We’ve all likely walked around with a bruise. That part of our skin feels exposed and uncomfortable.

In this day and age, we don’t walk around with physical bruises as much as as our ancestors did. Instead, we deal more often with mental ones. This could be because we’re facing a difficult situation, awaiting an important result or just stuck in circumstances that has us feeling insecure about our capabilities.

When I feel bruised, I know I’m more controlling than usual, more annoying than usual and more “on edge” than usual. It doesn’t feel pleasant. As a result, I don’t radiate pleasantness either.

I’ve learnt that there’s no easy solution to overcoming a bruise. We have to give it time. Until then, it helps being aware of the feeling so we can upfront with ourselves about it and try and deal with our reactions more patiently. A few guilty pleasures and more rest definitely doesn’t hurt.

We should worry if such phases last longer than a few days at most or a couple of weeks at a time in extraneous circumstances. If they do, it might be time to make a wholesale change in some part of our lives.

But, that aside, I think of bruises as normal service. It is part of being human and we learn a lot about our ourselves in the process of dealing with them.

Hypotheses and the synthesis process

I started this mini-series on synthesis with a post on moving from summaries to synthesis. This was the excerpt of the post that talked about the difference.

When we write a good summary, we ask ourselves the question – what were the main points of what I read/heard/saw? A good summary boils what we read, heard or saw into a few bullet points that outline the central thesis.

A good synthesis, instead, involves asking the question – how do I make sense of what I read/heard/saw? This is a fundamentally different exercise because a good synthesis involves combining ideas to form a theory or point of view.

But, this post raised the obvious question – how do we synthesize? Or, put differently, what tools can I use to transition from summaries to synthesis? We touched on the first tool yesterday – theories. A theory is an idea or a system of ideas that are intended to explain something. Theories aren’t intended to explain everything about the topic. But, they explain enough for you to understand it. I mentioned that theories are one of the tool good synthesizers use.

The other more dominant tool is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for the next investigation. The synthesis process typically involves tons of hypotheses because it isn’t easy going from something you just read/heard/saw to a theory. Hypotheses bridge the gap. Below is what the process looks like.

Let’s work with a live example. I saw a talk with Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson on their new book – “Altered Traits.” Altered Traits is about what they’ve learnt from a lot of the scientific research on meditation. I’ve thought of and tried practicing meditation for over a year. When I reflected on both what I read about meditation and my experiences around meditation, there were 3 hypotheses that emerged –

  • Meditation feels like a route to mindfulness and equanimity
  • Writing every day feels like meditation to me
  • There are multiple ways to meditate or get to mindfulness – we should find a way that works for us

Ever since the hypotheses emerged, I’ve been looking for various ways to test these hypotheses. And, as I listened to the two authors speak, I found my hypotheses to be consistent to how they described the benefits of meditation. I expect to continue to find ways to test these hypotheses (I am in no hurry for now, of course). Over time, I’d expect a theory around meditation and mindfulness by writing to come together.

A hypotheses driven approach to life sounds, on first glance, like something that would only work in a lab. But, in truth, our life is the grandest experiment we run. Like all grand experiments, it is the sum and product of many small, daily experiments. We can choose to unintentionally stumble through them or do our best to be intentional about them.

And, should we choose to be intentional about them, it is critical to go into experiments with a hypotheses and learn from them. That’s what the process of synthesis helps us do.

That is also why it is a very powerful habit in the long run.

Grit and Theories – Synthesis tools

In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth lays out 3 theories.

Skill = Talent x Effort

Achievement = Skill x Effort

Grit = Passion + Perseverance

A theory is an idea or a system of ideas that are intended to explain something. Theories aren’t intended to explain everything about the topic. But, they explain enough for you to understand it. Theories are a classic tool for better synthesis of ideas.

In this case, Angela Duckworth helped us synthesize plenty of literature around skill, achievement and grit into 3 simple models. Again, they’re necessarily imperfect. But, they are very instructive all the same. Theories are a great example of what makes synthesis incredibly powerful. And, they are one of the two powerful tools that good synthesizers use.

(Hopefully that’s enough intrigue in advance of tomorrow’s post :-))

From summaries to synthesis

We learn by developing mental models. And, a technique to fast track the creation of mental models is to move from summaries to synthesis.

When we write a good summary, we ask ourselves the question – what were the main points of what I read/heard/saw? A good summary boils what we read, heard or saw into a few bullet points that outline the central thesis.

A good synthesis, instead, involves asking the question – how do I make sense of what I read/heard/saw? This is a fundamentally different exercise because a good synthesis involves combining ideas to form a theory or point of view. The ideas you drawn on for synthesis need not even be from the from the material you are synthesizing and could be from prior experiences or lessons.

As you can imagine, summarizing is easy. It is like riding a bike on training wheels. It takes all the risk away. But, in doing so, it takes away all the reward as well.

So, how do we move from summaries to synthesis? Just like we move from riding a bike with training wheels to riding without – ditch summaries. Synthesis takes effort and requires us to pause, reflect and bring together ideas in our heads. It is, by nature, risky.

But, it is only when we take that risk do we allow ourselves to fall and learn.

Connecting aspects of great products and great product strategy | Thinking Product

I started the Thinking Product series by sharing my hypotheses for the 3 core aspects of great technology products and great product strategy.

This evolving theory, like all theories, is necessarily imperfect. There’s a ton of nuance that goes into building technology products – e.g., products for enterprises and consumers are designed very differently. But, theories are important because they end up simplifying things. And, that’s particularly important as we begin exploring a new topic. I started this series with this image.

And, over the past weeks, we’ve explored each of these pieces. We began with aspects of great products.

  1. Nail job to be done
  2. Well designed
  3. Sticky

Then, we looked at great product strategy.

  1. Growth – i.e. bringing new users
  2. Onboarding – i.e. converting them to power users
  3. Retention – i.e. making them stay (with a note about the dark side of engagement)

For each of these, we explored 1-3 key questions that should help drive our thinking.

So, today, I wanted to bring this all back in an overview image of sorts. There’s a strong parallel between the core aspects of great products and great product strategy. That is by design of course – they exist together and feed into each other. So, when we look at them together, we arrive at the following 3 core principles –

  1. Find a niche segment of users with a problem and focus on solving it. (Nailing job-to-be-done and growth)
  2. Use the onboarding period to convert new users to power users. (Delight to use and Onboarding)
  3. Continuously improve ability to surface and drive value. (Stickiness and retention)

We have many exciting topics to explore as we dig into the nuance. But, these will likely serve as the building blocks through our journey.

For the next few posts, we will take a break from products and product strategy and move to discussing my hypothesis for the building blocks of great product management and product leadership.


Waiting for the IRS

The Internal Revenue Service or IRS has the sort of fearsome, even legendary reputation, that good tax agencies have. A good proxy for this is the number of scammers who pretend to be the IRS. I get a call from at least 1-3 scammers every week – some human, some automated voices – who tell me I’ve committed serious tax fraud. They seem to get past do not call lists or any attempts to block them. Some of these are downright amusing as they involve Indian accented guys calling as “Officer Smith.”

But, I digress.

I took the first such scam call seriously until I realized something was wrong. A bit of follow up google searching told me that the IRS will always send you a note by physical mail and won’t just call you and threaten arrest.

So, you can imagine the trepidation when a friend of mine received an actual physical letter from the IRS saying there were inconsistencies in her tax return and that she owed them money. They said they would get back to her in a few weeks on the exact amount. This friend happens to be a former CPA who does her own taxes. So, she paid a tax pro to audit her financials and began working through her taxes over the past few years. She wasn’t sure what she had done wrong but this all sounded serious.

A few weeks turned into a couple of months. And, this issue continued to niggle with occasional worry and anxiety.

They finally got back to her this week. The outstanding amount of 26 dollars.

We had a good laugh.

There’s a life lesson about focusing on things we control in here somewhere.

Lazy nations and indolent national cultures

Having toured lots of factories in a developing country, an Australian management consultant told the government officials who had invited him: ‘My impression as to your cheap labour was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so; to see your men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied easy-going race who reckon time is no object. When I spoke to some managers they informed me that it was impossible to change the habits of national heritage.’ 

This Australian consultant was understandably worried that then workers of the country he was visiting did not have the right work ethic. In fact, he was being quite polite. He could have been blunt and just called them lazy. No wonder the country was poor—not dirt poor, but with an income level that was less than a quarter of Australia’s. For their part, the country’s managers agreed with the Australian, but were smart enough to understand that the ‘habits of the national heritage’, or culture, cannot be changed easily, if at all. As the 19th-century German economist-cum sociologist Max Weber opined in his seminal work, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, there are some cultures, like Protestantism, that are simply better suited to economic development than others.

In a book written by an American missionary who’d lived in this country for 25 years, he observed that the people ‘give an impression . . . of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the passage of time.’

The country the Australian consultant and American missionary were talking about is Japan in the early 1900s. Irony abounds, doesn’t it? 🙂

Similarly, in the 1800s, books from the British and the French frequently described Germans to be dull, “indolent” and incapable of the kind of cooperation required for enterprise. (H.T. The Bad Samaritans by Ha Joon Chang for these examples)

There are many powerful lessons in these anecdotes – two of which stand out to me. First, when we are exposed to cultural stereotypes, we often take them as truth that has been passed on to us over the centuries. In truth, however, stereotypes are a recent phenomenon. Most nations didn’t exist in their current form just 200 or so years ago. And, their people didn’t behave the way we think they’ve always behaved. This is a great lesson in being wary about stereotypes.

And, second, cultures are more malleable than we think. That two of the most productive and hard working nations on the planet were labelled lazy not very long ago in our human history should give anyone striving to make change in their organizations and communities heart.

And, just think, if cultures with millions of people across generations are so malleable over the course of roughly one human’s lifespan, what does this say about our ability to change ourselves?