I have two weaknesses in particular that I constantly try to correct for in my professional life. The first is that I have a fairly mediocre memory, as I’ve written about before. I’m amazed sometimes by the things I do and don’t remember about people, conversations, and events in my life. I wish it weren’t the case, but there it is. The second is that I really cherish uninterrupted concentration, which makes me prone to working alone for too long. The fact that my infant son and the current mania for open-office layouts are conspiring to ruin my concentration forever only make it more enjoyable work by myself. Alas, sitting alone at your desk is not conducive to designing software that has to actually solve other people’s problems. Product managers have to understand their target customers well enough to understand whether a problem they’re dealing with represents a business opportunity. That’s hard to do from behind a desk with headphones on.
I rely on a couple of simple tricks to get around these limitations. They aren’t cure-alls, but if you do these two things regularly you’re sure to come across new ideas you would otherwise miss.
Record Your Conversations So You Don't Miss Ideas
That header probably sounds Nixonian (although recording White House conversations seems to be standard practice, to my surprise), so let’s look at a less well-known but far more interesting example of the power of recording conversations:
Thad Starner was an MIT student in the 90s who couldn’t tolerate something most of us take for granted: over time, we forget things we once knew. He found it unacceptable that he would learn something like, say, cell biology only to eventually forget all of it. So he did what any self-respecting computer science grad student would do: he built a computer he could wear at all times and did just that. He has been wearing a computer continuously since 1993, all the while logging all sorts of details about people and ideas and indexing them for fast reference-ability. He lives with the benefit of RAM at all times, and he claims it has made his personal interactions actually richer. Why? He effortlessly recalls details about people he hasn’t spoken to in months or years, and so he never misses an opportunity to ask people how their kids are doing in college, or how that new job has been going. (Check out the Invisibilia podcast for more.)
Thad’s solution is not for everyone - not even those of us who feel the same level of frustration about the unreliability of our natural memory. I really hate that I forget things. Just as annoyingly, I know that I miss things that are right in front of me during conversation. Listening to someone and formulating a response in real-time leads to some valuable information getting lost. I miss the details that I should dig into more, and I feel like I leave potentially valuable insights on the table. That’s why, with participants’ knowledge and consent, I record all important phone conversations so that I can dissect them later.
If I had to guess, I’d say recording calls and dissecting them later yields somewhere between 50-100% more valuable information than scribbling notes in real time, if not more. It’s that extreme of a difference. There are lots of reasons why, but the biggest one is that people don’t just serve up fully-formed insights for you in conversation. Being able to hit “pause” when a customer or market research subject says something important and really think about what they are saying before moving on is the only way to absorb the full deeper meaning. It allows you to obsess over details that deserve to be obsessed over. It’s hard to overstate how important this is – it really is the difference between understanding the customer versus not. So if you’re like me and you have a lot of conversations over the phone, video call, screen share or whatever, ask the person on the other end if you can record it the conversation. You’ll be glad you did, as will the people who rely on you to make decisions.
Does it put more work on your plate to review your conversations in this level of detail? Absolutely. I find that writing up my notes for a call recording usually takes 2-3x the length of the original conversation. That adds up fast when you have a lot of conversations you want to study. All I can say is that I’ve never regretted making time for it, and that I’d do it even if I thought I had a good memory.
Get the Full Download of Your Colleagues’ Experiences
In last week’s post, I discussed the value of outside information for breaking stalemates among colleagues. In my eagerness to discuss ways to source expert feedback, I neglected to mention one of the most obvious and useful sources of outside knowledge: your colleagues. As the saying goes, “we’re all from somewhere,” and your colleagues’ previous experiences can be a valuable sources of information for you. And the more recently the person was on the outside, the better.
Not long ago, I was sitting in a large conference room along with the rest of my product team, several key members of the sales and marketing teams, and the bulk of our C-suite. What brought this busy (and expensive) group of people all into a room at the same time? A new, relatively junior hire at my company was describing her experience with her prior company’s product. She wasn’t discussing any trade secrets or proprietary sales figures either. Rather, she was merely sharing her observations about what customers had liked about the product and why her previous company had been successful selling it. Think about that for a moment: the audience for that presentation had collectively spent thousands of hours studying and selling to the market this new hire was talking about, and she still had new and enlightening information to give us. That’s the power of fresh eyes and outside perspective in a nutshell.
Whenever you come across someone in your organization who has spent time at a competitor, partner, supplier, or any outside organization of interest that’s when you need to take off your headphones and go talk to them. Take them out for coffee or a beer and start asking questions. Did they face the same challenges you face, and how did they address them? How did they get things done that you can learn from? If you can’t think of anything, just ask, “What can we learn from them?”
The Idea or the Execution?
I seem to come across a lot of contemporary thinking along the lines of “good ideas are a dime a dozen.” The corollary to that being that “execution” is the only thing that matters. For what it’s worth, I don’t buy that at all. Try telling that to someone facing the reality that the market doesn’t want to buy the product they worked so hard to bring to market. With the possible exception of three-legged jeans, a bad idea executed flawlessly (if such a thing can really exist) is still a bad idea. Execution is not a substitute for insight, and vice-versa. The notion that only execution matters only holds water if you count the process of iterating on an idea as “execution”.
What I believe is that you should always be on the hunt for the best information you can get. No, ideas aren’t enough. But they DO matter. And contrary to the “dime a dozen” mantra, it is really hard to come up with breakthrough ideas. You need all the help you can get. And squeezing all of the information you can from every touchpoint you have with the outside world is a great place to start.