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Anthropology

Myths that Misguide

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Myths can powerfully guide or misguide.

Myths, in the sense of fables or epics, historically captured and conveyed important life lessons to members of a particular culture. The adventures, misadventures, trials and triumphs of the protagonist served as examples of what choices (or lack thereof) could deliver.

Myths, in the sense of commonly held misconceptions, can be tremendously unhelpful.

I'm interested in hearing from others on the misguiding myths you've encountered in product management and marketing, and how you've identified them as such and how you've acted to counter them.

I have a few examples to share. Of course, the interpretations of these depend a lot on their definition and to what degree we believe they hold water. But that's the point of deconstructing them. Let's equip ourselves with clarity on what portion of truth and untruth these contain.

Examples of Internal Myths

"I have to do it all"
Many product managers fall for this one, even more so than some other roles, because we typically have the personality that cannot leave dropped tasks or processes alone - we have to pick them up! But we also learn through painful experience that burn-out is all but guaranteed if we aren't willing to invest some time and energy in convincing other people to help out where they can (or should), even if that means escalating the discussions into some uncomfortable territory.

"Quality is more important than speed" (or vice versa)
The quality versus speed trade-off is sometimes a false dichotomy, even though a persistent one. It's just one example of a false dichotomy in product management. The simplistic expression is seductive because it compresses many considerations into a either/or choice, and it is human (and lazy) to desire just two alternatives to choose from. An experienced product manager recognizes that the speed-to-market versus product quality dilemma often hides incomplete positioning or a feature set assumed to be written in stone. The alternate choices get more interesting when the debate recognizes all the variables, and embraces the deliberate compromises that need to be made, given the product's ultimate goals.

Examples of External Myths

"The customer is always right" or "The customer is always wrong"
The real question is what is the customer right and wrong about? Depending on your business model, your market, your position on the product lifecycle curve, where your customers are on the technology adoption curve, as well as your instincts, your customers will be right and wrong about different things, but never absolutely either in all things of interest to your product's success. There are customers worth listening to. There are listening techniques that maximize the value of their input. There are some things, innovation being one, where only a special few of your customers might contribute anything. And there are customers, no matter how well you execute, that may be worth firing - they are that wrong!

"Our customers want too many customizations"
I've encountered this one many times in the B2B software space. The subtext of this myth is "we didn't design the product in such a way that the inevitable customer customizations would be manageable in terms of cost to us". This is typically the result of technical debt, which is a lot like credit card debt in the sense that it's a method for delaying cost at an eventually greater overall cost. Addressing this myth may be possible in your strategic plan. If you make configurability a strategic feature of your product early on, you'll rarely feel that customers want too much customization, because you'll be delivering it at speed and at a reasonable cost.

Have you held any of these myths? Debunked them for yourself? For others? What other misguiding myths have you encountered?

Trevor Rotzien
the product manager


Anthropology

The Foreigner who could be Undermining your Global Team

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So, you've got global team. People based in several different countries are working on your product.

 

How are they all going to work together?

 

They've spent all kinds of effort and money on training and cultural sensitivity to be more compatible with your work culture. The heavy-lifters are papered with certifications. The managers are degreed. There are Service Level Agreements in place to ensure their commitment to getting things done. The remote collaboration tools are up and running, so work can continue almost it not a full 24 hours a day, rotating through the longitudes, time zone by time zone.

 

 

But in spite of these preparations, there is a foreigner that might be undermining the entire project. They just don't get the complexity and subtlety of a global team working together. They haven't put that much effort into adapting or developing genuine interest in how the other team members think of the product, the work, collaboration, or any ostensibly shared point-of-view. It's not that they consciously mean to introduce difficulty, but they are operating with some old, stubborn and largely unconscious assumptions that blind them to the significant risk their blindness entails. Even if the risk is recognized by another, it will be difficult to escalate, since the problem foreigner has high status, so their bubble is largely unchallenged.

 

Who is this threat to the global team?

 

It's you.

 

Or it could be, if you're operating under a few common fallacies:

1. It's all the other people that are foreign, not me.

2. It's right and proper that the others mold themselves to my culture.

2a. Okay, it's maybe not right and proper exactly, but at least necessary, since the project originates here. It's our project, it's their job to conform.

 

Are these fallacies obvious? If you're an experienced product manager and/or an observant traveler then perhaps they are, but they are not obvious to everyone. 

 

Even if these fallacies are obvious to you, what concrete actions will you take to counter them? While acknowledging them is a start, acknowledgement alone won't protect your project nor open up the possibility of harnessing the differences across your global team to build a more integrated, more effective culture.

 

Consider constructive profiling. While there is simply no substitute for understanding individuals individually, reading up on the business culture tendencies of the nationalities of your global team can at least provide you a framework for study, to consider what policies and procedures may need to be changed. For example, how might a particular group's perceptions and expressions of authority make getting honest input a challenge? What types of communication could surface more brain power and less deference? This is just one example of a myriad of team integration considerations that are worthy of pursuit.

 

It's often we Westerners that assumes the "others" are foreign, but we are not... it's that West-centric assumption of being the measure of all things. It's more interesting and more effectively to accept that you, the Westerner, are a foreigner too, that the entire team is an aggregate of "foreigners". Teamwork is nurtured by an attitude that pursues a new, synthetic culture, and that all cultural ingredients should be considered as potential enablers for success.

 

 

Time and attention  pressures often minimize a product manager's willingness to put the day-to-day on pause long enough to consider the cultural aspects of a project. But not doing so increases the risk of unspoken disconnects and reduces the opportunities for social innovation that could raise the quality of the overall result.

 

Trevor Rotzien

the product manager

Anthropology

Success with Globally Distributed Teams

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As companies utilize distributed teams more extensively, the landscape of the work environment is changing. These distributed teams can be excellent venues for a diverse mix of perspectives, ideas and insight however there is huge potential for misunderstanding or blocks arising from socio-cultural or language differences.  Following are 5 key points that, when followed, can assist in creating a sense of community, connection and communication between individuals who may be situated thousands of miles apart.

  • Rapport:
Building rapport within the team is important because it is the foundation upon which the entire team is built; it is the connection between individuals.  Take the time to find out who the other team members are as people, not just their role at the company.  What do they do outside of work?  What is their history at the company?  Team rapport is the glue that holds the team together and the starting point for building trust.

  • Ritual:   
Humans find comfort in structure, consistency and predictability.  Rituals serve to tie the team together, making the entire group feel part of the "us" rather than feeling split into "us" and "them".  Rituals are those often-overlooked small events or behaviors that team members eventually come to count on and take comfort in their familiarity.  This could be something as simple as an established format for the meetings or as silly as assigning the joke of the day to a different regional group, to be shared at team meetings.

  • Rephrase/Re-frame:
When there is miscommunication between team members, it is often due to do the fact that some members have different native languages.  Unfortunately, such miscommunication may be interpreted as a lack of cooperation, stubbornness or even incompetence.  If a particular request has repeatedly been disregarded, or an individual seems unable to grasp a particular concept or process, try rephrasing the request or description using different word groupings or patterns.  Languages differ on basics like sentence structure, therefore subtleties can get lost in translation.  What not do do:  repeat the same phrase over and over, or louder.

  • Rules:
Keep in mind that each society and culture is comprised of unwritten, unspoken rules.  These guide our behaviors and give us our acceptable social-behaviorial parameters.   The process of enculturation occurs as we grow from infancy, so we spend a lifetime learning those rules in order to be successful in our own society.  When we interact with others from different cultures, we are not operating within the same set of rules, so confusion and misunderstanding can occur.  When I was in Bangalore, India recently, I spoke to a product manager who shared with me his experience of being unaware of one of the unwritten, unspoken rules of his US based counterparts.  His US based team member asked him if he could participate in a conference call, which would be scheduled after the Indian product manager's usual work hours.  The Indian product manager explained that he would no longer be in the office at that time, because it fell after his work hours.  This ended up causing great friction within the team because they perceived the Indian product manager as not willing to go the extra mile, when in fact he did not know that he was implicitly being asked to stay later in the day to accommodate the conference call.  Once he understood what was being asked between the lines, he was happy to accommodate the later call.

  • Release:
It goes without saying that the greatest challenge of a globally dispersed team is the geographic distance that separates the team members.  One essential component of successfully working in that environment is the ability to release tight control and allow those dispersed team members to stand on their own.  It is not helpful to be a control freak and it is especially not helpful to be one from 8,000 miles away.  Trust that the company who hired these individuals saw an adequate level of competency and skill in them.  If you are incorporating the principles mentioned above, you should feel more at ease releasing responsibility to your team members.

Globally distributed teams are incredibly complex and these tips are only a small window into improving the dynamics of these groups.  What particular methods or tactics have you found to be successful?

Paula Gray
the anthropologist
Anthropology

Knees and Elbows for the Product Manager

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Editor's note: We invited Laurie Jane, Product Management Director at Yesmail, to wrap up our exploration of martial arts insights for product managers with her personal Muay Thai perspective. The three of us co-facilitated a session at ProductCamp Seattle last month, so we thought it would make for nice symmetry if we extended all three perspectives to this blog.

One of the things I like about product management is communicating concepts to a variety of different audiences that may be new to the subject matter. In fact, there are some days when I feel more like a translator than anything else. Not only do I attempt to translate or explain business initiatives to engineering and other stakeholders, but I also try and translate market trends and customer feedback into product ideas, product capabilities into positioning, and so on.

Thus, when discussions began with fellow avid martial artists and ProductCamp Seattle attendees Paula Gray and Trevor Rotzien around doing a session on product management and martial arts, it ultimately seemed like another type of translation exercise on two subjects I enjoy discussing. I've been training in martial arts since I was a teenager and have practiced everything from Muay Thai, Wing Chun Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Eskrima, and a few other styles. I've been back practicing Muay Thai, also sometimes referred to as Thai Boxing, for the past several years. While the art has gained popularity across the globe, (especially in the United States and UK), it is still something that many people have not been exposed to. The art of Muay Thai originated in Thailand and while the origin date is often debated, it is generally believed to be several hundred years old and was developed as a close combat fighting method that used the entire body as a weapon.

While it may seem difficult to weave a fighting style into the realm of product management, even though there may be times when it seems like a problem could best be solved with a jab or a swift kick, there are some basic tenets to the art and practice of Muay Thai that may help provide a refresh for your product management perspectives.

Train the Body, Mind, and Heart


The basic training philosophy of Muay Thai is to train the body, mind, and heart. Muay Thai fighters train their body for speed, strength, and endurance. Within product management, your body could be thought of as your product foundation, or the core function of what your product does. To identify if your "product body" needs training, evaluate whether or not the key functionality is strong, if you are able to execute effectively, or perhaps if your product is enduring in the market space. When sparring in Muay Thai, you train your mind to make quick changes to your strategy and technique responses. Similarly in product management, you also need to be able to know how to make sudden decisions that are aligned with your overall strategy. Last, it's important to have enthusiasm or "heart" for studying Muay Thai to truly be successful, and you need to ultimately enjoy what you do to be effective in product management.

The Science of the 8 Limbs


Muay Thai is called the "science of 8 limbs" because you use your fists, feet, knees, and elbows as weapons. Each one is used differently depending on your range or opponent, and some people are more adept at utilizing certain limbs more than others. Good products are threatening because they also have a variety of "limbs" or deadly weapons that allow them to be more successful than competitive offerings. These could be things like differentiation, market share, brand recognition, technology, service, or price. In Muay Thai, it's important to know when and how to use each limb in a fight, and in product management, it's essential to understand your product's overall value and identify which of your product's "deadly weapons" could benefit from improvement.

The Wai Khru Ritual


Prior to boxing matches in Muay Thai, practitioners perform the Wai Khru ritual (also known as Ram Muay, the boxing dance) as a show of respect for teachers of the art of Thai boxing. It's a series of movements that not only prepares the fighter mentally for their match, but also demonstrates their skill level and style. Likewise, product managers often have a series of movements or process to guide a product through different stages before it is released to their customers and into the market. The Wai Khru ritual is improved with practice and feedback. Product managers should also seek to better their product process "ritual" to ensure that products are truly ready for release.

While the worlds of Muay Thai and product management are generally very far apart, they both offer techniques and training methods that focus on improving oneself to be as effective as possible within the discipline. It is often said that Muay Thai was "born on the battlefield" as a result of weaponless fighters needing better ways to fight against those with weapons. Unless your product is somehow impenetrable to the competition, I think every product manager could use more ways to be effective in our respective battlefields.

Note: A special thanks to both Trevor and Paula for inviting me to participate in my first ProductCamp session (it was also my first time attending a ProductCamp) and for the attendees who joined us to learn more about our martial art and product management experiences.

Laurie Jane
a product manager
Anthropology

Guiding Principles of Karate for the Product Manager

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There is a legend of a great karate master that I'm sure circulates in many dojos (karate studios).  The story is that of a young karate student who begins his practice and shows a natural talent.  He is aware of this talent and asks to demonstrate for the class and calls attention to himself whenever possible.  As a beginning student he walks with the lower belt swagger which is common among newbies.  He makes sure to line up in the front of class.  However, as his training continues and he begins to progress through the belts, he becomes aware of the enormity of how much there is to learn, and how little he yet knows.  It is a deeply humbling process.  By the time he reaches his black belt, he walks with his head held low and humbly lines up in the back of class.  It is then that he truly grasps what it means to practice karate.

Gi on mat.jpgThe style of martial arts I practice, Karate (specifically the Gosoku Ryu style), has a long history originating in the Ryukyu Islands (now called Okinawa).  More than the practice of an art or defense form, it is a philosophy or way of living called Bushido "the way of the warrior." Its principles were a code of ethics similar to those that guided the Samurai.  Though "the way" is steeped in tradition, honor and spirituality, following it made the warrior no less fierce.

Master Gichin Funakoshi set out to pen these principles in his book The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate: The Spiritual Legacy of the Master.  One of his most famous quotes is "the ultimate aim in karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants."  He  believed that success lies not just in the mastery of moves and technique but in how we choose to live our days.

Japanese scroll.jpgI recognize many who read this don't choose to walk the path of the warrior but as I observe and study product managers I see them often in conflict, even under attack or at war.  As both a martial artist and anthropologist I see how the culture of those ancient warriors, who often were forced to stand alone, parallel some of the challenges faced by product managers, often the lone warriors themselves.

I believe Master Funakoshi's principles can offer some guidance and maybe even a code for the product manager warrior.

  •    Karate-do begins and ends with rei.
Rei is the term for respect.  We show it in karate class by a respectful bow to our teacher or our opponent.  However, it is much more than that.  It is what makes martial arts, an art.  By incorporating this respect in the workplace, not just the respect for our peers, but respect for our critics and our opponents as well, we often find our greatest teachers.

  • There is no first strike in karate.
This is often a tough lesson for beginning martial artists.  Possessing the skill to strike a mortal blow is not license to do so.  Karate is not designed for offense but rather, defense.  The confidence and ability to avoid an altercation altogether is what we are going for here.  In the workplace this same idea holds true.  Though you may hold enough information to strike a "mortal" social blow to a coworker or team member, stop.  Just because you can is not justification enough to strike.  There is far more potential to lose the trust of an entire team, because each one will mentally, even if only for a second, put themselves in the shoes of the stricken team member.  Even if they supported you in the strike.  They will see what you are capable of, and realize you may one day do the same to them.

Lady karateka.jpg
  •    Karate stands on the side of justice.
When the time comes when you are certain your point, belief, thought is right, and for all the right reasons, do not hesitate to use your strength and skill to fight on the side of justice.  You are, in a way, the protector of what you feel is right - be prepared to defend it.  This is still a defensive move on your part so do not pick a fight (see #2).

  •   First know yourself, then know others.
In life, as in martial arts, an understanding of our true strengths and weaknesses is crucial.  Not an ideal picture of ourselves, but our true traits and qualities.  In my field of anthropology, we stress conducting participant observation within populations because research has shown that in surveys and interviews people often speak of an ideal rather than the reality.  Be accurate with yourself and do not over inflate your strengths.  From this place of honesty you can then look at others and more accurately gauge their strengths and weaknesses as well.  From there, a strategy can unfold.

  •    Mentality over technique.
This principle is about being aware and not putting yourself in a position to be forced to defend yourself in the first place.  It is ultimately better to avoid the use of any technique than it to use that honed technique and skill.  In short, use your brains before your "fists," think it through.

Though it may be popular in the group and easy to slip into the "lower belt swagger" you will find less desire to do so as your own skill and confidence levels grow.  Unlike the ancient samurai, you still have to work with the people you confront.


Paula Gray
the anthropologist

From the book The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate:  The spiritual legacy of the master
by Gichin Funakoshi






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