Find your “spike” and make it Olympian

“What are your strengths and weaknesses?” It’s a bit of a joke now, but remember when that used to be the interview question that everyone prepared for? The responses were always predictable “I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist”. Of course you crafted something to try and make your weaknesses sound positive – people were rarely totally honest, so the general conclusion was that there was little point in asking it anymore.

Your weaknesses are your lion, don’t try to kill them – tame them.

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Thinking about our weaknesses has become reactive, in response to appraisals, feedback or outright criticism, rather than a conscious exercise in seeking them out and analysing them by choice. When looked at in the context of feedback and criticism the weakness is often put on the table with a strong undercurrent message of “let’s not see this again” so the plan becomes to just get rid of it as soon as possible. But thinking about your weaknesses is an extremely useful exercise which will almost certainly lead you to your strengths. I found this out years ago when I was in the middle of a process where we were focussing intently on our weaknesses and pulling ourselves and each other apart so much that I completely lost sight of my strengths in all the wreckage. At the end of this exercise I had all these pieces and no idea how to put them back together into a person who wasn’t a complete walking calamity.

At this point I got some advice advice that I will never forget, which was “find your spike, and make it Olympian”. In other words, forget your flaws for a second, you can round them off later, but focus now on finding that thing you are naturally good at without really trying, that thing you are just better than most people at – find it and focus on making it the best it possibly can be, make it world class. The only problem with that advice was that they didn’t tell me how to find my strengths. We have been so conditioned to focus on our weaknesses that we can forget all about sharpening our strengths. At the very least we ignore them with the attitude “my strengths are my strengths so don’t need as much work as my weaknesses”. But actually what I found out in the process that I went through next was my weaknesses are my strengths – and so are yours. Sometimes the reason we find it so hard to see our strengths is because they are also our weaknesses. I’ll admit that that realisation blew my mind more than a little. 

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I will demonstrate using my own weaknesses as an example – here is the list that was arrived at at that session in my 20s:

Quick to act – needs to stand back and think, impatient, blunt / too direct, takes work too personally, high expectations, makes too many jokes / too happy / smiles & laughs too much, needs to use silence (know when to stop talking), too self deprecating, too open (needs to not play all her cards up front), never satisfied / always looking for the next thing.

Through discovering my weaknesses, facing them head on and looking at the impact they have on other people and their perceptions of me, I learnt how to control them. Most importantly I learnt how I could use them – because I later realised that all those weaknesses are just the flip side of my Olympian spike. 

Quick to act – I work best by doing, which means I am excellent at getting stuck into complex stuff quickly. Impatient – if I want to do something I get on with it immediately. I get stuff done. Blunt / too direct – I give clear direction. I don’t leave people confused as to what I think or what I expect. Too open – People know the real me with no need to wonder about double meanings – there are none. Takes work too personally – Everything I do is a reflection of me, therefore I always do my best work. Makes too many jokes, too happy / laughs too much – I put people at ease and use humour to lighten the mood, get people to relax and be more open. Needs to use silence (know when to stop talking) / too self deprecating honest, personable, relatable, self-aware. Never satisfied, always looking for the next thing – driven, ambitious, always improving, lots of ideas.

That’s how I found my spike – by looking at my flaws. I’m a positive, optimistic driving force for achievement. I put people at ease and bring teams together with humour, trust and openness. I create compelling, ambitious visions and inspire teams to come with me to achieve them. I’m great at quickly getting to the nugget of a lot of complex information, prioritising, and decisively leading teams to take action. I laugh a lot, forgive easily, praise readily and I’m always coming up with ideas for change and improvement.

Your weaknesses are what make you great, use them to find your spike, and then make your spike Olympian.

I still have all of those weaknesses. They’ll always be my “flaws” because they are parts of my core personality – and because they are also the flip side of my spike, I’m not ashamed of a single one of them. I don’t want to “get rid of them” I want to manage them and balance them. Loving your weaknesses is about appreciating them for what they are; the flip sides of your strengths. By being actively and acutely aware of them, you learn how to keep them in check so that the strength, rather than the weakness is the thing that shines through.

There’s an added bonus of this exercise – once you’ve recognised, made your peace with and even learned to love your weaknesses (because they are also your strengths) then no matter what feedback you get – it won’t get to you, it will simply help you to hone your spike. I welcome all the feedback I get – it’s always good to see how well (or not) you are managing the flip sides of your spike. I’m always working on balancing my flaws and sharpening my spike – it’s a never ending work in progress.

Stop saying “I fail to see the problem”. Why gender stereotyping is about so much more than pink and blue. 

I’m a woman in Technology and after realising that the vast vast majority of CVs I receive are from males, I started investigating the problem. It went all the way back to kids.
I started working with a school so that I could try to understand, first hand what was blocking the flow of girls into Tech and what I found out highlighted that we need to be noticing and acting on gender stereotyping messages from the day our children are born. We need to be noticing and acting on it from all angles – school, media and at home as their parents. What we don’t need to be doing is continuing to “fail to see the problem”.

Some of the girls I was working with thought technology “is for boys” because “they are good at computers”.  One extremely bright girl who’d been picked out to work with me because she excelled at maths and computing, said she’d rather be an interior designer because Technology “looked boring”.

So I followed the trail and you know, she was right. Just Google Jobs in Technology to see for yourself.

I have worked in Technology for almost 15 years and images like this even make me want to re-train. Notice the predominant colour on most of those images? Do they remind you of anything? It’s these very subtle, but very real messages that girls and boys are getting from quite literally the day they are born.

Imagine you’d only ever worn orange clothes, you slept in an orange bedroom with pictures of oranges on the walls. You played with orange toys and most of the books you read were orange. You might start to wonder if all this was normal – but then you went to school and all the other people like you had orange bedrooms and played with orange toys too. They all had orange parties where they did the same orangey things you did at your party. You went to the toy shop and wondered how you’d choose a toy – you needn’t have worried because at the toy shop all the orange toys and all the green toys were all separated out neatly – and all the orange toys had pictures of people just like you on them! All wearing orange. You didn’t even have to go down the green aisle.

At school someone offered you something green that looked really cool…but the rest of the people like you said that you were an orange so you shouldn’t play with that because look – in the toy shop – that person is not like you! That toy isn’t for you. Look there – that one is for you. The one with the orange person on it.

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Many years went by where you learned from TV, movies, books, magazines, your friends and even your parents how orange people were supposed to behave, what they should do and think, how they should act. Even your nickname was “orange”.

You wanted to be a proper orange so you behaved like a proper orange, just like they said. In fact even some of your clothes reminded you what oranges were supposed to be like, in case you forgot.

When you grew up you needed a job and looked around. Some jobs were on TV and only being done by green people so you knew you definitely wouldn’t want to do those. Some jobs looked pretty cool but when you looked at the careers fliers, even the fliers were green or were full of pictures of green people – so you knew that those jobs were not for you either. You know how to tell – just look at the picture – like you’ve always been taught – look at the people on the advert! That’s for a green person. Read the words in the job description – those are green words. You should know this by now- it’s been almost 20 years, come on, here are your jobs – over here. Jobs for orange people just like you.

Didn’t that sound like an insane story? Did you read this as though the orange person was a male or a female? Read it again as the other gender and substitute orange for pink or blue. You’re right, it is an insane story. But the thing that’s insane about it is that it’s happening right now in real life, over and over again. These images are current and if you think I have just chosen ones that support my point then please, I urge you to go and check for yourself. This insane play is being enacted in houses, schools, shops and companies all over the western world, right now. You might even be acting it out yourself.

So that’s what came from my tracing the root cause of the my pipeline issue in Technology.

But it’s much more sinister than me not having enough females applying for jobs. It’s also the cause of the low self esteem and low confidence in girls because of how they are repeatedly told how they are “supposed to be” everywhere they turn. And that low confidence and low self esteem coupled with the primary carer status of women when they become mothers, leads to a huge gender pay gap (on average male managers earn £12,000 more than female managers) and only a quarter of boardrooms having any women in them at all, let alone a 50/50 split. The CEO status of women paints an even bleaker picture. Do you see the problem now?

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Chronic gender stereotyping is also the root cause of an extreme reluctance for men to share their feelings and seek help. And that’s results in a three times higher rate of suicide in men than women. In fact the number 1 recommendation suggested by the Samaritans is to address the gender inequalities in relation to suicide risk. Is that a problem worth recognising?

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The thing that’s propagating the gender pay gap, the inequality in boardrooms, the persistently high suicide rate in men is not dolls or dinosaurs or blue or pink. The problem is the sheer dismissal of the problem. A complete refusal to look a bit further into the future and see the same story repeating itself year after year, decade after decade.

It is comments like this all over social media “my kids play with dolls AND dinosaurs, I don’t see the problem”.

I don’t see the problem. I fail to see the problem.

The problem is only 21% women in STEM. It has barely changed since the 1970s.

The problem is that the boardrooms of the companies who write the job descriptions and take the pictures and make the movies and TV shows and publish the books and decide who to put on the packages and what colour to make them and what to put on the tshirts…are not at all reflective of the world we live in.

The problem is 3x higher suicide rate in men.

Don’t fail to see the problem. See the problem and act on it.

And acting on it doesn’t mean dressing your kids in hessian sacks and calling them Quinoa and Zort and making them play with only primary coloured blocks. Don’t resort to ridiculous comments like that to get a cheap laugh and a few likes.

Act on it by noticing. Just notice what your children are watching, and wearing and reading. Notice the messages they’re picking up. And notice whether you are OK with them. If you’re not OK with them, do something. Talk to your kids, change the channel, walk past the toy, don’t buy the t-shirt. That’s all you have to do.

Sometimes small steps aren’t enough and I think the furore in the media about some brands “going too far” in either direction is just what we needed to start the conversation. It worked, we’re all talking about it!

I guarantee that this media flurry will result in parents talking to their kids about gender stereotypes, even if it’s only “just because you wear pink doesn’t mean you can’t do anything you like my girl, ok?” And “just because you like guns and lego doesn’t mean you can’t cry or talk about your feelings son, you know that don’t you?”

And that, I believe, is the perfect outcome.

Join the conversation in our Facbook Group Parents for gender equality 

If your product team is revolting…

I like troubleshooting, so a product team that is staging a revolt is my jam. But fixing a team requires everyone’s cooperation. If the product team you work with is “broken” – maybe it’s within your gift to fix it.

I’ll share a few gripes I’ve encountered over the years and be deliberately simplistic in the fixes for them in the hope of inspiring some discussion around a topic that’s close to my heart.

“My stakeholders are constantly asking for things so I don’t have any room in the sprints to do what I want to do!”  

What a product manager wants and what the stakeholders want should be the same thing – a high performing, great quality product with tons of evangelist customers. This gripe is symptomatic of poor product hygiene, unclear product vision and poor communication.

Are the stakeholders asking for customer facing features? The product vision and purpose isn’t clear, or isn’t big enough. A product vision should be created in a way that makes stakeholders feel excited, engaged and accountable for the product’s success (or failure). This doesn’t mean design by committee, it means agreeing the core purpose of a product as a working group so you can go forward together with a common goal. Whether creating the vision and agreeing the purpose is done together or lead by the product manager and the detail collaborated on later, core agreement should always be sought.  There should be agreement on the role of the product within the business, the target customer base you want your product to delight, and the measures you will use to track your product’s success. If the stakeholders tasked with making the product a success have not reached agreement, then success will never be achieved. There is little point proceeding until this is done.

Are the stakeholders asking for bug fixes? Complaining they can’t do their work properly? Is there a huge backlog of issues? This is a hygiene issue and should be relatively easy to diagnose and you should plan to fix it as a priority. If it’s a ton of bugs then hold a bug sprint or 3. Depending on the spirit of the team, you can make bug sprints really fun, make it a competition between teams, or if the vibe isn’t right for fun then you can just get on with it. If the hygiene issue is more serious, for example, a back end or platform that’s not fit for purpose, then you should budget time and money to fix this in the next cycle. Make an issue like this your absolute priority to fix. Hygiene is the most basic of needs – ignore this and expect trouble.

If the product manager is already ploughing through bugs at a rate of knots or fixing hygiene issues, and there is a clear agreed strategy, then stakeholder meddling probably a case of poor communication. Hold a roadshow, present the plan, update stakeholders on the state of the nation or just do a jolly thorough update to stakeholders far and wide, and then keep on communicating regularly to show progress.

“I haven’t finished my strategy because I’ve been too busy!”

A Product Manager who is too busy to create a strategy is not a Product Manager. They are doing someone else’s job, find out whose job they are doing and get someone else to do it.

It is likely that the Product Manager is getting sucked into the detail too much and too often; from writing user stories to managing releases or administering the system. On occasion, to fill an emergency gap, it’s great for a Product Manager to get their hands dirty, but if it’s every day then you have a wasted resource.

If you can’t get to the bottom of what is stopping the Product Manager from doing their role, then they are probably stopping themselves. If this is the case it is likely they are either not clear on what their role is, or not confident they can fulfil it. Re-set them as the CEO of their product and support them as they start to get into it. If they have been reverting back to doing a delivery role, make sure they stay out of their comfort zone and don’t scurry back to the safety of what they know. If they are an uber detail control person then make sure they have someone they trust in the supporting delivery role so they can delegate it safely. If they aren’t natural visionaries, start them off bottom up, with the task of agreeing the core purpose of their product (the product’s purpose within the business, its target customer base and its measures of success) and help them to go upwards towards a vision from there.

“I want to be in control of my product but the C-level keep issuing directives – so I can’t even begin!”

“Directives coming from above” and swiping everything else off the roadmap to make way for them, is probably as much the c-level’s problem as it is the Product Manager’s. This is a symptom of not having a clear overarching business strategy or not communicating it well enough. With an unclear business strategy to work to, any product manager is facing a power struggle and the risk of exec interference. Even with an unclear business strategy, a strong product strategy can be achieved and act as an umbrella to protect against unwelcome interference. Make sure the product strategy is big and bright but clear, solid, measurable and achievable. Communicate it thoroughly to the C-level, let them pull it apart and put it back together again. Get them to feel like it was all their idea in the first place. Either way, your objective is to get them to agree it to the point that they feel like they own it. Once that is done, they will evangelise about your product strategy as much as you do. Once you have the green light, make sure you communicate thoroughly and regularly back to them, and expect to sacrifice some kudos in return for a clear path.

“None of my stakeholders turn up for anything anymore (so I can do what I like)”

Disinterested / disengaged stakeholders is symptomatic of one of two things, either they think the Product Manager has everything completely under control and they are not needed, or worse, they feel like no matter what they input, no one will ever act on it, so why bother. Neither of these are particularly great situations but both can be fixed with a little collaboration and an accountability re-set. No matter how strong the Product Manager and how much they might actually have the product completely under control, for the good of the product, stakeholder collaboration is still needed. Unless the business is really tiny, the product will depend on different areas making it a success. All it takes is for something to go wrong, or for someone to miss a decision that impacts their area of the business, and the freedom bubble bursts. Accountability extends from success to failure and everything in between, and for a product to flourish, this accountability needs to be shared.

Re-setting accountability for these guys can be as simple as a workshop or a design sprint to breathe new life into the product team and get stakeholders taking an interest once again.  

For stakeholders who feel like there is nothing they can say in a weekly catch up that will make any difference, there’s a little more work to do. This is the stage stakeholders get to after the “continually asking for things” phase, so you need to go back to basics and assess whether it is a hygiene issue or a vision issue. If it’s hygiene, fix it, but don’t expect a radical fix to the relationship – if they have completely lost confidence then they will take some time to come back into the fold. You may have to persevere with them for quite a while to show that this change is for good and not just lip service. If it’s a vision issue then get them back to basics, collaborating on the product purpose within the business, the target customer base and measures of success – then build a list of features together, to hit the agreed targets.

“My stakeholders want to know every detail about everything, it’s like they want me to do waterfall!”

Micromanaging stakeholders is a symptom of low trust, which is probably due to low visibility and/or few results. Whatever this is due to, fix it fast, because the next stage is “directives coming from above” and a resulting loss of product control.

Fixing this is all about communication. It’s possible that the stakeholders don’t understand the process you are working to. Do they get it? Do they understand why you can’t commit to a year of deliverables? Explain it to them – get them involved in it. Joint scrum or Lean training is brilliant for getting stakeholders immersed in the process and bringing it to life for them. No matter how busy the stakeholders are, it’s worth forcing this and it doesn’t have to be a week out of the office. Success can be seen from something as simple as a a 1 hour workshop where stakeholders find their “MVP of leaving the house in the morning”, to a Lean workshop with facilitation, real live customers and a dragons den style crescendo at the end. Whatever you decide to do, it’s worth pushing for it, because it’s time well invested. If you can’t get the time of the stakeholder you want to convince, ask them to send a delegate who you can then turn into an evangelist of the process, and engage them in the day to day so they can act as a communication envoy. Communication-wise, whilst you might not be able to (and should not!) commit to a year’s deliverables up front, you can still communicate. Add the caveats and explain them (until they are sick of hearing them) then make a high level roadmap, at least for the quarter. Communicate after every sprint planning and before and after every release. Peg all features to targets and report on them regularly.

“That team over there are doing all the cool stuff and we’re forgotten about”

Lack of excitement. It’s gone into BAU. Or their targets are unachievable and they feel like hamsters on a never ending wheel.

Unrealistic expectations aren’t motivating for anyone – it’s time for a re-set. If targets were decided before a launch or ramped up unwisely, and are never going to be hit, no matter what, then re-set them down to a more motivating level. Reignite the team’s belief that their hard work can pay off and show the business some real results to be proud of.

If the product has gone into “BAU mode” then fire things up a bit with a mid-year design sprint, invite some customers in, get some stakeholders together and inject some excitement back into the product team.

“The scrum master is calling the shots, stores I’ve never heard of are getting planned into the sprints!”

Is the product manager going to sprint planning? And getting involved, not checking emails? Is the product manager going to the daily standups? Retrospectives? I bet they’re not. If you were a scrum master and you saw your Product Manager once a week in passing or when there’s an issue I’m sure you’d overstep the bounds of your remit after a while too – especially if you cared passionately about the product.

Scrum master “interference” is often a symptom of a negligent product manager. Go to all the ceremonies and be present, involve the dev team in your thinking and planning. Fill the Product Manager role so the scrum master doesn’t feel like they have to.

These 3 things will make your product team pretty great

When I took on my current role as Director of Product, I was fresh from my own little tiny startup. I’d been living and breathing survive-or-die entrepreneurial product management for over 3 years so I was determined to keep that spirit alive in myself – and in my new team.

Digital Product Management is a relatively new role and many businesses and the Product Managers themselves are still finding their feet, often defining the role as they go.

I look at the skill of Product Management as a triangle, and where a Product Manager is on the triangle, depends on their background, and the business environment they were in when they got their Product Manager stripes.

At one point of the triangle are the Purists. Usually from a creative or purely theoretical background, possibly having been Product Manager (not founder) at a well funded startup. They believe in pure Product Management, it could be argued that they are idealists, at the extreme they are dogmatic. They can get frustrated when something doesn’t conform to their ideal; if a JFDI comes in, there can be flouncing.

At another point on the triangle are the Deliverists, possibly having made their path to Product Management from Project Management, Product Ownership or Business Analysis. They can be a little too pragmatic at times and can find the visionary side of the role a challenge; transitioning to “big picture thinking” can be difficult for them. They can stick close to the sidewalk in the role and when the chips are down, can revert to what feels safe i.e. ask-the-stakeholders-what-they-want delivery.

At the 3rd point sit the Entrepreneurs. Visionaries, with huge ideas – and lots of them. At the extreme they can be too “big picture” losing sight of the day to day and getting lost in life 3 years in the future, running the risk of leaving their team (and their stakeholders) behind by not showing them the steps they need to take to follow them. They can lose patience with anything that makes them feel constrained, becoming frustrated with the hum drum bureaucracy of real life businesses.

My team, and most product teams, are made up of Product Managers at different points on the triangle, but no matter where they are on the triangle, give them 3 things and they will become a high performing super-team with the respect of the business.  

I wanted to create a big picture visionary, strategic thinking, data driven, customer obsessed, business focussed Lean product team who weren’t afraid to be pragmatic and get into the weeds when they needed to. Quite a laundry list! Instead of giving them that ridiculous list, I thought hard about how to explain my ideal team in the most digestible way I could, and settled on positioning them as virtual CEOs of their products. This is the first thing you can gift to your product team; accountability, as the virtual CEOs of their product.

I asked the Product Managers to imagine that they had this awesome product idea and that they had just been given funding, a development team, a marketing team, an amazing content team and a team to sell it for them. It changed their perspective on what they had previously thought of as “stakeholders” and instead, drove them to reimagine the way they worked with the rest of the business. Under this new outlook, they proactively built cross-business working groups, where each member was fully accountable for their area of the product’s success.

This virtual “CEO of the product” positioning of my team reached further than just driving them to build great teams. It also helped them to get their role straight in their own heads and empowered them to look around and see what was stopping them from achieving this “CEO” status.

CEOs are delegators. They spot when they are being sucked into time-eating tasks that aren’t central to their role. They are empowered to put things in place to barrier themselves from them – that could be anything from adding a delivery/business analysis layer between them and the team to organising a bug busting day/sprint to reduce the weight of the backlog.

CEOs have the full picture. They are best placed to hold the vision and strategy for their company (product) because they have access to the micro detail about it (data, usage, customers, revenue) plus a view of the macro; the competitive set, the best in class and trends and changes in their particular industry and the economic landscape in general.  

CEOs are leaders. Leaders paint and sell a big exciting vision and then lay out the practical steps needed to get there. They are brilliant at selling their visions, knowing their audience’s motivations, hopes, dreams and pressures, and tailoring their vision to take all of that into account. CEOs collaborate to create their vision, they are masters in bringing people along with them, getting them to feel a sense of ownership of both the vision and the outcome – and accountability for its success.

CEOs are empowered. No one is going to push the CEO around. Trying to undermine, strongarm or badger a CEO simply won’t fly. As their manager, if you do any of these things, you will not get the results you are looking for, plus you will have a very disillusioned team.

My team don’t “do” roadmaps. That’s a sweeping statement and not entirely true, but what you might think of a traditional roadmaps, well, we’re repelled by them. My team work off the company’s targets for the year. We break those targets down to products and then into quarters. Once we have targets for the products, the Product Managers will work collaboratively with their working groups to come up with a list of features to hit the targets. Under the umbrella of the company strategy, product strategy and a set of company targets, they have complete freedom to come up with whatever features they like to hit them. This is the second gift; complete freedom, not only to come up with any features they like within this remit, but also how to come up with the list. Because targets rely on creating happy, engaged customers and clients, they are the first port of call (to establish problems to solve) and the last, (to validate the features will solve the problems). Because they collaborate closely with the working groups they have built, the Product Managers bring everyone along on the journey. Because they are positioned to have an eye on both the micro and macro information about their products, they naturally have the final say, and the trust of their teams, to make the final call.

The final gift, as the manager of a team of Product Managers, is to take a couple of gigantic steps back from your team’s day-to-day. If you have given them the accountability they need, a strong product strategy to work off, enabled them to get the targets and information they need, and empowered them to make the calls. Your final gift is to trust them to do a great job at it. Let them make mistakes, work Lean, launch and learn, try new things and get burnt, maybe even let them get hauled over the coals by an exec or 2, get told off by customer services when their product goes down, get a bit of heat from delivery teams if their prioritising is dithery. Your trust and the freedom to make mistakes will only make them stronger (and feel more accountable).

The North Water

I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for rank stuff but this even grossed me out in parts. The adult equivalent of talking about the most disgusting things you possibly can. 

I’d recommend it if you’ve got nothing else to hand, but probably not a thing to read just before you eat.

Buy it here if you like 

A little life

I like a book that’s described as “harrowing” so when the excerpt of this was read at the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction event I knew I’d find dark happiness here. Dark times ahead if you read this – but it’s worth every page. 

You should definitely get it 

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