Interesting Reads - May 22, 2017

Every week I scan a curated list of feeds and watch Twitter for pieces that ask interesting questions, frame problems in new ways, and help me learn how others tackle the tough stuff of everyday life. This week I came across interesting reads about customer discovery, look through the lens of outcomes, OKRs in action, thoughts on tools and culture, and a new book on application security. Check out the interesting reads below along with my takeaway:

Customer Discovery

Last week I began my customer discovery journey in my new role at Gentrack. I am reaching out to customers to learn about the motivations behind their strategic decisions, where they are aiming to be, and what keeps them up at night. These three reads were a great input into my planning for this process.

  • Paul Adams @ Intercom: Great PMs Don’t Spent Time on Solutions - Paul talks about the often underinvested part f product where spending time with customers, understanding their world, and how they reach the point is how you uncover the right opportunity or need. It is not glamours work, but it will give you perspective when you hit the solution side to make choices based on a better understanding of what you are up against. All too often we see features that ship that seems like great solutions, but without that link to the problem they are left on the shelf.
  • Rob Fitzpatrick: The Mom Test - Before I ventured out into customer land I spent time to plan my approach. I made a list of topics I wanted to know more about, what the opening question should be, and what follow-up questions I might use. Rob’s book, The Mom Test, is a quick read that reminds you to build raport, focus on open questions, and allow the conversation to inform the path which you chose to follow.
  • SVPG: Product Discovery: Pitfalls and Anti-Patterns - Discovery is an art as much as it is a science. We go into an uncertain situation with customers to learn about them. We check our biases at the door, and we prepare ourselves for possibly hearing that the idea in our minds is completely wrong. SVPG notes that it is not easy, but it is critical to do it ourselves and do it often to get the richest results.

Validated Outcomes

Many people use the agile crutch as a way to jump right into code without understanding why they are doing the problem. Yes the user story format captures a “benefit to a user”, but once we ship it, did we make it? The long tail of feature development is that validation which is where real learning begins. Activity measures are worthless if we are not making an impact with our effort, and learning what of our feature hypothesis made it out the other side.

  • John Cutler: What is “done” - John points out that a the final part of flow needs to include validation - without that, our feature’s hypothesis remains untested.
  • Jeff Patton: Output vs. Outcome & Impact - Jeff talks about the importance of outcome and impact as the primary motivation for our work. Activity measures such as points per sprint are often used as a proxy for delivering value, but they are a poor representation at best.

OKRs are Alignment

As organizations grow, the alignment around the purpose and focus become the difference between a rowing team working together to win the race, or a canoer trying to paddle at different rates and timing. OKRs were touted as the next big thing in organizational management. I have seen a few organizations use it for performance management and struggle when they were unable to map the examples to success. In the rush for the next silver bullet did we miss what it was about? Did anyone actually make it work?

  • Dan North: Applying OKRs - Finally someone shares real life experience! Too many organizations stick with the “out of box” examples which are hard to understand in the varying contexts of different organization structures. Most importantly Dan points out that the real benefit of OKRs is designed around aligning the organization - not measuring individual or team performance.
  • Patrick Lencioni: The Advantage - In the same light I thought it was worth bringing to the table a book that Chris Heaslip recommended to me and the rest of the crew at Pushpay. It was an exercise that we went through across the company to drive alignment in why we existed, where we were going, and what is the most important thing right now. I would recommend taking the six questions from this book and asking a few different people in your organization to see what their understanding is, and where gaps exist in alignment.

Tools vs. Culture

Just because you can, does not mean you should. Often technology organizations are tempted to fill a small gap by creating their own tooling. Years later they find themselves way behind where there competitors are with the tool becoming the poor stepchild of their efforts.

  • Rich Mironov: The DIY Illusion - If you can find a commercial solution to your problem and how you solve that problem is neither unique or differentiating from your competition then chances are you should buy it not build it. Rich reminds us that the opportunity cost of DIY tooling over time far outstrips the cost of most commercial off-the-shelf tooling.
  • Bill Higgins: Tools as a Catalyst for Culture Change - The modern enterprise is evolving quickly. Slack is showing up everywhere, companies are moving away from monolithic all-in-one ERPs, and want to move fast. But new tools dropped into the laps of people will suffer from the same problems the old tools did. Not many people uncovered the power of the Pivot Table in Excel. Many were just scratching the surface of what they had. So before we drop new and better tools, think a bit about how to drive uptake.

New Zealand’s Security Minds

Finally kudos to Laura Bell from SafeStack and her fellow authors for getting to done on their book. I had the fortune of seeing her in action at Pushpay. I was thoroughly impressed by how she balanced a topic that can evoke a overwhelming response to fear and uncertainty with practical steps. If you have a team that is looking for security consulting, or developer training I can highly recommend SafeStack.