WTF is a Product Manager?

Product management is a critical part of a healthy product development process, but it can be difficult to pin it down the specifics of it as a role.

I really like this essay by Ernest Kim, WTF is a Product Manager?  Definitely worth a read—he has a lot of miles under his belt as a product developer, so this is reality speaking.

Here’s a choice bit:

An example I’ve used in the past is that the designers and developers at Nike are so good that they could create a shoe that looks like a boat, yet still offers the performance and comfort of cutting edge athletic footwear. But if it turns out that there’s no market for shoes that look like boats, that product would fail—regardless of its beauty or functionality. In short, it doesn’t matter if the answer is right if the question you set out to answer is wrong. It’s the job of the product manager to ensure that the product team is working to answer the right question(s).

I think Ernest really nails it. Asking the right question is as important as coming up with the right solution. Out of respect for how hard it is to ship a great solution to market, I don’t want to say it’s more important, but it is really important.

How to Do the Best Work of Your Life

James Yurchenco metacool

Jim Yurchenco is the design engineer behind everything from the first Apple mouse to the Palm V to the Plié Wand from Julep. He just retired from a 40-year career at IDEO creating products which brightened the lives of millions.

Jim’s work was also about helping everyone around him excel. I was fortunate to have Jim as a mentor, coach, and project leader at IDEO. I did some of the best work of my life working with him. And the “how” was great, too: we never pulled all-nighters, but we always hit our deadlines, routinely achieving extremely innovative outcomes.

How to do the best work of your life? Well, here is Jim’s secret:

“Don’t accept done for good. And don’t accept good for excellent.”

Jim’s approach to excellence is anything but passive. It is rooted in action, passionately and optimistically pursued. He’s never one to sit back and procrastinate, waiting for inspiration and perfection to magically appear. He is constantly thinking, building, pushing, failing, learning—always striving to figure out a way to make things better. All of this coupled with an urgency to make decisions quickly and be productive, but with the sage perspective to step back and let things percolate when need be. In Jim’s world, excellence is both something you pursue, and something that comes to the prepared.

One morning in the late 90’s, while noodling on ways to cool the chips in the Intel Pentium II cartridge we were designing, Jim decided that our pursuit of excellence demanded access to a temperature-controlled, variable-speed wind tunnel. Today. Of course, we didn’t have one. But by that evening, after scavenging all of Silicon Valley for parts and applying some scrappy ingenuity, we had a twenty-foot long wind tunnel up and running in an unoccupied office we found at IDEO (whose owner was mildly surprised when she returned from her business trip). And then we used that wind tunnel to create a breakthrough design solution.

When you’re committed to excellence—and when everyone you work with knows it—failure becomes a mere bump in the road along the way to success. Once you stop accepting good for excellent, you can transcend limitations that would stop a normal team. Scarcity becomes abundance, hurdles becomes ladders, and you start doing the best work of your life.

That’s how Jim did it. And you can too: commit to excellence, believe there’s always a better solution, and make it all happen with optimism.

You can hear more of Jim’s wisdom in this wonderful video:

How to teach a great class on design thinking

Diego Rodriguez metacool Stanford d.school napkin manifesto

A decade ago I worked with George Kembel to create the Stanford d.school’s “napkin manifesto”, a founding document written on a paper square that came free with a cup of coffee. The thoughts we committed to paper that day reflected an audacious goal: Create the best design school in the world, period. I think it’s safe to say that the d.school has been a remarkable success, having had an impact far beyond what even our visionary founder David Kelley imagined.

I’ve learned so much as a teacher during that time, too. I’ve witnessed not only the evolution of the d.school, but the power of design thinking at work in many other arenas—everything from the development of more humane medical technologies to improving school lunch programs. I’ve been honored to participate in helping design thinking become a core part of the curriculum and culture at both Stanford and Harvard Business School, and to teach the design process to the client organizations I work with at IDEO.

So how do you create a great design class? By applying design thinking, of course! In essence, the way to teach a great design thinking class is to treat it as a design project. In this particular case, I’ve found three principles that lead to classroom success, each of them inspired by some general precepts that always serve me well.

1. Design thinking rewards hands-on experience.
It sounds obvious, but to teach design thinking, you need to be able to do design thinking. In any job, whether you’re a carpenter or a bioengineer, understanding the work from the inside out is always the best qualification to pass those skills to others. As a teacher, you need to be an accomplished creator of things out in the world, a master of using design thinking to ship. Theory is valuable and required, but being adept at the practice is by far the most important driver of success for both your students and you.

2. Design thinking thrives on feedback and iteration.
The most important ritual of our classes at the d.school is the daily debrief session. Instead of running to their respective offices when class is over, the teaching team gathers at the back of the classroom, reflects on how the session went, and listens to students’ feedback. The teachers then change class plans, move sessions around, even rethink the approach of the entire course. To be sure, when I teach I have a strong goal for what the class should accomplish, but in response to what this group of students needs right now I’m able to adjust our path there on the fly. It’s about having a compass, not a map.

3. Design thinking solves real-world problems.
Classroom projects have to be structured without artificial constraints or boundaries. When students feel that they are working on a real problem, the sky is the limit—no essays or fake projects allowed. This transforms the class experience: instead of focusing on the grade they’ll receive by hurdling yet another academic annoyance, students genuinely feel they’re working to make a difference in the world. For example, if a class is about creating a business, students should create a real business. If it’s about improving the water supply in developing countries, they should build a solution that puts a clean glass of water in the hand of someone who needs it. Here’s my acid test: if a student so desired, could they build a career around this challenge I’m giving them?

 

By applying these three principles to the design of a design class, we aim to make the d.school classroom the best education experience each student has ever had. But there’s no secret at work here; the guidelines we use are universal to the design process: Have a strong point of view and confidence in what you do, proceed with empathy and openness to feedback, and offer real solutions that improve the lives of real people.

Innovation Lessons from Video Gaming

metacool video games

I’m a believer in William Gibson’s dictum that “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” When I’m part of a team designing something new, we always search for inspiration from existing products that are running a few meters out in front of the pack. More often than not, the most future-forward ones are video games.

An edgy brew of technology, design, and business, video games are a wellspring of innovation. Moore’s law dictates that the processors they run on are always getting faster, and games in turn push computing technology to the max, so performance constantly rises. Games have to be reliable and desirable, a fiendish design challenge. Their complex algorithms must not only work perfectly, but also make us marvel in the beauty of their output. And we’re willing to pay for it: this year’s global video game spending is expected to surpass $100 billion. The competition for that big pie feeds a lot of radical business model innovation.

So if innovating is your business, why not shell out a few quarters on video game research? Not only is it a lot of fun, but you’ll learn a ton. Here are four ways video games can help you become a better innovator:

Experience World-Class Experiences
Good experiences bring you joy and make you happy, great ones get you to flow—that sense where time slows down and you’re in the groove. World of Warcraft (WoW) is a masterful flow-inducing game, with the best digital interaction design in existence. Period. With WoW, in the first ten minutes you’re given a challenge that’s just a little more difficult than you can handle, so you immediately experience learning and growth. Before you know it, you’re on the road to personal mastery. That feeling continues at ten hours, ten days, ten months, and beyond. For pointers on how to make flow happen with your own product or service, WoW is a master class. To see an analogous experience on a mobile device, check out Monument Valley.

Grok New Business Models
The rise of free app ecosystems, Facebook, and networked gaming environments has forced video game makers to focus on business model innovation. For example, WoW generates $1 billion in yearly revenue via a mix of upfront payments and monthly subscription fees. Others have created new ways to claim value by seamlessly interweaving payment with game play and narrative. Clash of Clans is among the very best at this, helping its developer Supercell rake in $892 million in revenue in 2013. Want that Level 5 P.E.K.K.A.? With just a couple of screen taps, iTunes processes your $19.99, and she’s ready to go bash down some Inferno Towers.

Become a Better Creative Leader
Creative leadership is about managing uncertainty, surfing serendipity, and navigating the future with a compass, not a map—all skills that video games often require. Great creative leaders are able to:

  • communicate effectively with teams of diverse individuals
  • make quick decisions in dynamic situations with a high degree of uncertainty
  • digest regular feedback to grow their leadership acumen, lest they lose their following

Leading people in a multiplayer video game is an amazing way to develop your creative leadership skills. Even if in “real life” you’re not in a leadership position, in an online game you can lead big teams of people for weeks at a time in order to hit challenging goals. Along the way, you’ll amass many more hours of real leadership mileage than you could by attending a training program or reading books.

Joi Ito, my erstwhile WoW guild leader (who also happens to be the head of the MIT Media Lab) believes that the “…leadership method of…World of Warcraft and open-source projects is actually really similar to doing something like leading a bunch of super-smart, creative academics and students.” Former Xerox Chief Scientist John Seely-Brown recently said, “I would rather hire a high-level World of Warcraft player than an MBA from Harvard.” * I share their sentiments: WoW is one of the best leadership academies out there.

Raise Your Own Innovation Game
Behind every great game is an equally fascinating creative backstory. How did they make it sing? How do they work as a team? How might elements of their approach work for you?

Killer Queen is a five-on-five video game that’s at once retro and progressive. Josh DeBonis and Nik Mikros—the creative duo behind it—nailed the game dynamics by having real people run around fields with foam swords—an epic, quick way to create a minimum viable product. An evidence-driven process—one built around employees actually using the stuff they create—is a great way to promote (or kill) new game ideas. The video game industry is as technologically sophisticated as they come, and more competitive than Formula 1, so rest assured that learning what makes it tick will make you a better innovator, too.

Although the stickiest learning is in the playing, I’m not suggesting that you need to develop a 24/7 World of Warcraft habit to master the four lessons above. You can learn a lot just by watching over the shoulder of someone else playing. Or ask your kids why they’re a master of a particular game, and what’s so cool about it. You will find myriad things to inspire better solutions to the challenges of your own work.

We’ve only scratched the surface of the thousands of superlative video games out there. As an innovator, which ones do you learn from? And what are the other big lessons to be had?

 

 

* to which I must ask, “Why not have both?”

Jeffrey Walker on flow, jazz, and your role in creative teams

I love this talk by Jeffrey Walker.

When people ask me how I became a designer, I talk about some of the formative experiences in my childhood:

  • Having easy access to a big box of Legos (of course), and a kind and caring older brother who showed me how to build some really impressive stuff.
  • My seven-year odyssey to transform an off-the-shelf BMX bike into a pure expression of my personal, there’s-no-gnarly-jump-I-won’t-take point of view. (only the original front crank and chain remained by the time I had to leave it to go to college)
  • Nine intense, wonderful years playing the saxophone in various jazz bands.

And that last one is always the  most significant to me.  I wrote a post about on the theme of music and teamwork and flow about a year ago.  To echo Jeff’s great thoughts in the video above, I wrote:

Infusing creativity: I learned so much from being in 8 O’Clock with Mr. C.  Practical things, like how to work with a creative team of people toward a shared goal and how to stand up in front of hundreds of people and do your unique, personal thing.  It also gave me the creative confidence to formulate a strong personal point of view and to create on top of that; I can think of of few better ways to prepare for life as a designer than to learn how to do jazz improvisation under pressure in front of a live audience.  On a more intangible level, my hours blowing a horn gave me a deep appreciation for the more ethereal aspects of a life well-lied, such as beauty, elegance, and joy.

Most important of all, I was able to six years of daily reaching a state of flow.  When everything is going right in the creative act, you feel a sense of transcendent joy and power and mastery.  It’s simply so awesome to experience as an individual, and in my opinion, it’s even better when done as a team.  Just look at the body language of Brecker and Stern in that video above — there’s extremely deep communication going on between then without a spoken word shared, and they take deep delight in helping each other get up to the top of that peak, and beyond.

When I interview people for design roles at IDEO, I’m always listening for a sense of whether the person in front of me has ever experienced that sense of flow.  Knowing it, wanting to get back there, knowing how to get back there, these are all things I look for in people who are going to be great design thinkers.  And what a bonus if that experience of flow came via some sort of team activity, be it sport or music or being part of a Girl Scout troop.

To be sure, normal education plays a central role in giving you depth of expertise in your area of “craft” as a designer.  That could be engineering school if you’re an ME, business school if you’re a Biz Designer, industrial design school if you’re an industrial designer, and so forth… you get the picture.

But it might be that the most important schools of experience are those found on a stage, or out on a soccer field, or out in the woods around a camp fire.  Knowing the delight of losing oneself in the passion of the activity in front of you, and understanding how do so in concert with a group of like-minded individuals around you, that’s the key to becoming a great designer.

Jeff Zwart at Stanford Revs

Jeff Zwart Open Garage Talk Revs Program Stanford metacool Diego Rodriguez

I’m extremely thrilled/proud/stoked to be hosting renowned film director, racer, and photographer Jeff Zwart on November 7 for an Open Garage Talk at Stanford.  The event is sponsored by the Revs Program at Stanford and the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford.  Jeff will be giving a talk titled “Telling Stories with Cars”.

Jeff is so good at telling stories that any additional conversation with me may be superfluous, but I promise to work with him to use all the road and keep it (very) sideways, so let’s see where we go.  If you’ve ever perused my other blog Unabashed Gearhead Gnarlyness, you know how much I enjoy his work behind the lens and behind the wheel of a car, examples of which are both posted below.  I have nine hundred and eleven questions I want to ask him about his creative process and how he makes all these amazing things happen—and I’m sure you have a bunch, too.  It will be an awesome evening.

Hope to see you there!  Registration is required, so sign up now!

Please join the Creative Confidence Challenge

My colleagues and friends David and Tom Kelley are holding a challenge over at OpenIDEO around the idea of inspiring young people to grow their creative confidence.  It’s an incredibly worthy cause, and it will be a fun design challenge to tackle, too!

I’m a registered contributor on the OpenIDEO platform, and I hope you are, too.  I’ll see you around this challenge!