What Do You Do when you are stressed

Premise:

We all live in a world where we have stressors all around us and our ability to manage stress becomes an element that determines how successful we are in whatever we do.

Managing Stress:

As with everything else in life, stress also has two faces. One kind of stress allows us to be alert and in the moment and leads us to be at our best. The other kind of stress takes a toll on our abilities and leads us to perform at far lower levels than we are capable of. The truth of the matter is that it is not the stressors that are different but our reaction to the stressors that are different. So, the same stressor can have either positive or negative impact on us and on our performance depending upon how we react to them.

So, managing stress is probably is a misnomer. We should probably be talking about responding to stress.

Responding to stress:

It is absolutely critical that each one of us identify and practice a healthy response to stress and make it a habit. I am the sort of person that takes on too much stress and even at times thrives on the physiological response to stress. What this means is that there is a very good chance that every time I get stressed, I may go overboard and my response to the stress becomes more hurting than beneficial. The hurting can happen by way of me becoming extremely cynical or even feel depressed. However, I also thrive on the same stress.

When I was asked to come up with a short video (by BJ Fogg) about how I respond to stress that leads to a more positive outcome, I sat down to reflect on the times when stress actually led me to create something that I would not have normally created. And here are the habits that have helped me convert the stress into positive actions:

1. Talking to someone:

Having someone to talk to without inhibitions is extremely helpful. For me, that person is my wife. I tell her about everything that stresses me. Just the act of talking out loud about what is stressing allows me to release the tension that builds within. At times, it also allows me to see the absurdity of the stuff that I am stressing out about. A lot of times, she tells me how absurd it is to sit and stress about something rather than doing something about the stressor. In all, having someone who can take a call and either comfort you or chide you depending on what we need is a big help in responding well to stress.

2. Nature:

The second thing that has helped me a lot is to be in nature (physically or psychologically). I love sunsets. Whenever I am outside and it is time for sunset, my eyes instinctively looks for a way to watch the sun go down. I also like the sound of flowing water, the silence of the woods and everything that goes with being silently a part of nature. If I am in a room and not in nature physically, I find a way to transport myself into nature through my imagination (with a little help from the internet). I hear the sound of flowing water or rain falling in a forest or birds chirping. This calms me down and helps me look at the stressor very differently than how I originally saw it, thereby altering my response to it.

3. Working through the stress:

There have been times when I have decided to work through the stress and not respond to it. My first book “Your Startup Mentor” was created in one such moment. I was extremely stressed out about something and instead of thinking about what was causing me to be so stressed, I decided to instead focus on something that I have always wanted to – write a book. I took out a notebook (physical) and wrote for the next 4 hours. That became the first draft of my business poem, which got eventually published. My podcast came about in a similar situation. I was extremely stressed about something happening at work and didn’t want to think about it. I was listening to a lot of podcasts at that time and on a whim decided that I want to start a podcast. I reached out to 5 people and decided that even if a couple of them agreed to be interviewed by me, I will figure out the rest. Eventually, all five of them ended up on my show, but three of the five immediately responded immediately and the show was born.

4. Play:

There is nothing that can beat stress like play can. It can be any kind of play. The more physical it is the better. Physical activities allow us to produce neuro-chemicals which neutralises the neuro-chemicals that we produce when we are stressed. No stress neurochemicals, no stress. Going out for a run, playing a sport, even walking helps. I prefer taking long walks.

5. Philosophy:

As I have grown older and started to read and understand Indian mythology and therefore Indian philosophy, I have learnt to keep things in perspective. The first three habits are about responding to stress. This one is about not getting stressed at all. The more I learn about the wisdom of men who lived here before me, the more I realise that it is much better to keep things in perspective and not allow anything to stress you. I have learnt that we get stressed when there is a mismatch between our expectation and reality. I have also learnt that we can’t control reality through our expectations. The more expectations we have, the more stress we have. So, its much better to just do our work and not create many expectations. In fact, I have now reached a state of mind where I strongly believe the following – “To each his Own”. Just this one belief has radically changed my perspective on stress caused by other people.

In conclusion:

Depending on where I am (office, home, traveling, etc) and what stresses me, I try to choose one of these responses. Like everyone else, I am not perfect. I still get stressed out and perform badly sometimes. But I am finding myself more and more in a relaxed state of mind by not allowing anything to stress me than to manage or respond to stress, once I am stressed. Someone was wise enough to say – “Prevention is better than cure”.

I would recommend that you do this exercise in self-reflection to find out how you typically respond to stress and what kind of responses have helped you deal with stress leading to a positive outcome. Then be conscious of this choice the next time you get stressed about something.

To succeed, Optimise the one variable that matters

Premise:

One of the things that almost everyone of us does is to optimize. We optimise our time, our money and at times even our relationships. We want maximum efficiency in almost everything that we do. In organisations, we compensate sales guys on sales made, product managers on product development, marketing folks on leads generated, manufacturing folks on operational efficiency. Everywhere we look, we can find efforts to maximise efficiency in that part. This, in general, is our attempt to gain local optima. We try to reach optimal performance in that specific domain with no regards to the effect it has on the global performance.

This is why we have sales teams ending up selling something that is easier to sell than selling one that the company strategy is betting its future on. This is why we have manufacturing teams producing more stock of an item then needed to improve their operational efficiency. This is the reason why we have well-meaning folks from Dell outsource everything to their Chinese suppliers leading to the disruption of Dell as the leader of the PC revolution.

So, it is important as entrepreneurs that we understand this dynamic that plays in our very organisations.

The story of Bijlmer:

The Bijlmermeer (or Bijlmer, for short) was built just outside of Amsterdam in the 1960s. This was supposed to be the city of the future. This was classically designed with local optimisation. There would be no chaos. Every functional area (residential, shopping, school, business, etc) was supposed to be separate. No vehicles were supposed to be running on the ground level, which meant that all vehicular movement happened on an elevated road. The ground level was supposed to be only for pedestrian and bicycle use and was supposed to be covered by trees. The houses were near identical high rise buildings laid out in a hexagonal structure. It was supposed to be connected to the main Amsterdam city by subway. If you look at the thinking behind the entire project was to optimise everything locally.

However, due to a variety of reasons (metro line did not come up on schedule, the immigrant population moved in and that drove the local white Dutch people out of these apartments) the so-called utopian city of the future, ended up abandoned and becoming a hot spot for addicts and criminals. I believe that one of the primary faults, which doesn’t really come up in the above list of reasons why the Bijlmer never became the city of the future was its design.

In a complex system, Local optimisation usually creates more problems than it solves.

Human Body:

Let’s consider another complex system – our human body. Each part of the human body has its own rhythms and if the thought of their functional efficiencies, we can see that most of them don’t operate at their optimal efficiency. Our hearts can beat much faster than the ~ 72 beats per minute. We can breathe much more effectively and deeply than we do. We can run much faster than what we normally do.

Each one of our system (digestive, respiratory, sensory, reproductive, etc) allows one system to take the lead so that, we as humans operate at global efficiency. At any point in time, only one of the sub-systems of our human body is operating at optimal efficiency and this too is decided by the environment in which the body is operating and what its objective at that time is.

A business:

Let’s consider a typical business. As mentioned earlier, each part of the business usually is trying to operate at their local optimum efficiency. This leads to more challenges and almost never allows the overall business to operate at its peak efficiency. So, the question then to as is the following”

What can be done structurally such that we are able to operate at peak efficiency for the business?

Some ideas:

The first thing that we need to define to operate our business under peak efficiency is to define one (or at most two) variable that when optimised, will optimise the business at a global level. In some cases, it could be increasing worker safety (Alcoa) or reducing cost (Southwest airline) or delighting customers (Virgin). Once we decide what this key variable is, then the entire organisation is asked to optimise for that single variable. What this means is that every time a decision needs to be made, the first question we need to ask is the following

Which decision will lead to optimising the one variable that matters?

If a decision doesn’t impact the variable that matters, then the team can explore local optima. IF it does, the action that optimises the variable that matters is the way to go.

This means that instead of optimising for sales, we optimise for selling the product that we as an organisation are betting our future on, even if that means that we step out of or lose some deals. This means that instead of looking at capacity utilisation of the manufacturing plant, we look at the demand, plan for the demand and manufacture only according to that plan.

Digital Transformation:

Running a business like this is not so easy because of the inherent human nature. However, today, with all the technology solutions available with us, we have the unique ability to use these technologies to see the impact of each one of our decisions on this key variable and then decide in a way to optimise this key variable.

This I believe is the true potential of digital transformation.

In conclusion:

It is easier to manage for local optimisation. It is easier to measure local actions and see progress locally. It difficult to see the impact of what we do locally that has a global impact. However, if as an organisation, we decide to avoid local optimisation and go for global optimisation, we will be rewarded with success that will dwarf everything that we could achieve by local optimisation.

This is also the case in our personal lives. We need to identify the variables in our personal lives that matter the most for us and then let everything else lead us to optimise this one variable. At some point, it could be making money, at some other point in time, it could be spending time with family or our personal health or anything else.

The key here is to be intentional about what we want to optimise for and subserve all our decisions to optimise this one variable.

When Your Biggest Strength becomes Your Biggest Weakness

Premise: 

Once advice that almost everyone agrees to, when it comes to defining our strategy (personal, professional or organisational) is that we need to

“Play to your strengths”.

If you are a business that has already seen some amount of success, the chance is that you know what your core strength is.

So, you build on it. You continue to invest in your strength to get even better at it.

You continue to invest until you are the best-in-class on this topic in the whole wide world.

This strategy works really well, until it doesn’t.

The  irony is that most of us still want believe that continuing to invest in our strength is the best investment. So, we double up our investment. But, it still doesn’t work. 

And when it doesn’t work anymore, this erstwhile engine of growth & competitive advantage becomes our biggest liability and weakness.

The fact is that this will happen – sooner or later.

Why? 

In all likelihood, the world has moved on. You might still be the best in the world at this one thing, that is your strength. But the problem is that the market doesn’t need or value this strength of your’s.

Unfortunately, you haven’t invested in building strength in anything else either. So, you scramble. Some, are fortunate enough to still have enough time and the culture that supports the transformation, but most fail, falter and die.

Solution: 

The only way to avoid this situation and at the same time, fully capitalise on the “Play to your strength” strategy, is to follow a dual strategy:

  • Continue to invest in and build on your current strengths (65%)
  • Continue to explore what new skills or capabilities that you might need in the future and invest in building them (35%)

The exploration and investment in new skills is critical in order for the organisation not to get blindsided when the market shifts. Also, the point to be noted is that we need to invest in building multiple skills or capabilities for the future and when the time comes one of these will become our core strength and propel our growth.

Conclusion: 

Playing to our strengths is a great strategy until it is not. As organisational leaders, we need to be constantly in the “sense and respond”, where we are looking at potential areas which might have the potential to become our core strength and propel the next level of growth.

 

The Role of Creativity in the Life of a Product Manager

The Role of Creativity in the Life of a Product Manager by Mukesh Gupta

I have been invited to deliver a talk at an event titled – “A Day in the Life of a Product Manager“, which is scheduled for tomorrow (4th March 2017) and the talk is about “The role of creativity in the life of a product manager”.

I personally believe that creative thinking is a critical skill that all of us need to develop among us but it is even more relevant if we want to be a product manager and give birth, grow and mature a product.

First, lets talk about a few successful products and the stories about how they became successful. We will then try to learn what did the product managers (in some cases, entrepreneurs themselves) do so that their products became successful.

10-22-38: Astoria:

This marks the date and place where the photocopiers, that we know of today, in its true sense was born.

Chester Carlson was a patent attorney in Mallory’s, while studying law. As he worked at his job, he noticed that there never seemed to be enough carbon copies of patent specification, and there seemed to be no quick or practical way of getting more. The choices were limited to sending for expensive photo copies, or having the documents retyped and then re-read for errors.

It occurred to him that it would be a good idea if he could develop a machine which could take these documents and create copies quickly and cheaply. For many months, he spent a lot of time in the New York Public library trying to read and learn everything there was to the imaging process. He realised that he would not focus on the traditional process (chemical) of copying as there were many people who were exploring that side of imaging. He decided to experiment with a little known field of photoconductivity and after years or tinkering in a makeshift lab, he and his assistant Otto Kornei were able to copy this exact picture using their machine.

It was still a struggle trying to convince someone to invest in the technology and develop it into  product. It was in 1959 that the Haloid company finally was able to launch The 914 copier, which went on to become a phenomenal success. Thus started the industry that revolutionised the world.

You can read the entire history of the birth of xerography here.

Pantone Color Matching:

One an eventful day in the early 1960’s, Lawrence Herbert, the co-owner of a printing company named Pantone was fuming because a simple job ruined his entire week. In those days, every dye manufacturer used their own proprietary way to name the colours and what went into it. No two shipments of the same colour would match; no two dyes, with same name and pigments from different dye manufacturers would match, which caused a lot of challenges for each printer.

He had enough of this trouble and in a fit of anger decided to do something about it. He thought why can’t everyone use the same colour book to produce colour. So, with this insight, he set out to imagine and develop an alternate reality for his world. All he did was to figure out a way to match a specific colour to a number, which then became a global, common language that everyone in the industry would speak in. So, if someone needed a specific shade of Yellow, they would just ask for Pantone 123 (a daffodil Yellow) and irrespective of who or where in the world sold that colour, it would be exactly the same.

He created a sample page to show how this would work and sent it out to ink makers. Its more than 50 years now and his catalogue and system is still being used worldwide, not just by ink makers but by everyone who uses colour in some way or format. This simple catalogue has spawned an organisation that dominates the colour industry.

They are so important to the fashion & visual art industry that they predict the trends in terms of colour that they see playing out in the market, based on which colour seems to have had the most demand in the previous period.

They have announced that the colour of the year 2017 is going to be Pantone Greenery. So, get ready to see a lot of green all around you.

The Suitcase and The Wheel: 

Thousands of years ago, there were two important inventions, the wheel and the sack. As a frequent traveler, I always wonder why it took so long to put rollers on that sack to create wheeled luggage.

“It was one of my best ideas,” Bernard D. Sadow said the other day. Mr. Sadow, who was at that time a vice president  at a Massachusetts company that made luggage and coats, is credited with inventing rolling luggage.

It was Bernard Sadow was waiting  at the customs while coming back home from a family vacation. As he carried two heavy suitcases through the airport, he observed a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid.

Inspiration hit him and he said to his wife –  ‘You know, that’s what we need for luggage,’. When he got back to work, he took casters off a wardrobe trunk and mounted them on a big travel suitcase and it worked. He was elated. He got a United States patent No. 3,653,474, for this invention.

“Rolling Luggage,” as he called it, did not take off immediately, though. He recalled the many months that he spend rolling his prototype bad on sales calls to department stores. Finally, he was able to find a believe in his idea in the form of a manager of a Macy’s store, who ordered a few of this product.   to order a few.

“People do not accept change well,” Mr. Sadow said, recalling the many months he spent rolling his prototype bag on sales calls to department stores in New York and elsewhere. Finally, though, Macy’s ordered some, and the market grew quickly as Macy’s ads began promoting “the Luggage That Glides.”

This still did not take off as much as he would have liked. It really took off, once an airline pilot, Robert Plath, affixed two wheels (instead of four) and a long handle to suitcases that rolled upright that the luggage with wheels took off.

What do we learn from them

Finding Opportunities for New Products:

Opportunities are all around us. As the saying goes.

“Opportunities are all around us but are dressed as problems”

We need to be aware of these and identify them for the opportunity that they present. It takes an inventive mind or a creative one to recognise the opportunity that is disguised as a problem or a challenge. Most successful products are created either by serendipity or through the process of someone actually trying to solve a problem that they experienced themselves.

In either case, successful product managers are not only able to identify these opportunities but are also able to convince people around them of the true opportunity that lies therein.

Finding Early Adopters for Your Idea/Product:

Irrespective of how great an idea or a new product is, there will most likely be resistance to adopt the same. It is inherent nature of mankind to be biased against creativity. It is the role of the product manager then to overcome this bias against creativity and win the first few early adopters of the idea – first within the organisation and then amongst their prospective customers.

In order to be able to do that, you need to understand the innovation adoption curve, know who is potentially an early adopter and what will win them over (data, emotion or a combination).

It takes creativity for you to be able to tailor the idea according to the internal stakeholders or a prospect to win them over.

Building Your Product & Going-to-Market:

Being a product manager is also about communicating your ideas to the actual teams that will build and get them to build it. As any product manager will tell you there is a big chasm between what you think that the product should look like and function and what it could potentially end up looking and functioning like.

If I were to identify one step in the entire product management cycle that has the biggest potential to derail the entire product success, it would be this step. As a product manager, if you are unable to clearly articulate the vision of the product to the actual developers of the product, there is a good chance that you will not get what you want.

We also need to understand that each stakeholder (customers, senior management, developers, product managers, marketing managers, sales executives) in the product management cycle speaks a different language. It takes ingenuity, creativity and clarity of thought and communication to ensure the understanding of all the stakeholders about what the product is and will do, is the same.

Influence with No Authority

As a product manager, we will not have any direct authority over any of these teams. While everyone tells us that we are the CEO of our products, they all forget to give us the authority that needs to go with it. So, as product managers we need to be able to influence all the stake holders to do what we want them to do and in the timeline that we want them to do it in.

Any one who has attempted to do this can vouch for the fact that this is no easy feat. We need to be creative about how we engage and communicate when we talk to each stake holders and speak to them in their own knowledge.

So, How do we become more creative:

Sharpen our Observation skills:

Author, teacher and a recovering lawyer, Amy Herman, in her book – Visual Intelligence shares a process by which we can sharpen our ability to observe what is happening around us better. She uses the acronym – COBRA.

  • C – Concentrate on the camouflaged. Look for things that are not very obvious.
  • O – One thing at a time. Keep your focus on one thing at a time. Watch it in detail.
  • B – Take a Break. Go for a walk. Do something else.
  • R – Re-align your expectation. Let go of any preconceived notions that you might have about the situation.
  • A – Ask someone else to look with you. Take a second opinion.

You could also learn from James Gilmore’s book “Look” and use the different lenses to look at the situation through. I have written a detailed review of the book and the process here.

Ask Interesting Questions & Solve Interesting Problems:

One way to increase our ability to become creative or come up with creative solutions is by asking interesting questions. Questions that allow us to dream up, be someone else, travel through time or take a completely different perspective. In order to be able to ask interesting questions, we first need to identify and attempt to Solve Interesting Problems. These are problems that typically, people live with, without doing anything about. These are problems that everyone takes for granted. What are such problems that you are facing? What are such problems that your customers are facing?

Understand our bias against creativity and Learn to address it:

Jennifer Mueller, in her book, Creative Change, argues that we are inherently biased against creative ideas and explains why this is so. She also prescribes ways that we can not only overcome our own bias against creativity, but also help people around us to overcome their bias against creativity. Learn, practice and hone this ability. You can listen to the conversation I had with Jennifer on this topic here.

Connect and Combine:

The ability to come up with creative ideas is very much like any other language that we speak or learn. We first need to understand and know our alphabets, then we need to learn to combine these alphabets into words, then words into sentences and then sentences weaved into a story. The same way, we need to know about different ideas from different industries and contexts that we are then able to combine and connect and improve to come up with our very own creative idea. So, we should give ourselves the opportunity to get exposed to as many ideas (especially from outside of our own field of expertise) as possible.

Take some Risks and be prepared to Fail:

Being creative means that we are taking a chance, which means that there will be times when we might not get what we want and fail. That is fine as long as the failure is not hindering our chance to try next time again. That is even better, if we learn from our failure.

Think of it like this – we are all diamonds that are raw and need to go through the process of polishing so our true character can come out. These small, tiny failures build up our ability to not only fail and learn from the failure but also our ability to know when to take a leap of faith and when not to – both being critical in the success of any creative venture.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, I would only like to argue that some of the most important skills that we all need to develop if we are to succeed as a product managers are:

  1. Ability to observe and find opportunities.
  2. Ability to come up with creative problems to solve and creative solutions/perspectives.
  3. Ability to talk to different stakeholders in their respective languages.
  4. Ability to influence without authority.
  5. Ability to do all of this on a tight timeline.

The one common thread that runs through each one of these is the ability to think creatively.

There are many more things that we can do to improve our ability to become creative. These are just starting points and set us going in the direction that will help.