What Your Painfully Slow Hiring Process Says About Your Product

A few years back I interviewed for a product role with an event management company. The beginning of the process was typical – I visited their local office for three hours of initial interviews, followed by another three hours of virtual interviews with their San Francisco office.

At that point, the fit was a maybe on both sides. And if it’s a maybe after 10 hours of interviews and preparation, that means it’s a no.

Instead of either of us calling it what it was, the company requested that I complete a four-hour homework assignment to gather just a bit more information. The circus continued with dozens of texts, emails, calls, and another on-site interview. And finally, I was extended an offer.

While I should have drawn the line before the homework assignment, the indecision on their part gave me a more accurate understanding of their product development approach.

How you hire reflects how you build

How you hire your product team reflects how you build product. Slow, timid, and scavenging for just one more piece of information? Or knowing what’s critical, pushing forward, and making the best decision based on the available information?

There’s always going to be uncertainty and risk involved in hiring, just as there is in building product. But it’s the amateur product teams who spend weeks agonizing over decisions, failing to account for the value of time.

During interviews, if you experience tactics intended to stall or an exaggerated struggle to make decisions, there’s no reason you should expect anything different in how the product team operates.

I turned down the offer, despite the sunk cost, because of the worrisome parallels. You can tell a lot about product leadership based on the quality of communication and the speed of decisions.

This was one of the determining factors I used to evaluate my current position. It was a no bullshit interview process – the best I’ve ever been a part of. And the hiring process on our product team has proven to be an accurate reflection of our approach to product development.

What does your hiring process say about you?

Consider what your hiring process says about you and your team. If you’re drawing out your interviews for weeks, you’re likely asking the wrong questions or afraid to call a “maybe” what it is, a no. Instead, determine what you’re looking for, move quickly, and operate with conviction (strong opinions, loosely held).

For a better starting place, seek out high-integrity, curious people who add diversity of thought to your existing team. Questions should be geared around this, as well as some combination of analytical skills, creativity, cross-functional experience, and leadership.

And when you’re on the other side of the interview, consider the product, culture, and growth. But don’t give a free pass on the hiring process. If you look close enough, you’ll catch a glimpse of how the product is actually being built.

The best product teams know what they’re working towards – in both their day-to-day and hiring. They’re able to identify what matters, push things forward, and make quality decisions based on the available information. Seek out, and aspire to build, product teams who demonstrate this in every aspect of their work.

*This article was originally featured on Mind the Product

Indecision in Product: How to Avoid Becoming a Bottleneck

A few years ago, comedian Aziz Ansari released a Netflix special called “Live at Madison Square Garden”. During his set, he joked about the effort required to buy a new toothbrush. Not just any toothbrush would do, he had to have the best. He researched for hours, Googling “best toothbrush” and reading articles on the pros and cons of bristle strength. As he reflected, he questioned his indecisiveness and his desire to have the best when any toothbrush would have done the job.

For most of my twenties, I did the same thing. I researched every purchase – headphones, winter jackets, coffee grinders – in painstaking depth before making a decision. But, as I’ve learned, the quest for a perfect decision often does more harm than good.

Time is far more valuable than a marginally better solution. And if you’re leading product, the sooner you learn this lesson, the better. As a product manager, the worst position you can put yourself in is creating a bottleneck by making slow decisions.

A Case Study in What Not to Do

When I started my career, I joined a team building a web-based patient portal for healthcare providers. At the time, I was unaware “product” even existed. But I was forced to learn the space out of necessity. My first manager, Eric, was a walking case study in how you shouldn’t handle product decisions.

With something as simple as our landing page, Eric went back and forth for months. His opinion fluctuated on a daily basis. Without the autonomy to make decisions, our development team wandered without any real sense of direction or progress.

Each week followed the same pattern. The team would align on the problem, collaborate on ideas, prioritize features to build and test, then have the tables turned on them a few days later. Eric was obsessed with surveying every available option. He operated with the constant fear that we might have missed something better. As a result, we wasted months of time and energy considering alternatives with negligible differences.

And if we were unable to make decisions on something as simple as the landing page, imagine what that did to our product which was heavy on integrations with practice management and electronic health record systems. Not to mention the most important piece–the user experience of patient-facing features.

The lesson: hesitation kills creativity, morale, and momentum.

Be Wrong as Fast as You Can

Leaving your team in limbo without a sense of direction is a far worse position to be in than taking a wrong step. It’s easier to forgive a wrong decision than it is a painstakingly slow decision or the failure to make a decision.

For extraordinary outcomes, seek conviction in your work and build teams that value conviction over consensus.
— Scott Belsky

If you’re wrong, you want to be wrong as fast as possible. Andrew Stanton, director at Pixar, uses a similar model to evaluate decisions on his films. When faced with two hills and you’re unsure which to attack, the best course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you discover it’s the wrong hill, you can always turn around and attack the other. But you will fail for as long as you continue standing still or running in between the hills.

There will be things you miss and ideas you haven’t thought of. But you’re going to learn more by putting yourself and your product out there than you will trying to make the perfect decision each step of the way.

How Reversible Is This Decision?

For many product managers, faster decision making is the most significant improvement you can make. Especially when it comes to the trivial.

While somewhat elementary, the Pareto Principle should be foundational to your decision making. Which solution generates 80% of the value? Forget the other 20%. As Aziz points out in his toothbrush dilemma, perfection requires far more deliberation and research than it’s often worth. If your default position is hesitation – pausing to consider every alternative – you’ll stifle creativity and lose your team along the way.

You can also make immediate improvements by asking yourself a single question, “How reversible is this decision?” Tobi Lütke, Shopify’s founder and CEO, uses a similar strategy by asking himself, “How undoable is this decision?” Decisions that are reversible – most of the ones you make on a daily basis – deserve quick answers.

Better yet, if you have other product managers, developers, or designers coming to you with trivial decisions, empower them to make the call. Performance will improve when there’s a greater degree of autonomy and teams have more creative control over the product.

The decisions that aren’t easily reversible are the rare ones that Lütke spends his time deliberating before coming to a decision. In 2008, he had to decide whether Shopify would remain the lifestyle business he set out to build or shift towards a growth company. With venture capital implications, it warranted thoughtful consideration.[1]

Slow, deliberate decision-making can be a significant advantage in avoiding massive mistakes. But the reality is that most decisions you have to make on a daily basis aren’t permanent in nature. There’s a time and place to use this level of deep thought and consideration. Not when it comes to buying a toothbrush or choosing between two styles on a landing page.

Far too many product managers are focused on perfection from day one – an impossible task. Instead, with proper context, you should focus on making faster decisions. You’ll always be able to adapt along the way as you learn.

If you want to avoid becoming a bottleneck, just keep things moving forward. You’ll be better for it, your team will be more engaged, and you’ll be able to build better products. Decisions lead to progress because they improve the rate at which you learn.

Both life and product become much easier when toothbrush decisions aren’t monumental efforts. Learn to value your time over a marginally better solution. People appreciate decisiveness. And above all, that’s the sign of a true leader in product.

[1] Lütke still felt like he was far too slow in coming to this decision (lifestyle vs growth). To help speed up bigger decisions, he now tries to get as far ahead as he can in terms of vision and where the company is heading. In other words, being less reactive to inevitable, significant decisions that need to be made.

*This article was originally featured on Mind the Product

Why the Worst Product Managers Expect the Best

With each product I’ve built, things rarely come together exactly as planned. But it’s not the inconveniences, technical challenges, or misguided people that are the problem. It’s that we ever allow them to catch us off guard in the first place.

Anyone can operate under ideal conditions. But ideal conditions are the exception, not the rule. Eighty percent of your time building product will take place in a maelstrom of ambiguity and obstacles.

It’s naive to expect that the world should bend to your favor and promote ideal conditions. Most reasonable people acknowledge this. But when it comes down to it, many of us cling to expectations that our work should progress without pushback and our lives should follow a neatly charted map. We forget how much of life is negotiating egos and hidden variables along the way. 

The best teams embrace imperfections beyond their control and create great products anyway.

The worst teams self-destruct because they’re too busy obsessing over inconveniences. 

It’s easy to pick out the product teams who struggle with this. Each challenge appears to catch them off guard, demoralizing the team and throwing people into a state of anger or despair. This type of reaction points to two things: inexperience and fragility.

Improvement comes from experience and perspective–you’re prepared to face a wider range of potential scenarios. In turn, this allows you to develop a deeper well of resilience and resourcefulness.

Creativity and resilience

At age 23, I started working for a healthcare startup, building out a web-based patient portal. Each setback caught me off guard because I expected things to just work–a laughable statement for anyone who has worked in technology for more than a week. When I went on-site for the launch with our first big client, I was unable to anticipate the ways I was about to get torched. 

There were technical challenges inherent to a complex healthcare organization and integrations with its existing software that we had to sort through. But the technical challenges were only half of it. The true test was handling stakeholders–internal and external–as well as the people who create noise and thrive on passive-aggressive emails.

Anyone who has worked in product is familiar with these challenges. There’s nothing unique about them. But I struggled to adapt because my expectations were off base. I lacked perspective. I was focused on perfection in our product and people pleasing–both impossible tasks–rather than creativity and resilience. 

The best product managers are able to cycle through dozens of permutations and anticipate certain situations through dimensional thinking. But no matter how good you are, at some point you’ll get hit by something you didn’t see coming. Whether the feature you’ve been working on breaks or a “senior leader” steps in and changes the rules at the last minute, you will encounter situations that test your limits. 

Your job isn’t to prevent these mistakes or eliminate every obstacle. Rather it’s to develop the ability to continue moving forward when the inevitable occurs. Leading product requires that you establish an unwavering sense of perspective and imbue this quality in your team. Then, and only then, can you build the resilience and resourcefulness to adapt, imagine creative solutions, and bring them to life. 

Resilient teams who cause a few more quality issues will always beat out fragile teams who are only able to operate under perfect conditions. The difference is self-awareness and being able to step back to put things in perspective. This means assuming responsibility instead of feeling sorry for yourself because something you built didn’t work or someone criticized you. 

This is not to say that you shouldn’t focus on promoting favorable conditions. You can’t create a complete shit storm for yourself and hope to come out better for it. But you should also understand that you’re never going to get ideal conditions. There are going to be things beyond your control. And that’s what keeps life interesting–the challenges and obstacles you have to learn how to overcome along the way.

Each team meeting, one-on-one, and retrospective is an opportunity to develop these qualities in your team. By challenging each other to maintain perspective and reflect on experiences, you can turn things back to what’s within your control–your attitude, the effort you put into your work, and the guiding principle that propels you forward.

Opportunities for reflection

In my experience, few things are more valuable to the morale and resilience of a team than holding retrospectives every few weeks. These are best done with your immediate team (keep things small so everyone can have their voice heard) in a low-stress environment, outside of work. There are multiple formats, but each person should have a chance to discuss what’s gone well and what hasn’t. 

This provides a valuable outlet for everyone to air their frustrations, without judgment or repercussions, and remind each other of recent accomplishments. It also allows the team to come together and consider how you might frame challenges in a more productive light and course correct the things within your control.

Retrospectives are just one outlet to discuss experiences and rediscover perspective. And with the right perspective, you can begin building the resilience to navigate the conflict and uncertainty inherent to challenging work. 

Creating more opportunities for reflection is the best way to harness experience and build perspective. It’s the first step towards realizing that imperfect conditions are where the majority of life takes place. Knowing this, you’ll be able to lead better teams, build better products, and live a better life. 

Expect challenges. Expect unknowns. Expect ego. When you set your expectations accordingly, you’ll waste less time consumed by the things that have happened to you. 

Anyone can operate under ideal conditions. But the best product teams don’t sit around waiting for the stars to align. Instead, they embrace the imperfections inherent to life, create their own momentum, and make things happen for them. To steal a line from Charles Bukowski, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

*This article was originally featured on Mind the Product.

7 Lessons from Life as a Product Manager

Six years ago, I found my way into product management out of necessity. I was beginning my career at a healthcare technology startup in what was supposed to be a marketing/communications position. But during my third month on the job, I was thrown on-site at a regional hospital to help facilitate a go-live with our software. As it turns out, job titles don’t always predict the scope of your work in startups.

That day, it became obvious that there was a significant gap between key stakeholders, customers, and our development team. It was impossible to prioritize or build the right thing because we weren’t close enough to the end user. As a result, we ended up working exclusively on client requests–perhaps the least effective way to develop a product. We needed someone to step in, close the gap, and work alongside our small team of five developers. Cue my newfound career path.

As companies learn the importance of evolving into product-driven organizations, there are increasingly greater opportunities for those with a specific skill set — see below — to explore product management. Over the past few years, I’ve put together some of the key lessons I’ve learned from leading product at my own startup, as well as from the innovative, hardworking teams that I’ve had the privilege to be a part of.

1. Develop a multidisciplinary approach

Broad exposure to a range of subjects enables you to leverage the most useful knowledge from each and make better decisions. Specialization gets a lot of attention these days, but it doesn’t fly here. Product requires seeing things from multiple angles and being able to quickly navigate a latticework of mental models. On any given day, you need to be able to evaluate the user experience, assess the feasibility from a development perspective, identify and sort relevant data, communicate key experiment results, and determine how a feature aligns with the overall vision.

Developing a multidisciplinary approach should also help to set you apart, as most who work in technology are focused exclusively on concepts and trends native to the industry. The majority will miss the important lessons and models from other fields of study that can be applied more broadly.

But the ultimate reward is that by positioning yourself at the intersection of multiple disciplines, you develop the ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas in a way that the vast majority are otherwise incapable of discovering. It’s here where true creativity and the most innovative solutions are found.

2. Establish three skills in the top 25%

The best companies look for diversity on their teams in terms of background and experience, as well as hard and soft skills. This range of skills includes analytics, communication, design, development, research, strategy, synthesis, and user empathy, to name a few. Figure out which you’re good at and commit to developing those skills further.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t listen to feedback about where to improve. But you distinguish yourself by becoming very good (top 25%) at two or three skills.

Reaching this level demands years of dedication to your craft and the discipline to continue learning. You’ll only be able to sustain this effort if you allocate more energy to the skills that you’re naturally drawn to and enjoy immersing yourself in for indefinite periods of time.

You make yourself rare by combining two or more ‘pretty goods’ until no one else has your mix.
— Scott Adams

3. Manage product, not people

Any job with “manager” in the title carries an immediate connotation that you’re overseeing people. There’s no worse approach to product or faster way to alienate your team. Your sole focus should be on building the best product and user experience. This means collaboration with your team, not management. And if you’ve developed at least a few skills in the top 25%, you should be a true contributor.

Those who resort to managing people often do so because they lack the willingness or ability to contribute to the experience being built. Make yourself an indispensable part of the process.

4. Help your team answer their own questions

You can’t possibly have the answer to every question, nor should you pretend to. The most intelligent, respected leaders are always aware of the limitations in their knowledge. But you can help your team clearly articulate questions and begin to uncover answers through conversation.

If you’re able to help others think more rationally and find their own answers just by talking it through, you’re naturally going to get more buy-in than you would by telling someone what to do. It’s human instinct to feel more invested in answers and solutions you’ve helped come up with.

When everyone on your team is engaged, contributing, and learning from one another, the quality of work improves significantly. This skill demands exceptional listening and learning how to ask better questions. If you do it right, you will be able to promote transparency, self-awareness, and better orchestrate the perpetual moving pieces.

5. Consider second and third-order consequences

First-order consequences are those that are immediately evident and often end up in contradiction to long-term gains. Failing to think beyond first-order effects often results in poor decision making. For example, most of us might not enjoy the rain. But we wouldn’t wish away rainy days because the subsequent-order consequences–drought, wildfires, famine–are in direct opposition to our best interests.

While product is slightly lower stakes than climate, tunnel vision is a common struggle when building out a feature that’s intended to drive a key metric. You might be focused on retention, but how is that affecting the bigger picture? What if you’re compromising the experience for customers who are your strongest advocates? What if the strategy contradicts the identity you’re working to create?

It’s important to move fast, but it’s also important to navigate between these different levels so you have fewer headaches down the line. You’re not always going to have a definitive answer, but this thought exercise should help you consider the future implications of your decisions.

6. Value feedback over intuition

This is one of the biggest struggles I see from entrepreneurs across the board. Everyone wants to pour money into their project because they’re convinced it’s a million-dollar idea. But very few have the humility to prototype a product, put it out there, and seek honest feedback. And unless your risk tolerance borders on insanity, this is the cheapest, most effective way to assess the viability and potential market for your idea.

As a product manager, the story remains the same. You want to figure out the fastest, cheapest way to test your concept. This often requires hacking something together, getting it in the hands of your users, and actually listening to what they have to say. Great product managers find creative ways to gather customer feedback at the earliest stage possible.

Human beings are complex and fickle, so it’s impossible to predict how they’ll react to a brand-new solution. When our new ideas fail, it’s usually because we were overconfident about how well customers would understand and how much they would care.
— Jake Knapp + John Zeratsky

The momentary discomfort that comes from seeking brutally honest feedback is far less of a risk than taking off in a blind sprint based on intuition. You want to limit the potential downside and wasted effort whenever possible. The earlier you’re able to correct potential flaws in your product or assumptions, the greater your likelihood of success.

7. Be open with your failures

Most people never venture past the surface level of the “fail fast” mentality. We acknowledge that failure comes with the territory when working on disruptive ideas, but we forget to consider the underlying importance of this sentiment.

The goal should never be to force an idea to work, no matter the cost. It should be to assess if there’s a “there” there, as quickly as possible. There’s a fine line between sharing an overall vision and becoming emotionally entrenched in the success of a specific feature. The latter blinds you from objectively assessing outcomes and often leads to bad practices, i.e. “massaging” the data.

As a product manager, your job is to take chances and determine which opportunities show promise. When one of those efforts doesn’t result in the next big thing, there are still positive takeaways. You definitively know that it’s better to allocate energy elsewhere, which is valuable knowledge that will help shape your company’s direction. With the right approach, failure is a sign that you’re committed to pushing the realm of current possibilities–a necessity if you want to evolve your product and position yourself for long-term success.