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 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.

WINWORD_2018-06-04_08-13-48

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.

© 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.