3 Books I Read in 2017: Worth Their Weight in Gold

I decided to take a page from my buddy Rohan Rajiv’s playbook, and reflect on the books I read this year that really resonated with me. They are:

1. Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan: This book is about nine years old, but it still totally nails the contemporary issues that product managers (PMs) face. What should be the nature of the relationship between product management and marketing teams? What about product management and engineering? How can PMs really understand customers, assess new opportunities, or recruit development partners? It’s all addressed in this book from a very practical perspective. There’s a new edition out that came out this month which I’m definitely looking forward to reading.

2. Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown: Since I watched her insanely popular TED video, I’ve become a huge fan of Brene Brown and her work around vulnerability. This books dives into how to use vulnerability in key aspects of our daily lives, just like the title says :). A key learning for me was that having the courage to be vulnerable is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. Also, a popular but counterproductive way for us to deal with our shame is to look for and judge people doing worse than us in that area of our lives (parenting is a great example). Finally, when we take the time to reflect on the reasons why we feel shame, we usually realize that things aren’t as bad as we think. Great book!

3. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland: Most product teams today build their products using some variation of scrum, which makes this book quite relevant as  it addresses how to get product development right using scrum. The book contains lots of good war stories about the scrum-adoption journey of very different organizations (I really liked the FBI Sentinel story), but the key insight for me was that great product teams are autonomous, cross-functional, empowered and goal-oriented.

That’s it! Cheers to a New Year, and to continuous learning!


Make “Disagree and Commit” Work for You

The ‘Disagree and commit’ principle seems to have been created by Scott McNealy at Sun Microsystems, and adopted by other leading tech companies such as Intel. However, it was Amazon that brought the principle mainstream by making it one of its 14 leadership principles. The core message of disagree and commit is simple: conflict within a team is highly beneficial during the early stages of decision making as it helps the team to arrive at a better solution. However, conflict that persists after a decision has been made is quite harmful and prevents the team from executing effectively. In cases where you disagree with your team’s decision, you should still commit to helping your team execute flawlessly.

 Challenges with Disagree and Commit

The disagree and commit principle makes sense and can really help teams remain fast and nimble. However, adopting this principle is not easy. Two challenges I encounter as I try to disagree and commit are:
1. Disagreeing with Powerful People: I still find it difficult to disagree with more senior or influential team members even when I know doing so might help us get to a better solution. If this challenge resonates with you, check out Amy Gallo’s HBR article on how to disagree with powerful people. It’s pretty good.
2. Committing while I am Still Unconvinced: I personally value clarity and logic, so I find it really difficult to commit to something that doesn’t yet make sense to me. In an ideal situation, I’d like to wallow in the debate a little more so I can become convinced, but in cases where there’s no time, I realize I have to commit but that’s really hard for me.

Make Disagree and Commit Work for You

I did a little bit of research and arrived on five steps for improving my ability to disagree and commit. They are:

Step 1 – Ask for Permission To Disagree: This is quite useful in instances where you need to disagree with someone more powerful than you. According to Amy Gallo, a simple statement such as “I have some concerns with that idea and I’d like to lay out my reasoning. Is that okay?” gives the person a chance to become open to your idea and also helps to make you calm enough to engage in a difficult conversation.

Step 2 – Make Them Feel Heard: Paraphrase the original idea as a way to make the person you are disagreeing with feel heard. Another benefit of doing this is that it helps ensure that everyone is talking about the same things. You’d be surprised how often people find themselves talking about different topics within the same conversation.

Step 3 – Share your Thoughts in the Form of a Question: These questions should be about aspects of the original idea that you disagree with, or alternative ideas that you have. An example of a right way to do this is “Have you thought about this risk? or that alternative?”. An example of a wrong way to do this is “Can’t you see how shallow your idea is?”.

Step 4 – Ask for More Time To Research Alternatives: Sometimes, we are quick to assume that important decisions must be made immediately, but this is not always the case. If you disagree with the current direction of an important decision, ask for more time to come up with something better.

Step 5 – Take a Leap of Faith: This is where the rubber hits the road. If after steps 1 – 4, your team is still taking a decision that you’re opposed to, you need to take a leap of faith and commit. Some things to think about that may help this process are:
1. You aren’t always right, and this might be one of the instances where you are wrong.
2. You can give your team members the benefit of doubt because you believe they are smart, competent people working together for the good of the team. If you don’t believe this then you should find a new team.  🙂
3. The more you disagree and commit to other people’s ideas, the more likely they are to disagree and commit to your own whacky ideas in the future.

Any other ideas on how to effectively disagree and commit?

A Year in Product Management: What I’ve Learned

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my first year as a product manager. Much to my disappointment, I didn’t get a whole lot of congratulatory messages. Only LinkedIn remembered (thanks LinkedIn!).

Self reflection is something that I truly value, so I decided to take some time to think about what I’ve learned about the product management discipline during the past year. I came up with three key findings:

1. Wearing Multiple Hats is the Name of the Game
Before I became a product manager, my thoughts about the role can be summed up in this beautiful Venn diagram from the pm heels blog:


Now that I have a year’s worth of product management experience, I’ve modified this diagram to become something like this:


2. It is Important to Always be Working on the Most Important Things

From my product management Venn diagram, you can see that there is an infinite number of tasks that a product manager can be involved in. Yes those tasks can have UX, business, or  technology components. However, they can also involve random stuff like getting pizza for engineers who are working late (I haven’t had to do this yet but I happily will).

This brings us to the problem of prioritization. Since no one can do everything, product managers have to constantly check to ensure that whatever they’re working on has a higher chance of improving their product’s success metrics compared to other things that they could be doing. In case you’re wondering, there most definitely are some cases where the most important thing a product manager can do is get pizza for engineers who are working late. 🙂

3. Relationships Matter

I once heard someone describe product management as “the grease and the glue of product development”. It’s up to us to rally our stakeholders around a common goal, and to ensure overall progress towards the achievement of that goal. This means that we have to constantly influence our peers in design, development, and marketing. As none of these people work for us, it really comes down to influencing without authority.

What I’ve learned in the past year (and from folks like Robert Caldini) is that people who like and respect you are more likely to listen to and understand your ideas. In the same vein, you are more likely to listen to and understand the ideas of people that you like and respect. This insight has led me to always try to make relationship investments up front, before they were needed; by then it was usually too late.


How Organizations Fail to Think

I recently came across a TED video by Margaret Heffernan, an international business leader and writer. In her speech, Margaret shared an insight which I felt was pretty radical: most organizations don’t think.

If like me, you work at an organization that requires you to do a decent amount of thinking on a daily basis, you might be wondering what this woman is talking about. According to Margaret, a critical component of organizational thinking is constructive conflict, and most of us do our very best to avoid conflict at work. The reasons for conflict avoidance are many, but some of the top reasons include:

  1. Conflicts can be messy and personal.
  2.  Conflicts are highly unpredictable, and it may be impossible to effectively manage the conflict once it has begun.
  3. People who start conflicts at work are usually labelled as not being a team player, or a whistle blower, and no one likes these kinds of people.

Despite the risks associated with engaging in conflict at work, the fact that the great tragedies of organizations and humanity happened in the open, and succeeded because people failed to speak up against the status quo, challenges us all to go beyond our comfort zones, and engage in the constructive conflict needed to develop creative solutions to our world’s problems.

So how do we do this? Margaret’s talk provided me with three good tips:

  1. Resist the neuro-biological urge to only associate with people who are like you. Instead, develop the patience and trust needed to engage with people with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests.
  2. Realize that speaking up in disagreement is not an end in itself, but is only the beginning of the path to a creative solution.
  3. When you have a question or concern about your organization’s product, service, or business process, it is very likely that others secretly share the same concern. The only way to find out is to speak up.

Any other ideas on how to effectively manage organizational conflict?



Why Google Gave Android Away for Free: The Business Case for Open Source Software

In 2007, Google unveiled the Android mobile operating system under an open source license. This meant that Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as LG, HTC and Dell could access the Android source code, and modify it to suit their specific needs, without paying a penny to Google. Why did Google choose this open source approach, when it could have made a decent chunk of money from selling Android?

While I don’t work for Google, I’ve spent some time researching and thinking about the business case for open source software. I believe that from a business perspective, an open source model might make sense for the following reasons:

  1. Monetization of Proprietary Add-Ons: Open source software is likely to gain market share faster than commercial software as its growth is not restricted by the friction of financial transactions. This rapid growth can then be monetized through the creation of proprietary add-ons. For example, Android now has about 65% market share in the US, and Google monetizes this growth through proprietary apps such as Google Search, Google Maps and the Google Play Store, which power its sprawling advertising business.
  2. Reducing Development Costs: Android’s open source license allows any developer around the globe to improve the Android source code for his/her benefit. These improvements are also available to Google for free, and while Google may not necessarily need the free development effort, it ultimately create a positive feedback loop where Android gets better faster, which leads to more users and growth which Google can then monetize.
  3. Attracting and Retaining Talent: Today’s software developers want to do more than write code that earns them a paycheck; they want to change the world. One way to do this is by contributing to cool open source projects that are used by millions of people around the world. Therefore, a company that releases and contributes to open source software projects is likely to be more attractive to talented developers.


On Work-Life Balance, and Setting Down Glass Balls…

glass balls 2
A few days ago, I heard a work-life balance tip from Peggy Johnson, Microsoft’s executive vice president of business development, that resonated strongly with me. My loosely paraphrased version of the tip goes like this:

When we think about the tension between performing well on the job, and catering to the relationships and commitments we have outside of work, it can sometimes feel like we’re juggling a bunch of glass balls. From maintaining a healthy lifestyle to taking care of a sick parent, there’s all these things that we feel we really need to take care of as screwing them up could have potentially devastating consequences.

While it is important to identify the glass balls in our lives, it is also important to realize that we are not slaves to our priorities. Life always happens, and when it does, it’s totally fine to set down some of these glass balls so we can pick them up later. Failure to do so will keep us in a perpetual state of stress, which may lead to us dropping – and shattering – a few glass balls.

What does this idea look like in real life? When I put in long hours on a high profile project, and am invisible to friends and family for a few weeks, that’s okay! When I take off during crunch time at work in order to attend a friend’s wedding on the other side of the globe, that’s okay too! Our work-life balance will constantly change as we move through different phases of life. The challenge is to ensure that our balance goals are created not by our friends, family members, colleagues or the media. Rather, what work-life balance means to us at every phase of our lives, should be decided by us.

Peggy suggested that we set a glass ball on our work desk as a way to keep this idea fresh. I’m yet to get mine… 🙂


Cool Videos of 2015

I thought it’ll be a good idea to end the year by sharing some pretty impactful videos regarding leadership and personal development that I’d come across this year. I’ve always preferred videos to books because they’re easier to consume. Also, there’s something to be said about a speaker’s charisma which may not be captured in a book. These videos had at least one message that resonated strongly with me and I hope they do the same for you too:

1. Brene Brown – The Power of Vulnerability: This is a very popular TED video which most people might have already seen. Interestingly enough, I had to see it a few times before I really really got the gist of it.

Big Idea: This video has so many good ideas that revolve around how we need to be vulnerable if we want to live a full and meaningful life. One key message that stood out for me is that if we want to connect with those around us (spouses, siblings and colleagues), we need to let ourselves be really seen. This means that we need to be authentic. Another idea that I really liked was that we need to move away from thinking that we’re not smart, rich or interesting enough in certain situations to believing that we ARE enough.

2. Jim Collins – Drucker Day Keynote: I stumbled upon this one on YouTube and really loved it. If you don’t know Jim Collins, he’s a Stanford Business School grad and professor who wrote two business classics: Good to Great and Built to Last. This was his keynote address at a celebration of another management guru: Peter Drucker. If the management stuff bores you, I’ll skip right to the 47th minute to get the personal leadership ideas that he shared for consideration by younger folks.

Big Idea: The ten ideas that he shared towards the end of the talk are pretty awesome. The one that resonated with me the most was this: the fact that an opportunity before you is a once in a lifetime opportunity is a fact, but not a reason for you dive in. Carefully unplug from the opportunities that distract you.

3. Clayton Christensen – How Will You Measure Your Life: I saw this video for the first time in 2012, and blogged about it then. I decided to add it to this list because it is that profound.

Big Idea: Most of us don’t plan to be broke, ill or have poor relationships with the people we care most about. Instead we unknowingly prioritize our lives using a short term focus that sets us on this self destructive path.

As always, I’d love to thank you all for visiting my blog and checking out what’s going on in my head. Here’s to a fulfilling and growth-oriented 2016!