All Politics is Local

A phrase closely linked to Tip O’Neill, which has been on my mind lately. Specifically, I was thinking about how companies make decisions. When you gather a diverse set of people in a room to make a decision, people usually try to lobby for the decision that is best for their locality.

Let’s imagine the decision was about what to put in the next release of a product. The sales people would optimize for features that help sales. Support wants features that help support. Engineers want to pay down technical debt. UX wants to work on the interaction design.

Each constituency thinks about their own department and negotiation begins. Often an executive will play the tie-breaker. This patterns plays itself out in small groups all the way up to the executive staff.

The problem with this approach is that it is fundamentally based in selfishness without the perspective of the good of the whole. Each person just looks at their own point of view and doesn’t care about the “right” decision. Of course, not every person thinks this way. However, many, many, many people do.

This is why Climate Change has had difficulty getting the proper focus. This is why insuring the poor isn’t popular with the “not poor”. This is why products often get the wrong investments. This is also why people are often miserable in the decision-making process of the product.

Policy should be global. Each person should think about their locality and then think about the global situation. When coming together, they should represent the whole organization and not just their own myopic point of view. People should have empathy and think logically about what makes sense based on the evidence we have at the time.

We all make mistakes based on poor data, poor assumptions, and poor choices. I just wish we would diminish the mistakes we make based on selfishness. I know I am fighting the tide here, my wish is not likely to be granted.

If I can convince one person to go to their staff meeting and think about the decision from the company point of view, not just their department, I would feel like it was a victory.  Are you that person?

Decision Models

In 2005, I worked for a year at Intuit and they claimed to be Customer-Driven. This came from a specific story. Originally the company produced Quicken, a personal finance tool. When they watched their customers, they realized that many of them were using it for business purposes. They realized this market and produced QuickBooks, which turned into the category king of small business accounting software.

The customer DROVE them to build the software. They took their cues from the customer. They weren’t data driven or creativity driven or any other kind of driven.

At early Apple, one might say it they were “Steve-Driven“. Steve Jobs had a vision and was a force of nature. He DROVE the company towards his vision. Then he was driven out.

Don Normal talks about the process after Steve departed as “Human-Centered“. Certainly better than Customer-Driven, but still had problems.

Norman describes Apple’s design method back then as “a well-structured process” and says he is still proud of it. But he is quick to point out its shortcomings.

“It was a consultative process,” he says; many different points of view and impressions were solicited. But “this can lead to a lack of cohesion in the product.” Then Steve came back and famously said, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” —Steve Jobs, 2005

This was around the same time Don Norman changed his tune and was quoted, “I prefer design by experts – by people who know what they are doing” —Don Norman, 2005 Actually, I heard Norman speak at a conference and he said that Jobs fired all the data analysts and scientists and hired designers. He said that after Jobs did that, the products improved and sales went up.

I call this model Design-Driven. Jef Raskin said it well when he was quoted, “As far as the customer is concerned, the interface is the product.”—Jef Raskin, 2001

In the last few years, there has been this new popular phrase called Data-Driven. For me it originates with this quote, “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” -Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape. Jim was basically denying any form of expertise to be a factor in the decision.

“Data” can be anything. My opinion is data. Your opinion is data. That’s not what Jim was saying. He was saying that unless you have something resembling a scientific mathematically-provable study, then it’s all just opinion. I believe this is wrong-headed and led to poor product decisions. Remember Netscape? Many poor decisions in that company’s history.

It’s very tempting (especially for engineers) to believe in a data driven world. What can you hold in your hand? What can you see with your own eyes? Prove it. This is totally aligned to an engineering point of view.

If you have ever been to a doctor with a problem you probably have direct experience with the lack of science that most medicine entails. Sure, there are amazing things happening in medicine, but more often than not the doctor has no real idea what is wrong with you. Example: It took a year and 4 doctors and 1 surgery to realize my wrist pain was a torn ligament.

Doctors are not data driven. They are Experience-Driven. Doctors spend an enormous amount of time studying, training, interning, and practicing to be a doctor. They literally say “Practice Medicine”. They read studies for sure, but doctors make their decisions based mainly on their experience. Keep in mind, a doctor’s decisions are literally life-death struggles. No one (usually) dies when a product manager chooses a poor path for a product.

Most professions are Experience Driven.  Here are some problems I see with the Data Driven approach.

Statistical Confidence
A huge majority of tests I have seen lack basic statistical confidence in the results. Great post on A/A testing demonstrates this. What this means is that if you test a hypothesis, you can get a result that is actually just random. Flip a coin 10 times and you should get 5 heads and 5 tails, right? I will bet you a dollar that you don’t get that result. Randomness is a powerful force.

Replication Crisis
In the academic world, there has recently been an existential earthquake. According to a 2016 poll of 1,500 scientists reported in the journal Nature, 70% of them had failed to reproduce at least one other scientist’s experiment (50% had failed to reproduce one of their own experiments).

This means that the majority of FACTS that you think you know, based on DATA and SCIENCE are just flatly untrue. Randomness is the nemesis of being Data Driven. It will screw up your results more often than not.

We are living in a world of “Fake News” partially because we can’t believe data anymore. This is incredibly stressful and makes decision-making difficult.

Pre-Testing Politics
At Intuit, Avinash Kaushik was an extreme proponent of testing. My simple question, however, bothered him. I asked, “Who decides what we test?” The problem is that you can’t test everything. There are audience limits and analyst limits and designer limits. We have to pick and choose what we test. In most companies, the decision of what to test is political and completely opinion based.

If I test two flavors of cookies, A) Shit-flavored and B) Puke-Flavored, I will end up with a winner. That doesn’t mean they are good cookies or deserve to win. Our presidential politics are often described as choosing between two bad choices exactly for this reason.

Luckily Avinash allowed me to add test variants without committee approval. I think he was surprised how often my version would win the test. It wasn’t surprising to me though. It’s not hard to beat a shit-flavored cookie or website designed by a committee.

Confirmation Bias
Test results are rarely black and white. They are often interpret-able. People will find the part of the study that agrees with their point of view and emphasize that. We want to confirm that we are smart and prescient. We want to believe that our opinions are, in fact, correct and true. I saw this first hand when a VP would cite a minor result in a test to overturn the clear fact that another choice was superior in most ways.

This was extremely depressing because it showed that Data-Driven was just a smoke screen for HiPPO. (Avinash’s acronym) If the executive wants data, but really just wants data that backs up their own opinion, then the results are no better than opinions in the first place.

So what do we do?

I believe there is a better way. I think being Data-Driven doesn’t actually work in the real-world. Here are elements to a new model I just made up called Team-Driven.

I don’t think people work best alone. I don’t think you need one super genius to make all the decisions. It’s disenfranchising to the team and yields results that often are sub-optimal. Pair-programming, pair-designing, Co-owners…people work better as teams. This kind of collaboration requires trust and Radical Candor. (Im listening to that book in the car and think it’s pretty good.)

Important: If you have co-owners of a project, they need to have proven to work well together.  Great things happen in that case. It also bolsters camaraderie and higher productivity.

Don’t try and build the right thing on the first try. Actually, build it once and throw it away. Your final version will be much, much better. Most things in programming, products, and design improve with iterations. Plan for it. Stop being in such a rush. Raise more money to iterate. Have a culture where improvements are embraced. It’s not a fail to iterate, it’s a way to learn. I hate the term “Fail Fast“.  How about “Learn Fast” instead? Learning is part of iterating. Do more retrospectives and learn and pour that into the next iteration.  Yes, you need to ship, so don’t iterate forever and ever. Zero is the wrong amount of iteration.

Respect for Expertise
An engineer is trained to understand computer science. A designer is trained to understand user experience. A marketer spent years learning how to generate demand. Good ideas can come from anywhere, but experts should be given some latitude to do their jobs. There is nothing more depressing than someone who has no experience whatsoever in your field making decisions for you.

Important: Collaboration and Respect for Expertise go together. It’s not blind trust. Everyone is expected to participate.

A good team understands their own style. All too often values are “mom and apple pie” meaningless phrases. A true value is one where you are strongly guided about decisions based on the values. I can blog about this more another day. This post is already too long.

Ok, how do I end this thing…

Data-Driven is flawed. Team-Driven is the way I would do it if I had my own startup. How would you do it?

Interview Questions for a First Marketer

I have a bunch of questions for Product Designers that I have evolved over time. However, I don’t think I have ever done the same exercise for Marketing. The context is the “first marketer” in a company. At Marketo, this was Kelly Abner. He did an awesome job and helped the product development by being his usual brutally honest self.

So I’ve been thinking about questions I could ask. Not all of these will end up in the interview, but here are some:

Topic 1: Traffic Cop

“Are you aware of the Marketo Traffic Cop? Do you like it?”

If they indicate any tolerance for Traffic Cop, I flip the table over and tell them to GTFO. Kidding, partially. Anyone who likes traffic cop is a Nazi. Kidding, not really.

Topic 2: Tactic Ranking

I put 10 tactics on pieces of paper and ask them to organize them in order or priority and explain the thinking. It’s interactive. Also there is a blank tactic you can fill in! Ok, it’s not “Secret Hitler”, but its different at least.

Topic 3: Best and Worst

“What’s the best/worst marketing you have ever done?  Why?”

The reason I ask is to see how much pride/excitement they show and also how much self-awareness. We all have bad ideas sometimes. It’s good to be able to face them and learn from them.

Topic 4: Text Stack

“What is your go-to tech stack?”

Marketing automation is just one of many tools. Do they pick old-school technologies or stay on the cutting edge. The stack they choose also indicates their priorities.

Topic 5: Culture Fit

“What’s it like to work with you?”

Over the past few years, this has become the number one concern for me. I want to get along with people and collaborate with them.

Often people tell me that I ask questions they haven’t heard before. I don’t know why this is the case. I don’t think my questions are that odd. Maybe everyone else is asking the same dumb questions, who knows? Interviewing should be an enjoyable experience. Here in Silicon Valley, talent is in demand, so it’s crucial to sell candidates just as much as to evaluate them.

If you think your job in an interview is to evaluate the candidate, you are probably not going to get the best people. Make it fun for them, make it informative for them and make sure you get the feel of what it is like to work with them.

If you are a marketer in an interview with me, you can say the word “Sassafras” and I will give you 1 extra point. Good Luck.

The Care Pie

We all care about lots of decisions. However, it’s not healthy to argue about every single decision. In fact, it’s not healthy to argue about 90% of the decisions that are made.

I talk to people about the Decision-Care Pie. This is a pie-chart that has two parts.

The first part is the 10%. These are the decisions that you truly should argue about. You should be passionate and defend your position. I sometimes call this “Using your chips”.

The other part is 90%. These are the decisions that you should NOT argue about. You should let other people decide. Do not get passionate about this. Ask for others to help decide.

To reiterate, I am saying that 9 out of 10 decisions should be decided by other people. And 1 out 10 times, you should stand your ground and say, “This is important to me and I believe I know the right way to do it.

Another way of saying all of this is “Pick your battles”. However, there is no pie chart in that phrase.  I believe that most people remember things better when there is a visual component to it.

Anyway bottom line: we argue too much and we all have opinions that are too strong. We need to chill out and only use our passion for really important things. Like 10% of the time is appropriate. Not the other way around.

Product Responsibilities Framework v0.2

Product Responsibilities Framework v0.1

Frameworks for how to organize your product team are sometimes difficult to follow and figure out who does what. Product managers are often given too many job responsibilities and end up being spread too thin.

Lately, I have been thinking about this and wanted to redo my v0.1 framework and add in a few items like Adoption Marketing and Market Demand Research. Plus, I reorganized the structure to make more sense to me.

Take a look.

I believe in open-sourcing this sort of thinking. I don’t have a book, I don’t have a speaking tour. We all live through our jobs and wonder if someone has already thought of a solution to some problem. We all use Google to explore these ideas. It’s up to us to fill Google with useful things.  Here are my thoughts about product development, free of charge.

All I ask in return is never-ending adoration. (too much?)

Anyway, please comment, suggest changes, fork it and share your own. The text is copied here below.

    •  Intelligence
      • Market Definition
        Define a group of people with money and a problem?
      • Competitive Landscape
        What are the current solutions?
      • Opportunity Assessment
        How much money can be made?
      • Market Demand Research
        Define value benchmarks for feature categories
    • Planning
      • Problem Definition
        What are we solving for?
      • Environmental Constraints
        How much time, money and resources do we have?
      • Requirements
        What does the solution need to include?
      • Build, Buy, Partner
        How will we approach the solution?
      • Personas and Use Cases
        Specific cases of specific kinds of people
      • Roadmap Plans
        How will we sequence all of this?
    • Design
      • Solution Definition
        What is the offering?
      • Specification
        Detailed Build plan
      • Usability Testing
        Will the solution actually work in the real world?
    • Communication
      • Offering Definition
        How do we monetize and communicate this solution?
      • Offer Details
        Pricing, packaging, marketing
      • Sales Tools
        Collateral, pitch decks, battle cards
      • Launch Plan
        Training, documentation, support, onboarding
      • Adoption Marketing
        Use marketing techniques to make sure people use your solution
    • Analysis
      • Learning
        How did reality match up with the plan?
      • Usage Analysis
        Who? When? How often?
      • Financial Analysis
        Are we making/saving money as expected? Also win/loss analysis
      • Process Analysis
        Can we improve how we do things?

Enjoy. Let me know if it’s helpful to you.

Startup People

What makes someone a really good employee for a startup?

I was at a company culture outing a few years ago (small startup) and some people said they wanted to work there because they wanted to be part of a rocket ship. They thought the previous experience of the leadership team was such that the company would obviously be part of a huge new success story. This really freaked me out at the time.

Every startup is exactly like a rocket ship, except that there is no place to sit, no engine, no wings, no navigation and no idea how rockets work. In other words, it’s just a dream, a vision of the future. It’s not a rocket ship at all. You don’t want to hire people who want to be on the ship. You want to hire people who want to BUILD the ship, because it doesn’t exist yet.

Imagine you build half a ship and start flying it into space and then realize that you completely forgot oxygen masks and everyone is going to die in moments. You want people who can build an oxygen system out of random parts, while flying a thousand miles an hour. You want people who climb out on the wing and jerry-rig a new kind of engine just because it is needed at the time. You want people who think quickly, collaborate together and figure it out. You don’t want the people who manage a large organization effectively. You don’t want solid B+ workers. Each person needs to be the A-Team, with a specialty and a mentality of working through problems.

We all know these sorts of people. They create systems from scratch. They find the one vendor who can unlock a huge use case. It’s not scalable at all and won’t survive the long-term growth, but it gets the job done in the short run. A startup needs these people desperately. You don’t break out of orbit without them.

Of course, as you grow and get into orbit, you need a completely different set of people. We all are perfect people if you just adjust the situation and timing. Are you in the right position at the right time?

Great Team or Great Players

I often hear people say they want to work at a company because they are led by a great team. What they usually mean is that the team is comprised of people who were successful before, or at least they were at successful companies. The same goes for venture capital investments. They often will invest in a great leadership team, but what they really mean is that the pedigrees of the leadership has been associated with previous success.

In contrast, a true “great team” is a group of people who work well together. They are aligned in spirit with diverse points of views and multiply each others efforts. There is chemistry, trust, and camaraderie. A great team working in unison will usually beat a group of great players.

Last year, I read The Boys in the Boat. (Good book) The subject was about crewman during World War II; (people rowing in a boat – see picture).

The key element that inspired me is the description of how winning speed is attained. Speed did NOT come from the number of strokes per minute. You could beat a team with almost half the strokes per minute if your strokes were in true unison. In other words, it was the asynchronization of strokes, the little inconsistencies between rowers that created drag. When everyone was in true alignment, the boat would “lift out of the water” and the rowers felt like they were rowing in pure air.

That’s what working on a well functioning team feels like. It’s bliss. Not everyone has experienced the joy of being a part of a team that works like that. I have had a few years out of the last 30 that felt that way and I think I only achieved maybe 75% of true team enlightenment. (Maybe less)

The last two years have taught me a great deal about alignment, communication and how team conflicts can be detrimental to the overall success of the company and certainly to my own happiness.

My advice to VC and other people evaluating companies is to ignore the pedigrees of the team and instead look for the following signs of a great team:

  • Do the department heads think they are on the team they manage or are they on the e-team? You shouldn’t be both, otherwise you are neither. In other words, Is the e-team a bonded team or a collection of department heads?
  • Is there easy and active collaboration between department individual contributors or is each objective owned by one department and not collaborative?
  • Are the arguments about merits of the ideas or about word-smithing and consensus? Are there healthy discussions or is everyone trying to get along or hiding animosity?
  • Is there clear awareness of the big objectives or does everyone have their own marching orders that are separate from other people?
  • Do people get excited working and even talking with each other?

Alot of these things are hard to determine by just one or two interviews. I suggest taking multiple people to lunch and trying to get their view outside of the office. I imagine most companies are not working like the Boys in the Boat, but you don’t need to have an Olympic level team to succeed. You just need to be better than your competition.

I won’t beat this to death, but at this point in my life, I am trying to focus on teamwork and surround myself with people who “get me” and whom I want to interact with at work.

One last metaphor. Great rock bands aren’t made of the best players of every instrument. They are not the sum of their parts. They make great music because of the chemistry between the players. No chemistry, no great music. Same goes for any team.

I’ll end with a quote (that may never have actually been said) from one of the great teams in history.

Pete Best is a great drummer, but Ringo…Ringo is a great Beatle. – John Lennon