Better Product Managers, and Product Management

Culture at a startup is like capital – once you’ve started running out, it becomes harder to raise more; and once you’re out, you’re done.

I’ve twice worked at startups that doubled in size within a year.  The first time, it was bad – for morale, for productivity, for overall quality.  Yammer has been really good on all of those fronts.  Why?   Retaining your culture as you grow is not due to luck or accident, and it’s not (necessarily) correlated with your company’s success trajectory.

I can’t take credit for any of this – it existed before I came – but the critical elements seem to boil down to:

Identify the critical elements of your culture.  There can only be a few “most important” things.  Be explicit and obvious when talking about what they are.

Preserving the critical elements of your culture will not happen automatically.  Adding new people, changing processes, forming sub-teams, interviewing and recruiting and promoting — all of those can threaten your culture.

Look for changes constantly and figure out why they’re happening and if they’re beneficial.  Figure out what behavioral or organizational things you’re doing that might be leading to undesirable changes and adjust.

Executives have to care about this stuff and talk about how culture is critical to the success of the company.  There will be times when expediency or “because I said so” is tempting, but that is a massive hit to culture.  Your company may not weather more than one of these interventions.

…That said, it has to be everyone’s job to absorb culture, care about it, and actively preserve it.   That means questioning things that aren’t working.  It means when you have a coworker who is being a jerk, instead of everyone trying to ignore it, someone takes them aside privately and explains why it’s not okay.  It means turning down candidates who have great skills but no particular appreciation for the company’s core values.

At Yammer, you’ll see people who were hired two weeks ago interviewing new prospective employees and asking the same questions or having the same concerns as far more senior employees.

(That’s one of the main reasons I joined: everyone — and I interviewed with a really varied slate of people — had really similar – but honest – assessments of what made the company successful and what was needed.)

Now that Yammer has been acquired by Microsoft, public opinion has mostly been that all the good things about us will be stifled and go away.  But as a manager, it’s my job to fight that perception — and reality — as hard as I can.   That means doing all of the things above on a much larger scale – educating, questioning, pushing back… and hopefully extending our culture barrier out to include a couple more thousand people here, a couple more thousand people there.

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“…and here’s why…” might be the three most important words for you as a designer, writer, or product manager, and here’s why: Everyone thinks they can do your job.

(They don’t mean to be malicious about it, but think of how many times you’ve heard: “I think it would look better right-aligned” or “Can we say ‘internal’ instead of ‘private’? or “I’m smart and I feel like I have good ‘product instincts’…)

And unless you are vigilant about using “…and here’s why…” in daily practice, they’ll continue to think that way.

You’re a designer.

When you make a decision on line-height or color or how much information to reveal in one interaction, you’re basing that on a combination of technical design skills, knowledge of human psychology and visual perception.

You’re a writer.

When you make a decision on sentence length or using specific words or choosing a friendly/serious/casual tone, you’re basing that on knowing not just the meanings of words but subtle connotations and understanding reading (or let’s be honest: skimming) behaviors.

You’re a product manager.

When you make a decision on which feature to cut, what metrics to track, or when to ignore customers who say one thing but do another, you’re basing that on market knowledge and understanding tradeoffs between time, features, and quality.

And of course, the experience of having seen what has worked (and not worked) in analogous situations in the past.

But to your average co-worker, that foundation is invisible.

They just know “I like it” or “I don’t like it” or “here is my personal preference.”

This turns what should have been a conversation based on experience and objectives into a debate based on personal opinions and who can speak louder (or persist for longer).

This will happen unless you own your recommendations: “we should do X, and here’s why…”

Then the conversation can remain elevated.  People may not agree with you, but now you can clearly drive the conversation.  Now the other person can clarify that they disagree with your “why”, or how you chose to solve the “why”.  You can figure out whether the issue stems from a miscommunication, poorly-stated (or changed) objectives, or the other person having knowledge that wasn’t shared with you.

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Oh, not in so many words.

But are you:

  • Trailing off at the end of your sentences?
  • Prefacing your ideas with “This probably won’t work, but…”?
  • Inflecting your voice up at the end of each sentence?  So that even a statement of fact comes out sounding like a question?
  • Thinking faster than you talk so that you leap from one idea to the next without a connecting statement to bring others along?
  • Adding “I don’t know…” to the end of your ideas?
  • Asking “What do you think?” after every opinion you express?
  • Inserting more than one “um” or “like” fillers into each sentence?
  • Looking down the table or your lap while you talk?

Any of these verbal tics send the message that you can be ignored.  That you’re not really sure of what you’re saying, so why should anyone else be?

We all stumble over phrases sometimes, or try to say something and have it come out mangled or inarticulate.   You can survive that.  But what you can’t survive is a consistent pattern of downplaying yourself.   If you always ‘qualify’ your contributions with ‘This may be dumb, but–” or “I’m not sure about this, but–”, pretty soon the people who listen to you will stop listening.

You can train yourself out of any of these habits, and the payoff is pretty huge.  If you dread public speaking, it’s hard to go from there to loving it — but it’s relatively much easier to train yourself out of ending sentences with a question intonation, or replacing “um” with a deliberate pause.

And the payoff is amazing – this is like Stupid Human Psychology Tricks 101 – getting rid of these verbal tics is like automatically getting credit for being 20% smarter.   Watch for it the next meeting you’re in – and better yet, use this one for yourself.

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The first question you want to ask your customers is usually not the question you want answered.

For some reason, our first instinct is to ask a question that is one or two or three steps removed from the actual information we want.    I can’t tell you why this is, but I can tell you I’ve seen it every time I work with someone to get user research done.

Let me give you an example from earlier this week:

“What’s your job title?”  [first question]

Coworker asks if we can run this survey question on a certain section of our website.

Me: “Sure we can”, I say, “but what are you going to do with those results?”

Coworker:  ”We want to know if that person might potentially be a decision maker or not.”

Me: “Then maybe we should ask that directly — are you the person who can makes decisions directly on buying this service?”

Coworker:  ”Oh.  Well… we also think some people might be gathering information for the person who is the decision maker.  It might be good to know the distinction, since we really don’t know what they came there to learn.”

Me: “And there’s your questions – what did you come here to learn today, with some multiple choice options around whether they’re a decision maker or a helper or just curious.

“What did you come here to learn today?” [better question]

The trick is to not think about composing the question first.  That’s where our best intentions — to keep the question short, or to make the question super-inclusive, or to try to ‘sound professional’ — bite us.  Instead, work backwards.  What information do you wish you knew?

If you had the richest possible channel of interaction — say, a face-to-face friendly conversation, where it’s okay to ramble a bit and use hand gestures and verbal emphasis and facial cues — what would you say to try and get at that information?   Why would you phrase it that way?  Why would you use those words or pauses?

Once you’ve figured that out, then you can try to reduce fidelity and shorten it into something you could ask in a survey or during a customer call.  But going the other direction is like trying to take a tiny photo and blow it up huge – you get something distorted and blurry.  And when you start with distorted and blurry questions, you get distorted and blurry answers.

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