Our son (coming up on age 6) has always seemed to speak our daughter's language (she recently turned 4). It has been an adorable thing to watch as a father as they've grown up together.
Even when it has been pretty incoherent babble to our adult ears, our son has seemed to understand fairly well what his little sister was saying. Often my wife and I would struggle to interpret some of the
requests of our daughter as she learned to speak. As we'd focus really hard on what she was saying, we'd try and repeat back what we heard only to completely miss the mark. Nonsense things like "you want bow tie gains?" Only to have our son sigh at us exasperatedly and say, "No, she wants a bowl of Teddy Grahams." Of course, Teddy Grahams.
Recently, I got to watch as our son took this concept to the next level.
Both of our kids love to create artwork of every kind. No piece of paper or Amazon box is safe in our house as everything gets quickly claimed for either an invention or artwork.
In this case, our daughter clearly had a vision for something she wanted to create but was struggling with some of the pieces. She threw down the cardboard. “It won’t stick!” she screamed.
Our son asked her what she wanted. “I want it to stick!” she replied.
A common response in our house to this might be to use more tape, or to ask to borrow the “sticky tape”, which is the packaging tape my wife and I use for our Etsy shop packages. But in this case, he kept digging in a bit more because it wasn’t clear at that point what our daughter wanted to do. Some of her artwork is, after all, quite modern in its aesthetic and often turns out to be a giant ball of paper and tape and cardboard.
So our son asked our daughter to show him what she had in mind. “I want it to look like this,” she said as she held up one of the pieces of cardboard. “Oh,” our son replied, “kind of like a wing?”
“Yes!” was her reply. “I want it to be an airplane. And I want it to stick here and here. And I want to some more cardboard here.”
Our son was able to get to the heart of what our daughter was trying to do. It wasn’t just about taping pieces of cardboard together like what it seemed initially. Or even taping cardboard to a box. It was really about creating an airplane that they could take turns “flying” in around the kitchen.
It’s easy, especially as product teams (whether product managers or designers or developers) to jump into problems and try and solve them. Sometimes it may seem like all we may need is some stronger tape to hold the cardboard together. Or more tape in certain spots.
Those tend to be the easier or clearer solutions. Users are having problems, and we can solve them through certain new features. But if we don’t take the time to really dig into the problem, we’ll likely miss the real issue.
In one of the products I worked on in the past, there was a tendency to add lots of “tape to the cardboard”. If you are familiar with Salesforce, you may be familiar with this scenario. If you are not familiar, Salesforce is a pretty powerful client relationship management tool. We were using it to manage clients, including interactions both inbound and outbound. That included calls, emails, chats, etc. If a user called in, for example, the reason for that call was selected from a list of possible options and then these reasons could be narrowed more specifically as needed by the customer service agent on the call.
The data from Salesforce was utilized to understand problem areas within our products as well within our customer service, so it was constantly being monitored by a lot of people. And a lot of eyes on it meant a lot of people wanting to make changes. Managers would request features such as additional fields or dropdowns within their forms in order to better classify data. This may have seemed like the right option initially, but it was often missing the bigger picture. When too many changes were made, the quality of the previous data became useless. And at an even higher level, the overall hierarchy of the data wasn’t good, so continually adding more options wasn’t going to help. In fact, it was only going to exacerbate the problem and cause future problems down the road.
Fortunately, we spoke the language of our customer service team. Whenever we heard that we needed additional fields or there was a request for a “small tweak”, we knew it was time to dig into something. We needed to really get to the heart of the issue — understanding the need to appropriately group and classify data — in order to get to the right solution. This was definitely not the easy solution. It wasn’t simply adding more tape to make things stick better. Ultimately it led to reworking the architecture of Salesforce and reimplementing different parts. It took a lot more time and effort than simply adding fields. But it was the right solution and the right thing to do.
The best way to do this is to learn, over time, to speak our user’s language. For my son, this has come from a lifetime of understanding my daughter. For the rest of us, we have to really take the time to develop an understanding of our users. So that when they say “this won’t stick” we can have the ability to not only to understand the meaning behind the frustration, but to also dig into the problem in the right way in order to get to the right solution.
Years ago I worked as a consultant to small businesses seeking funding. Most of the companies and individuals I worked with were looking for business loans, but a few were also seeking equity investments primarily from angel investors.
Among other things, I helped them prep their company information for loan applications as well as their pitch decks for investors when needed. As part of this, we always created a business plan. This included information like market size, strategy, competition, etc.
But here’s the funny little secret. Very few people, especially anyone at a bank, would ever look at the business plan. I should know. Prior to working in my consultant role, I had worked at a bank in the small business loan department. I can tell you that a business plan was a required document for every applicant, but I may have been the only person there who ever looked at them, and it was mostly out of curiosity rather than necessity. No one ever read these business plans.
So if no one was ever going to read these documents, why even ask for them? I’m sure plenty of business owners would have asked the same question.
But in my time working with businesses both at a bank and as a consultant, I’d say that the single best thing they could do would be to write out, fairly extensively, their business plans. Even if no one read it.
The ability to articulate an idea, especially in long-form writing, is one of the best exercises there is. Whether it is a plan for a new company, a business case at your job, or how to lose weight successfully, writing out your ideas creates a deeper understanding and a deeper reality to them.
Writing is Thinking
One of the most popular posts I’ve written, Product Thinking vs. Project Thinking, came out of the need I had to really think through a problem.
At that point, things at my job had come to a head. Every meeting was a battle and I was feeling pretty beaten up and bruised. But I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. It felt like all sides involved were at odds and looking at the problems we were having in opposite ways.
I wanted to really get to the root of the issues. So I sat down to write. This writing was all about me thinking through the problem and trying to get to the heart of the issue. And I did. I realized that the mindset of each side was completely different. We were constantly battling because we really were looking at the problem in opposing ways.
After writing and refining this post, I finally had clarity about the issues we were facing and some ideas about how to resolve them. It was one of the biggest “aha” moments (and reliefs) I’ve had professionally.
Writing about a topic means really thinking about it. And not just superficially, because all of us can tell within a few sentences if someone is bullshitting. Hopefully you can tell that about yourself even quicker. To write something out helps to drive thinking about the topic.
I’ve continued to use writing as a way to think more deeply about topics. Even if a post or article or paragraph never gets shared, it is a way for me to think much more deeply, and drive the next phase of writing: understanding.
Writing is Understanding
If you can’t concisely and clearly write about a topic, you don’t understand it.
A long while ago I embraced the idea of writing at work. It is one thing to have a nice presentation that you can speak to, it is another thing to write out a proposal or business case in a way that clearly articulates the value and reasoning.
Jeff Bezos has popularized this idea and it is core to Amazon’s culture now. PowerPoint presentations were long ago banned, and all meetings are accompanied by 6-page memos.
I’ve worked with several former Amazon executives, and I can attest to how ingrained this practice is. I can also attest to how much a fan I am.
In a previous role, I had the idea for a completely new product that would take the company into a new line of business. We had experimented with it at a tiny scale, but my idea was to go all-in and create what could potentially become the largest business in the industry for this particular segment. It was a big ask and a big commitment.
As part of my pitch, I created a “future press release” as well as a 6-page document outlining the details of the proposal and opportunity. It was a massive undertaking because I came to realize that I didn’t fully understand the existing market as well as I had thought. As I wrote about the current state and competitors, I quickly saw that I needed to dive deeper and get a much better understanding.
Fortunately the research I did and the document I prepared opened the door for all of this. I presented everything to our company’s executive team. We reviewed my document (by reading it all together in a meeting, Amazon style), and then had a very good discussion. Not only was the executive team open to the opportunity, but it spurred the creation of a new process and team to help with analysis of these opportunities so that we could more easily pursue them in the future.
The future press release — where you think about how you will announce your new initiative or feature when it is launched — is a great tool to ensure you understand what you’re doing and why. Marty Cagan, in his book Inspired, also proposes a future customer letter as another option. Both are great. The key is to look into the future and write about it.
Another great tool for writing in order to understand is what I call a “Feynman Notebook” where I take random topics and write about them. The idea for this comes from Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who was a master at taking very complex ideas and explaining them in a way that anyone could understand. In my Feynman notebook, I simply take a topic that I want to learn more about and start to make notes. I then work to explain and clarify it until it is at the point that I think I could successfully explain it to one of my kids. It is a difficult yet exciting exercise. And an early work in progress for me.
By writing things out, whether business cases or press releases or notes about quantum mechanics, we can truly start to understand the topic as well as the reason it matters.
Writing is Teaching/Sharing
One of the great things about writing is how easily it can be shared with others. And by sharing your writing, you can share your learning and help others understand new topics or think about things in a different way.
Sharing My Fitness Experience
I’m not a fitness fanatic by any stretch. But I’ve been very successful over the past while at getting into much better shape than I have been in the past decade. Because of that, I wanted to share some of my experience. In particular, there was someone close to me that wanted to understand what I did to reach some of my goals.
So I wrote it all down and shared it here.
Frankly, it was far more personal of a post than I usually do. I don’t like talking about that sort of thing. But I had found success, at least what worked for me, and it felt like I should share that in case anyone else might find it useful. Part of going through the writing process, as described above, was for me to actually understand what I did as well. I’ve tried a lot of things, so writing about it ensured that I could actually articulate and understand what it was that I did and how I did it. Then I could share and teach someone else.
Writing can also be an excellent way to achieve shared understanding when done correctly.
As I’ve written out various articles and posts, I’ve had the chance to share them with others. The great thing about clarifying my thoughts in writing is that it then allows others to see them much more clearly as well. So when I’ve shared a post, other people can really get a good picture of what I mean.
That helps in creating shared understanding. Because people who’ve read my writing have then been able to give their feedback, both in writing and in conversation, that has been much deeper than we may have otherwise gotten too.
For example, as I’ve shared some of these posts with my wife, we’ve often had the conversation where she says something like “I understand what you’re saying about XYZ, but have you considered ABC? I tend to like ABC because it has worked for me in this other context.” She understands where I’m coming from because I’ve articulated it, and then I can better understand her perspective without getting defensive or jumping to incorrect conclusions. Shared understanding.
This is part of the reason why using documents in meetings can be so powerful. Not only does the writing have to be thorough and well thought out, but it allows everyone to get to a shared understanding and then have meaningful conversations quicker than may have otherwise been possible.
I have long had a love of writing. But you don’t need to be passionate about writing in order to reap the benefits. Whether it is simply an idea you need to flesh out or a story you want to remember, writing it down will help you not only clarify your own thoughts and ensure that you understand it, but will allow you to share it with others when the time comes. So pick your favorite way of writing, whether a pen and paper or a computer, and start writing out your ideas and stories. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll clarify your own thinking and help others as well.
My personal musings on a variety of topics.