How Product Managers Can Take the Bias out of Brainstorming

Product Managers are skilled at integrating complex feedback into a cohesive strategy.   Corralling diverse opinions in a crowded conference room is a real-time integration challenge.

Successful teams have strong personalities -- when brainstorming, these personalities can become caricatures:  the naysayer, the vulcan fact-checker, the polyanna, the emotional chest-pounder, etc.  Bias squelches creativity.   Good ideas, cloaked in emotion, may never see the light. 

One way to take bias out of brainstorming is a methodical approach.   There are many structured brainstorming processes designed for long, complex product development cycles, but small processes and small companies can get bogged down with all the details.   

Six_hats An approach that's worked for me over the years is the one of "thinking hats" where everyone on the team has to take on different roles (or "hats") to think through the situation from multiple angles.   The red hat is the emotional hat, the black hat is the devil's advocate, the white hat is fact-based, the yellow hat is the sunny optimist, the green is the creative hat and the blue hat is the integrator that brings them all together.   The method is 40+ years old, but it still feels fresh.  0140296662_01__sclzzzzzzz_aa240__2 The book is short, once you skip the overly congratulatory introduction by the author.  Add a Post-it Note easel pad, place the six points of view around your conference room, and make everyone try each role at least once -- you'll have a more balanced view of your situation -- and a better end product as a result.   

Who wants to be labeled "doom & gloom naysayer" or "naive optimist" anyhow?

Born to Build: The Joy of Learning Through Trial and Error

We are all born to build things, in one way or another.  For some of us, it’s being unable to pass a set of Legos without fiddling with the blocks, or being unable to resist the urge to throw just one more spice into the soup. 

For me, it’s making art, even if it’s a cruddy watercolor I painted on the beach while watching the kids or a surreptitious sketch of a stranger at Starbucks while waiting for a client to show up.  As a formally-trained fine artist, I have to chuckle that my most prolific medium these days is PowerPoint.  As much as I love to write stories in .ppt format, it’s not nearly enough to satisfy the craving.

Madebyhand Mark Frauenfelder’s book Made by Hand confirms my suspicion.  Building tangible things fulfills a primal need:  learning by making our own mistakes.   

Kids do it every day because they lack the fear of failure.  How freeing to be able to make missteps as an adult, learning (and hopefully laughing!) along the way..

Note:  in the midst of drafting this post, I was forced to put the principles of the book in action. My laptop OS died a miserable death and I had to reformat my primary drive and rebuild it from scratch.  

It wasn’t my definition of a good time, but it could have been a lot worse, and in the process, I rediscovered my inner geek, the one who used to rollback to DOS 2.1 when a DOS 3.0 install didn’t take, and lamented the day my command line went away.

It was a great feeling to switch from automatic to manual, and to feel as if I was fully capable of controlling my own computing destiny (after a litany of missteps, of course).  The only difference between these days and my DOS days is that it would have been impossible to do the installs & updates without using my backup laptop alongside to pull up online documentation, Microsoft tech notes and support threads...

The Mashup of Consumerism in Developing Markets

India sketchbook1 copy
Sketching the scenery of south India from a moving vehicle, I was forced to take it all in and put it down on paper as fast as I could.  Indians are absorbing consumer culture just as quickly, and adding the best of the "new world" while retaining the uniqueness of a 4000+ year old culture.

I passed by a Pizza Hut next to actual "huts", villages with intermittent electricity, bullock carts and bustling Internet cafes where farmers were trading commodities while students were doing their homework.  Fresh sugarcane juice was being squeezed with a sturdy device that looked like an improvised clothes wringer with a flywheel.  Next to the sugarcane stall were signs for Java programming, SAT and MCAST preperation classes.

A book that I picked up at Bengaluru airport, We Are Like That Only,(Winning in the Indian Market  is the U.S. edition) by Rama Bijapurkar  sheds light on the consumer mashup in modern India.  Generalizing a market of a billion people and their demand for consumer goods based on per capita income, past behavior and population growth would be short-sighted.  Indians don't want to emulate the west, they want to adopt western goods and services in their own way.

Surprise! Checklists are not the Antithesis of Creativity (or Progress)

As an "idea person", I'm somewhat averse to checklists (except maybe for the pre-flight packing checklists from TravelSmith). After reading Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto, however, I'm starting to think that Checklists may be for both thinkers and doers.

A practiced surgeon, Gawande has proven that checklists in the operating room save lives. He has observed how other professions benefit from this approach, and has brought back field notes from multiple markets, including the aviation industry, the source of the safety checklist.
Checklist manifesto

Putting a process in place to manage the details can facilitate teamwork with an "ensemble cast" of players. The "Miracle on the Hudson" story of US Airways Flight 1549 last January was more than covered by the media. Gawande, however, walks through little known details. The pilot and co-pilot had never worked together before, and the rudimentary pre-flight checklists enabled them to discuss their respective skill sets, meet with the crew and smoothly handle the baton pass when things went awry. I walked through this section of the book with a team of 6th graders prior to their Destination Imagination tournament on Saturday. They were tired after six hours of tournament day, but they found the story fresh and relevant.

I misplace ideas regularly, many of them lost forever on errant sticky notes. I'm planning to take more notes in "checklist form" to make sure they're put to better use.