Stay above water


Stay above water

Imagine a sailboat on the ocean on a sunny day. Proudly a sail pulls the boat along and is seen by all. This is the light side of management that includes leadership, presenting to the team and execs, and white-boarding ideas with designers and engineers. This is the part of your job that you probably love. Importantly, this is work that is not often explicitly requested but that people will remember most. 

Under the water, where it is darker and less visible, the sail boat has a keel to keep it steady. Without it, the boat would capsize in strong wind. On this darker side are administrative tasks like list making, backlog management, and budgeting. No one sees it unless it's broken. It's not particularly fun for most but it's steady and may increase your confidence. 

I like the sailboat analogy because of the double meaning here: 

The ability to "stay above water" is critical to my success as a product manager. I try to use most high visibility time in the office--maybe it's during stand-ups and in the morning--to be seen and deliver light-side value. Light-side activities are also critical to my happiness as the reason I became a product manager was to work with amazing people to build and sell cool stuff.

Sometimes the dark side of things takes over. At that point I find it important to recognize when it's happening. If administration goes on too long or too heavy, I can feel burnt out, tired, like it's "a slog." To counter this, I spend time reorganizing and prioritizing leadership activities, which energize me.

I ask myself an important question: What is not being asked of me that is needed right now? 

Sometimes the answer is a presentation to gain alignment on an idea that's flailing with endless revisions. Other times it's a prototype to share a vision that an exec doesn't get. And sometimes it's an offsite brainstorm or research trip to reenergize the team with purpose. 

Thinking about my work in terms of dark side and light side has helped me achieve more balance at work. I don't get bogged down responding to email. I block time for strategy and I make presentations to aid discussions. All of this is guided by how I largely define a leadership mentality: Intuiting what needs to be done and doing it first.



How to revamp an existing product or feature

As a product management consultant, I am sometimes hired by a company to be a product manager for a particular feature. Most recently, that was cross-platform holiday messaging for a major retailer. What was new to me, was that I was taking on a feature that I didn't design, but needed to revisit and improve. Here are my biggest takeaways.

Don't assume anything. Designs might not reflect the functionality that was built previously. And what was built might not be the best design. 

Here are a few steps for revamping an existing feature or product:

  1. Bridge the past and current teams*
    1. Get a roster of all key players from last iteration. And then the list of players to be part of this iteration. Include business stakeholders.
  2. Research the current state.
    1. Get this requirements from last iteration. 
    2. Get the screenshots from last iteration.
    3. Get a list of all outstanding bugs from the previous iteration.* (see note below)
      1. This will show you possible improvements.
      2. For example, some of the bugs I encountered came up last holiday but they would require a month of work to fix. It was too late...again.
  3. Confirm the product works as you understand it.
    1. Temporarily throw away the old requirements. Rewrite the requirements as if they are new, at least at a high level. 
    2. Hold a meeting/screenshare with all designers, builders and stakeholders to review screens and outstanding bugs. Jog their memory. Tell them how you think it works and get confirmation. 
    3. Find out what's missing - Ask your stakeholders: what might come up this year that will hurt us? What do you wish we could improve?
  4. Re-examine your strategy.
    1. Find all the data you can from the previous iteration. How did it do? Where is there opportunity for improvement? Was it a failure? Success? Why?
    2. Review all existing user research from the previous iteration. What new insights can you glean when you couple it with research?
    3. Decide if you think that the existing strategy is still relevant and useful.
      1. For example, if existing messaging focuses on shipping, but there is a now a strategic focus on in-store visits does the messaging still work?
  5. Prioritize enhancements. 
    1. Make a list of all new work including stakeholder requests, open issues, open bugs.
    2. Consider new product ideas that arise from new broader strategies, or your own research and brainstorming with the team.
    3. Work with your product team to prioritize based on impact (get numbers for every piece of the feature).
      1. Make sure you reexamine the product mix between iterations. For example, this year we had 5x more 3rd party merchandise on the site than the previous year. Therefore issues we classified as minor for 3rd parties in the last iteration were now major. 
    4. Prioritize list of bugs and issues - must fix, should fix, could fix. 
    5. Get t-shirt sizes (S, M, L) from the team. 
    6. Finalize your scope based on rough ROI (impact / effort).
  6. Communicate broadly. Be Captain Obvious.
    1. Make sure all product owners and engineers know what you're planning to build. Some will assume that because something was broken during launch last time, it's OK that it stays broken. Correct them!
  7. Pay it forward and create a knowledge base for the next product manager.
    1. Screenshot the entire live experience and save it to a nice, labeled zip or deck.
    2. Create a deck with what you would fix in the next iteration (next steps)
    3. Tag all open issues and stories with a label (e.g. "holiday_message_v2")

* If you have a project manager, ask them to help with these items.

If you're at a startup and all of your features are new, this probably isn't relevant to you. But if your job is to enter a large organization and revamp a feature, this advice might help! Please add your own lessons to the comments.

Happy revamping! :D



How it's made


How it's made

I consider myself an intermediate environmentalist. I recycle and compost, donate to Goodwill, avoid plastic water bottles, and I respect California drought conditions with short showers. But I still shop a lot and sometimes I buy cheap clothes. Forever 21, H&M and Uniqlo have become my go to retailers for a $5 camisole or t-shirt. 

Frankly, I haven't felt bad about my consumption because:

  1. I assumed that working conditions have improved for laborers since the 90s (at the time there was a big shaming when Nike and Gap were exposed for sweatshop labor)
  2. The only silver lining of Americans losing factory jobs is that maybe people without Netflix in developing countries need them more.

Last night, my perspective changed. I watched the film The True Cost as part of Fashion Revolution Week at the Alliance Française de San Francisco. A panel of sustainable fashion gurus shared their thoughts before and after.

The True Cost was a heartbreaking yet hopeful documentary exposing the impact of NOT ONLY a marketplace in which one can now buy a $5 dollar t-shirt, BUT ALSO a market in which demand for clothing has quadrupled in the last 20 years. It's a race to the bottom and labor conditions improvements cannot keep pace with our increased demand.

Here's what else I learned:

  • Only 10% of the 82 pounds of textile waste *I* produce each year and donate get reused. The rest become landfill, and most are not biodegradable.
  • Cotton is half of the total fiber used to make clothing and accounts for 18% of world pesticide and 25% of insecticide use.
  • The textile industry is ~90% women, some of whom must separate from their children so that their children can thrive outside a factory life.
  • 1100 people were killed in the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, because factory owner ignored warnings about the building to continue to drive profits. (The statistic is nowhere near as powerful as the footage of small children crying as their mothers were 100 feet away buried alive in rubble.)

In many ways this film reminded me of Food Inc or Supersize Me, but for fast fashion instead of fast food. If you can imagine that the trend that those films set and the impact they've had on fast food chains like McDonald's and consumer demand projected onto the retail world, then THERE IS A LIGHT at the end of the tunnel.

Within the next five to ten years, with the right influencers touting the benefits of sustainable fashion, we will begin to trend away from our fast fashion consumerism. Companies with perceived integrity will have an opportunity to grab the reins and will profit from this movement. 

Here's what I'm going to do differently starting today:

  • As a consultant, I will pay attention to and highlight trends in sustainability for my clients.
  • As a consumer, I'm going to download a Higgs report and avoid retailers with low ratings.
  • As a consumer, I'll buy higher quality items, less frequently (a privilege and not a decision!).