Ways to think about working smarter (not harder)

When Reid Hoffman talks about building a startup, he says it’s like jumping off a cliff, and assembling a plane on the way down. It’s a reference to the fact that when you start building a startup, you set a clock ticking. 
If you can find product-market fit and a viable business before the clock runs out, your startup has a chance of success. If you can’t, then you’re in for a hard crash landing.

That’s why for startup product teams it’s critical to move as fast as you can. The most valuable resource you have is time, so you need to be extremely wise with every hour you and your team spends.

The key to moving fast is not to work harder, but work smarter. It’s not about working weekends, skipping lunch or pulling all-nighters. It’s about making smart choices about how to get things done.
Here are a few ways to think about moving fast.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Isaac Newton famously said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

When building a product, don’t be afraid to borrow from solutions that already work. Steal what you can with pride. Look for existing patterns and use them. Don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel, especially not in areas that aren’t key to your differentiation. 

As Picasso said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. 

Rethink the constraints

Every project has constraints. For an artist that might be the size of the canvas. For a technology product it might be the business model or the underlying technology. 

But not all constraints are equal. Some are very hard, and others are flexible. 

Look at the constraints you have and ask: which ones are flexible? Which are not even constraints at all?

Can you simplify the task by challenging one of the constraints?

Do the simplest thing first

Alfred Einstein said (approximately): “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Complexity is the silent killer of products. Complexity is a poison that spreads lethargy and chaos in your startup. The more complex your product, the harder it becomes to maintain. Avoid complexity at all costs.

Always start by doing the simplest thing first. Ask this key question: What is the smallest, simplest thing we can do that will validate our hypothesis and deliver value to our customers? 

Ask for help early 

I’ve seen people (and whole teams) bang their head against a hard problem for days, or weeks, without asking for help. Sometimes it’s a mix of stoic determination and pride; sometimes it’s that feeling of being ever-so-close to cracking the problem… for days and days on end.

Productive people know how to ask for help early. Whatever the issue is that you’re facing, the chances are there are people out there who can help you. Sometimes a point in the right direction is all you need to unblock yourself and save hours or days of wasteful wheel spinning. 

First and foremost, use your colleagues. Don’t be afraid to ask more experienced team members for help early on. It’s not your job to know all the answers; it’s your job to find the answers. There is no shame in asking for help! It’s how great people learn. 

Second, build your network outside of your team. This could be in your company, or outside it. Find the networks, groups or meetups in your area of expertise, and use them.

If you have any questions or would like some more detailed tips, get in touch!

Good Speed: 6 ways to build product faster

Product Management Speed

I recently wrote about why Speed is not the same as Velocity.

Speed is just moving fast, whereas velocity is moving fast in the right direction.

Fred Wilson also posted this week on Urgency, and how in his role as a board member and advisor he presses startups to foster a healthy Sense of Urgency in the business. A healthy sense of urgency breeds what I call Good Speed.

Good speed has a positive impact on your velocity and brings you closer to your goals. Bad speed takes you further away from them.

So what is good speed, and how do you create it?

Here are some PM Rules of Good Speed.

1. Prioritisation

Good speed is about good prioritisation.
Prioritisation is all about answering the question: what is the most valuable thing we can do next? What is the next highest leverage option?

In my previous Growth Team I used the I-C-E method (Impact, Confidence, Effort) for helping to quickly prioritise roadmap items:

  1. Impact: how much value we can deliver to the customer?
  2. Confidence: how certain are we that it will deliver the value we expect?
  3. Effort: how much effort will it take to deliver, and what are the opportunity costs (what are we unable to work on in the meantime)?

Always deliver the highest value things first.

2. Focus, focus, focus

As a PM you’re always in a situation where you have multiple ongoing initiatives: open customer requests and bugs, that strategic partnership, the platform refactoring project and other technical debt, not to mention your product backlog of new features and improvements. It can be tempting to work on many different things at once, as it gives the feeling of progress and momentum on everything. Unfortunately, this is usually a false economy. The more plates you have spinning at once, the more often the team will be context switching between topics, and each thing you’re doing will end up taking longer.

Great prioritisation is all about the things you don’t do.

3. Finishing, not starting

There are always new requirements coming in from all sides. You’ll often feel pressure from stakeholders or customers to stop working on what you’re doing to “squeeze in this important requirement” or “respond to this change”. But if you’re halfway through something, it’s a good idea to finish it first before moving on to the next thing. Putting a task down, and then picking it up a couple of weeks or months later is a big waste of time. You’ll all spend time getting your heads back into the topic, finding the specs and designs, figuring out where you left it, which branch it’s on, etc. The half-written code will be stale, will need to be re-based or maybe even re-written. In the worst case you’ll have to throw away everything you worked on and start from scratch.

Resist the urge to change priorities mid-way through delivering value, as it makes everything more expensive in the long run. Even if it feels like the right tradeoff in that one moment, do the exercise of adding up all the times you do that over a year, and the impact that all those times added up will have on the total value delivered…

3a. Reversal: Beware the sunk costs fallacy

The reversal to this rule applies when you learn something that renders what you are working on right now obsolete. Maybe the company strategy changed, or you obtained new market data. Whatever the cause, if you learn the thing you’re working on is of low value, pull the plug early. It can be tempting to think “… but we’re already half done, we might as well finish it…”. Don’t. The time you’ve already spent is already spent. It’s sunk cost – you can’t get it back. So if the time you spend finishing it could be spent on delivering value that will positively impact your business – then absolutely do that instead.

4. Time to value

Time to value is about how you structure your roadmap and break down features to get to the core value as quickly as possible.

Focus on what is needed to deliver the core value to the customer, and on building that. If what you’re doing is peripheral to the core customer value, consider doing it later, or not at all.

5. Tradeoffs

Fast is often also about making tradeoffs.
The classic: “Let’s skimp a bit on quality now to get the feature out the door, and we’ll fix the bugs later.” Every product team has limited runway ahead of them, but the life-or-death feeling is particularly acute in a tech startup. The pressure from the market to get to value as quickly as possible is real. But make no mistake: skimping on quality is taking on debt. You’ll need to pay it back eventually. Understand this; and make the decision to take on debt consciously, and as a team.

Related: this fantastic article on classic over-engineering mistakes software teams make.

6. Motivation and energy

A high level of motivation and energy will make the difference when it comes to that last 2% that takes you over the finish line. It makes all the difference between “I have to get this done before I go home tonight” and “I’ll take care of that tomorrow.”.

Remember: you cannot mandate motivation, but you can provide the mission and the environment that breeds it.

Good speed is a positive Sense of Urgency.
Get focussed and get finished.

Why Speed is not the same as Velocity

Speed is distance over time. Velocity is displacement over time.

There is a big difference between speed and velocity.

Good speed increases velocity.
Bad speed decreases velocity.

Remember first year physics?
Speed is a measure of distance over time.
Velocity is a measure of displacement over time. Velocity is a vector: it has direction.

Formulas for speed and velocity.

We all know the sensation of running really fast (having high speed) but not making much progress toward our goals (having low velocity).

The red queen has a lot of speed (she is running as fast as she can) but she never leaves the spot she is standing on: the chess board is moving just as fast as she is, and her displacement is zero: so her effective velocity is zero.

The winner of the Berlin marathon ran the course in slightly over 2 hours: an average speed of about 20 km/h. But he finished exactly where he started: all that running to end up back at the same spot. His velocity, after two hours, was zero.

On projects and teams, velocity matters a lot. Velocity is the measure of how much progress you are making towards your objective, your end goal. No matter how fast you’re moving, if your velocity is low, your progress will be slow.

Scrum teams often have a measure of progress called velocity that measures how many user stories were delivered in a given sprint.
Velocity defined as stories delivered over time.

But what if those user stories didn’t add any value for the customer?

Stories delivered over time is a measure of speed. I better measure for velocity is:
Velocity defined as customer value delivered over time.

Increasing speed can increase velocity. But it can just as easily decrease it.

Good speed is efficiency, focus, and delivering the things that your customers care about and that make a difference for your business.

Good speed is asking: how can I make this two-day task into two one-day tasks?

Bad speed is rushing, burning out and piling on technical debt. It’s building features that nobody uses, that your customers don’t care about and that don’t add value to your business. It’s prioritising business needs over customer needs. It’s waste.

Bad speed is asking: how can I make this two-day task take one day?

When you find yourself rushing to speed up, ask yourself: is this good speed, or bad speed?

Urgency isn’t panic

What’s the difference between a cheetah and a gazelle?

Cheetah and Gazelle

One is the hunter; the other, the hunted. One stalks and sprints with total precision, unwavering focus and ultimate confidence. The other flees in uncontrolled panic.

When we’re exposed to pressure within an organisation, it is normally in the form of a risk or a threat: the risk of losing a big client; the chance we won’t get funding; the fear of losing our jobs.

The fact is that all mammals, including humans, are really good at panicking. In fact, we’re designed for it. Buried deep inside the oldest part of our brain is a brain region called the limbic system. In evolutionary terms, the limbic system existed long before we first picked up a rock and used it to hit something. It’s the part of our brain responsible for basic survival; it’s the part that takes over when we’re scared, angry, lusting for revenge or when we’re threatened.

When we feel threatened, our limbic brain sends some signals to a part of our central nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the so-called “fight or flight response”. Our conscious brain (the cerebrum) more or less shuts down and the limbic brain takes the wheel. It will decide whether we flee or whether we fight.

This is the response that leads us to panic. But when we panic, we lose focus. All our effort goes into outrunning the cheetah… but a gazelle can’t eat, drink or make baby gazelles when it’s fleeing a chasing cheetah.

If we spend all our time running, we don’t focus on the important things. We might increase speed but we end up losing velocity.

We all have many reasons to panic… The market is moving quicker than ever. Markets and industries change and heave, companies rise to incredible heights or crash to the floor in a fraction of the time of 20 or even 10 years ago. We have to move with urgency if we want to keep up… but urgency isn’t panic.

Urgency is controlled. Urgency is precision, focus and confidence.