Like any good product person, I have a lot of whiteboards for writing out ideas and brainstorming. That includes a big whiteboard in my office at work. It also includes two whiteboards in my home office — one on the wall and one I can move around as needed. Excessive? Maybe a little. But it comes with the territory.
When I’m not using the extra whiteboard at home, I set it behind the door and let my kids color on it. They enjoy that. I try to convince them to draw out lean canvases of product ideas too, but they’re not there yet. Baby steps.
Often the whiteboard will get filled up with scribbles and artwork and I’ll just leave it for a while because I think the drawing is pretty cute, either intentionally or unintentionally. Like one that my daughter drew on the left below. I’m not entirely sure what it is supposed to be, but she was really feeling her inner artist when she was drawing it and it kind of speaks to me in a cute kid way, but also in a deep, existential way.
So I kept it around for a long time without erasing it.
Likewise, my son loves to build. So Legos or marble mazes or other contraptions of different sorts will often occupy the table in my office. His most recent marble maze is pictured above on the right.
He’s pretty proud of that one, so it, too, has been up for quite some time.
The problem with leaving marble mazes fully constructed or whiteboard pictures un-erased is that there isn’t any room for new pictures to be drawn or new mazes to be constructed. Sure, the ones that are there now are great. But what about the new ideas? We don’t know what great new thing might come into existence if we give it some room! And even clearing some space just for the creativity to happen is critical.
So much to my kids’ dismay, I took down the marble maze and erased the whiteboard. Some tears were shed, it’s true. But now there is room for something new. Which is incredibly exciting.
We often get stuck in the same rut regarding our own creativity, and we rarely even realize it. This is especially true when things are going all right. It’s easy to see when you’re in a rut when things are going poorly, but it’s much more difficult to see you need a change when things are going okay.
Maybe you’ve reached a local maximum. The best you can expect given certain inputs. But is that where you want to settle? What about the global maximum. Why stand on the tallest hill that’s close by when there are much higher points not that far away?
Erasing our Own Whiteboards
I think we’ve all been a similar situation. So what can we do to get our creativity flowing again? How can we stretch beyond what we’re doing now to something much greater? How can we take ourselves, our jobs, our products to new heights?
One of the lowest cost, lowest effort options is to simply broaden your reading list. From books to articles to newsletters. I’d even include podcasts in this category.
Find material that broadens your thinking and challenges you. The key is to read both inside and outside of your field.
In one of my favorite books of the year, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein addresses this at length. The entire book is a deep dive into the importance of getting out of your field to expand your vision (and well worth your time if you haven’t read it yet), but I’ll use the example of Johannes Kepler here to illustrate the point.
Kepler had accepted the Copernican model of planets orbiting the sun, but there was little else to explain motion in the heavens. So he drew on ideas from other areas such as boats in whirlpools, magnets pushing and pulling, optics of lenses, etc. There was no field of astrophysics until Kepler invented it, so he drew on lessons from other fields to guide his thinking.
“In an age when alchemy was still a common approach to natural phenomena, Kepler filled the universe with invisible forces acting all around us, and helped usher in the Scientific Revolution. His fastidious documentation of every meandering path his brain blazed is one of the great records of a mind undergoing creative transformation. It is a truism to say that Kepler thought outside the box. But what he really did, whenever he was stuck, was to think entirely outside his domain.”
I’ve found that reading extensively is one of the best ways to think outside my domain and get exposure to areas that I may not otherwise see. It helps to erase some of barriers I put in place with my professional experience, and allows me to see things through different lenses.
Get out of the Office
Nothing curbs creativity and narrows our vision more than spending all our time in the office. You may not even notice it until you finally pull yourself away from your desk and actually get out.
If you’re a product manager or UX designer, you need to be getting out of the office to meet with customers weekly. If you’re in another role, especially creative roles, you should be getting out of the office weekly as well. Make it a habit. Make it a priority.
Meet people. One great way to get out of the office is to simply go have lunch regularly. I try to schedule lunch with former coworkers or other people I know at other companies at least a few times a month. It’s nice to catch up with old friends and it helps get perspective on things happening outside of your company.
Find mentors. It’s also a great idea to have some mentors. If you don’t already, I suggest putting in some time to find some. And then have a chat with them periodically. I’ve had a group of both formal and informal mentors for some time, and as I’ve taken on more leadership roles I’ve worked to expand this group. It helps to have people you can turn to for advice and insight outside of your company.
Go to conferences and meetups. I love conferences and try to take my teams to at least a few each year. Not only is it a great chance to get out of the office as a team, but you get to hear from industry experts, meet lots of other professionals, and turn your mind to something other than the immediate issues you’re facing in your day-to-day role. And that is such a huge key to being able to bring new thinking to your challenges. Meetups can often be a “mini-conference” where you can listen to a presentation and grab lunch, with some of the same benefits as a longer conference without the same time or financial commitment.
Do things other than work
One of the best things you can do to “clear the whiteboard” and open up your mind is to do something other than work. This includes taking time both during the workday and ensuring that outside of work you have hobbies and interests that allow you to engage your creativity.
Personally, I make it a habit every day to take a walk outside to clear my head and stretch my legs. It gives me a chance to get away from my computer, email, Slack, etc., and just think for a little while. I’m fortunate now to have a nice little pond by my office that I can walk around. For several years these walks have been around parking lots and some neighboring streets since that’s what was available, but that hasn’t deterred me.
Outside of work it’s also incredibly important to have interests and hobbies that engage you. Referring back again to the book Range:
“Rather than obsessively focusing on a narrow topic, creative achievers tend to have broad interests. This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.”
“Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets or writers of both fiction and nonfiction.”
Challenge Assumptions and Processes
It’s easy to put processes in place and then allow them to stay in place for a long time, if not indefinitely. That’s why it’s critical to constantly be challenging our assumptions and processes, both personally and professionally.
I’ve been woodworking for years now. One thing I make and sell is shaving sets, which I’ve linked if you’re interested in seeing more. I finish each item with multiple coats of super glue, which I polish to a nice glossy finish. I created a process early on where I put on a coat, sanded it, polished it, and then repeated the process about 10 times. I did that for a while. Until one day I questioned my process. Could I do it better? Did I need to sand and polish between coats? I experimented and found that I was wasting time and material and should just be putting on 10 coats and then doing my polishing. It sped up my process significantly. But I never would have made that change if I hadn’t challenged my process, which had been working just fine for me for a long time.
How many processes are like this in our organizations? How many times do you hear things like “that is how we’ve always done it” or “this works for us, that other thing wouldn’t work here.”
We should, as a habit, periodically reimagine all of our processes and assumptions from the ground up. If we were to start over, how would we do it now? Over the past several years as I’ve come into several new roles, this is where I’ve always started and it has yielded tremendous, if difficult, results. We won’t always have the luxury to start over, or implement every change, as I know firsthand, but this is the mindset that will help you continually drive innovation for yourself, your team, and your organization.
We build good product development on experimentation. To understand what will work and what isn’t, like scientists, we have to constantly be running experiments. When I was a product manager responsible for specific products, this was a huge part of my role.
In one of my products, we theorized that we could improve the user experience by simplifying the flow and the design of one of our products. So I created some working prototypes and we set out to test that assumption. Unfortunately they didn’t work the way we expected. But we learned some valuable lessons on what might work, which informed the next set of experiments and decisions, just as you’d expect. And eventually we got to a better design and user experience.
We should take the same attitude toward experimentation in our companies and individually. Eric Ries, in his book The Startup Way, talks about taking many of the startup principles he discussed in The Lean Startup and making them part of general business culture.
“Continuous transformation — an organization’s ability to test and learn from experiences related to its own structure and processes, promoting the best proven techniques across the enterprise, limiting or discarding the rest — is what will give this organization the ability to thrive in the modern age.”
It’s this kind of ability to adapt and evolve that allows modern companies to keep pace with competition, especially startups that are doing the same. But it is not an easy thing to do, especially at a company or organizational level. Erasing the whiteboard — reimagining the very things that got us to where we are — can be difficult, if not impossible. But that’s often the difference between companies that thrive (or survive) and those that don’t.
Individually, we can adopt the same mindset. Continuous transformation is the goal, and ongoing experimentation is the key. We have to disrupt ourselves, our routines, our comfort to find what will work and what will bring success.
This is often an easier mindset to have early in life, when we feel like we may have the freedom to explore a bit more and experiment with our talents and things we like. But eventually we lose that mindset and feel that we have to have everything figured out and determined. Which is why continually experimenting individually is critical.
For example, when it comes to fitness, experimenting with different workouts and routines is critical to progress. If you’ve trained or exercised, you’re likely familiar with “the plateau” — the time when you no longer see progress. It’s easy to hit a plateau by sticking with a familiar routine because you’re constantly working out the same muscles. Your body adapts and you no longer need to get stronger to do that particular exercise. That’s why you need variation. Often it may take some experimenting to find what will work best, but breaking out of the routine is key.
This is the same idea for cognitive and professional pursuits. We’ve got to break out of the routine, experiment with the new, and break past the plateau.
Make a Big Switch
Ultimately, erasing the whiteboard is the goal so we can unleash our creativity. And that may mean we need to make a big switch.
In one of my favorite books about creativity, Creativity Inc., there are numerous stories about creativity (obviously) and unleashing creative potential. One story about Finding Nemo is particularly relevant.
In the creation of Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton pitched the entire story which everyone loved initially. The movie would have a series of flashbacks from Nemo’s father, weaving the story of Nemo and his father. But when the storyboards were put together, it was confusing. The braintrust at Pixar lobbied for the story to be more linear, and when Andrew did that, making a big switch to the movie, it became not only much clearer, but Marlin (Nemo’s father) became a much more sympathetic and likable character.
Sometimes we have to make a big switch, tossing out a big portion of our ideas to get to something much better, like the case with Finding Nemo and almost every other Pixar movie.
Years ago I witnessed the benefits of a big switch in my family. My dad had been working the same job for a long time. He was very good at it, and it had become comfortable and familiar. He liked the fact that it was comfortable and familiar, so it took some prodding for him to make a change, but I remember as he moved into a new role there was a massive shift. He was much happier at work, and it made him happier everywhere. It brought a renewed engagement that comes with a new role, and a new excitement. It cleared the whiteboard of everything he had been doing and started things anew.
Sometimes it takes a big shift to get things started again. I’d argue that it’s even necessary to plan on big shifts periodically. In your career, you’ll be best served by reimagining your role periodically, whether that means moving to a new job or simply changing positions or taking on massive new projects or responsibilities. But even within our roles, we can make these big shifts as we challenge the processes we have in place, experiment with what works and learn about new and better ways of doing things.
One of the best ways to foster creativity is to start with a blank slate — erase the whiteboard and start fresh.
This can be a hard thing to do. At our companies, we often face a myriad of entrenched processes that have often served us well. Individually, we may be in a similar situation. What we’ve done so far has worked well. Why should we abandon it now?
But often the best thing for a system, whether an office or ourselves, is to inject a little randomness, cut things down to their core, and start to reimagine. You’ll be surprised with what you come up with.
Every year I like to look back at some products that had the biggest impact on my life. As a product person, I just can’t help myself. It’s also become a standing tradition to look back at some of the most impactful gadgets, apps, and other products that made life better.
I do a lot of writing. I’ve been doing a lot of articles and blog posts, working on a book, doing an MBA, and just enjoy writing for work and for fun. ProWritingAid is a grammar checker, a style editor and writing mentor (pulled that from their site). I checked out a bunch of writing tools and it was the one that most closely aligned with what I wanted and needed. And it has been excellent. I’m amazed how I got along without it for so long. I don’t think I could go back to not having a tool for editing my writing, whether emails or documents or blog posts. It is worth every penny.
I was fortunate enough to get to beta the new Echo Auto, which puts Alexa in your car in a nice little package. I was super impressed by the whole setup. It syncs seamlessly with my phone, is unobtrusive in my car, and allows me to use voice commands and other things that I didn’t have available in my not-smart car. I’d say it even works better than the integrated system we have in our truck, which is pretty cumbersome. I imagine newer cars and infotainment systems won’t need Echo Auto, but it’s been amazing to get into my car and have it just work to play music, podcasts or audiobooks.
Daylio is a daily micro journal and mood/activity tracker. I started using it at the beginning of the year and have been pretty religiously using it every day since. I love keeping track of activities and how they impact my mood. I also love jotting down some notes about each day. I’m a journal keeper and it has been amazing to scroll through each day to look at the highlights from the week.
Eufy Smart Scale
I mentioned getting a smart scale at the end of last year, and it has proved to be a key life changer this year. Being able to track weight (and other metrics) over time has made it so much easier to understand the impact of choices and to monitor health. It’s become part of my fitness routine and has made me a healthier person. Looking back at various times in my life, I realize how much I wasn’t controlling my lifestyle and the negative impact that was having on my. This has been part of a big change that I’ve made, and it has made it easier.
Along the same lines as a smart scale, my wife gave me a Fitbit Versa this year, and it has continued my fitness progression in a significantly positive way. I’ve been a Fitbit user since they came out with their first wristband, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. But the Versa has almost taken the place of other smartwatches. The only problem is that it doesn’t fully take the place of a smartwatch yet, so that leaves me with my Fossil smartwatch and my Fitbit. I don’t mind it, but it leads to many people asking questions.
We invested in a Ring Security system late last year. It was dead easy to set up and install, which was a good start. It went well with the doorbell we already had and gave some extra peace of mind. We added a floodlight camera to the backyard as well. Later in the year, there was a string of car thefts happening all around our city. There were a couple in neighborhood, and it was right about the time we got a new truck and had to park it out on the street for a few weeks before we could rearrange the garage to get it to fit. So we added another Ring security camera to our driveway, both as a deterrent and a way to catch anyone who broke into our cars if it happened. Fortunately, it didn’t, but we’ve become huge fans of Ring for how integrated it all is, how easy it is to set up, and that you don’t have to buy into a long-term security system to get what you need or want.
So that’s the list for 2019. There were several other products that almost made the cut as well. The ones above I use almost every day in some way. But there are others that are just as good that maybe don’t quite see as much use. The Echo Show 5 is a great little device. I’d probably take that over Echo Dots now, and I’ve got one in my office. It’s the perfect size and has all the functionality you need. If you enjoy making ice cream, a Whynter upright ice cream maker should be on your list. We’ve been using one for a few months and are making far better ice cream than Cold Stone. I also got the new Galaxy Note 10+ a few weeks ago. It’s been amazing so far, but since I’ve only had it for a short period of time I kept it off my 2019 list.
It was a great year for apps and gadgets. I’m excited to see what 2020 will bring.
I began 2019 with the goal of reading a book a week. And here in the final week of 2019, I’ve finished reading 52 books (see the full list below). So this is, first and foremost, a humble brag post about that, as are all articles on favorite books (we won’t kid ourselves, right?). But secondarily — a very, very distant second mind you — I populate a lot of my own reading lists with recommendations from others. So I find these articles really useful personally.
This year’s reading list included everything from history to science fiction to product management and business books. Some classics, some new releases and some new favorites. But I wanted to highlight the best books of the year, some of which I’ll add to a few of my upcoming lists on must-reads for product managers and product leaders.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Since I was young, I’ve been torn by my varied interests, but also the need I constantly felt to specialize. I remember this becoming especially acute in high school where I was very good a range of things, but didn’t feel that I was the best at any particular thing.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World is a kind of vindication for my younger self, putting into words what I always felt: that exploring a range of opportunities and becoming good at a variety of things would ultimately be a successful path. There was no need to give up every sport to focus solely on one. Or give up every interest to become the best at a single venture.
“Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly… In the wicked world, with ill-defined challenges and few rigid rules, range can be a life hack.”
Specializing early can be extremely detrimental in most areas, excluding a few well-defined skills like golf or chess. Gaining broad experience, and this book was a fascinating look into why that is. I could go on and on about it, but the best thing you can do is go read it.
The Three-Body Problem
We probably don’t realize just how fortunate we are to be in a stable orbit around our sun. This book explores an alien world that faces a three-body problem as it orbits two stars, constantly facing periods of stability and instability, and the adaptations they have to make to adjust to that.
Of course, Earth becomes intertwined with them eventually. It is set against the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution, which admittedly I was not that familiar with, so the whole book is fascinating and one of the best science fiction books I’ve read.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Cutting out distraction and focusing on the most important tasks has been a critical theme for me over the past few years, and Deep Work is one of the best books on the subject. It has become a book I reference often and one that I will go back to re-read to keep the lessons fresh in my mind. Because I drift back into my distracted habits when I know I want to focus on the most important things, especially since I know that they will pay off the most for me.
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare are exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
I had read Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan while I was still working on Wall Street, but I took some time this summer to read them again and then finally read Antifragile and Skin in the Game.
Antifragile to me was the best book of the group. It brought together all the ideas and showed why they are so important.
Basically, we live in a complex system. Each of us is a complex system. The number of variables in a complex system is almost infinite. The more we try to control that type of system and manipulate it, the more we mess it up. That’s why simplifying is often the best course. If nature made things a certain way, we should think hard before we change it. And we should also seek ways to make ourselves antifragile, often by allowing (and injecting) randomness and uncertainty rather than trying to eliminate and control it.
“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
The whole book is really a revelation on complexity, randomness and embracing uncertainty in our lives.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
I didn’t read as much history or as many biographies this year as I normally do (I have a long list waiting for me in 2020, so next year’s list will probably have quite a few). But this book was excellent.
It walks through the history of the digital revolution, discussing the main players and companies and how they all built on each other. It is a fascinating history, especially for those of us who didn’t live through it.
Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
I find myself referencing this book more and more in articles I’m writing and in conversations. It not only gives the history of Pixar, which is fascinating but also gives a great look into the Pixar process and what they do to make such great movies.
Pixar is probably one of the most creative companies there is, and they’ve created an amazingly creative culture. As a product leader, I pull lessons from Pixar regularly as our teams need to also create amazing products and user experiences.
“Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on — but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.”
The Gods Themselves
This is another classic science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov. It again involves worlds intertwining, aliens, scientists, twists and turns. Earth seems to have found the answer to its energy problem, and almost no one wants to ask any questions.
“It is a mistake,” he said, “ to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort. We know that well enough from our experience in the environmental crisis of the twentieth century. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was a cigarette that did not cause cancer. When it became clear that the internal-combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, and the desired remedy was to develop non-polluting engines.”
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
I’m a sucker for Navy SEAL stories. I’ll admit it. They are just so badass. So you couple that with leadership principles and I’m all in.
Even if you’re not a diehard fan, this is a great book. The core message of extreme ownership is one that leaders need to take to heart. Anyone in a leadership position, formal or informal, needs to feel extreme ownership for their product and team to produce the best outcomes.
“Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame… the most fundamental and important truths at the heart of Extreme Ownership: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”
What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture
As I’ve been focused the latter part of this year on building a new product organization, I’ve been thinking a lot about team and culture. This book is an interesting look at various cultures and how they were built. From gangs to samurais to slave uprisings. I don’t know that you’ll get more eclectic examples than this book, but it makes for a good read and comes together nicely.
“Your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve problems every days. It’s how they behave when no one’s looking…Culture is a strategic investment in the company doing things the right way when you’re not looking.”
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
Leadership needs to take a systems thinking approach in our complex world. And that is what this book is about. Rather than try to control everything, leaders need to empower teams to make decisions. We need to push the authority and tools down to those closest to the decisions.
“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an ‘Eyes-On, Hands-Off’ enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”
Full list of books from 2019:
My personal musings on a variety of topics.