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Introduction to Product Management

Here is a great introduction to the life of a Product Manager from Stanford University

Thinking Tools

There are several thinking tools I use, but I don't often think about the tools, their advantages, and their limitations. When I did a search on Mind Maps AND Affinity Diagrams, not much showed up that compared the two, so I thought I would puts some thoughts down and share them to see what other people think.

My most common tools are linear notes, mind maps, and affinity diagrams. In all three cases, creating an artifact aids thinking by feeding back to me a prior thought. I experience the same dynamic for other creative processes. When I create software, I model architecture with UML and code. Both speak back to me and generate more ideas. If I am building a financial model, I can run scenarios and let the model show me the results.

These tools have the greatest advantages when two conditions are present: complexity and groups of people. Software is complex. Just try to write software in your head, then write it down after you are done. The mind is amazing, but it can't keep very much code in it. With multiple people, an artifact works like shared memory. Every idea feeds back to every mind to generate more ideas.

IDEO works with these dynamics. A group of people have a problem, and they prototype solutions as a group. The prototype is the artifact. When complexity and multiple people are combined with a flexible medium, there is a third dynamic. Not only do ideas go into the artifact, and the artifact speaks back, people discuss the artifact with each other. This cross-pollination process tests concepts, compares interpretations, and generates ideas.

Let's look at the three tools individually, compare them, and consider how they influence thinking.

Linear Notes

Notes are as old as the hills. In the old days of paper and pencil, the only place you can write is at the bottom or between the lines. With computers, you can write anywhere. Nonetheless, information is mostly one dimensional except to the extent that you use bullets and tabs. Notes are easy because you can record a stream of consciousness, record a lecture, or just dump your short term memory before you forget something. Linear notes match how you read a book or article like this one. If you are writing a book, even through the book has structure, you are serializing the information. When you read, you are processing information serially, much like listening. When you write, you communicate thoughts, much like speaking.

Linear notes match our input-output devices more than our thought patterns.

Mind Maps and Affinity Diagrams

These diagrams present information in a more parallel fashion. they are inherently multi-dimensional. Information is connected in tree form. The paper layout is two dimensional, and there is hierarchy. If nodes have sentences, these diagrams contain linear notes within them. If nodes have single nodes, they are more parallel in nature.

Mind Maps

A mind map starts with a central image. Then you draw your first branches. These are described by Tony Buzan as Basic Ordering Ideas. Branches are then added to branches. Child branches are associations of ideas. Buzan emphasizes that branches get smaller as you get away from the central image and each branch has one word. By avoiding sentences on a single branch, you can add ideas at the granularity of a single concept.

  MindMap.png

This mind map is a combination of single words and sentences.

Affinity Diagrams

Affinity diagrams are normally built with sticky notes. The process begins with a collection of notes and affinities are discovered by looking and grouping. Once groups are formed, higher level groups are formed until you have a small number of groups or one group. The end result is a hierarchy. Individual notes are almost always sentences, so there is always a linear aspect of an affinity diagram. It reminds me of a concentration game. You flip two cards and try to match them. You have to remember where cards are so when you flip one card, you remember where the match is. It is a pattern matching game.


AffinityGeneric.jpg

This is a generic example from mindtools.com. Random ideas are organized into themes. (Source Mind Tools)

Comparisons

Even though the form of the result appears similar, the processes involved could not be more different. Mind mapping tends to be a very top down process. You start with a central idea, then put down Basic Ordering Ideas. (Note the term "Ordering") From these branches come more. If you work from the center out, the mind map can develop very analytically from whole to part. Buzan claims that the mind map breaks the left brained linear thinking process and aids whole brain thinking. I believe this depends completely on the process, not the representation. Nonetheless, because a mind map begins with Basic Ordering Ideas and unfolds by triggering ideas in the mind, it will tend to work top down at first. As the map gains complexity, new ideas have to be placed on the map where they associate. This part of the process is more creative and right brained, but is constrained by the Basic Ordering Ideas.

Affinity diagrams are a very bottom up right brained process. It starts will a collection of ideas. The goal is not to break an idea apart, or add new ideas, but to find patterns in the ideas available. More analytical thought processes might find affinities based on common nouns in the ideas, but a more creative thought process will find affinities that are not so obvious. Many times the affinities are somewhat goal directed. For example, if you are making affinity diagrams from interview notes on a work process, the affinities should be related to work process. The end goal is creative discovery.

Both mind maps and affinity diagrams can be linearized when done by creating prose or by storytelling. Mind maps work well for deductive and analytical thinking and affinity diagrams work well inductive and synthetic thinking. This is a somewhat stereotypical view. In reality, the mind is not always stuck in one of these modes and there is a blurring effect.

One can also work from linear notes. A mind map can be created by outlining prose. An affinity diagram can be created by segregating sentences and finding themes.

What this means to me is that linear notes, prose, and story telling are good vehicles for communication and capture. Mind maps and affinity diagrams are good tools for processing and creating. Trying to create from linear notes usually means sucking it into a head, working with it there, then spitting it back out into notes. The whole purpose of the tools is to work it as an artifact rather than all in your head. This allows one to solve more complex problems with more than one person.

Personal Thoughts

Story tellers, mind mappers, and researchers each prefer their respective tools. I wonder though how much we constrain ourselves. Tools have built in biases. They are like the electricians tool belt. When you need to strip a wire, pull out the wire strippers. When you need to attach a wire to a plug, bend the wire with pliers, then fasten it with a screw driver. Each problem has its own tool. On the other hand, the tool belt as an whole allows for creative combinations of order of application and combination.

Does the mind really work this way? Does the mind move from tool to tool to solve a problem? Is not the mind an inherently parallel system? Is it not capable of analysis and synthesis at the same time? Yet once we interact with artifacts, the process is sequentialized. All communication and group creation is constrained by the dimensionality of our interfaces and mediums.

I think it is important to recognize that visual processing is highly parallel, compared to listening to someone speak. Even though we are limited to serial interfaces for speaking, writing, and drawing, once a visual artifact is created, the artifact speaks back to a parallel interface. This is what makes models so effective.

To get the most out of visual artifacts requires a dynamic process of creation, listening, and interpersonal interaction. It is the using of all our sensory dimensions, our minds, and our social nature. By extension it is probably best to use multiple models as well, quite possibly at the same time.

Context

I was in Tokyo this week. It is always interesting to see how context affects products. For example, look at this parking lot:

Parking Garage

The building is over ten stories tall, and lifts the car up into the building. When you back out, a round disk on the ground rotates the card so you are pointing towards the street. As a side benefit, you don't have to worry about theft, as long as you trust the operator.

The product is a perfect match to a city with very high land prices due to lack of space. This would never work in my home town in Colorado. Land is cheap; cars are big. Another example is this gas pump. The station is very small, and getting in and out of the street dangerous. The pull down nozzle can reach the tank from any direction the car parks. This prevents turning around to get the car in the right position. Gas is pumped for you by the attendant, so you don't have to worry about managing the hose.

Gas Pump

More subtle tradeoffs like this exist. For example, a company I am on the board of directors of sells capital equipment. Some customers care about overall economic benefit. Because the equipment is connected to another machine that costs 4 times as much, it economically better to make our equipment faster, even if if the costs goes up, because it lowers the over all cost of the combination. However, some countries in Asia are very sensitive to initial capital outlay, and willing to accept a lower initial cost, even if it is not a economic maximum due to lower performance. Knowing the market allows us tune the product and business model to match.

The Perfect Product: Priceless

I have been in Penang, Malaysia these days helping a company integrate a new product into their manufacturing line and getting feedback on user experience. A little luck came my way and I got invited to a Malaysian wedding reception.

Wedding Flower

A prayer was invoked in Malay with chanting of the Koran in Arabic. The couple dressed as King and Queen. Friends and Family visited them on their throne and sprinkled water and flower petals on their hands, then gave them their hand to congratulate them. The president of the local company and I were invited up to give them our blessing as honored guests.


King and Queen

The bride and bridegroom made a very happy couple; how can anyone improve on that? No man made product can match the value of a wedding: infinite value value zero cost.


Weddind Couple

iPad

I waited in line for an iPad yesterday so I could play with it and imagine some applications. Most of my friends said there was no room for a device between an iPhone and laptop. I imagine lots of applications, such as automating a doctors office or auto repair shop, but the argument fell on deaf ears. I asked people in line why they wanted one and most people gave answers like: I travel a lot and want to watch movies, read e-mail, and use maps, and this is small, but not too small. I let my daughter play with it and she thinks it is cool. For her it is a social networking and media platform, not a homework machine.

Only time will tell, but I still can imagine lots of ways to use it for business, so I guess I better sharpen my Object C skills and write my first app.

PCamp Austin 2010

Just finished PCamp Austin 2010. What an experience!

I heard several people comment that it was as good as any traditional conference, but the price was right: free. However, it is not free, it just does not have a fee. The conference depends on sponsors and volunteers. The facility at the AT&T center is as good as you will get. While the facility at Yahoo was great, the AT&T conference center has a main hall that is a room separated from the building entrance and registration area. With less distractions from passers by, the quality of the presentation in the main area was better.

PCamp Austin started under Bar Camp, but they are now a 501(c) and will hold elections. As a non-profit they can now run donations through the organization's accounts instead of personal bank accounts. The committee behind the event is very well organized.

This PCamp was run a little differently that Silicon Valley PCamp. All the voting occurred on site, as opposed to pre-voting online. From an organizational point of view this means the team had to very quickly take the vote tally and then organize the schedule near real time. The final meeting where feedback was taken made clear that how the sessions are categorized and scheduled matters, because people had trouble deciding what sessions to attend and the possibility for disappointment if the "hot" sessions all occur at the same time.

PCamp now wants to grow. It is already over 200 attendees, so they have a large community to draw on for volunteers. They are planning a two in a box method of brining in new volunteers. PCamp also has PCamp Potlucks where they run a 3 hour evening event. When talking to one of the presenters about how to get PCamp started in Denver, they suggested starting with the smaller Potluck event with 6 sessions and two rooms. The reduced scale would provide an opportunity to learn at a smaller scale. I think it could even run at a smaller scale of three sessions in one room. The take away is that even though an un-conference is simple to understand, it still requires a fair amount of organization to pull it off, and to pull off a big event the first time carries a lot of risk, or a very dedicated team of 4-8 people.

There was less interest in Agile and more focus on strategy, pricing, and traditional PM issues, compared to Silicon Valley PCamp. There were also far less techies. This changed the dynamics, giving the conference a more business feeling, in a traditional sense. Like the Silicon Valley PCamp, there were plenty of consultants at hand, many giving presentations. However, the presentation that won best presenter was not a polished consultant, he worked for Dell.

The sessions I attended where:

  • Value in Use Analysis for Product Pricing and Marketing
  • Total Vision
  • How to Get Buy In for Strategic Product Decisions
  • Sizing, Segmenting, and Forecasting Markets
  • Product Management - Start With the Story
  • PM Becomes Strategic Asset, and What It Means For You

I posted my session notes HERE.

I took video of the morning kick off and the closing meeting. The kick off was about introducing how things would run, what the values of the conference where, logistics, etc. The last meeting was for voting on best presenter and best presentation and feedback. Following the event, everyone wandered to the bar across the street to socialize and network. The videos are a very useful learning tool. Anyone interested in viewing them should let me know. Perhaps I can post them to YouTube at some point.

SVPMA

Yahoo! I am at Silicon Valley PCamp to learn how un-conferences work. About 900 people registered. The place is coming to life and votes are being made. The top 15 internet voted topics make up the morning sessions. The bottom 15 are pasted to the window and we are "dotting" them to see what wins for the afternoon sessions. We each get three votes. I'm cheer leading for the "how to overrule the engineers in a startup" topic :-) Since I am a product manager with an engineering background, I guess I'll learn how to tell myself what to do! Everyone is playing with TweetDeck. I am not a Twitter fan, but it hooks into Facebook and Linked In, so I'll give it a try. If you are into social networking, you might want to give it a try. ----------- Companies that were hiring were allowed to get up and announce their openings. 25-30 people made announcements for product marketing, management, developers, sales, etc. They where asked to write "Hiring" on their badge so people could find them and they could bask in the su ...

Phase Gate and Agile

You have built a $100M company from the ground up, taken if from an ad hoc wildcatter to disciplined product development machine. Your phase gate system weeds out bad concepts, lackluster products, and has generally been successful. However, more and more your products are finishing development only to discover the market has shifted and launch performance has underperformed predictions. No matter how much more upfront work you do, nothing improves. By the time you finish development and gain market feedback, 80% of the investment is sunk, and there is no recovery.

Your developers talk you into trying Agile Product Development, and you agree. The first few products come out well and sales are solid. As the team gains confidence and independence it starts to feel out of control. The team begins to fail when it chases markets that are too small and some projects never seem to finish. Your phase gate controls have all broken down and are not managing risk.

What do you do?

Jim Highsmith (Agile Project Management), has a chapter on governance that deals directly with this problem. Jim points out that in the old phase gate systems, governance and operation (product development) are tightly coupled. Solving your problem requires "separation of governance from operations and then loosely coupling them." Governance is a linear process for managing investments and risk, operating much like real options. Agile works on the principle of iteration, experience, and feedback.

The crux of the solution is in redefining the stages and gates to align with Agile. Traditional phase gate has 5 stages: Opportunity Identification, Concept Generation, Concept Validation, Development, Launch. This clashes with Agile which makes less assumptions and depends on exploration and feedback. Highsmith suggest using 4 phases and gates: Concept, Expansion, Extension, Deploy. Each phase mitigates risk. During Concept the core product ideas are worked out and a few critical iterations are completed. During Expansion high value features are built and as much risk as possible is is driven out. Extension completes the product with minimal risk and better foresight into costs and market acceptance. Deployment puts the product into the market.

The core difference is the Agile team is building a deployable product in every iteration all through all the phases. This reduces the time from requirements to feedback so that the process can respond to market dynamics, rather than the traditional phase gate that builds a deployable product at the end after most of the investment is made. At each gate, executives evaluate the project as an option on future investment. Do we make the investment and buy the next option? Do we cancel the project? Do we wait and see?

The alternative phase gate system allows the executive team or portfolio manager to make linear investment decisions while the team runs an iterative process. This combination will also speed up gate decisions. A classic phase gate requires all work to line up for a moment in time to product documents and presentations for a gate meeting. This interruption causes value flow to stop. Agile iterations are time boxed with deployable product at the end of each time box, so the team is already lined up in time. Evaluation is simplified because the team can demonstrate a product to customers and the executive team. So not only does Agile speed up delivery of value and responsiveness, it actually speeds up getting through the gates, as long as the executives get in alignment with the heartbeat of the project.

Much of the traditional phase gate system can be salvaged, so this is not a start over from scratch. Opportunity Identification and Concept Generation can be placed in the new Concept Phase. Much of the Concept Testing can be placed in the Expansion phase, however a deployable product is created each iteration, so Concept Evaluation, Prototyping, and Market Testing all become the same thing. The key is to redefine the phases and gates to complement Agile.

Balance

Now that I have proposed a Strategy Pattern for Agile, it is time to pick it apart a bit. After all, it is only a model, and a stereotypical one at that.

Jim Highsmith hits the balance issue on the head in Agile Project Development:

Agile Teams can place too much emphasis on adaptation or evolution and too little on anticipation (in planning, architecture, design, requirements definition). Failure to take advantage of knowable information leads to sloppy planning, reactive thinking, excessive rework and delay. Remember: Agility is the art of balancing.

This suggests that one cannot ignore the upper quadrants of the strategy diagram. From a company culture point of view, how do you pull that off? I suggest that what one does not want are tribes within an organization subscribing to one of the four strategies trying to balance each other, say executives operating from Planning and developers operating from Adaptive. This creates a us vs. them mentality. The idea would be for stakeholders to know how (behaviorally) to operate from all quadrants, but as a minimum, from one on the predicability side and one on the non-predictability side. This flexibility allows teams to draw from both.

I imagine balance as development loops taking paths through quadrants like a chaotic attractor that bifurcates as needed to include whatever quadrant is required given the reality the company faces. The role of executive leadership is to gently push the pattern into the shape required whenever it is stuck in a maladaptive pattern. It gets stuck whenever someone lacks flexibility or foresight to recognize that the current pattern is maladaptive.

How do you create such an organization? Leadership, proper selection employees, coaching, education, example, collaboration, etc. Lot of soft skill stuff. There is a natural tendency to use control, but I think this is one place where control is helpless. Creating balance is more like guiding emergence than putting rockets into space.

Agile Project Management

This post looks at Agile Project Management as a Strategy Pattern and the transition from predictive strategies.

Agile Project Management is like Lean Product development with its emphasis on feedback and learning. Traditional Waterfall project development works much like Phase Gate: Specify, Design, Implement, Test, Deliver. One of the problems with the traditional method is that feedback comes late in the process. This means that mistakes made early in the process are revealed late where they are more costly to fix. Agile slices the development into features, iterations, and releases. A set of features are taken all the way to a releasable product, and then feedback is obtained. Even if the product is not officially deployed, an iteration is deployment ready. Feedback allows prioritization of features, learning, and the ability to track a moving target.

The Agile life cycle is:

  • Envision
  • Speculate
  • Explore
  • Launch
  • Close

The names are chosen to suggest flexibility. Iterations can include Speculate, Explore, Launch, or Speculate, Explore, etc. Loops are created where they are needed on a project by project basis. Speculate, Explore, and Launch form the core of adaptability. A pure Agile culture might look like the following Strategy Pattern:

Strategy Modle Agile.png

At the highest level the pattern is about beginning with a Visionary Strategy and then moving to an Adaptive Strategy. The loop in Visionary accounts for what Jim Highsmith (Agile Project Management) calls Iteration 0. Iteration 0 is the minimal amount of work required to build a feature set capable of generating feedback. This is where initial platform and architecture development occur. The loop in Adaptive reflects iterating with the customer in the loop.

Much of the difficultly Agile teams face stems from executive management operating in the Planning quadrant. Managers want predictability of schedules, cost, value delivered, and all the things found in a typical business case. Agile teams tend to disconnect from the Planning quadrant. Highsmith makes a strong argument for balance: that structure and flexibility must coexist in a healthy way, much like bones and muscles.

Where does this pattern apply best? Malleable Technologies. The most obvious is software development, which has near infinite malleability. Where does it apply least? Perhaps building an oil tanker. One cannot implement a subset of an oil tanker and expect a customer to test it. However, what if you can take a rigid technology and make it malleable? Modeling and Simulation are tools that make a technology malleable, and so are prototyping tools. One can make a 3D model and construct a prototype with lasers and plastic powder that a end user can play with it. Tools can be an enabler of this Strategy Pattern.

 

 

Strategy Modle Agile 2.png

 

Whether tools enable this shift or not, the real challenge is the cultural shift which requires a flexible mindset and balancing it with a prediction based mindset. Perhaps the best advice I can give about making this transition is take baby steps, say product enhancements followed by simple products. Work your way up to larger projects learning at each step along the way. But if you can make the transition, you can gain an competitive edge over your competition that is hard to copy. It is much harder to copy cultural changes than technologies.

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