Past few months I have read the following books all related to product management. They were all excellent. I learned new techniques to write user stories, tackle prioritizing them and to strengthen my concentration on the task at hand. They also provided me new perspective on what skills I need to master to become a better leader.
I came across the book shortly after I became a Product Owner to my newly-formed agile team and like many other newbie product owners I was struggling with how to chunk out the product I envisioned to build into smaller pieces by writing user stories. I also had difficulty on how to write these stories in a way that captures all the nuances and requirements. Thankfully User Story Mapping provided an answer on above issues for me. Here are the two main things I learned from it:
As a Product Owner I can never capture all the requirements of a product and I can’t specify all the functional and technical details in just one document. Even if I could, this document would be so massive that most people wouldn’t read it. Even if they would they will have their own interpretation of what it means!!
A better approach is to outline my ask as a story and use that as a starting point to a productive conversation. By the end of this conversation, the ask is more clearly defined and everyone have a shared understanding of what it is. My goal is then to document our understanding using words and pictures.
The real goal of using stories is shared understanding. Stories get their name from how they should be used, not what should be written.
Another valuable lesson is that focusing solely on backlog is dangerous. Without having a big picture of what the product is trying to accomplish and what types of activities people use this product for, building one small thing after another from a flat backlog results in a product with mismatched features. The solution is to build a Story Map!
The biggest benefit of creating a user story map prior to building from a backlog is that it forces you to tell the story of all the interactions the user has with the product to accomplish something. This will give you the big picture of what your product does and in the process it identifies gaps that no one has thought about before.
Creating a user story map is easy. At the top of the map are big stories (also known as user activities). These stories are too big to do in one sprint or an iteration but once implemented they provide major functionality to the user. The big stories are placed next to each other from left to right. If nothing else, reading these stories provides a view of the whole system.
However to get these big stories done we need to break them down further into smaller stories. These smaller stories or tasks are placed in the second row and this breaking down continues to a level that provides enough clarity into what the system does. For more detailed explanation check out this blog post from author itself.
I came across ‘The Hard Thing about Hard Things’ through reading Ben Horowitz’s blog and I am glad I read it. The book has two main parts: The first part is an easy to read, humorous but enlightening account of how Ben Horowitz managed Loud Cloud and Opsware, two companies he co-founded and run as a CEO. The second part is lessons learned along the way of managing though hard situations.
Second part of the book has too many good advice to recount them all and they go beyond my focus on Product Management. These are my most important takeaways:
What resonated the most with me was the importance Ben placed on providing the right training for the job and making it clear what an employee is accountable for. He argues that if you don’t train your people, you establish no basis for performance management. As a result, performance management in your company will be sloppy and inconsistent.
I personally have always struggled with this one. Unlike a developer or a designer who produces tangible results, product manager’s work spread across many areas and is not as tangible. If my company provides training for the specific skills and what it expects of me, it will save me a ton of time and the confusion and frustration of trying to figure this out by trial and error.
Another issue this book confirmed for me is that everywhere there is bias to dismiss or rationalize leading indicators of bad news and only listen to good ones. Doesn’t this paragraph rings true in your head?
If a CEO hears that engagement for her application increased an incremental 25% beyond the normal growth rate one month, she will be off to the races hiring more engineers to keep up with the impending tidal wave of demand. On the other hand, if engagement decreases 25%, she will be equally intense and urgent in explaining it away: “The site was slow that month, there were 4 holidays, we made a UI change that caused all the problems. For gosh sakes, let’s not panic!
This explains why when Product Managers and executives see the growth is stalling and partners are leaving they avoid the obvious: The product is not the best in the market and is lagging behind competition. There is not much to do but to take the hard step of building a better product.
Finally the most important and the most unexpected truth that came out of this book is on how to hire good executive. It talked about how to hire for key run a specific job (like VP of sales) for sometime yourself to learn what skills for that job you’re looking for. Although this one is not directly related to Product Management per se, I found it incredibly valuable in not only for hiring but also building framework for career development. You can read it in its own entirety in this brilliant post.
This book is not directly related to Product Manager but it’s a book that if you are committed to follow through its advice it will change your life. The first part of the book starts with what Deep work is and why it is important to work on truly hard things with intense focus?
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time and it is a extremely valuable skill to have in the over-distracted world we live it.
The author, Cal Newport, goes on to explain in great detail on why deep work is valuable and meaningful but it is still rare. And honestly you do not need to read page after page to know why: Just take a good look at your work environment and daily habits and keep a tab on hours you actually focus on a hard task and I bet you’d be surprised on how little and fragmented your deep work is. I am first to admit that I suffer from a distraction and constant context switching: With so many interesting articles to read my browser has tens of tabs open that I read only half through. As part of open office trend and agile work style I work in a large room shared with 9 other colleagues and an ongoing open video conference so anyone can ask me anything anytime. And my day most of the time slices to a million of 30 min meetings.
So how to cultivate the habit of working deeply in out day-to-day life? Here are my take away from the strategies suggested to in the four main rules suggested in the book to achieve deep work:
Unsurprisingly this is rule number 1 on how to allocate enough time in your life to an uninterrupted work. There are multiple philosophies to schedule deep work in your day. For me building a daily routine around deep work and practicing it everyday is the way to go.
Focus is a skill that must be developed before you can do it with any effectiveness and in order to strengthen your ability to focus, you must avoid the temptation to entertain yourself the minute you are bored by reaching out for the phone. One suggested method to practice this skill is to cut off internet for some time interval and focus on the task at hand. Don’t check emails, surf the web or any other internet related activity during this time.
I have been doing this for the past couple of days and I can tell you firsthand it’s hard! As soon as I find something that is hard to work through or make progress, a few seconds later, I catch myself to have opened a new tab or checked my email unconsciously.
Quit Social Media
Out of all rules outlined the most provocative one is to quit or dramatically cut back on the most beloved and addicting social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and so on. A core idea of this rule is that most people select digital tools using the any benefit mindset, which claims that you should use a tool if it can provide any benefit. This rule argues that you should instead use the craftsman mindset in which you only select the tools that provide the most substantial benefits to the things you find most important.
Drain the shallows
Finally having a fix time where you leave work and wrap up your work day forces you to be ruthless on what are the important stuff that get done.