Why I question HankyPanty’s astonishing views on Sonakshi!

The camera cuts across to focus on her, as she steps in, laced with large sunglasses. Mouthing some casual Punjabi words in the guise of a rap song, she begins gyrating to the tunes of the song (a tune that seems to have ‘pop’ped out of strange noises stringed together).

@sonakshisinha, the Bollywood actress who features in many such songs, recently defended herself about being multi talented. This was with respect to the rumor that had been flying around thick and fast, about her opening Justin Bieber’s India act, despite being an actress. In response, the comedian @hankypanty cheekily opined about one having to be talented in at least one thing, before claiming to be a multifaceted personality. I tend to disagree with him on Sonakshi being delusional about her talents. In my humble opinion, she actually belongs to the top of the food chain in one aspect.

Humans grow up with a set of biases, and acquire some of them over a period of time. Having moved across multiple cultures / cities / countries; there is one bias that I have been able to recognize from modern Punjabi songs. There is an unwitting portrayal of the protagonist (in this case, a female) with the following –

  • an expensive sports car (mostly a Lamborghini or Bugatti)
  • her hair swaying with her waist
  • swallowing enormous amounts of alcohol or dancing right next to a bar, and
  • she attempting to make moves better than imported dancers in the background.

This bias seems to have been repeatedly force fed through such videos. Although being a Punjabi myself, it has been a compelling yet complex case for me to fathom; about why familiar strokes are repeatedly painted, under the pretext of using different brushes!

Had it been some other celebrity actress, I would have gone so far as to think that she is diluting the value of her personal brand by frequently doing such videos instead of more films respectively. But in Sonakshi’s case, she actually fits the bill perfectly, when it comes to donning this character, within the mentioned context, and showcasing her acting skills in this one area.

The Agile Awards Fallacy

A few days back, the Head of Products of a firm alluded to the plan of a new approach in their company. It would involve the employment of a credit point based objective assessment system. This methodology would be used to build a score board for agile product development teams; where each team could track their credit points earned during a sprint and compete for a Sprint Champion Award.

As a product manager, the questions to strike my mind were –

  • what would be achieved?
  • why even do this, in the first place?

Why do this?

The management had been thinking along the lines of building this concept to nourish overall healthy competition between teams.

What would be achieved?

Having driven products in parallel with completely divergent objectives, users, etc; the program got me thinking about the implications on the teams. I turned to the basics, referring to the Agile manifesto. One of the twelve principles says –

Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.

While the intent of the program sounded good, the finer details spelled a recipe for disaster. The plan sounded unfair to the teams who worked hard day in and day out despite being bombarded with a constant barrage of changes. They might not be able to achieve the award simply because of an issue that they might not be directly responsible for. Hiring the right people and then trusting them to the job is of paramount importance. The program seemed to undermine this key tenet of a product company.

Another of the principles says –

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer
through early and continuous delivery
of valuable software.

From a delivery perspective, my thoughts centered around a dissimilar concept. Instead of rewarding teams on the basis of points scored, the champion award could be proffered to the team that ended up delivering something worthy of use. The value stream of the feature/product could be mapped towards either the client/customer/consumer. Walking down this path could definitely take time, in terms of measuring and justifying the champion, but the approach could be worth it’s grain of salt.

In conclusion, ideas like the above can tend to negate the purpose of the methodology. While agile as a framework has its benefits of allowing inflection points, which enable pivots for teams/products/companies; it needs to be used to provide a meaningful nudge to the teams, that strive hard to deliver true value.

The True Sher’s – Part 5

Read Part 4

Prioritization

It is also important for the PM to filter out the sensible requests from the noise. There are various techniques to prioritize. They could be in the form of time, complexity or business cases. In products like Shareathon, both time and business case tend to play critical roles.

The easier way to perform the said task is by beginning with the question, “How might this help the user?”

Data, the key?

With all possible market feedback in tow, it can feel trivial to go all out on a product based on a hypothesis. But, with less data available, trying to build fast can be a key component to success. Provided, one has spent sufficient time understanding the problem.

Once a product gets to live, the amount of feedback that could pour in could be exhausting. Or the same can be extracted by a PM who is good in communicating with a wide variety of users.

With quick launches, and resolutions of bugs, the diamonds can start emerging from the dust. Filtering the diamonds  through basic analysis, a PM can provide a necklace around the diamonds, to start forming stories around user behavior.

Conclusive food for thought

As a PM, one of the delightful moments that one would await for, is the product going live, so that it can be utilized by the intended users. Though one can be at the receiving end of extremely critical comments, but on the other end of the spectrum, the possibility of appreciation far outweighs the negatives of any launch.

While all of the above traits hold significance, it is humility that is one of the key differentiating factors. What comes across from examples like above, is that product management can be a messy process. Dealing with multiple people / teams at the same time is not a job for the faint hearted. Having thought leaders like Rohan Krishna and Dr Marya Wani definitely helps. As they can foster an influential environment, cajoling people to bring out their best towards the product. 

Having stated this, Shareathon.in went live at lightning speed. More importantly, the humbleness of the team in accepting feedback (positive and negative), prioritizing the same, and pushing the solution out to end users was commendable.

From the eyes of a product manager, the true Sher’s at the event were not the participants, but the team itself. And, I look forward to the team and platform soaring high in days to come.

The True Sher’s – Part 4

Read Part 3

The internet has intricately woven itself into the offline lives of people. This has been in part due to the democratization of technology. Which in effect, has absorbed a large audience on to the web. Additionally, it has spawned rival services in multiple industries and segments.

On one hand, design thinking, user experience, and such concepts are encouraged to be thought through beforehand. This ensures that the experience for the end user is commendable, if not jaw dropping.

But, on the other hand, such speed of technology has only raised the bar for products that are going live the first time. “Beta” is no longer a word that can be utilized to mask issues under the hood. A user today has a plethora of choices available for him/her. It is only a matter of seconds in which the choice is made.

With such precarious scenarios, it becomes all the more difficult for product managers to balance various people / teams at stake.
Business stakeholders are out for their necks if there are delays in the launch. Whereas, if the product is poor, the end users can tend to ditch the platform, or worse, publicly damage the reputation on social media.

Be agile

A team should always be ready to support and fix issues as quickly as possible. In a typical customer support scenario, fixes can be taken in due course of time. But, the velocity should be faster in a product scenario. And agile methods help in enabling the velocity.

Basic principles like the entire team being responsible to act fast, brings a sense of responsibility to all the members. This motivates them to give their best. Techniques like Scrum and Kanban ensure in bringing a method to the madness.

Read on to know more 

The True Sher’s – Part 3

Read Part 2

3)

Suggestion – The image of the Greek warrior on the home page does not seem to do justice to the Indian terminology of “Sher” in the subsequent sections. Either an Indian pic could be inserted or the Sher word could be changed to something Greek.

Insight – With multiple biases of the human mind at play, cohesiveness of the site is important to engage with users. The site needs to bring out a common theme, in terms of content, images, colors, and other aspects.

4)

Suggestion -“Powered by IPL” can be inserted into the footer as well.

Insight – Techies, which forms a large chunk of the IPL user base, are familiar with such mentions and can tend to expect such details in the footer. A simple yet effective touch point for users!

5)

Suggestion – Most sites and applications have the logo on the top left as clickable.

Insight – This ensures that if the user is lost, he/she can return to the home page. The term Shareathon, could be made clickable.

6)

Suggestion – The design of the voting buttons could be changed.

InsightStrangely, users came back asking that they had followed the speakers and if that would be considered as a vote. With social media already a key part of multiple lives. this came as a very surprising insight to me. There are still users out there who are not comfortable with the concept of up vote / down vote. In this case, the design could be changed a bit and A/B tested to figure out a better option for the users.

Ok, so what’s next?

Read on to know more

The True Sher’s – Part 2

Read Part 1

What could a product manager have done? A few insights –

Market Feedback

Multiple teams/companies/intrapreneurs/entreprenuers have grappled with this habit of directly jumping into the solution space. Problem space not only involves understanding the problem one is trying to solve. But, also involves performing multivariate customer/user understanding.

One could argue that a live product is actually in the solution space. But, product management has always been non linear. In a similar vein, the product although recently released, could receive a variety of feedback.

In a capitalistic economy, the users are the one who can make or break the product. None the less, it is important to garner feedback, because great suggestions can come from anywhere.It has been a huge achievement in Shareathon’s case, wherein both types of users (speakers and voters) have come forth with solutions.

As PM’s, we always keep our ears open for feedback. And the more, the better.

Empathy

Stepping into another’s shoes and trying to understand their problems is easier said than done. Entire conferences run on the very premise of educating people trying to understand another persona.

With feedback and empathy, I decided to enact the role of an end user, and proffer some suggestions as well.

1)

Suggestion – IPL logo on top and IPL name in footer – could be back linked to the IPL website

Insight – Why leave a chance for the user to not visit the IPL site and discover the amazing education on offer.

2)

Suggestion – Social follow buttons (linked to IPL) sticking on the side or in the footer.

Insight – This is fairly common among all sorts of applications. If nothing else, it provides an additional touch point to engage the user and convert him/her into a potential follower.

Read on to know more

The True Sher’s – Part 1

It was a sunny afternoon, a few weeks ago. The wind gently caressed my curls, as I dipped into the melting and delicious chocolate mousse prepared by a dear friend’s wife.

A few members of the IPL marketing team had joined us for lunch, as we shared some light hearted banter. Little did me and my group know what lay in store for us.

The Surprise

We were supposed to be witness to something new. And boy, was it a bolt out of the blue! We were taken through the first of it’s kind website for business leaders. Me and my gang were supposed to register as speakers and gather votes for our talks respectively.

The whole idea of doing it the Silicon Valley way, in the form of an Unconference, was exciting. It came across as a superior value proposition. The site seemed a bit off in terms of design, but exhibited the signs of humble beginnings.

The Go Live

Over the course of the next 48 hours, as the newly minted site begun receiving registrations in droves, votes too begun pouring in from friends and others. Though there was no downtime, the site did start to throw up incidents.

Vote numbers begun oscillating automatically, users struggled with the voting process, and a few other incidents to name a few.

As PM’s, it can be invariably overwhelming to be in such a state. On one end of the spectrum, it is exciting as feedback begins to be captured. On the other end, it can be difficult to collaborate with N number of teams and effectively execute what is necessary for the success of the product. So, what could a product manager do in such a state.

Read on to know more

A trip down memory lane – Part 2

Read Part 1

Fast forward 18 years, and it is the era of blogs and e-books. In the daily grind of studies and a start up job; I had completely forgotten the mesmerizing activity of reading a book. This childhood love of reading a physical book was reignited in the form of an unexpected gift.

I had been recently attending a webinar related to product management. As I heard out the discussions, I raised my own set of questions. As a product manager, I have a habit of being curios and asking queries without inhibitions. This nosiness to learn, has also been a by-product of devouring novels late into the night during my teens. As this eagerness came out in full display, my questions came to the notice of the host, Mr Rahul Abhyankar.

To my amazement, not only did I receive the answers, but also a surprise in the form of a brand new novel. Rahul, on behalf of IPL, rewards questioning people like me, with even more knowledge, that is, in the form of books.

Working in tandem with the diligent product leader, people from his team (Madhurima and Pawan) ensured that the book not only reached me; but was handed over by Rahul himself respectively.

This incident shed light on an entirely new experience. I had never imagined that there could be an entity run by people who ensure a priceless moment for the book receivers. As I drift into the paragraphs of Inseparable Twins; this gift from IPL, has enabled me to take a happy trip down memory lane.

Receiving "Inseparable Twins" from the product leader Rahul Abhyankar
Receiving “Inseparable Twins” from the product leader Rahul Abhyankar

A trip down memory lane – Part 1

The sun was setting in, leaving behind a crimson blue sky. With the dusk visible through the large windows of our room, we went about organizing a few of the shelves in our cupboard. My two famished sisters took a quick break, to attack the cookies and the piping hot tea brought in by our mother.  Meanwhile, an object caught my attention. It was a half torn novel, simply lying at a corner of the mattress I was seated on. I was too young to know the difference between a novel and a book. At that tender age, the only differentiating factor between the two was that a novel was a big, thick book read by adults.

As my retina began scanning the pages respectively, I felt a sensation I had never experienced earlier. I began melting into the paragraphs! My hands steadied, my eyes widened, my nostrils engaged with the delightful old rusty smell of the pages; as I lost track of time. The book simply got me hooked. It would be much later when I would realize how Enid Blyton had captured the imagination of millions of kids all around the world. None the less, the moment was the first time I felt the true power of stories.

My eldest sister noticed the sudden wavering of my attention, from assisting them to reading. She eventually realized that I had not only begun understanding relatively complex stories, but was also enjoying them. Proud of her little brother, the very next day, she opened a drawer and exposed me to a huge collection of her favorite novels. And, this was how my love for reading began.

Continue reading Part 2

A primer in managing creativity

ci

If you are a CXO, an executive, a general manager, a product guy, or just someone interested in learning how computer animated movies came into existence, the book could turn out to be a potential gem to read.

The author Edwin Catmull, takes us through the life of Pixar Animation Studios, the production house behind critically acclaimed, profitable and wonderfully animated movies. In this case, the movies being memorable ones like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E and a myriad of other such films. He walks us through his humble beginnings, his interests in animation and his dream to make the first computer animated movie. He pinpoints the events that led to the birth of Pixar, and subsequently the impressive movies the company is known for.

Post Pixar’s initial success, Edwin turned his focus on how to run the company. As he deep dived into how other stars of Silicon Valley were running businesses, he was struck with a lack of knowledge on the subject. His determination to keep churning out profits, while keeping Pixar’s creativity intact, and more importantly, delighting the audiences through a track record of successful films, has positioned him to offer unique insights through this book.

The core areas that the book addresses are; the inevitability of change, the presence of unseen factors, and how employees can help drive the company to new heights.

Inevitability of change

Ed begins his story through the bedrock of animation research, the University of Utah, where he was able to kickstart his exploration with the pioneers in the field. This was where he had his first brush of working within an empowered group. The success in varied sub domains of animation research was a culmination of the efforts of multiple people. They worked towards a common goal of establishing the computer animation field.

Ed takes the reader through the changing dynamics of the Hollywood industry. It took a film like Star Wars to push Hollywood executives to sit up and take notice. George Lucas, the man behind the space trilogy, always believed that technology would be a strong enabler in the way stories were told. Ed also introduces the legendary Steve Jobs into the book, who had a critical role to play in the roadmap of Pixar, both as an investor and advisor.

The narrative moves deeper into the processes and approaches honed over the years within Pixar. Edwin brings out examples of the above through the various movies that were produced. In a way, the processes are similar to what are followed in the IT industry today under the methodology Agile. But simply following a set of rules never really works! This is where Ed provides key analogies to how such processes can be an enabler to creative employees.

Change could be defined as the occurrence of random events. These events could be predicted or completely unforeseen. Management guides / philosophies tend to throw around optimistic aphorisms about change all the time. Edwin debunks such slogans, bringing out incidents during the making of multiple movies, and how his team faced them head on. These experiences were later sharpened and applied to the management of such creative employees as well.

Unseen factors

He clarifies from the very beginning that a great team is necessary and that the film making process is not for the faint hearted. The author mentions one of the movies, where the basic plot line went through multiple reworks; before transforming into the powerful plot that we all know of today, as Up.  He also addresses that companies are always in blind spots. He mentions an incident from his childhood, where a mere two inch distance saved him and his family from a fatal accident. Those two inches could never have been predicted, nor could the outcome of the accident. And could have been the distance that mattered in the existence of Pixar.

In a similar vein, he brings out a beautiful example of three random incidents tied into one another. The first, that of 90% Toy Story 2 being wiped out in a singular moment. The second being the discovery that the backup mechanisms had also not been working. This would have proved catastrophic for a small sized company that had recently gone public. The third was that of recovery happening through the personal troves of an employee’s hard disk, who had by chance been working from home and required the data backups for the same. Importantly, Ed highlights that of all the questions asked post these incidents, one never came up – Who was responsible for the deletion in the first place?

Empowered employees

Companies that can institute processes to manage such occurrences, without playing the blame game, will be the ones that will thrive in their future business cycles respectively. These examples tie into the fact that businesses operate in a pool of uncertainty and such events can make or break the company.

Ed writes about an important factor, that holds true for companies, irrespective of their size. That is, if a company has attempted to hire smart people, it should trust them to stop the process if necessary. He brings out examples from the automobile industry, where all workers, irrespective of hierarchy, were empowered to report and halt the manufacturing, if they felt that the quality of the product was being affected.

The finer nuances about mixing individual intelligence with group collaboration are portrayed through actual examples of tough times that Pixar faced. This concoction of motivated employees, and fine-tuned management approaches lead to great products.

The book highlights that as part of building great products, misfires will happen. But, the questions to ask of those misfires is the learning gained, rather than reprimanding the people involved in its implementation. He mentions that a fine line has to be tread between accountability vs repercussions.

The book has found space in Mark Zuckerberg’s list of books to read. It rises above being a how to guide, or X steps to success. It is packed with vivid examples of the peaks and troughs of running a start up and thereafter running a successful company. It brings forth meaningful themes of management, reflecting deeply on the day to day problems that can crop up when running projects, irrespective of the industry one is in. Creativity, Inc. is a first hand account of how creative genuises came together to not only build the first computer animated movie. But, is also a detailed insight into how the same people worked hard; to keep the creativity intact on the floors of the company. All the while ensuring that they could produce film after film as astute managers.