Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lesson 3: Everyone Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth

Last night the instructor led off with the above Mike Tyson quote. He said the goal of many of the games we play in class is to get us to react instinctively - without thinking. The singing game was designed for that purpose and so is the game Bunny Bunny which we've played several times. (I'm not sure I can describe that game justice in writing)  We play these games every class, increase the speed each time, continually screw up, get coached and little by little get better.  Failure is a big piece of the improv learning process.  Last night I had a 5-minute scene – I don’t have enough fingers/toes to count up my blunders.  But that’s part of the point. It’s an interesting feeling when you’re starting to get comfortable with failing. 

 I spend much of my time as a product manager vetting ideas, collaborating on requirements, doing market research, etc. It’s about making the right decisions with using the right data. But when I think more about it, I also make dozens of decisions each week instinctively. Development hits a technical obstacle and has multiple solutions to go over/around it. Each of those solutions is made up of different costs, benefits and trade-offs. You make a decision on the fly to keep the project moving. I'm approached all the time with the question "what about this?”. There’s not enough time in the day to vet all of the decisions via research.  

The way you get better at making these day-to-day decisions is through experience and knowledge. The mistakes I made in the past applies to the future decisions. The hours spent visiting and observing customers in action allow me to pick up tidbits of information that are continually built upon and shape my decision making in unexpected ways.  I make a decision that is based on a lesson I learned from a customer visit 2 years ago – things that I’m not sure how I even remember…but I do.  Lesson 3 of improv was about taking the opportunity to learn every chance I get and being comfortable with the knowledge that you can’t always plan ahead. Also to remember to up the ante…and that failure is not always a bad thing. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Lesson 2: Why Do I Care?

I survived yet another Improv class.  Before I tell you about what I learned that applied to Product Management, I want to share the bat crap crazy portion of the evening. 

Part of what we do in class is exercises – each present a different opportunity for us to learn something.  Some exercises are designed to loosen up, others are to learn how to listen better, and others make us more aware of our surroundings.  One of the exercises had us singing.  I sing poorly.  I’m not one of those folks being modest that when performing karaoke can belt out a Whitney Houston song…I’m one of those folks that do not like to sing happy birthday out loud because I’m so out of tune. For this exercise, we formed a circle.  The first person went into the circle and started to sing like they were on Broadway.  The rest of us acted like backup singers.  Then one of us would have to “tag” the current singer out of the circle, we would enter the middle and than sing a song that popped in to our mind based on the previous song.  Repeat.  I ended up singing Sunglasses at Night, Don’t Worry be Happy and Holding out for a Hero. I’m very thankful for my knowledge of 80’s music. Bat. Crap. Crazy.

The other thing we do is scene work.  In this case we were paired up.  We have to play a scene where we articulate our relationship to each other, where we are, and why it matters.  This has to be done in an exchange of 3 or so sentences. One person has to do something.  Anything.  For example: pretend they are digging a ditch, building a snowman, riding a motorcycle, etc. The other person starts the scene based on what the other person is “doing”.  For the first several times I kept focusing on the relationship (is he my brother, long lost dog, life coach?) and where we were.  It was so lame and uninteresting.  I kept forgetting the piece on why it matters.  Why does it matter that I’m in a kitchen with my cousin having soup?  (zzz).  It became interesting when the why was introduced.  Are we rivals, is she my idol, does she embarrass me?  That’s when the audience becomes invested.  The same is true for what we do as product managers.  The development team wants to know why they’re working on these items for this roadmap.  The customers want to know why they should care about feature x.  This is when people being engaged – when they understand the why.

I read “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek a couple of years ago.  Great read for product managers.  He talks about how “The Why” is what builds loyalty and trust with (and within) an organization.  Without it, just the How and What – there is not really a relationship it’s just a transaction.  This weeks lesson was a great reminder that I need to continue to focus on the Why to be a successful product manager.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lesson 1: Did I Really Decide To Do This?

Today was the first day of improv class.  The day started out innocuous enough but as it progressed the time getting closer and closer to 7:30pm, panic started to ensue. I quickly came to the realization that I indeed signed up and I needed to follow through. What seemed like a great idea 2 months ago was now here and of course it is on a Monday.

To cope with this I focused on things I could control like "What to wear?"  On the girly girl scale - I'm like a 2 (out of a possible 10).  So really that question amounted to was what color converse should I wear (grey, purple or black)? 

The fact that I'm writing this means I did survive and did not self-combust like I had imagined in my head. 

To better set the stage I need to provide you with just a little bit more about me and why improv is going to be a great thing.

  • While I am a bat crap crazy product manager, I'm not bat crap crazy in other aspects of work or life.  I have an accounting degree, I'm logical - I like to think before I speak.  Even worse, I don't want to say the wrong thing and look stupid.
  • And like most product managers, at work I have a million things going on.  Too many meetings and not nearly enough productive time.  While I claim to be a good listener, I find myself multi-tasking on conference calls - which really means I'm doing neither task well.

I learned many things today, but the two things that stood out: 1) that I need to get out of my head and 2) I need to learn how to truly listen.

We spent most of the two hours playing improv games, learning to react instead of thinking, learning to trust our peers and learning to listen.  We played games that in order for us to be successful, we had to be listening to each member of the group and build upon what each other was saying. I wasn't on my iPhone checking twitter nor answering the email while someone was talking.  Today when I tried to think two steps ahead, the games creatively came to a crashing halt because I wasn't listening to my team. 

While being logical and thinking things through is critical as a product manager its equally important to be creative so that the best possible solutions are explored.  When I tried to overthink things and come up what I thought was the "best" response in the game, too much time elapsed and the scenario came to an end quickly.  In improv a quick response is more important then what you may perceive as the "best" response. Being open and forthcoming with my ideas gave the rest of the team the opportunity to listen, react and make it better.

After 8 weeks, the class ends with us performing for an audience.  After the tons of missteps today, I can't imagine how I'm going to get there so quickly. But I will leave you with the thought that the instructor started us with.  Walk towards the fear.  You may end up rocking it!  If you don't - then you have something to learn from.  So it appears no matter what happens, I'll be fine.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

An Introvert Dips her Toe into the Extrovert Pond

I've been hesitant to start my own blog and didn't want to unless I had something unique to offer to the product management community.  Two things inspired me to get out of the hammock and start writing (much to the dismay of my English teachers from my youth)

First, I recently read the Dan Pink book "To Sell is Human".  It's an awesome book for product managers, a group of folks who are always selling their product vision in and outside of their organization.  The book mentions learning Improv as a way to improve listening, creativity and team skills.  So rather than read another book - I elected to sign up for an improv class. It's a fundamentals class targeted at people like me - those who don't (or can't) want to have a career in comedy.

For those of you that don't know me...I'm an "I" on the Myers Briggs assessment.  So the thought of doing this scares the bejeezus out of me - which must mean its the right thing to do.

Class starts Monday April 8th, so there is still time for me to chicken out - but since I've now said this out loud, I think I have to follow through.

Back to my original point.  This blog will be a great outlet for me to share my adventures in playing in the extrovert waters.  Who knows - maybe after 8 weeks I will score an "E" on that assessment.

Secondly...I had the opportunity to hear the CEO of SilverPop, Bill Nussey, speak at a TAG Product Management event. He talked about the 6 secrets of great product managers.  One of those secrets is being what he called Bat Crap Crazy.  Based on some of the signs (like talking incessantly at happy hour about what's coming in the next product release) - I decided I might just be bat crap crazy.  So I'm stealing the moniker - although based on my experiences - many of us fit that bill (Jason Brett I might be talking to you). I'm hoping to share some of my product management experiences here.  

So please stayed tuned as I plan to share my adventures from Improv class and anything that else this bat crap crazy pm does or learns.