Any meeting with more than two participants is essentially a public performance, especially for anyone in a leadership position. As every public performance, it requires preparation and full dedication. What would be your reaction if a speaker, coach or consultant you hired, or even just an entertainer, came unprepared and/or fumbled with a phone during the performance? It’s not that far from the impression your colleagues get when you do the same, especially if they expect you to be the fountain of ideas, paragon of leadership, and epitome of focus…
I always shied away from copying anything directly, thinking that it there is no glory in that, and it would stifle my creativity in the long run. I was probably right about the first part – there is indeed more glory in trailblazing – but I could not be more wrong about the second point. Here is a story how I’ve come to understand it.
I was hiking in Israel with a group of young professionals, and at that time I was actively pursuing photography as a hobby. Hiking in mountains and deserts of Israel, I had plenty of opportunities for unbelievable shots, but I struggled to make more than a handful of good ones. The worst part was that I had them in my head, but no matter how hard I tried, my photo frames were not quite there. It was starting to get frustrating – I had a vision, and I knew every feature of my camera, but something was missing. A grim thought started creeping up in my mind – maybe that missing piece is the talent?
But I am not the one to give up easily, so I decided to talk to a professional. Not a psychiatrist, but rather a professional photographer in our group.
So one night, after a lot of hiking and snapping half-baked images, and after a nice dinner and some drinks, I asked the question, “Daniel, I have these stunning photos in my head, and I know how to use the camera, but I just cannot make them happen. Does it mean I have no talent? Can it be fixed?” His first reaction was laughter, which gave me a glimmer of hope. But it was his response that I carried with me since and recalled every time I started doing something new. “I know exactly what it is – you have a poem in your head, but you do not know the language to write it with”, he responded. That sounded promising, so I demanded more info.
He went on to tell me that expressing a vision or a creative idea in photography requires building a library of images, techniques, creative devices and other tricks of the trade. And “building the library” is not just reading about them in a book or seeing someone else use them, but actually using them – just like with words when you learn a new language. “Ok, so how do I get there?” “You should copy.”
This one was tough for me to get – all my life to me copying was somewhere between giving up and cheating, and here I was told that it a key to unlocking my creativity… But I trusted the guy, so I demanded the details. He went on to describe how initially you copy just to get the hang of a tool or a method – for example, see a photo you like and then just make one that looks similar, or see a creative approach you like and then do something yours copying the approach. Then you have it as a part of your toolbox, so you can apply it almost instinctively when it feels right, like a musician who hits just the right notes when improvising. Then you start tweaking it, and then finally you make it truly yours, original, and maybe even better than anything that existed before.
Right after that trip, my company got acquired, and I no longer had time for my photography. But the advice stuck with me and helped me get a jumpstart in many areas. It does work! And why wouldn’t it? It’s a common approach in creative learning. Musicians learn to play and compose by playing music created by others, painters train by making replicas of masterly paintings or painting something inspired by the greats, and so on.
In fact, what reminded me of this story is observing how my newborn daughter is learning to be a human. First 2-3 months she copied facial expressions, without even understanding what they mean, and now she has her own unique charming smile and uses it remarkably well.
She is yet to start talking, but she is already well on her way by replicating any sound she hears from people around her. Even copying without fully understanding what or why helps. Learning by copying is programmed into our nature, so next time you need to learn something new or get to a new level in what you do – copy!
Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face!
Few years ago I did a lot of thinking about the need and role for product strategy in consumer tech companies. The vision I developed at that time evolved a bit since then, but one analogy that stuck with me is my trip to see the great Serengeti migration.
On my trip to Serengeti, I set out to learn as much as I could about the animal behavior to maximize my chances of taking good pictures. So I observed every little movement. Soon I started seeing patterns – zebras tactically relocating to keep lions at a distance, lions seeking high ground when hungry and shade when fed, giraffes favoring treed areas, and so on. As I picked up more and more behavior patterns I started to predict many of this stuff, which lead to some great shots. I was feeling really good about myself – I was “grocking” the animals, and I had photos to prove it. Half way into the trip, I had enough observations to even start segmenting them – for example, I knew that bigger elephants favored soft grass areas because they were old (bad teeth).
But one thing kept bothering me – I still had not seen a white rhino. And as the time went by, it became painfully clear that all my observations of other animals did absolutely nothing to help me find this rare beast. I knew what giraffes, lions, ostriches, and many others did and why, but there was nothing in their behavior that would tell me how to capture a white rhino (on camera, of course).
So our guide set out to get me to a white rhino, and his first requirement was that I abandon any desire to use my knowledge about lions and zebras. Understanding other animals and “optimizing” for increased chances of taking their pictures would only get me further away from my goal of getting the rhino. Even if I could put a GPS on every zebra and lion I saw and run big data analytics on their movement, I would not have gotten any clues to the behavior of a rhino. My only chance of success was to let go and just trust the guide. And it happened – we got the white rhino.
It similar to product strategy and product management – in most cases, you simply cannot approximate users you have not captured from the behavior of users you already have. Optimizing for users you know is not getting you any closer to capturing new user types. Improvement of understanding of your user does not automatically lead to understanding of the whole market. Expanding user base to new segments is not a natural progression of product improvement – it requires a completely separate and extremely focused effort, just like a search for a white rhino did. If I did not know these product strategy principles or if I were arrogant enough to assume that my understanding of other animals was enough, I’d have come home without seeing a white rhino in the wild!
But there was another thing I needed a guide for. Every day I was asking the guide where the Great Migration was going to be tomorrow. Even though I knew there the migration was now was right in the middle of it every day, observing animals from dusk till dawn, I had absolutely no clue where it was going to be the following day (and I’m usually good with seeing patterns)! But it was nothing to feel bad about. After all, I could only observe day-to-day movements of animals – wildebeest running from hyenas, lions hunting buffalo, zebras avoiding lions etc. And there is practically nothing in day-to-day behavior of animals to even hint at fundamentals driving the migration! The direction or speed of zebra running away from a lion at any given encounter is not influenced by the climate change that drives the migration. And conversely, no number of encounters with lions had any bearing on where zebras would be in a week.
Every day I was closely observing the same animals that were migrating, and yet their daily behavior provided absolutely no useful information on how changes in climate and land fertility were going to push them along the plains. In fact, most of the time it was not even possible to see that the migration was in fact happening – there were always some other factors explaining the movements. So to me in the plains, it seemed that animals were just plodding along with their day every day till they just suddenly and unexplainably disappeared from where I was. And only when I got far from the migration and high in the mountains, I could actually see the shape of that bigger trend driving everything on the macro level.
Similarly, in product management, interaction of your users with your product is usually not revealing the global technological or market trends or fundamental drivers behind macro changes. Oversimplifying it for clarity, observing more and more instances of users favoring faster response times and brighter buttons is only going to increase your confidence that your users like faster response times and brighter buttons. But it’s not going to give you any idea of an ongoing migration to a new platform or technology or other such trends. And just like with lions not stopping migration of zebras, making your buttons ever brighter and improving response times is not going to do much to stop your users from migrating to mobile, cloud, or implanted computing when the time comes.
This is what Product Strategy ultimately is about – seeing the great migrations from above and guiding expeditions to find white rhinos.
Back in elementary school, I’ve heard a tale about people from northern regions being able to distinguish over 200 shades of white (snow). I looked it up, and there was truth to that (unlike the tale that Eskimos have 50 words for snow – that one seems to be a myth). I stored this factoid in my memory, assuming that was some evolutionary genetic peculiarity.
Many years later, I was at my home track Mosport with my track-junkie friends, and one of the drivers was explaining a supposedly better way to negotiate one turn. Most of us were driving similar cars on the same track and had a comparable substantial level of experience, so the explanation was rather concise – few words and few hand gestures, followed by a unanimous reaction, “Yeah, that is a totally different approach – I should try that!” But there was one guy, a bit less experienced, who then asked me if it was a joke. Surprised, I asked him to clarify. He responded that he saw the driver saying “do this (a barely perceptible movement of hands and the right foot) instead of this (an identical barely perceptible movement)”, and everybody nodding, “Oh yeah, I know exactly what you mean”. How could they actually see the difference between those two movements? Surely, saying that they knew EXACTLY what he meant must have been a joke.
The memory about the 200 shades of white immediately came back to my mind. Where the less experienced driver saw two identical hand movements, I could clearly see how each of these two movements meant different position of the car on the track, different weight transfer and G-forces, different engine revs – even tires would squeal differently in each case. Just like for northern people each shade of white can mean something – age of animal tracks, snow’s ability to support more or less weight, etc. – each slight variation of hand movements meant something different to the more experienced drivers, and that’s how communication worked. It was like a secret language, and the new guy just has not learned it yet. Just like with any language, he picked it up and in less than a year could understand such mystical hand-waiving as well as anyone else.
After that event, I became cognizant of this phenomenon and started noticing it in many other areas. For example, I saw UX people trying to communicate that a barely perceptible change of UI changes EVERYTHING, and it was like explaining the difference between “Let’s eat grandma” and “Let’s eat, grandma” to someone who does not speak English. “You must be joking – it looks exactly the same!”
My takeaway from all this was that people do not always speak my secret “language”, and there are more different “languages” than it seems. It is highly likely that someone with a different background will need a vastly more detailed explanation and more vivid examples than someone who is one of “your people” sharing your language, so you need to be prepared for that. Also, I it does not mean he/she is less smart or not good at their job, even though it may seem like it when someone is not getting obvious to you things. And finally, these “languages” are learned, not genetic. With enough experience and practice, anyone can master 200 shades of white, well, or at least 50 shades of gray.
If you want to build something big, you will need to manage people to get things done. In every organization, almost everyone gets to manage someone, at least indirectly. Observing many people in managerial roles, I’ve noticed that most seem to gravitate to one of the three profiles. I call them Javelin Throwers, Curling players, and Weightlifters. Let me explain why.
Javelin Thrower takes a perfectly shaped and balanced javelin, throws it at the perfect angle and speed and, given right conditions and luck, achieves good results with little-to-no follow up. Some managers do just the same – they hire right people, put them in right conditions, give them right directions, and trust them to achieve success without direct supervision. The whole process requires a lot of things to be right – people, conditions, experience, vision – but when it works, it’s effortless and spectacular. In fact, sometimes it seems that the manager is not even playing a role in the process.
Curling players takes a curling iron and sends it in the right direction. After that, they polish up the ice to compensate for imperfections of the conditions, miscalculations in the original throw or complexities of the situation. Managers of this type give a lot of supervision and follow up to any process they start, and make necessary tweaks and adjustments. This style is more robust and more tolerant for less than ideal conditions or less experienced managers and employees compared to throwing a javelin. It very often leads to great results, sometimes in situations where success seems impossible. The process looks busy, with a lot of interaction, cheering, sometimes even yelling. But it’s also much less scalable – just compare the amount of effort a javelin thrower spends to that of a curling team… It also gives people less of a chance to show that they can follow a perfect trajectory on their own.
Finally, weightlifters, well, lift a lot of weight – more than other people can imagine, but it’s all they do. Similarly, weightlifter-managers, try increase team output by taking on so much responsibility and doing all the “heavy-lifting” themselves, that they move very slowly on their personal progress level. They either do not trust others, do not know how to delegate effectively or are trying to shield others from tasks that are too hard. Other team members have little to do other than look at their leader in awe (or not). Weightlifters can be inspiring to the team, and sometimes do things that no one else can (e.g., others are not qualified). But in most conditions they are too slow and do not give others enough opportunities to contribute or grow in a meaningful way.
So which of those types is the best? Well, in my opinion neither. A good manager should not stick with a style that he/she is most comfortable with, but rather get comfortable with each of the three. When you have the right people in perfect conditions, just send them on the right trajectory and trust them to get it done; if things are more tricky – get ready to polish the ice from time to time until the path is clear; and when the team is overwhelmed with the task or the situation, clutch your teeth and do the heavy lifting.
Visualization is an awesome mind hack that I learned a couple of years ago from a racing instructor (of course, where else). It’s truly awesome, and sometimes feels almost like having those limitless pills. Do not take my word for it - I’m going to try to tell how to do it. But let me start with a little trick.
Take something that is about a weight of a big book and has two or more symmetrical ends or corners – for example, a big book or a small dumbbell when you are in a gym. It has to be something that you do not mind dropping (so a non-retina MacBook Pro may work as well). Hold it with one hand in an almost straight arm by one corner in front of you. Now very quickly grab it with the same hand by another corner – do NOT throw it up and catch with the same hand but rather let it go without intentionally moving it and rapidly move your hand to another corner and grab the object before it falls. It is physically possible to do with almost any object that fits my description with 90%+ success rate, but it will fall on your first try in most cases. Of course – because you have not practiced it.
Now imagine, as vividly and realistically as you can, doing this successfully 10-20 times in the row. Imagine every detail – unclutching your hand, gravity pulling the object down, you moving your arm, and finally grabbing another part of the object before it falls. After you repeat this in your imagination 10+ times, try doing it for real again. You will most likely succeed this time! Even if you drop the object, you will be much, much closer to grabbing it. It’s as if you practiced, except you did not.
That would be an awesome trick for some kind of an executive training off-site. Get 10+ people on stage, tell them to do what I described, have some laughs after almost all of them drop their stuff the first time, and then have a moment of awe when most of them do it successfully after a short visualization. I know I’d be wowed :-).
Visualization is very effective in replacing practicing in execution of anything. It is especially useful for situations where practice is impossible for one reason or another. For example, downhill skiers use visualization a lot before dropping down a new trail simply because it’s a safer way to build up to the real thing – you cannot break your real legs by visualization. Racecar drivers (of course!) use it too because of safety and cost reasons – practicing in your mind costs much less and is much safer.
The algorithm is similar in both cases – first, visualize yourself doing something until you feel ready to do it for real, then execute in real life, compare it to your imaginary picture and make adjustments to the model in your mind, and then repeat the cycle starting with visualization, but with updated and more accurate model with each next iteration.
Now the secret is that this algorithm works not just for skiers and racecar drivers – it works for almost everything. It works well for critical conversations and presentations, for executing on a plan or strategy, and even for designing UI workflows and conversion funnels. I mentioned many times that running a business or working in a startup is very much like driving a race car – it’s scary, things move fast, mistakes are costly, and everyone except those who share the passion think you are crazy and should stop. So to avoid those costly mistakes and gain “experience” with things that are too costly, risky or difficult to practice in real life, use this visualization algorithm.
When it seems marketing is focused on bullshit, remember that organic fertilizers are awesome for growth
The part of this that amazes me is how they avoided getting stuck in local maxima - a common issue with iterative optimization.