A FAQ About Frequently Asked Questions

1. What’s a FAQ?

A list of questions with answers written in English are a great way to drive clear thinking on all the stuff that surround the central idea presented in a narrative. This ‘stuff’ includes things like strategy, execution, technology, business, and resources.

The main text of any narrative should be so clearly written that FAQs are unnecessary. To accomplish this, make a list of ten questions a reader might ask. Answer them. Then determine if those answers should be integrated into the main text or handled verbally in the review meeting. Put the answers that don’t belong in the document but might be needed during the meeting (verbally) in a back-pocket appendix. Repeat. By doing this, the author is forced to do the critical thinking to generate more questions and answers.

As the author does this, she or he will find questions that simply can’t be answered cleanly in the main document or are too critical to leave for the back-pocket appendix. These become FAQs in the FAQ section of the narrative.

2. Where should FAQs appear in a document? 

FAQs should generally come at the end of the document, after the prose. 

3. Should FAQs be numbered? 

Yes, you should number them. Numbering FAQs makes it easy for readers to call out which FAQ they want to make a point about. If there are multiple sections of FAQs in a document (e.g., a Customer FAQ and an Internal FAQ), make sure the numbering is continuous across all sections. This way readers can precisely call out a specific question. (The FAQs in this wiki would be numbered if confluence made it easy to do so. It doesn’t).

4. How many questions can be asked and answered in each FAQ? What if the question is complicated? 

Every FAQ should be comprised of a single question with a direct answer to that question (and only that question). Ask and answer only one question at a time. For example, the question I’m answering right now is a horrible example (intentionally), because it asks two questions. The second question (what if the question is complicated) makes writing a simple answer impossible. Figure out how to simplify the questions so there’s only one question, or just make two FAQs. 

5. Is a FAQ a required element of a narrative? 

A perfect six-page narrative would answer all the readers’ questions in the main body prose. However, often there are aspects where the FAQ format is the only way to simply and clearly answer a question. 

In fact, over-using FAQs can lead to sloppy writing, which results in less clear thinking. 

Some narrative forms (e.g., Working-Backwards (WB) narratives) have a set of required FAQs. 

6. What’s the trick for identifying good FAQs?  

Here are a few tips for identifying good FAQs: 

Seek the truth: Ask yourself what questions about the topic would you least like to answer verbally. Anything you come up with is likely a good candidate for a FAQ. 

Imagine the most hostile (or rude) thing a reader might ask. A classic is “Why are we wasting time on this idea?” 

Consider the obvious or negative cases. For example, if your narrative describes a new product and target customer segment, a FAQ might be “What customer segments will this product NOT be attractive to?” 

Sometimes there is a set of standard FAQs that every narrative of a type (e.g. a WB narrative) must answer (e.g. “What geographies will this product be launched in?”) 

7. What tips will help keep the questions simple? 

Less is more. The fewer words in your question, the better. Long questions are hard to parse and read. 

Ask the question. Seriously. If you find you are having trouble phrasing the question simply, find another human and verbally ask them the question. Often this will cause you simplify how you ask it.  

8. Is there a trick to answering only one question at a time? 

The trick is to only ask one question at a time (I added this because I have found it incredibly common for writers to stumble on this obvious point). 

Should questions and answers use proper English (grammar, spelling, and punctuation)? 

Yes. It is important both the question and answer use proper English to accurately and concisely answer the question. 

9. Does the order of questions in a FAQ matter? 

The order in which things are presented always indicates an order. We wouldn’t use the word ‘order’ if there wasn’t an ordering. More important things should be presented before less important things. Related questions should be kept together. If you have another heuristic that would determine the order for your FAQs then use it (but you better explain it explicitly and clearly to the reader). 

10. How many questions can be in a FAQ? 

There is no limit to the number of questions in a FAQ. A well written six-page narrative (with included FAQs) can be read by most careful readers in 20-30 minutes. For a 60-minute review meeting, this leaves 30 minutes for discussion. Six pages is the maximum, not the ideal. A one-page document that describes a simple solution to a complex problem clearly is vastly superior to a six-page document that does the same thing. 

Start with a goal of having no more than ten FAQs works. 

11. Can an entire narrative be structured as a FAQ? 

I’ve seen it work for narratives that explain a technique, like in a blog post describing how to write great FAQs. However, FAQs are not a great way to describe a concept such as a new customer experience or product plan. For those, actual narrative (words in sentences that make up paragraphs that flow from beginning to end) is far more effective primarily because writing actual prose is what forces the writer to really think clearly. 

12. When reading a FAQ, should I carefully read the questions? 

The author of the document wouldn’t have written the question if they didn’t think it was important. So, yes.

13. What’s a FAQAFAQ?

A FAQ about Frequently Asked Questions. Of course. Credit @ctpierson.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

I’m Betting on Control4

Previously I blogged about revamping the home control and entertainment system in my home. I decided to go with Control4. I mean REALLY go with Control4.

First, I’ve been having a professional premium smart home installer (Wipliance) completely revamp my home with Control4 products.

Second, I’ve decided to join Control4 as Senior Vice President of all their products and services. See the press release here.

The home project is almost complete. All that’s left for Wipliance to wrap up are a few edge-case devices and some programming. Oh, and the theater isn’t done as we decided to replace the carpet at the same time, and part of that install got goofed up (my fault).

I went with 148 intelligent lighting loads controlled by Control4’s panelized lighting, 52 Control4 keypads, five rooms of Multi-room 4K video including an Atmos home theater setup, 10 zones of Multi-Room audio using Triad amplifiers and speakers, two Control4 door stations, 15 Pakedge cameras, 9 Control4 smart thermostats, five Pakedge wireless access points, a host of Pakedge gigabit switches, and more. My fireplaces and the air compressor in my garage are all controlled by Control4 too. My network has 98 IP devices 58 Zigbee devices.

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Via Control4’s fantastic Alexa skill, Alexa can control 157 individual lights and 41 scenes. We can use touchscreens, phones, and voice to control all 15 (10 audio, 5 audio and video) media zones (“Alexa, turn up the volume on the patio”). My wife can use voice to raise the temperature in 9 spaces. Control4 doesn’t yet support the Alexa Smart Home Camera Skill API, but I suspect that will change <g>.

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In case you are not familiar with Control4, the company’s mission is to be both the solution and platform-ecosystem leader for premium automation and networking for the connected-home market. Control4 builds and sells over a hundred products under three brands: Control4 (Intelligent Lighting, Multi-room video distribution, A/V Communication and Intercom devices, and automation controllers), Triad (Premium multi-room audio amplifiers, switchers, and speakers), and Pakedge (professional-grade routers, switches, wireless access points, and network management).

I’m excited about all this (both my kick-ass home and my new job). The team is amazing and I’m looking forward to learning how to get stuff done at a much smaller public company. I’m also intrigued and a little scared to be taking on such a broad portfolio of products. I’m known for building and shipping more singular products and platforms. In this role I’ll be responsible for dozens of products across multiple domains.Control4 BrandsThe company is firing on all cylinders with 16% compounded growth rate over the past 5 years. It’s profitable and public for five years with no debt. The average Control4 home orchestrates more than 42 connected-devices, with the top 10% of home orchestrating more than 180.

Control4 stands out for its continued growth because our solutions and platform enable reliable, useful, and compelling smart home experiences – from a single room, to the most luxurious and comprehensive of homes, as well as tens-of-thousands of guestrooms at premium hotels (Cosmo, Montage, Aria).

2018-07-27 07.38.42During my time at Amazon, I witnessed the explosive growth in the Smart Home – voice, the most natural interface for the home, has driven consumer demand and acceptance. The problem is, getting all those individual products to work together – throughout the entire home is work typical home owners just don’t want to do. There’s too much fragility and complexity for normal folks to deal with.

For the past 16 years I did everything myself: multi-room audio, smart lighting, smart sprinklers, whole home security, and automation. Even for me, it was a second fulltime job to make all that really work. I’m absolutely convinced that the only way normal people will be able to really enjoy the benefits of a whole-home smart home is with professional help (see my blog post from earlier this year titled Concierge Home Technology).

Control4 has a full line of premium smart home products designed to work together and 5000 independently dealer/integrators who take the hassle out of design and installation of personalized solutions (like my home). The platform works with over 12,000 3rd party products and I believe the Control4 ecosystem is the most expansive in the premium smart home industry. Along with a culture of customer obsession, these assets combine to make having a true smart home easier than anyone else – and more comprehensively simple.

I am also excited about the opportunity to deliver new experiences to the Control4 dealer. I’ve recognized the importance of the professional integrator and his/her role in delivering reliable and compelling experiences for homeowners. I’m keen on empowering an expanding number of Control4 dealers with new tools and products to help drive experience, efficiency, and business profitability. I have very relevant experience building customer and developer communities at both Amazon and Microsoft.2018-07-27 07.54.42

Control4 is growing and we have many great roles open. For example, I’m immediately looking to hire a Head of Hardware Engineering and a Software Development leader for mobile and GUI. We are also hiring a Sr. Director of Product Management for Lighting. Click here to see what other roles we’re hiring for.

Now that I have pros configuring and managing my home systems, I plan on spending more time blogging about how we USE our home. Check back!

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Tools to Achieve Clarity of Thought

This post inventories the tools I use from my toolbox when I need to drive clear thinking in product development. I was inspired to write this based on a Twitter conversation in March:

Charlie’s Clarity of Thought Toolbox

  • Write Down The 5 Ps. Purpose, Principles, Priorities, Plan, and People. Detailed here: The 5 Ps: Achieving Focus in Any Endeavor.
  • Dive Deep. Do the hard work required to actually know the details at the deepest level. The more details you know, the better questions you can ask. The better questions you ask, the more everyone gets clarity of thought. Better clarity of thought leads to better decisions by everyone. So, read the actual source code (or even better write some code). Use the product until it fails. Read every Jira. Do the math yourself. Write the document that explains it to everyone else.
  • Be a Great Reader. Read. Every. Word. Carefully. I wrote a blog post on this topic here.
  • Audit Mechanisms. An audit mechanism is a system or process that forces details to be surfaced regularly. For example, in a weekly operational excellence review, use a wheel-of-fortune style wheel to randomly select a project each week where the lead must explain their metrics dashboard. This forces every project to be prepared, but scales because not every project has to be reviewed each week.
  • Seek the Truth. Question everything.
  • Write Narratives. As Jeff Bezos said “It is impossible to write a great 6-page narrative and not have clarity of thought.” If you are tackling any hard problem take the time to write a short (no longer than 6-page), narratively written, memo presenting the problem. See some of my posts on writing here. Also make sure you read Jeff Bezos’s 2017 Letter to Shareholders.
  • Ask and Answer Great Questions in narratives using FAQs. See my FAQ About Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Ask The 5 Whys. No tool is better at getting to the root cause than “The 5 Whys”. Folks often cheat when using the 5 Why’s and ask 5 parallel questions. Don’t fall into that trap. Ask questions that seek the truth and don’t be afraid to have multiple 5 Why threads in parallel. Write it down.
  • Taxonomy and Lexicon. Develop a strong taxonomy with clear entity names. Create three buckets and put parts of the problem in them. Give each a name that logically makes sense. Don’t be afraid to get out the dictionary and thesaurus. Think hard about the meanings of the words you choose. Make it pithy. Write it down. Take a look at these blog posts for examples of taxonomies and lexicons I’ve developed: Customer, Business, Technology, Organization (CBTO), The 5 Ps: Achieving Focus in Any Endeavor, and The Market Sides of the Mobile Ecosystem.
  • Invent or Steal a Mental Model. Ask yourself “what is a real-world analogy for this topic?” Startup folks are often great at coming up with “Uber for avocados” mental models. Don’t be afraid to steal mental models from others. Write your mental model down. These blog posts cover mental models I’ve stolen from others and might help you understand how mental models work: Attention is the Currency of Leadership and Merit Badges.
  • Structured Brainstorm. It is amazing what can happen when a group of smart folks get in a room for a structured brainstorm session. The funny thing about structured brainstorm sessions is how they are better the less organized they are. Levity is key.
  • Do something monotonous and un-related. Wax the car. Power wash the driveway. Plant petunias. Bake cookies. It is ok to procrastinate (you can tell ‘em I gave you permission). Focusing on repetitive, monotonous, and unrelated tasks enables the subconscious to work magic.

Do you have other tools you’d like to share? Post them as a comment please!

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Let Word Work For You

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I have to edit a document someone else has written and they’ve manually messed with the formatting.

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Microsoft Word has an incredibly flexible style system that makes creating docs that look great easy. It also makes easy for others editing the doc can keep things consistent.

This isn’t to say Word’s style system is perfect. Far from it. Many of the same styling bugs that existed in Word for Windows 7.0 appear to still be in the most recent version. For example, styles involving numbering and hanging indents are just wonky. But working around these is still better than trying to keep a document formatted consistently by hand.

Do not change the formatting of a paragraph, header, bulleted list, numbered list, or any other element smaller than a sentence directly. Instead either edit the current style or create a new style an apply it.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Ownership

A strong bias towards ownership is important in org culture. The problem is, folks often over index on ‘I own this area, so I’m going to nail it!’ vs. ‘I am an owner on behalf of the entire company and need to do the right thing for our customers!’. The key is to balance these.

Amazon’s definition tries to make this tension apparent by explicitly stating ownership is broader than themselves or their team:

Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job”.

Owners drive results and feel deep responsibility for them. If things are late, the numbers are weak, or a failure occurs, owners never blame others. Owners focus on finding out what went wrong and how to ensure the date gets pulled in, the numbers improve, or the failure can never occur again.

Owners are expert at delegating. There’s a big difference between telling people what to do, and helping people know what the right thing to do is. Great owners are expert at the later. Great owners scale by bringing others along with them.

Owners get their hands dirty. And elbows. They pitch in and do the grunt work when necessary. They lead by example, demonstrating no task is beneath them.

Owners don’t lick cookies. If they assert they are going to build something or deliver some result, they do it. The corollary of this is, owners are effective at managing their time and thus frugal at taking on new responsibility.

Owners pay attention to the details (because details matter) and they hold others accountable for getting the details right.

Owners get direct satisfaction when the product has high quality and feel personally ashamed when there are quality problems.

Owners avoid saying “they or them” when referring to other teams. Instead they realize it is their own responsibility to build the bridge with the other team.

Owners recognize their management can’t know all the details, but needs to and they proactively educate ‘up’.

An organization with a strong culture of ownership enables leaders to do more, faster, independently.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Concierge Home Technology

I had written the following in my blog post announcing my departure from Amazon:

I am hiring a CEDIA-level installer to completely refit my home automation system and I will project manage that.

A few weeks ago someone at Control4 tweeted the following, which I replied to with a tweetstorm. This post expands on the idea I presented in that tweetstorm…

This is true. Even though smart homes are finally taking off, after decades of fits and starts, I still think most of the do-it-yourself (DIY) smart home products are too hard to use and too fragile to actually depend on. There’s still a HUGE gap between a home professionally outfitted top-to-bottom and a home with a bunch of DIY gadgets cobbled together by the home owner.

Not everyone can afford a professionally designed, installed, programmed, and monitored smart home.

Yet.

If they can afford it today, I recommend to friends they go the “Concierge” route: Hire a professional home technology integrator to just do it all for you, correctly. Life is too short to spend futzing around configuring and programming your home.

This not only applies to useful gadgets like lights, media, and cameras, but to the network infrastructure that needs to be in place for it all to work. Ask yourself this: How much of your own personal time would you budget if you decided to replace your home router? The last person I asked this said “At least a weekend.”

If you react to this by saying “Oh, I use Foo Co’s product and it’s so easy it’ll just take an hour” you are either…

  1. Lying,
  2. living in a one bedroom apartment,
  3. have no idea what it means to have a fully outfitted smart home, or
  4. extremely lucky for now, try adding 10+ more diverse devices.

The infrastructure in my home is dated (we designed and built the house in 1999-2002) and I’m going pay a pro to refit everything in the next few months. By everything I mean home network infrastructure, lighting, whole home music, televisions, security, cameras, irrigation, HVAC, and intercom/telephone. There will be some DIY products involved, but the infrastructure and automation system will be designed, installed, programmed, and monitored by a professional, not me.

I currently have over 250 ‘devices’ controllable by Alexa in my home. 152 of those are lighting loads. 47 are keypads. Some are virtual devices like scenes. Some are devices like the air compressor in my workshop which only powers on when I’m there. We have five TVs with associated media players and speakers. There’s an 8-zone whole-home audio system. Plus the security system and cameras. It took serious work by me to program it and maintain it over the past 17 years, all as a hobby. It works, but not as well as it could and should. Part of this is because some of the tech is old, but it’s mostly because I’m not a pro. I don’t get paid to do this.

I do not want to spend my time programming my home anymore. I want to spend that time on my cars Winking smile. I’ve lived in homes with professionally outfitted systems, similar in scale to mine, and the stability, refinement, and ease of use really does deliver on the dream many of us in the industry have been working towards for decades.

However, not even the high-end stuff (or industry) is perfect. Some old-school incumbents have intentionally made their products complex to artificially support dealer networks and protect crazy margins. Some do a horrible job interfacing with other companies’ products. There are not enough skilled installers and programmers, which is limiting growth. And it’s all pretty expensive – everyone in the value-chain wants their fair share and the value-chain is deep.

Part of why I want to have a pro do it this time is to see how far away we (the collective smart home industry) are from the ideal. The ideal being a world where anyone can afford a completely connected smart home where professionals design, install, program, and monitor the infrastructure, devices, and system so customers can just enjoy the benefits. I call this “Concierge Home Technology”.

Concierge Home Technology is real today, and is big business. Technology companies like Savant Systems, Control4, Snap A/V, Crestron, and Lutron are the players you’ve probably heard of. They are supported by tens of thousands of dealer/integrators around the world who do the design, installation, programming, and monitoring. If you are considering making your home truly smart, in order to have music everywhere, reliable voice-controlled lighting, great security, and automatic behaviors find a local dealer/integrator and ask them to show you an ‘experience-based’ demo home (Control4 just launched a cool initiative where at least one of their dealers in every major city has a certified showroom).

The Big 5 are all investing big time in smart home products. A few of them are actually making real money at it (finally). Their focus is on DIY products, and they generally believe smart homes can be self-organizing (by software). I don’t buy it. No household of any size, with more than few family members, is ever going to have the level of refinement and sophistication mine has without some custom programming. I’m eager to see how this plays out.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Friday was my last day at Amazon

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The goodbye mail to the Alexa Smart Home team explains it all pretty well:

Date: Apr 27, 2018 3:03 PM
Subject: Smart Home Org Update

Team,

With mixed emotions I share the news that Charlie Kindel has decided to leave Amazon. Charlie has accomplished many things in his time here, not the least of which is the founding and scaling of Alexa Smart Home. Alexa would not be the leader in Smart Home that it is without his vision, leadership, and hard work – he will be deeply missed. Charlie prepared the short FAQ found below to share his thinking with the Smart Home team. In Charlie’s own words…

1. Why are you leaving Amazon?

The pace of the past 5 years has finally gotten to me and I simply need to catch my breath. I’ve recently been joking with folks that “I used to get my adrenaline rush going heli-skiing. Now I just go into work.” I have a car restoration project that is two years behind schedule. My home automation system needs a complete revamp (it’s gotten a bit crusty since it was installed in 2001).

2. Why leave Amazon and not just go on a leave?

I was originally just going to take a temporary leave, but I like the idea of having total freedom of thought to decide what’s next in my life. By making a clean break from Amazon all options (including coming back to Amazon) are still on the table.

3. What are you going to do?

Relax and goof off. I will clean my home office which is a freaking mess and work on car projects. I am hiring a CEDIA-level installer to completely refit my home automation system and I will project manage that. I hope to enjoy the awesome summer we’re about to have in Seattle with my family (both of my adult kids will be living in the Seattle area starting this summer). Professionally, I don’t know what’s next.

I will miss you all! Please don’t hesitate to keep in touch; my personal email is charlie(at)kindel.com.

Other questions I’m sure people have:

What are you going to miss the most about Amazon?

I’m going to miss the people. The Alexa Smart Home team is an incredible team that I was blessed to have built from the ground up. I’ve had so much fun watching so many people grow in their careers and it’s going to suck not being able to be around them day-to-day as they continue to flourish.

I’m also going to miss Amazon’s high standards. I’m skeptical I’ll find another environment where the drive for “raising the bar” is so consistent and strong. Wherever I go next, you can be sure I’ll be taking this with me:

Insist on the highest standards

Leaders have relentlessly high standards—many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high-quality products, services, and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

— from the Amazon Leadership Principles

What are you going to miss the least?

Leaving the house at 6:00am to beat Seattle traffic and returning home at 6:30pm every day. Although, I have to say, I did enjoy working ‘downtown’ more than I expected.

Will you ever return to Amazon?

Maybe (if they’ll have me). After being at Microsoft for 21 years I promised myself I’d never ‘fall in love’ with a company again. It’s just not healthy. But the reality is there are many, many things about how Amazon operates that deeply resonate with me. For example, the 14 leadership principles all sing to me and I have always been blown away how seriously everyone at Amazon takes them.

Are you available for consulting gigs?

Generally, no. I’m taking a very serious (ha!) break from ‘work’. However, I might be willing to take on some executive and leadership coaching. I am absolutely not available to consult on or discuss things related to my role at Amazon.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Clear Narratives Show Instead of Tell

This is yet-another-post on the topic of Amazon-style “six-page memos”, aka Narratives. This post focuses on the mantra: “Great narratives show, they don’t tell.”

When writing things you believe to be facts, ask yourself: How do I know? How can I qualify it? Then, qualify it in your words.

Tell (Bad):

The BMW E28 M5 is a rare car.

Show (Good):

Of the 722,328 E28 5-series sedans BMW built between 1981 and 1987, only 2,191 were the rare M5 variant.

When suggesting a course of action (e.g. “we should do x”), follow the suggestion with an explaination of why (e.g. “because of y and z).

Tell (Bad):

We should replace the old blinker fluid.

Show (Good):

We should replace the old blinker fluid because customers have reported 42 cases where old blinker fluid caused flux capacitors to wear out.

Its not uncommon for the data to be weak, but for the team to still be committed to a plan because of wisdom or strong anecdotes. If the data being presented has value, but has holes in it point out the holes. Don’t let (or ask) the reader to find those holes. Make it clear the risks have been assessed.

If you think your data has holes but still has value, point out the holes rather than have someone else do it during your presentation. Use data that both supports and argues against the author’s position. Demonstrate that you have assessed the risks.

Tell (Bad):

I am not going to replace the 5 year-old timing belt because it has less than 5,000 miles on it.

Show (Good):

I am not going to replace the timing belt because it has less than 5,000 miles on it. While this belt is older than the recommended replacement age of 4 years, this car has been stored in a humidity and climate controlled environment and the risk of the belt breaking is very low.

Some literary elements one should never use in narratives (yes, I get the irony of using an Absolute Statement here):

  • Quantifiers. Quantifiers are a type of determiner which denote imprecise quantity. They modify nouns or pronouns. Many, much, some, a few.
  • Qualificative or Qualifying Descriptive Adjectives. Big. Small. nice, complicated  better, best, and bad, worse, worst.
  • Predictive Adjectives. Expensive, funny, good.
  • Absolute statements. All, none, never, always. Nothing is in the absolute.

Finally, here are some other tips that will help you show vs. tell:

  • Correlation does not mean causation. A strong correlation between two trends is just a correlation, until there is proven causation.
  • For any data ask “is this common sense”? It’s shocking how many documents contain data that does not pass the sniff test. One mistake like this will ruin an entire narrative. You should always know the exact source of the data (use footnotes!), the timeliness of the data, how the data was calculated, and any assumptions that might not be known to the reader.
  • Don’t just put more data because you feel you need more data. Only put in data that helps create clarity or drive a decision. Likewise, don’t put data in just because getting said data was hard work.

Don’t TELL me your idea or opinion, SHOW me your idea or opinion. Use data liberally to make your case to the readers of a narrative.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Be a Great Reader

When an organization has a culture where the written word is valued, being a great reader is just as important as being a great writer. In my time at Amazon, I’ve learned (more like it was beaten into me) to have a very high-bar for my own writing. I wrote a little about this in my post Details Matter. I’ve also learned the importance of being a great reader, and that’s the topic of this post.

In the latest Amazon Shareholder letter Jeff Bezos wrote more about Amazon’s famous ‘six-page narratives’. He used the process of writing a great narrative as an example of what it means to have relentlessly high-standards.

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.”

– Jeff Bezos, Amazon 2017 Annual Letter

The “narratively structured six-page” mechanism at Amazon is not about the document itself. Instead the ‘six-page memo’ mechanism creates a virtuous cycle that results in ever-increasing clarity of thought. The major components of that cycle are great writing, great meetings (“study hall”), and great reading.

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It turns out that not everyone is a great reader (including those like me who have always read a lot)! Great reading is a skill that requires focus and training.

Understanding is key

I am not a speed reader. I am a speed understander.

– Isaac Asimov

I finish novels in a fraction of the time it takes most people because I learned as a kid how to skim and cluster (two of the primary techniques used in speed reading). For novels this is fine. But for Amazon-style narratives and technical papers speed reading is bad. Understanding is key. I had to train myself to slow down and focus on understanding to be a valuable participant in document reviews at Amazon. I am still working on it.

Learn how to understand first, then apply skills for efficiency. I see two modes to reading: Novel mode and study mode. These modes are related only because they both involve eyes seeing words on a page; otherwise they are diametrically different. In reading a novel, efficiency is key so skimming the boring bits is fine. Inventing character or plot details that were glossed over will not ruin the story.

But for narratives every word, every element of grammar, every punctuation mark, and every number were carefully chosen by the writer. Thus understanding is key. Skimming and clustering are anti-patterns to reading narratives well because if any detail is missed, the entire point of the memo may be missed.

I’ve become a better reader by training myself to be an active reader. Active reading means being 100% focused on the document at hand and scrutinizing every word, every punctuation mark, and every bit of formatting. It means checking the math. It means reading slowly and pausing regularly (like every time there’s a period indicating the end of a sentence or whitespace indicating a paragraph break!) to think critically about what the writer wrote. Great active readers can identify omitted “obvious” details the writer left out, but others miss.

Contrast this to passive reading, which is when the point is just to be entertained.

Tips for Being a Great Reader

  • Be an active reader.
  • Have a pen in hand. Use it. I find having a pen in hand when I start reading helps put me in Active Reader Mode.
  • Pause on numbers and do the math yourself. Don’t trust any number. If a number seems hyperbolic, find the place in the doc where it was justified.
  • Pause after each sentence or paragraph and restate it in your head. Pausing between paragraphs allows the brain to digest details and make connections.
  • Stop if you find yourself reverting to speed reading. Go back and read what you skimmed again.
  • Don’t let document author cajole you into hurrying up. If they made the doc too long, or so confusing that you’ve had to re-read parts of it, that’s not your problem. Insist they give you more time.
  • Hold the writer to a high standard. If the doc is confusing, say so. If, after reading, you are hungry for more details on something, insist on more details. Writing, reading, and the review meetings are part of a complete mechanism that is intended to give everyone involved clarity of thought on a topic. There is nothing wrong with going through a loop multiple times, and until the topic is presented as simply and clearly as possible, your job as a reader is to help the writer come back next time with an even better version.

What tips and techniques have you learned for being a better reader?

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Customer, Business, Technology, Organization (CBTO)

Sometime near the end of the last century, J Allard coined the term BXT at Microsoft. As Robbie Bach notes in his book Xbox Revisited:

BXT = Business + eXperience + Technology

I used the BXT mental model for many years to get clarity on organizing product teams, hiring leaders, and in mentoring others. However, several things about the BXT model always annoyed me.

  1. I hated that B (Business) came first. The Customer ALWAYS comes first, not the Business (or Technology).
  2. While the “X” was cute and sexy in an Xbox sort-of-way, the word “experience” fails to capture the most important thing: The Customer. Building experiences is not the end, but a means to the end.
  3. BXT doesn’t factor in another critical dimension of building great stuff for customers: The people who build and how they are organized.

I’ve come up with a framework that addresses all of these issues. I call it CBTO. The name is certainly not as sexy sounding as BXT, but it is still easy to remember.

CBTO

CBTO = Customer + Business + Technology + Organization.

Customer

Who is the customer? How do we segment customers? How many customers are there? What do customers want? What pain do customers currently feel?

The customer perspective is also the product perspective. What is the customer experience we are working backwards from? What is the product? What features are important? How are those features crafted and prioritized?

Everyone in the organization needs to take this perspective, but generally folks who consider themselves Product Managers and UX Designers tend to index very highly on this perspective.

Business

Why are we doing this? Is there a new strategy, or does what we are doing accrue to an existing strategy? Is there money to be made? If so how much and when? What deals do we need to make to deliver the customer experience? What our our inputs and outputs for the business? How do we measure success?

The Business perspective is also the industry perspective. Who can we partner with? What are industry trends? Who are our competitors?

The Business perspective is typically where folks with business backgrounds (e.g. MBAs) are the strongest.

Technology

How are we going to execute? What do we need to invent to make the proposed customer experience true? What shoulders of giants do we stand on?

The technology perspective is also the execution perspective. What’s our execution model (e.g. agile or waterfall)? How do we operate our services? How do we ensure operational excellence?

The Technology perspective is usually the strongest with engineering leaders, like SDMs or Technical Program Managers. Generally engineering is where the center of gravity in most high-performing organizations is, simply because engineers are the only people who actually do work that directly impacts customers.

Organization

How are we organized? Functionally? Or single-threaded? How will we recruit and hire the best? How do we ensure everyone is setup for success in their careers? What’s our compensation and reward system?

All managers must index high on the organizational perspective.

CBTO

You can use the CBTO mental model to gain clarity on a broad range of topics. For example:

  • If you are designing an organization you can use it to determine if you have the right balance of leadership in place to be successful. The best product organizations have a balance excellence in across all four perspectives.
  • When reporting on status (e.g. a weekly status report), use CBTO to add structure to your report. What did you do this week focused on defining the product experience (C)? Meeting with external partners (B)? Progress towards shipping (T)? Being a manager or mentor (O)?
  • When considering a career move, ask yourself where you are strong, and where you are weak relative to these perspectives. Then decide which of them you’d like to be putting more energy into in your next role.
  • When interviewing leaders, ask them to stack rank their relative strengths and weakness across these four perspectives. If you are hiring someone to be an engineering leader and their stack is “BOCT” then they probably won’t make a very good engineering leader.
  • I’ve used CBTO to categorize many of the posts I’ve written on this blog over the years. These links take you to those that focus on each perspective: Customer, Business, Technology, Organization.

Frameworks and mental models like BXT or CBTO can help create clarity of thought. There’s no perfect framework, but I have found CBTO to work pretty well for me. What do you think?

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.