Product discovery – what exactly you call as “product”?

For my related post on involving customers during product development by making them co-creator, one of the readers comment that the same approach will not work in every product development. By involving customers during product development, it might look like a “service” to the customers by taking example of Google v/s Apple way of building products. In case of Google, they work on a product discovery approach, whereas Apple has taken the approach of “Don’t ask the customer what they want, many of the times they themselves don’t know” approach.  In my opinion, major differentiation between these two approaches come from what we “refer” as a “product”. Buying a “box” product  from the store and experiencing  it with hands-on is way different from accessing an online product. This has a significant change the way products are developed. Let me explain this from my own experience.

I used to work in a firmware development team, which had very close traction with hardware. We made certain firmware changes specific to hardware, any further changes to it will result in re-manufacturing the whole PCB. Also product milestones, changes/defect fixes were controlled (ex: All level-1 severity defects should be fixed before manufacturing release, which is the final release). Later point I moved to other team, where we were building cloud solutions from the scratch. Our first major launch was two days away where we had at-least a dozen level-1 bugs were open. When I asked how we can make the release, the product manager replied “We can go ahead and launch then regularly roll-in patch releases by observing customer usage. If customers are not facing any issues, it is fine. After all for this flexibility only we are moving to cloud”.  Well, this fundamental elementary thinking of how we look at defect fixing itself different when it comes to looking into products as something.

Thanks to advancement in cloud technology, tons of mobile and internet products are getting built every day by following the discovery process. They can release, iterate and then improve their products depending on how customers are responding to it.  Recently there was an article about Amazon’s product building which talks about similar approach. On contrast, when you are building anything that is closer to the hardware, taking this approach might create more problems. For example, given a trial a customer might say he wants infrared interface in it, which might result in months of time to tape out and re-design a new board. Whereas in case of web, if the customer wants a button to be changed, probably it can be done in few hours.

In conclusion, I would say product development largely depends on what exactly we call it as product. The development methodology should change and be in sync with it.

Product quality as an experience

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices,” –  Steve Job’s statement during iPad 2 release

I was able to relate well to his statement, which is visible in terms of user experience when it comes to Apple products. I still remember the day when my mother (60+ year old) was seamlessly able to listen to music from iPod when I handed over to her for the first time, even though she didn’t had any previous idea about using any sort of gadgets. The same was true with iPhone, where I felt immense amount of joy owning it. Till date I don’t think any organizations or products can beat Apple when it comes to the seamless experience of integrating software, hardware and user experience.

Purely taking a software view, I could say the excellent user experience achieved because of the high quality software. Professionally I have been handling multiple software programs and projects, mainly focusing on quality which has multiple elements like quality control, quality assurance and metrics based project management. Often as a project manager, one gets into so much bogged down in meeting project metrics, often customer and his experience goes out of window. For example, having a lower priority defect in user interface v/s higher priority defect in corner case scenario resulting in device crash. From the defect density or defect index perspective, it will look better to have lower priority defect open but imaging the impact of it from user perspective.

In such cases I feel metrics based project management should be abandoned and quality should take user experience route. All design and measurement mechanisms for project should be attuned to ensure users get a great experience, which is what Agile or Lean software development is trying to advocate. Perpetual beta, demo releases, iterative development are better ways to do this I also wonder what Apple should be doing in their software development method to ensure such a high quality with on time releases.

After all no customer talks about defect density while using iPhones!

Product building – A discovery process

“If you build it, they will come” is becoming more and more outdated when it comes to product development. In most of the cases former thing (i.e. building) happens but later one (i.e. paying customer) never happens. It is mainly because product development mainly has been focusing on “what I can offer” (as an organization) rather than “what customers want”. The only way to understand what customer wants is to involve them during the product development activity by providing them with working product incrementally (which is popularly known as “perpetual beta” these days)  and ask them to try it out. When the actual customer uses it he will figure what he actually wanted. In summary this is what Agile methodology advocates. Activities like perpetual beta, multiple demo releases to validate the idea, building product backlog based on customer requirements have become critical elements in product building rather than making it as a static activity.

After being part of multiple product development teams, I could also see changes in the way even customer see this way of building products. These days customers are also more than willing to be part of this “discovery” process they will eventually get what they want even though it is not coming out at one shot. Recently in conversation with one of my friend he put it in a very simple way when it comes to a simple item like providing Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to customers:

  • If you ask FAQ in first week, I will give you a notepad file
  • If you ask FAQ in second week, I will give you a PDF file
  • If you ask FAQ in third week, I will give you in HTML file hosted as a part of my website
  • If you ask FAQ in fourth week, I will make it as a interactive platform where you can contribute back to FAQs by making it as a collaborative activity

Recently I came across a very interesting presentation which talks about this whole new product development paradigm. Have a look into the presentation below.


Embedded self learning kits

Embedded systems is been my area of interest, ever since I attended computer networks course during my engineering days. In those days mainly networking devices were meant to be primary source of embedded systems as custom designed hardware and software would make networking (packet switching, routing, configuration & management etc…) faster. As a student Linux (or UNIX) was the primary source, where testing of target embedded image to be done in the same PC. In such cases getting the real kick of ‘embedded’ software was absent. Developing the embedded software in a host PC, using cross compiler/linker to generate target image, deploying it in target hardware (typically a board, which is supposed to perform certain functionality) was something an individual can only get in professional work environment to make the ’embedded’ learning complete.

Over a period of time I see the landscape changing significantly with multiple low cost self learning kits/devices flocking the market. Starting off with Texas Instrument’s Panda board, learning kits ecosystem started moving into a different level altogether.  Entry of Raspberry Pi  at $25 price-point about an year back, brought in further changes. Once these hardware folks release the initial hardware is out in the market, tons of open source enthusiasts backed by community are creating necessary software (ex: SDK) and projects by complementing it. This has opened up a new gamut of self learning opportunity, where individuals can learn latest embedded system concepts, programming and complete interesting project right from their homes or hostel rooms. As long as one has a booting Linux machine, it is enough to get started on these embedded learning kits.

Off-late there are multiple domestic providers in this field as well. The Kits and Spares online shop provides a whole bunch of such devices with which an individual can create small and useful projects. There are also specific training service providers like Thinklabs, who not only provide kits but also train in interesting projects like Robotics that can be built around the device. It’s been real fun to see combination of low cost democratic hardware with open source software, which is making Embedded systems learning very easy.

Shortly I am looking forward to lay my hands in one of these devices. Will share more details after that.

The crux of coaching

Every year 5th September is celebrated as Teachers day in India. We were preparing a custom greeting card for our little one

Coaching
Coaching

(to share with her teacher) to demonstrate a good gesture. Around the same time my mind started thinking about teachers, coaching and positive impact it creates individuals. The process of coaching doesn’t end after we pass out from school/college; in fact one requires coaching from a different dimension afterwards. I have been coached by many exceptional individuals for whom I will remain eternally thankful. There are numerous occasions when I was clueless, done mistakes or even frustrated. These set of mentors/coaches were always available to me to help and support all the time. I tried to look back and try to understand what exactly these individuals have done to me? After all what exactly is the crux of coaching?

I would like to take my recent example of coaching from long distance running experience and try to find answer for my previous question. When individuals are getting trained for long distances, it is highly likely possible those individuals face difficulties to keep up with running long distances. The issue can be due to physical fatigue, injury, mental blockers, and inferiority thinking which eventually leads to lesser self confidence in the person. In such situations individuals end up running last or walk or even think of quitting the run. Understanding this state quickly, I have seen the coach end up running along with this slowest running person in the group.

Now what is the powerful and indirect message that coach is conveying? Primarily the slowest runner gets a mental support that he is not alone and running slowly is not a big issue. By getting an encouraging word or two during such situations (“Good job, you are getting better”) from the coach instills confidence and re-assurance. This creates a huge transformation on the person, who is getting coached, which will help them to get out of the issue (mentioned above) quickly, even though it might fall under any of the category.

Connecting back, this is exactly what they have done to me time-and-again. In challenging situations these mentors ensured that they kept faith and confidence, which meant a lot to me during such situations. With this support it was quite natural for me to figure out action and come out of difficulties.

In my opinion, having faith in individuals and installing confidence during difficult times summarizes the crux of coaching. For the person is receiving end it is a humbling experience.

Confidence vs Arrogance

Recently I was in conversation with one (relatively younger) colleague (say named A), who is at peak of his career. He is been handling plum assignments, Work activities matching to his strengths, Strong backup from senior leadership for his assignments, Very high visibility with customers – a great combination anybody can ask for. Definitely his hardworking ability and capability matched with this opportunity which has made him a star performer over years. Everybody (including myself) have seen such phase of career, during which individuals demonstrate lot of confidence, positivism and energy. However during the conversation, I found A slowly crossing limit and started behaving in a arrogant manner. He quickly gets into ‘godfather’ mode and start providing unsolicited advice as if he knows everything under the earth. Frankly I didn’t expect this from him. As a higher performing individual, I always thought he is a mature individual, who still has a long way to go in his career. Success (that too when it comes in abundance), starting affecting his behavior now. By looking more closely, he always been an individual contributor working on plum assignments with heavy duty back-up. Any change/issue, he is given necessary power to get it escalated because of which he always got his things done in his own way.

Similarly, some years back I have seen another individual who was in pinnacle of his career (say named B). You name any award he already got it. In fact there were some special award categories were created in order to acknowledge his contributions and results. This individual has organically grown his group from the scratch, because of which he enjoyed enormous amount of ‘organizational currency’ in terms of higher reputation with customers, better command over customer dynamics, deeper understanding of people etc. Faced by same behavioral he ended up rubbing shoulders against individuals, picked up fight with peers and demonstrated as if there is no tomorrow. However due to certain business situation, organizational structure got changed and he was rotated into a different role where he was put into a total new situation in a new business with new team.

As B always grown things organically, it was like ‘fish-out-of-water’ feeling to take up something in between and struggled to gain grounds. As his behavioral issues (like arrogance) has multiplied over years it became impossible for him to adapt to the new situation and demonstrate leadership. Slowly-and-steadily he lost his credibility and became ineffective in the organization. Another job rotation followed, which has made B’s life even miserable. Even today it is very hard for B to come in terms current situation (caused because of multiple changes). Since he has not faced the situation in the past, one small change has literally blown away his career. I am now wondering if the similar situation comes for A, how will he come out? What if he is asked to lead a set of people whom don’t know at all? How well he will be able to manage change? How effectively will he be able to keep his ego under check? How well he will adapt to new situation and perform? How effectively he will be able to handle ‘out-of-limelight’ situation for which he has not used to?

Often there is very thin line between confidence and arrogance, which makes whole lot of difference. Unless individuals are able to manage it well, individuals and their career soon becomes history.

Notes on Sudharshan Kriya Yoga (SKY)

Way back in 2006  I have learned Sudharshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) as a part of my Art-of-living course. Years might have passed by, but SKY stayed on with me as a ‘capsule’ given immense benefits. This post is about benefits I have experienced with SKY.

SKY is a rhythmic breathing mechanism taught as a part of Art of living course. Typically it takes about 20-30 minutes to do this breathing exercise, it is highly advised to do it after performing certain Yoga asanas. The philosophy is to first stabilize the body using asanas and then move on to perform SKY for working at breath level. This is also called as ‘short kriya’ which is typically done at individual level. In case of weekly art-of-living follow-ups a ‘long-kriya’ is performed which takes about 45 minutes of time.

Typically in our daily lives many challenges are caused because of external issues (tension, anger, disappointment etc…) which immediately alters breathing. When inhale-exhale cycle becomes shorter, lesser oxygen is taken inside, which aggravates negative emotions. Most of us would have observed when we are in the state of emotions, it tend to continue for longer time mainly because of our breathing pattern. The idea is alter breathing rhythm with long deep breath which will create positive impact thereby altering our emotional. This is what in nut-shell happens by performing SKY. There is definitely a spiritual dimension to it, which will be shared as a separate blog post.

Coming to its benefits:

  • Immediate alteration in emotional levels by switching into positive state.  I have performed kriya is peak negative emotional conditions (ex: workplace crisis) and felt immediate benefit by coming out of it and operate with higher emotional state
  • For some specific diseases/issues I have found immediate relief. For example, in case of minor head ache, stomach problem or back/neck pain, by doing SKY has provided immediate healing effect by making me normally operate
  • Because of the mental & physical benefits mentioned above, individuals tend to be in much positive state of mind with higher optimism and action orientation when faced with real life challenges. This sustained benefits come over a period of time which is more experiential
  • Some of my family members had serious breathing issues (ex: Wheezing), who could see significant impact in overall immunity and attacks have come down drastically. However it also depends on the individual how regularly he/she is performing it.
  • There is no specific equipment or location required to perform SKY. As long as there is relatively quite place is available, once can perform this without any difficulty. There are many occasions I have done it in my workplace ( sick room) and during travel (trains)

Ever since I have learnt SKY, I have not 100% regular in doing it on a daily basis. Definitely I have been fairly regular and benefits have been immensely higher.  Especially, after taking up long distance running, Yoga asanas and SKY is acting as an excellent combination!

The importance of hanging in there when things dont necessarily go your way

Nothing succeeds like success they say… There is an incredible “High” that success brings to you and your team. Everyone has a spring in their stride, the energy levels are high and there is spotlight that your team is basking on. Even as a manager, you are able to more easily keep your team motivated and also get better cross functional support for your initiatives.

However, things don’t always go or remain hunky dory in business. The best strategized and executed products do sometime fail, best planned projects sometimes don’t get delivered on time. The team starts feeling the pressure, there could be growing cynicism, dropping shoulders and an executive team that is focusing on your initiative more than you really care for.

How efficiently leaders and teams respond when they have their backs to the wall is a critical quality. As a Product Manager you need to be able to communicate though words, and more importantly, your body language that of you and your team are in charge.

In a Yoga course that I once attended, the teacher taught me the ability to say, and more importantly feel, “So what! What next?”. If you can truly get into that mode, the “What next?” allows you to divert your thinking and therefore your energy on exploring the next set of opportunities. The idea is to basically compartmentalize the “So what” and the “What next”. The former bringing to a realization that you are where you are – basically screwed; and the latter letting you focus on the steps to move ahead – do we need to pivot / do we need to re-look the strategy for this product / should we put in better processes. ALWAYS look for the next set of opportunities. They are around, if only you can compartmentalize and look hard.

Even in your hiring of critical positions, its a good idea for you to check how the person responded to an adverse situation and what it taught her. A recent very popular blog on Harvard Business Review was a good one on these lines – http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/12/why_i_hire_people_who_fail.html

Interestingly this holds as good in sports as in business. We have all seen crickets teams that drop catches / miss run out chances / show fraying tempers when the chips are down and then we have seen teams that are keeping up the pressure even when things don’t go their ways and show a spirit which conveys, “We just need to break THIS partnership, and we’ll be back in the game”. The second mentioned team might still not break that partnership and possibly go on to lose, but that very attitude of always backing themselves puts them in a great position to get right back into the game.

– NWritings

A new year resolution – Talk Straight

I recently read a brilliant (and hugely popular) article on the HBR Blogs.  Readers of Dilbert too would recognize how this buzzworks are getting irritatingly more prevalent. Few people would disagree with what the author says, but continue to use most of these phrases in our work – in both internal communication and in external communication with customers and partners. There is a general perception of “smartness” when a person uses many of the terms mentioned there.

Referring to people as “resources”, time as “bandwidth” are other examples of the same – “We are constrained on the bandwidth front” makes you sound smarter than “We don’t have the time”. “I’m in the process of socializing this initiative among the various stakeholders” makes you sound smarter than, “I’m talking to the people about this to get support”. “Leverage”, “(Doesn’t) get the big picture”, “Evangelize” and “cross-functional” are among the other buzzwords thrown around. Deep down I don’t think anyone enjoys talking or writing like this, but this seems to be endemic and people continue doing this because everyone else does it.

Narayana Murthy was bang on when he said in one of the interviews, “In India, articulation is mistaken for accomplishment” – and using these phrases is associated with better articulation…. and since usage of these phrases is a global phenomenon, looks like Narayana Murthy’s observation seems pertinent to not just India.

So, here is my New Year resolution. “Cut out the buzzwords and keep it straight”. “In the process of” can be dropped from most sentences that you write and so can “productivity enhancement” and “organizational synergy”. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep a check list of these buzzwords handy so that you can “check” every mail to cleanse them of these before hitting the Send button.

Keep it simple! — NWritings