living in around resilience, adaptability to change and staying true to our core values amidst volatility. Unstated but these themes keep recurring throughout the book

Cover Image of the Book: “Empowered” by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones

The book is divided into 81 chapters, although most chapters can be independently read like a well-written blog. The authors differentiate strong product teams from what they call feature teams (one striving to serve the business) and most of the book is organised around helping leaders create strong product teams in their organisations. In the strong product team, the purpose of the product org is to serve customers by creating products customers love, yet work for the business. The book also argues that the key to building strong product companies is having strong product leaders

On coaching mindset

  • Coaches roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, whereas mentors dole out words of wisdom
  • Developing people is job #1 for managers
  • To earn trust of the team, be interested in the team member as a person
  • While a team member’s self-assessment to develop a career plan is helpful, the manager should not hesitate from correcting the difference in perception between him and the team member. Not doing so is abdicating the responsibility!

On developing talent

  • The biggest difference between competent PMs and effective PMs is probably their people skills
  • It’s manager’s responsibility to bring a new product manager into the team and unless she is competent enough to ensure the person is NOT doing harm to the team and is making reasonable decisions
  • Constructive feedback is the main source of value you provide as a manager. There should never be surprises in annual reviews related to performance!
  • A written narrative for major decisions / products is helpful to be an exceptional product leader. It’s mostly a 6-pager doc with narrative in the first few pages followed by FAQs that might come from key stakeholders
  • An employee with an owner’s mindset takes responsibility for the outcomes rather than just the activities
  • Ability to think is the single most important behavior of a capable product person. How to assess this in interviews is by probing what the candidates do when they don’t know they answer
  • Three critical characteristics of strong product teams no matter what processes they use are
    • tackling risks early 
    • solving problems collaboratively
    • and being accountable to results
  • A product manager’s career will survive mistakes which inevitably happen if she is on the whole dependable in her commitments, always works toward the company’s best interests, and takes responsibility for her mistakes
  • Also coach your people around ethics of product management i.e. whether something should be built in addition to viability, feasibility, usability and valuable
  • As a leader, it probably helps to measure success by the growth of people one has managed or helped throughout the career
  • Also the leadership is not about you, it’s about the team member. More like an actor vs. director in a theatre aphorism “don’t fix a line”
  • Leaders need to set the expectations, establish the governance that acknowledges necessary boundaries—but removes barriers to progress—and support the teams with the necessary tools and resources

On stakeholders

  • In general the more senior an executive in the organization more likely they care about everything – customers, brand, revenue, compliance
  • Product managers need to invest in trust before they need it
  • On imposter syndrome: if I don’t do home and prepare thoroughly, the fear of looking clueless is what drives preparation. It’s not necessary something to fight against
  • Treating stakeholders like customers may dilute the role of true customer
  • On reducing number of meetings: if there is a way to make them happen asynchronously like status update is generally better

On decision making

  • The authors describe a colloquialism by Jim B, former CEO of Netscape
    • If you see a snake (i.e. an important decision to be made), kill it
    • Don’t play with dead snakes (past decisions)
    • All opportunities start out looking like snakes

On hiring

  • Hiring is the responsibility of the hiring manager and not the HR!
  • The best product companies hire competent people of character, and then coach and develop them into members of extraordinary teams
  • There are two bases of hiring 1. Competence 2. Potential. Nothing wrong in hiring basis 2 as long as hiring manager is willing to invest time to develop the person
  • Product vision is one of the most effective tools for recruiting great product managers!
  • Every new hire should raise the average of the people
  • Reference checks should be taken seriously especially to weed out toxicity in behavior which can be hidden during the interview process 

On product vision

  • Vision answers two critical questions 1. What’s the end game 2. What is my team’s contribution to it? It’s purpose is to inspire and it’s told from customer’s perspective
  • Evangelism is never finished. Just because a person is convinced one day doesn’t mean they will not be unconvinced the other day 
  • Product vision should be accompanied by product principles or tenets in order to provide guidance to PMs in decision making

On team topology

  • Establishing an effective team topology is one of the key responsibilities of a product leader
  • The best team topology will balance the needs of product, design and engineering orgs
  • Topology choice should be guided by the team empowerment, real ownership, team autonomy and alignment with other facets of the company
    • Optimise for the product team rather than executives, managers or access to customers!
  • Beware of Conway’s law i.e. shipping your org chart!
  • If you’re making changes to team topology more than once a year, something else is wrong
  • Platform teams reduce the cognitive load for experience teams in using the underlying technology whether customer facing or customer enabling

On product strategy

  • While product strategy starts with focus, it depends on insights. Product strategy requires choice, thinking and effort. For elements of the product strategy are 1. Focus 2. Insights 3. Actions 4. Management
  • Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on few pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes

On OKR framework

  • If the leaders want the product team to feel ownership of the results, then the key results must come from the team
  • The team will also need guidance from leadership on how ambitious or conservative (roof shot or moon shot) they should be in pursuing solutions
  • Activities are not key results, outcomes are 
  • All of the work need not be OKR. There could be some high integrity commitments which need to be tracked differently
    • High‐integrity commitments are intended for situations where you have an important external commitment or a very important and substantial internal commitment. They are the exceptions
  • It’s normal and often wise for different teams to chase the same objectives simultaneously
  • Technology makes many things possible, but if it doesn’t deliver on the needs of the customer, it will not deliver on the needs of the business

On product leadership

  • There are 3 things a product leader will be judged on a. Business results b. Product strategy c. Product team
  • Evangelism is one of the critical roles of product leaders in mid- to large companies
  • Top methods of evangelization
    • Use prototypes 
    • Share the customer pain
    • Share the vision
    • Share the learning i.e. information the audience needs to help come up with solution
    • Share credit generously 
    • Learn how to do a great demo! It’s sales!
    • Spend time with your developers, designers and product managers
    • Show genuine enthusiasm!
  • The best source of innovation are your engineers!

In short, a must read book for all product and business leaders. The book contains decades of product leadership experience in a very concise and easily practicable manner and you can keep it like a ready reckoner for quite some time to come!

Book Review: “The Psychology of Money” by Morgan Housel

The book “The Psychology of Money” by Morgan Housel has been a rage last year, that aroused my curiosity to read the book. Although this does not strictly fall into the domain of product management, I would cover it here since quite a few principles the book details out are applicable to many situations a PM faces. And it never hurts to get wiser about money matters, right?!

Cover page of the book "The Psychology of Money" by Morgan Housel

Image 1: Book Cover of “The Psychology of Money” by Morgan Housel

The rest of the article is key takeaways in a list format. The book is quite an easy read anyway, and one can start reading it from any chapter

The premise of this book is that doing well with money has a little to do with how smart you are and a lot to do with how you behave. And behavior is hard to teach, even to really smart people. The author calls this soft skill “the psychology of money”

  1. Generations behave differently with respect to their perspectives towards money since their view of money was formed in different worlds. And therefore a view about money that one group of people thinks is outrageous can make perfect sense to another
  2. Another important point that helps explain why money decisions are so difficult, and why there is so much misbehavior, is to recognize how new this topic is, mostly 20-50 year old compared to let’s say a 10,000 year old epoch when one can start discerning some behavior changes in species!
  3. Luck and risk are both the reality that every outcome in life is guided by forces other than individual effort
  4. As much as we recognize the role of luck in success, the role of risk means we should forgive ourselves and leave room for understanding when judging failures. Therefore we should focus less on specific individuals and case studies and more on broad patterns
  5. The hardest financial skill is getting the goalpost to stop moving that is to recognize when one has had enough money
  6. Some invaluable things in life are reputation, freedom and independence, family and friends, being loved by those who you want to love you and happiness. One should protect these things away from harm by knowing when to stop taking risks that could take them away. And knowing when you have enough!
  7. Counterintuitiveness of compounding may be responsible for the majority of disappointing trades, bad strategies, and successful investing attempts. Time is the most important factor here
  8. There’s only one way to stay wealthy: some combination of frugality and paranoia
  9. Applying survival mindset in real life boils down to appreciating three things 1. Be financially unbreakable to stick around long enough so that compounding can work wonders 2. Plan for the plan not going per the script. Having plan B is critical 3. Be optimistic about the future but paranoid about what will prevent you from getting there
  10. Short term paranoia is important for surviving long enough and exploit long term optimism
  11. Tails drive everything. The distribution of success among large public stocks over time is not much different than it is in venture capital
    • By accepting that tails drive everything in business, investing, and finance one would realize that it’s normal for lots of things to go wrong, break, fail, and fall
  12. If there’s a common denominator in happiness, it’s that people want to control their lives. And therefore controlling one’s time is the highest dividend money pays
    • Since controlling time is such a key happiness influencer, people don’t feel much happier now since over generations that control have diminished. One should use money to gain control over time
  13. The single most powerful thing to do better as an investor, is to increase the time horizon!
  14. If respect and admiration are the goals, be careful how one seeks them. Humility, kindness, and empathy will bring more respect than any horsepower ever will
  15. Wealth is financial assets that haven’t yet been converted into the stuff one sees
  16. Building wealth has little to do with income or investment returns, and lots to do with savings rate
  17. The value of wealth is relative to what one needs and therefore past a certain level of income, what one needs is just what sits below the ego
  18. Saving is a hedge against life’s inevitable ability to surprise at the worst possible moment. It is like taking a point in the future that would have been owned by someone else and giving it back to yourself
  19. Flexibility is perhaps one of most important competitive advantages, in the world where intelligence is hypercompetitive and technical skills are getting automated
  20. Do not aim to be coldly rational when making financial decisions. Aim to just be pretty reasonable
  21. Reasonable is more realistic and one has a better chance of sticking with it for the long run, which is what matters most when managing money
    • For example, it may be rational to want a fever if you have an infection. But it’s not reasonable and therefore we want to suppress fever anyhow even when it can be advantageous for us!
  22. The reasonable investors who love their technically imperfect strategies have an edge, because they’re more likely to stick with those strategies
  23. Anything that keeps you in the game has a quantifiable advantage. Become OK with a lot of things going wrong. Be nicer and less flashy!
  24. Acting on investment forecasts is dangerous. However, people try to predict what will happen next year. It’s human nature and is reasonable!
  25. The most important driver of anything tied to money is the stories people tell themselves and the preferences they have for goods and services
  26. Recessions have become more sporadic over time because 1. Maybe Fed is getting better at managing business cycles or extending them 2. Service industries which have dominated last 50 years are less prone to boom-bust cycles that heavy industries

Image 2: Recessions cycles have become more sporadic in the last 50 years. Credit: The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

  1. Since economies evolve, recent history is often the best guide to the future, because it’s more likely to include important conditions that are relevant to the future
  2. Unknowns —are an ever-present part of life. The only way to deal with them is by increasing the gap between what you think will happen and what can happen while one manages to survive. The concept of room for error is important. Having a gap between what one can technically endure versus what’s emotionally possible is an overlooked version of room for error
  3. One has to take risks to get ahead, but no risk that can wipe one out is ever worth taking!
  4. The biggest single point of failure with money is a sole reliance on a paycheck to fund short-term spending needs, with no savings to create a gap between current and future expenses
  5. People are poor forecasters of their future selves. Sunk costs—anchoring decisions to past efforts that can’t be refunded—are a harmful in a world where people change over time
  6. Career, relationships and money can take years of planning and decades to grow!
  7. The price of a lot of things is not obvious until you’ve experienced them firsthand, when the bill is overdue
  8. Thinking of market volatility as a fee rather than a fine is an important part of developing the kind of mindset to stick around long enough for investing gains to work wonders
  9. An iron rule of finance is that money chases returns to the greatest extent that it can!
  10. Identify what game you’re playing and what game others are. One should make sure that he actions are not being influenced by people playing a different game
  11. Real optimists don’t believe that everything will be great. That’s complacency. Optimism is a belief that the odds of a good outcome are in one’s favor over time
  12. Money and health are the two topics that will affect everyone’s life whether one is interested in them or not!
  13. In investing one must identify the price of success—volatility and loss amid the long backdrop of growth—and be willing to pay it
  14. The more one wants something to be true, the more likely to believe a story that overestimates the odds of it being true
  15. The illusion of control is more persuasive than the reality of uncertainty so we stick to stories about outcomes being in our control
  16. Respect the power of luck and risk and one will have a better chance of focusing on things one can actually control
  17. Wealth cannot be built unless one can control having fun with the money right now!
  18. “Does this help me sleep at night?” is the best universal guidepost for all financial decisions
  19. Independence, at any income level, is driven by savings rate. And past a certain level of income your savings rate is driven by your ability to keep your lifestyle expectations from running away!
  20. Good decisions aren’t always rational. At some point one has to choose between being happy or being “right”!

The author in the last chapter diverts towards how Americans behave towards money especially the post-War generations. Sharp inequality became a force over the last 35 years, when the Americans have held onto two ideas 1. That you should live a lifestyle similar to most other Americans and that taking on debt to finance that lifestyle is acceptable

The author also prophecies that the current chaotic era of radial expectations that “this is not working any more” may go longer and can get even worse. Two weeks into 2021, I couldn’t agree more!