Moving beyond Agile

Andy Budd asks, Are we moving towards a post-Agile age?

Perhaps we’re moving towards a post-Agile world? A world that is informed by the spirit of Agile, but has much more flexibility and nuance built in.

This post-Agile world draws upon the best elements of Agile, while ditching the dogma. It also draws upon the best elements of Design Thinking and even — God forbid — the dreaded Waterfall process.

People working in a post-Agile way don’t care which canon an idea comes from, as long as it works. The post-Agile practitioner cherrypicks from the best tools available, rather than sticking with a rigid framework. Post-Agile is less of a philosophy and more of a toolkit that has been built up over years of practice.

This is certainly true for how our team works as well. We took the parts we like about Agile (like autonomous teams, flexible roadmaps, daily standups, small pieces of work), left out the parts we don’t like (like rigid sprints, long backlog grooming meetings), and then mixed in some spicy goodness from other methodologies (like deploying whenever a feature is ready). I’m sure strict Agile works for some teams — particularly in large organizations — but this approach works much better for us. It speeds us up and makes us all much happier human beings.

Product Management is, at its core, a multi-tasking role

Giff Constable writes about The difference between design and product management and makes this good point about the nature of the PM role:

A big difference is where they spend their time. You’ll hear me call design and engineering “deep dive” roles, while PM is a multi-tasking role, which is why it is relatively easier for PMs to assume more of a leadership role. Even though we work in very collaborative ways (“rough draft culture”) at Axial, both design and engineering require getting into a “flow state” on a problem. Design takes a lot of iteration and trial and error to get something right. PMs, on the other hand, are bouncing around a million tasks, from clarifying a user story, to managing communication inside and outside the organization, to doing whatever it takes to un-bottleneck the team, to all the things listed above.

This is one of the things that makes Product Management such a challenging role. It’s not just about switching tasks, it’s about developing the ability to switch focus really quickly as well. There is no time to meander from one task to the next. Once you switch to the next thing you have to be in it right away.

Facebook as political platform

This NYT report on the massive political news force Facebook has become is quite something. From John Herrman’s article Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine:

But truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news: cherry-picking and reconstituting the most effective tactics and tropes from activism, advocacy and journalism into a potent new mixture. This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.

This is the crux of the matter:

Such news exists primarily within users’ feeds, its authorship obscured, its provenance unclear, its veracity questionable. It exists so far outside the normal channels of news production and distribution that its claims will go unchallenged.

The perils of a lack of diversity in urban design

Diana Budds does some great reporting in How Urban Design Perpetuates Racial Inequality — And What We Can Do About It. It’s startling to see how deeply ingrained racism is in the way cities are designed. One of the most effective ways to change this? Diversity and immersion in the needs of users…

Justin Moore, an architecture professor at Columbia University, believes that while designers focus on creative solutions for urban problems, issues that are rarely broached are shortfalls within the profession, like diversity, a deep understanding of the communities in which they’re building, and the methodology of design education.

”There is a need to redesign the designers, and to give them the tools and competencies to work within social constructs and spatial contexts that they are meant to serve. Designers spend much of their academic and professional training to build the spatial, technical, communication, and critical-thinking skills that are needed to do the difficult work of transforming spaces and places. They use their skills, often with good intentions and ‘best practices,’ toward results that may not align with what is needed or wanted in a given context.

Focus on product instead of technology

Laurent-Pierre Baculard makes some great points in WhatsApp Grew to One Billion Users by Focusing on Product, Not Technology:

Examples such as WhatsApp demonstrate that real-world innovation, in many ways, looks like an assembly line. At one end is a customer pain point or a potential new market. At the other is a product or service that solves the problem or addresses the market in a way nobody has thought of before. In between, people sit down and force themselves to examine the problem from a variety of fresh angles. Sometimes they tap the lab and bring a radical new technology to bear. But much more often they reach for pieces of technology that already exist and assemble them with new (or old) capabilities to produce a solution that turns the pain point into a delighted customer. Think of it as high concept meets whatever is lying around — an unconventional combination.

The problem comes when we reach for technologies that seem “cool” but can’t actually be linked to any real customer problem.

Yes, after a long break I’m giving the blog another shot. Let’s see how it goes…

Product Managers are not “mini-CEOs”

I enjoyed answering some questions about prototyping and Product Management in startups from the nice folks at Justinmind recently. Among other things I got an opportunity to share my thoughts about a particular phrase we hear a lot about Product Managers, one that I think is quite dangerous for our profession…

What kind of challenges and opportunities face Product Managers in a software development context?

I think the Product Management role is still incredibly misunderstood (and misused). I’ve never liked the “We’re like mini-CEOs of the Product” thing you often hear. Any metaphor you come up with that implies a hierarchy (such as air traffic controller, shepherd) gives Product Managers an incorrect view of themselves as The Boss™, and serves only to alienate teams.

We might be the final decider on some issues, but it’s not because we’re “above” the team. It’s because our jobs are to know about user needs, business goals, technical needs, and how all of it comes together in a successful product. Our jobs are to listen to our teams in their various roles and make sure that everyone knows what they need to know. And then our jobs are to walk with the team in a direction that everyone understands and agrees on. It’s not “here are your requirements, see you on the other side of design!” We still see way too much of that in the industry.

Until we change that perception, which will require a change in attitude from us as product managers, we’ll continue to be viewed as obstructionists in many companies. Maybe the best metaphor to use is that we’re servants. Servants to our customers, our teams, and the product. That’s the opportunity we have to bring value.

You can read the full interview here.

Useful daily standup meetings for remote teams

As with many distributed teams our approach to tools at Wildbit is to try to strike a balance between making sure everyone on the team knows what’s going on, and not having hours of meetings every day. We are very serious about the ability to have a lot of time during the day for focused work, so we sometimes err on the side of not enough meetings. For this reason the team hasn’t done formal daily standups for a while, instead opting for a weekly meeting to do a roundtable of what everyone’s been working on, and what the plan is for the week.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. First and foremost, it doesn’t always feel like time well spent—we shouldn’t be spending an hour a week just talking about what we’re doing. That’s why we have planning tools1. Another side effect is that it’s harder to respond quickly when issues come up. If a team member is having a problem, or we didn’t realize before that two projects are related somehow, it could take up to a week to find out what the issues are. So we wanted something better. Something lightweight, useful, and more frequent.

We realized early on that synchronous standups wouldn’t work for us—we just work across too many time zones to find a convenient time, and it also doesn’t make sense to have a standup at the end of someone’s day. We also didn’t want this to be just an update for everyone else, we wanted to make it a useful planning tool for individual work as well.

So we started looking for Standup bots built for Slack, and of course there are tons of them. We ended up signing up for Geekbot because it met our most important criterium: it’s asynchronous. We set up Geekbot to ask each team member (product, design, engineering, and QA—we’re all in this…) a set of questions at 9am in their time zone. This means each team member can use these questions to be thoughtful about their day and what they want to accomplish.

In order to make this more useful for us we also changed the questions a little bit. Usually the first question in a standup is “What did you accomplish yesterday?” This didn’t feel right to us—it felt too much like checking up on each other. Instead, we ask the question this way:

Did you work on what you wanted to yesterday? If not, what happened?

This might seems like a subtle change, but it shifts the focus quite a bit. Instead of listing out the things we did, this question allows us to tell each other if something happened that distracted us from the work we wanted to do, which helps us solve those issues as well. So here’s what our Geekbot setup looks like:

Geekbot settings

Every time someone answers these 3 questions, Geekbot posts a status in our #pm-standup team room in Slack, where we can all read through it on our own time.

There is, of course, nothing groundbreaking about what we’re doing here. But I wanted to write up our process because I know there are many distributed teams who struggle with this. The issue is always the same: How do we have standups that are useful and that don’t feel like busywork that just takes us away from the jobs we’re supposed to be doing? By using an asynchronous bot and adapting the questions to our needs, we accomplished a few important things:

  • Every member on the team takes a few minutes every morning to plan out their day, and troubleshoot anything that might have gone wrong the previous day.
  • Instead of weekly meetings of an hour long where we discuss what everyone’s working on, we now have focused 30-minute meetings every Monday where we solve problems and discuss issues that came up during the week (I keep an agenda as we progress through the week).
  • I am much more equipped to fulfill my role as Product Manager because our updates are more frequent and the signal to noise ratio is extremely high.

So even if your remote team is against the idea of a standup, I recommend you try something like this. Don’t just do what we did though. Choose your own questions, your own cadence, maybe even your own tool. But do something—start with the question “How can we make frequent checkins useful?” and see what the team comes up with.

  1. I have a whole other post planned about using Jira in small teams… 

Best board games for young kids (that are fun for adults as well)

Updated: October 17, 2016

Over the weekend my 6-year old daughter was playing with a pretend wand, doing what every 6-year old is supposed to do to her dad: make him do silly things. She would touch me with the wand and go, “Jump like a frog!” or “Walk around in circles!” And of course, I performed these actions in a crowded park without shame or reservations, because these are the things we do for our kids.

I even added a twist to the game. After performing each action (and once her laughter died down) I would say “Oh, that wand doesn’t work on me, it’s not making me do anything.” Her first few attempts to convince me (“See? You just jumped on one leg!”) failed, so she changed her strategy. She got quiet for a minute, clearly thinking through the problem of how she would get me to admit that she’s making me do stupid things. Then she looked up, touched me with the wand, and said, “Realize that the wand is working on you.” And that was it. How could I continue my ruse without breaking the core internal rules of the game? I relented.

Now, forgive my bias, but that’s a bloody brilliant solution to the problem. It’s a level of meta-thinking that I didn’t think a 6-year old would be capable of. But there she was, foiling my master plan to derive at least some enjoyment from the humiliation she was so gleefully putting me through. I readily admit that in this particular instance I got solidly beaten.

I mention this because there’s something else we’ve been doing a lot of recently, and that’s playing board games together. We started simple (i.e. boring for adults), but very soon moved on to more complicated games, and I think I’m now more excited than she is about our daily play sessions. And I have a feeling it’s changing the way she thinks. I’m pretty sure board games are teaching her how to think ahead, solve problems, and weigh the longer-term consequences of her actions. And maybe—I have to retain some dignity here, ok?—maybe that’s why she was able to beat me so cleverly in the wand game.

So with that pre-amble, I wanted to write down a short list of the games that we’ve enjoyed and play all the time, in case there are any other parents who would like to try this with their kids. We are having so much fun with this, so I highly recommend you give it a shot.

Let’s start simple and move on to the more complicated stuff…

Hisss Game

Hisss is the game we play when our 3-year old insists on playing along. It’s a dead simple color and pattern matching game, but still a lot of fun.

Tsuro Game

Tsuro is a game we found and tried in the game room at the absolutely wonderful Game Masters exhibition at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It’s quick to set up and easy to play, but it lays a good foundation for thinking ahead and considering how actions that affect you might affect others as well.

Taxi Wildlife

Taxi Wildlife is fun because it’s a very tactile game. The core gameplay requires you to stick your hand in a bag and feel around for the shapes of different animals. It’s a great way to learn about the importance of different senses.

Lanterns Game

Lanterns is where things start to get serious (i.e. really fun for adults). It’s a game that combines a simple pattern matching mechanic with building up enough resources to “buy” the points you need to win the game. We’re spending a lot of time with this one at the moment.

Lotus Game

Lotus is made by the same studio as Lanterns, and it’s just as fun and beautiful. The artwork really is spectacular on this one. I’m not exaggerating when I say that as you build these flowers, it feels like the table you’re playing on is starting to bloom. The rules are less complicated than Lanterns, and it’s a fairly quick game, so it’s a great way to calm the kids down before dinner…

King of Tokyo

King of Tokyo is probably our favorite right now. We tried this out at the unbelievable Guardian Games store here in Portland. When we started I was nervous—the game takes a little while to learn. But once you get it, it goes fast and it’s a lot of fun. I think my daughter loves it because of all the decisions that are required. You roll 6 dice on a turn, and then you have to decide which to keep and which to “reroll” (you get 2 rerolls per turn). The game might seem cartoony, but don’t be fooled—this is a serious game that’s somehow still enjoyable by all ages.

Ticket to Ride

Well, I guess no game overview would be complete without Ticket to Ride. My daughter is obsessed with this one. In addition to the fun and tactile gameplay, it also teaches strategy in a simple way (I’ve already been able to use the phrase “play the long game” in multiple parenting situations…). I haven’t gotten any of the expansions yet, but I hear the 1910 expansion in particular is a very good one.

Splendor Game

And finally, we get to Splendor. Ah, what to say about Splendor. This game was a gift from Rich Mulholland, who came to stay with us for a couple of days on a trip to Portland a few months back. Rich is an obsessed board game geek, and he could see I was a curious newbie, having never played anything beyond Monopoly. So of course he took me under his wing. He taught my wife and I how to play Splendor, and then I took it around to a bunch of friends and got them addicted as well. For a while my daughter asked me to show her how to play it, but I held back, not wanting her to get frustrated—this is a pretty complicated game that I thought wasn’t really suitable for kids.

Well, what do you know. She got it on the first try, and beat me in the second round. It was very hard for me to not just go lie down and sulk for the rest of the day. Being caught between pride in my daughter and embarrassment in my own skills is not a good look on me.

Getting beaten at Splendor

So those are the games we’ve tried and liked. I wanted to pass them on to you, just as Rich passed his favorites on to us and started what I’m sure will be a life-long connection between my daughters and I. Thank you, Rich. What a wonderful thing, to gift someone with a new passion.

Old music, new music, and our not-so-new fear of technology

I get these weird obsessions sometimes—a thing that starts small in my head until it becomes all-consuming for weeks on end. Maybe you can relate? Anyway, my current obsession is centered around jazz, and how much we can learn from it about technology, how we listen to music, and yes, even design.

If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I just finished reading How to Listen to Jazz, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. I shared screen shots of some of my favorite sections from the book here, but suffice to say it is about so much more than jazz, and I highly recommend it not just for music lovers, but for anyone who works in a creative role.

Right on cue, as so often happens on the internet, I came across Ken Norton’s excellent post Please Make Yourself Uncomfortable, about some of the leadership lessons we can learn from great jazz records (especially the all-time best one, Kind of Blue):

Miles, Ella, and Duke were adept at guiding their bands into the optimal anxiety zone, making them restless and opening up a space where they could create masterpieces. Such talent is also needed in product management. So much of what we’ve learned, our instincts, are to do the complete opposite. We’re told to minimize risk, communicate a clear plan, and document every step. As product managers, our most important job is to help our teams find the place of optimal discomfort—the goldilocks zone of ambiguity and uncertainty.

The same day I read Gretta Harley’s The Slow Listening Revolution, about why she still has a vinyl collection:

Why vinyl? Commitment. In this mid-second decade of the 21st century, music is being taken for granted on a collective scale. An entire generation of music listeners will never pay for music, nor do they believe that they should. The long form music medium has taken a back seat to song culture, yet the average person only listens to a song for approximately 24 seconds before deciding if it’s worth their time to continue to listen. I ponder the substantive value of something that our capitalistic, corporate-model culture places on “free.” When we can listen to a whole song, or usually only 24 seconds of a song without paying for it, do we really value the music? I wonder if we listeners are as committed to music as we were pre-internet? I really like the internet, so these words are in no way a complaint or indictment, but merely observation.

All of this—jazz, new music, old habits—came together as I picked up Dire Straits’s 1985 CD Brothers In Arms, which in some versions had this cover:

It used to be that proclaiming “A FULL DIGITAL RECORDING” was a selling point. Now, the first thing I look for when I buy an album is the phrase Mastered from the original master tapes, a sure sign of its 100% no-digital, analog-only experience.

Or, wait, maybe we’re just being anti-technology in our criticisms of digital music? There has always been a reluctance to adopt new things—a longing for the past and how things used to be. Clive Thompson gives us another example of this historical skepticism in That cursed newfangled technology, “electric lights”:

Robert Louis Stevenson penned “A Plea for Gas Lamps” in 1878, hoping to dissuade London’s authorities from installing obnoxious electric streetlamps like those in Paris. “A new sort of urban star now shines at night,” he wrote, “horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare!”

So I don’t think we’ll solve this particular “which one is better” musical argument any time soon. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that it’s not a new argument, so we should just roll with it. And rock with it1.

  1. Sorry, that’s a really bad joke. I’ll see myself out. 

How to make a product roadmap in 4 days

I just published a big post on our company blog about how we came up with our priorities and roadmap for Postmark for the next few months. From the intro to How we built a product vision and roadmap:

So, armed with some whiteboard markers, a mountain of sticky notes, and one very enthusiastic team, we set off to plan out the next few months of our product. In this post I’d like to give an overview of what we did, why we did it, and how it’s going to help us (and our Postmark customers!) in the coming months.

This one took a while to write and edit, and there’s some nice illustrations as well as downloadable templates, so take a look!


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