Mental Models

You’ve probably noticed people you work with who are effective at leading can frame complex ideas simply. They’ll lead conversations like this:

“Well, I think there are three things we should focus on, not 15, and they are…”

“Folks, I think there’s another way of looking at this problem. What if we viewed the problem through these four lenses…”

A key to doing this effectively is being conscious about the concept of Mental Models. I blundered through a large part of my career not being overtly conscious of the concept. But once a mentor coached me on utilizing them intentionally I quickly found I was able to be much more effective driving debate and getting people and organizations aligned.

“A mental model is an explanation of how something works. It is a concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind to help you interpret the world and understand the relationship between things. Mental models are deeply held beliefs about how the world works.”

James Clear

There’s no shortage of good Internet content on Mental Models. I encourage you to search yourself, but as I sat down to write this tip, I immediately found this post which is a solid (if a bit academic) primer. This post is also good.

You can invent your own Mental Models. For example, I developed a Mental Model that has helped me navigate building technology products at scale. I call it CBTO. It provides a great way to reason about the work we do everyday to build and sell fantastic products. See my primer on CBTO here.

You probably already use Mental Models and not realize it. For example, Control4 employees probably already use the Mental Model of our primary customers: Control4->Dealer-Customers->End-Customer. We sell products to dealer-customers who sell them to end-customers.

The tip here is to learn and practice skills for being conscious and thoughtful about the mental models you use. An example of such a skill? Get good at writing your Mental Models down on paper such that others can understand and adopt them.

What are some of your favorite Mental Models? How are you going to apply them next time you’re debating a topic with a colleague? Where’s the wiki page you’ve written that describes the mental models to others?

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Lead Without Authority

There are two forms of influence in the world:

  1. Influence by authority
  2. Influence without authority

When a ‘boss’ (a manager or someone with a big title) attempts to influence change or drive action using only their authority, it is rarely successful in the short term, and never in the long term. “Because, I told you so” may work a few times on a kindergartner, but doesn’t inspire confidence or long-term results in the business world.

“You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Instead, the best leaders (whether or not they have authority) learn how to use non-authoritarian skills to influence others. The worst managers (and people with big titles) just boss people around.

Some of the Amazon Leadership Principles inform the skills required to be great at influencing without authority. For example:

  • A leader who learns to Dive Deep and stay connected to the underlying data or technical details of a problem, can propose a solution based on facts. Facts trump opinions.
  • People and groups respond better to leaders who listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. When a leader doesn’t do these things, or is afraid of ‘being proven wrong’, people will lose trust in them and thus their influence will diminish.
  • Bold ideas that are clearly articulated motivate people. Leaders who are good at thinking big can use those skills to influence others to follow their lead.

In thinking about this tip, I found this blog post on the Internet. It’s worth a read for more tips on how to influence without authority:  https://coachingforleaders.com/influence-without-authority/

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Focusing on users is not Customer Obsession

Let’s talk Customer Obsession and how it is different than user obsession.

My definitions:

  • Customer: An individual (or entity) that pays you, directly or indirectly, for value you provide.
  • User: An individual that is forced to use something you provide.

Users fall into three buckets 1) people unhealthily addicted to something (heroin), 2) employees forced to use something in order to do their job (IT systems), or 3) people who are products of services that sell them to advertisers (Facebook, Google, etc…).

https://www.flickr.com/photos/findrehabcenters

Customer Obsession means you explicitly avoid making people into users. While we should aspire to drive virality in our products, customer obsession means we never aspire to make that virality addictive. The best IT products are built by teams that treat the people who end up using the products as though they were the ones actually paying the bills. I see that Google is now charging for a premium YouTube service. I find it outrageous that a product would be willing to actually pay the company that is selling it money.

Let’s endeavor to treat the humans we build products for as customers, not users. Be more Customer Obsessed by striking the word “user” from your vernacular. It’s Customer Experience (CX) not User Experience (UX). When you read a doc where someone has used the word “user” or “end-user” challenge them on it. Are they explicitly trying to drive an unhealthy addiction? Are they expecting to force the experience on someone? Are they treating humans as products to sell to someone else, like an advertiser?

P.S. I’m not alone in this view. See this eloquent blog post by Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Debate Tenets

If you read my ancient blog post “the 5Ps” (Purpose, Principles, Priorities, People, Plan) you’ll see I’ve long thought having a set of guiding principles for any project is important.

At Amazon I learned there was a synonym to the word principle: Tenet.

I’ve heard Jeff Bezos say repeatedly “A team can never spend too much ime debating their tenets.” My team at Control4 is likely tired of me repeating this mantra. Why is debating tenets so important?

First, debating (and writing down) tenets ensures everyone is in agreement about critical questions that can’t be verified with data or facts. For example, should we build a new Control4 lighting feature centered in the cloud or on-premise? Because our lighting team has debated and agreed on the following tenet, the answer is clear:

On-premise compute comes first. Lighting is a mission-critical capability for our end-customers, requiring low-latency, and resiliency to Internet outages. As a result we choose to invest in on-premise vs. cloud-based infrastructure for our Lighting products.

Second, tenets enable intellectual honesty. The topics around product development can be complex. There’s a tendency for the team trying to ship something to focus on the trees and not the forest; to get mired in the details, losing sight of the overall goal. The best tenets are oriented for the long-term and when a team steps back and debates tenets they create a framework that can be used later, when the ‘trees are closing in’, to keep track of the broader strategy.

The best tenets are memorable, with pithy descriptions. They are specific and not “motherhood-and-apple-pie”. Great tenets take a stand; you know you’re debating a good one if someone in the room has a negative reaction to it. Tenets are relevant today, but are oriented towards the long term; they rally around things that will always be true for customers. If a tenet covers more than one idea, break it into multiple that individually cover a single, essential idea that is memorable.

Here’s another example from Control4’s Comfort team:

We stand on the shoulders of giants. We recognize controlling the climate in a home is not a core competency for our company and for the Comfort program we choose to focus on integrating versus inventing. For example, we white-label a quality ODM thermostat device vs engineering one ourselves and ensure our interoperability APIs work great with the popular 3rd party smart thermostats.

If a set of people debate and then get aligned on tightly written, pithy, guiding principles (tenets) early, all decision making down the road becomes far easier.

Extra-credit if YOU can articulate what Amazon Leadership Principles get exemplified when tenets are utilized.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

The Tension is Intentional

It is no accident many of the Amazon Leadership Principles seemingly contradict each other: they were carefully selected and crafted to encourage leaders to be thoughtful about the gray area.

E28 Clutch Over-center spring

Bias for Action vs. Think Big represent favorite example of this tension.

Bias for Action – Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Think Big – Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

On one hand, Bias for Action tells us to move quickly without perfect information; to take short-term risks. On the other hand, Think Big tells us to take a long-term view, cover all the bases, and consider audacious and unconventional ideas. In the moment, you as leaders will discover these are clearly at odds with each other. Great leaders practice testing this tension and build skills for navigating it. For example, get in the habit of always asking:

“Is this decision a two-way door we just need to move quickly on, or does this decision have unambiguous long-term impacts that should be carefully considered?”

What other examples of this intentional tension resonate for you? Comment below.

PS, If you love lexigraphy as I do, head down the rabbit hole of the difference between the words “intention” and “intension”.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Good Intentions are Never Enough

Everyone has good intentions… Everyone WANTS to do the right thing (e.g. read the doc sent out by email the night before). But good intentions are never enough.

Stuff doesn’t get done based solely on people’s good intentions. Change can’t happen based only on good intentions. What you need is a way to mechanize people’s good intentions.

“Mechanisms” are the way. A Mechanism is complete processes that ensures things get done. A complete process is a ‘virtuous cycle’ that reinforces and improves itself as it operates. Like a snowball rolling down hill.

Within a complete process is a tool. The tool is the structure that a leader (everyone here’s a leader) creates in order to ensure stuff gets done or change happens. The tool is what transforms a set of inputs into a set of desired outputs.

Next you need adoption. Leaders cannot “do” anything without getting others to broadly adopt and implement mechanisms. So strong leaders actively encourage and reinforce adoption of mechanisms.

But nothing’s perfect. No mechanism is perfect. So leaders need to be able to see if a mechanism is being adopted and to understand if the use of the mechanism is leading towards the desired outputs. Inspection requires leaders to *audit* the output and course correct.

Leaders use audit mechanisms (yes, this gets recursive) to effectively dive deep into how the other mechanisms are working (or not) and drive improvements.

Pithy recap: Don’t rely on good intentions. Instead invent complete processes based around a tool and drive adoption. Inspect and audit to improve over time. Repeat.

The best non-internal-to Amazon resource on Mechanisms I’ve found is this AWS Summit Talk.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Have Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

This week’s tip relates to the Are right, A Lot leadership Amazon Leadership Principle:

Leaders are right a lot. They have strong business judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.

A great mnemonic for remembering how to get better living the Are right, a lot LP is: Have strong opinions, weakly held. This term was coined by Stanford University professor Paul Saffo.

“Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the ‘strong opinion’ part. Then –and this is the ‘weakly held’ part– prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.” – Paul Saffo

However, having strong opinions (weakly held) is necessary, but not sufficient. For example, CX designers and PMs know that I get pretty bent out of shape when I see a UI mockup with ‘placeholder’ text in it like this:

The PM and designer that mocked this up are both very smart with tons of real experience. They should have taken a few more minutes to make their best guess, no matter how imperfect, for what the text in that placeholder would be. If they had we could have debated it (or moved on). Instead we rat-holed.

Take a stand. Articulate it. Encourage debate. Change your mind if the debate is convincing. Not doing so will prevent you from ever raising the bar for being right, a lot.

“People that are right a lot admit they are wrong quickly.” – Jeff Bezos

For a deeper read on “Have strong opinions, weakly held” check out this blog post: https://medium.com/@ameet/strong-opinions-weakly-held-a-framework-for-thinking-6530d417e364

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Everyone’s a Leader

The word leader is defined as:

leader noun
a person or thing that leads.

The word leader is not a synonym of manager. Everyone is a leader. It’s entirely possible for a people manager to be a poor leader (which would be bad). Likewise an individual contributor who’s a great leader might be a horrible people manager (which would be good as long as he/she stays an individual contributor). The only question is how well each individual leads. The Leadership Principles provide a framework for all of us to become better leaders.

That said, in practice LPs can play out differently depending on your role. Let’s use Learn and Be Curious to illustrate the difference between an individual contributor and a people manager:

Learn and be curious
Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

Given this LP, as an individual contributor do you…

  • Take time to learn something new or understand your systems better; read a book, watch a training video, build a PoC?
  • Actively mentor someone else?
  • Take on responsibility outside your area of expertise to stretch and grow?
  • Actively seek out advice and feedback on your performance from peers or customers?

And, as a people manger, do you…

  • Create space and time for your employees to explore and learn?
  • Focus on how you arrived at the results rather than the results themselves?
  • Support your employee’s moving to other teams so they can learn new skills?
  • Encourage risk-taking by engineers on your team, and support them in doing so?

I’ve found asking the question “what does <particular LP> look like in my role?” is a great way to firm up my own thinking about the Leadership Principles. Give it a try.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Have a Plan (With Dates)

I’ve written a lot on the importance of having a plan. This week’s Leadership Principle tip doubles-down on that.

Consider a status update:

Bad: “The team will investigate the issue.”

Good: “The team will complete the investigation of the issue by Tuesday afternoon and will share a plan for how to fix it by Thursday.”

The Good version of this does a few things:

  • It enables accountability on the next steps.
  • It conveys the appropriate sense of urgency.
  • It ensures the work to investigate the problem is not open-ended, further enabling accountability.
  • It conveys ownership.

My good friend Dwight D. Eisenhower was famous for saying “No battle was ever won according to plan, but no battle was ever won without one.”  I’d like to be famously known for saying “A plan without dates is fantasy.“

By putting in just a *little* more effort & being planful (with dates) you enable the entire organization to have confidence the right things are happening. This leads to better delivery of results and earns trust.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

How Meeting/Not-Meeting Goals relates to Earn Trust and Insist on Highest Standards

This week’s Leadership Principle tip is about how setting goals, and holding yourself accountable, relates to Earn Trust and Insist on Highest Standards.

At Control4 we set goals each year a part of our annual operating plan. One goal I took this year was for every program in my org to fix three Broken Windows each quarter. Broken Windows are defined as:

A bug, defect, or missing feature directly impacting the customer experience that won’t normally get fixed due to resource constraints. The best examples of Broken Windows are things “we’ve known about forever, but just kept pushing down the priority list.” Broken Windows exist in products, code, our bug database, our knowledge management system, etc… The idea is to take pride in fixing them so the neighborhood is a great place to be. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory

We ended Q1 last week I had to set the status on this goal. We didn’t meet the goal so I had to set it to “Did Not Meet” (which always means RED as well) was painful for me. I have a pit in my stomach seeing a big RED blob in my list of 2019 goals. I’m going to see this every week for the rest of the year. It is awkward and embarrassing.

The reality is the organization came really, really close to hitting this goal. All but three teams met the goal, and those that missed only missed by one fix! Plus in some cases we fixed far more than three! The goal was clearly defined, and *I* did not meet it. So I have to set the status accurately.

I could have done more in the last few weeks of the quarter to drive the team to be more buttoned up on their goals that roll up to this one. I could have pushed PMs to take a hard one off their list and add an easier one. I also failed to fully document the Quarterly Broken Window Goals mechanism and thus there was some confusion about what it mean to fix a BW (the BW must be fixed from the customer’s perspective). See how this relates to Earn Trust with the italic-bold below?

Earn trust – Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

I will only feel bad about this goal result until I’ve taken the steps to ensure I CAN’T feel bad about it NEXT TIME. This morning I spent 20 minutes creating the Broken Window “user’s manual” wiki, for example. This way, when we hold the Q2 Broken Window review meeting, I will be reminded to ask more questions and audit teams’ goals in such a way that we hit the goal.

Insist on 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.

I hope this helps. Please feel free to comment if you have thoughts or questions.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Dive Deep != Micromanaging

You’ve said it. You’ve heard others say it. You are not quite sure how you feel about it.

“So-and-so is a micro-manager. He/she’s always in my shorts and doesn’t let me just do my job.”

This week’s Leadership Principle tip may help you navigate this common meme more effectively.

The following has been my pinned tweet for the past year:

“The more details you know, the better questions you can ask. The better questions you ask, the faster everyone gets clarity of thought. Better clarity of thought leads to better decisions. By everyone. Essentially.”


@ckindel

Great leaders know the details. They are willing to roll up sleeves, dive in, and get their hands dirty. Folks confuse dive deep with micro-managing. This is not accurate.

Diving deep is about understanding the details which enables robust debate, articulate questions, and clear thinking. Better debate, people asking great questions, and clear thinking mean better decisions that stick.

Diving deep is about setting up auditing mechanisms where leaders can be closely connected to the details without being overwhelmed and without needing to control minutiae. Auditing is a skill where leaders who exemplify dive deep test assumptions then step back to let owners own what they own.

BMW E28 Seat Gearbox Detail

The Dive Deep LP is highly coupled to Ownership. Leaders who demonstrate strong Ownership are great at proactively helping peers and managers dive deep into areas. Instead of saying “you’re micromanaging me” a strong owner says “let me figure out how to get you the details you need”.

So next time you find yourself feeling like someone is micro-managing you, consider how you can dive deeper into the details that matter to the areas you own and pro-actively helping the “micro-manager” get those details.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Just Right Porridge and Leadership Principles

Last week I wrote about Have Backbone, Disagree and Commit. This week the topic is about how to get the balance right when living Leadership Principles.

Just as it is possible to not live a leadership principle (under-index), it is possible to over-do them. The key is to find the balance and be like mama bear’s porridge: Just Right.

“Moderation in all things” ― Aristotle

Yes, it is possible to over-do even Customer Obsession. A great way to be thoughtful about this is to apply a “Just Right/Over/Under” taxonomy. Consider this example for Customer Obsession:

Making decisions:

  • Just Right: You are dedicated to meeting and exceeding customer expectations. You seek customer feedback and use it to make improvements.
  • Over: You make too many exceptions to best practice processes based on individual customer feedback.
  • Under: You don’t consider customer needs in decision making, instead focusing on technology, strategy, or internal operations. You fail to put the customer experience first.

Designing products or features:

  • Just Right: You focus on articulating the optimal customer experience early and then work backwards from that to determine how to make it true. You deliver value in increments and regularly assess how the product delighting customers.
  • Over: You over-engineer the product, trying to make it meet all customer demands at once.
  • Under: You build something hoping customers will come. You fall in love with a programming language, technology, or process.

As an aside, the internal Amazon wiki has an amazing set of pages for each Leadership Principle that gives a dozen or so examples like the above for each LP. The examples above are from my memory. Last year I sent Jeff Bezos an email requesting that he publish those pages publicly. I mean, if he really is serious about enabling other companies to copy the Amazon way as he’s publicly said, this would be a great step. I never got a reply.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Have Backbone, Disagree and Commit

We’ve decided to adopt Amazon’s Leadership Principles at Control4. For a while we debated creating our own, or modifying Amazon’s, but in the end we decided just running with Amazon’s as-is would work best.

Last week I sent a mail to my org pointing out some bar-raising behaviors for “Hire and Develop the Best”. I got several replies from employees encouraging me to share more ‘tips’ on LPs. So I’ve added a reminder to my calendar to write an internal blog post each week. This week I wrote a post on what it means to Have Backbone, Disagree and Commit.

Photo credit Kai Schreiber

After posting it, I decided to share it here too. So here you go.

The actual Leadership Principle reads:

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

This Leadership Principle actually combines two principles that go hand-in-hand. First there’s the “Have Backbone” part and then the part about disagreeing, but committing anyway.

Having backbone: We all find ourselves in situations where we don’t fully agree with a proposed plan. In these cases, we should think like an owner (see the Ownership LP) and argue (ideally with data and strong anecdotes) our point. If we are unable to affect the decision, the next step is to meet with other stakeholders. We need to ask questions so we truly understand the problem and be open to the possibility that we may not have all of the information that went into the decision (e.g. highly confidential info). We must listen to the other stakeholders’ points of view and share ours openly and respectfully.

After considering the data and other points of view, if we still have concerns, we can escalate. Deciding whether to escalate or not should be what I call ‘a highly considered decision’. Over escalating is a sure way to demonstrate we have poor judgement (we’re not Right A Lot). We escalate only if we truly feel the decision is not in the best interests of the company. We use data, facts, and strong anecdotes to support our opinions before we escalate. Escalations are not effective unless they include alternate proposals; we must be solution-oriented.

It’s hard to know when to give in. This is what good judgement and wisdom are
all about (see the LP Are Right A Lot). Sometimes you just need to fold like a cheap lawn chair. Other times you need to keep fighting. The trick is getting good at judging the situation. I wrote a blog post long ago titled “90% of the decisions you make don’t matter” that might help you figure out whether to “stand or fold”.

But once a decision is made by the group, we are all expected to support it wholeheartedly and commit 100%.

This is where Disagree and Commit comes into play. D&C is what happens after a decision has been made. Even if we originally disagreed (and may still disagree) we all get behind the plan and commit to it.

People who raise the bar for Disagree and Commit openly show support and commitment to the plan, even though they may not have originally been aligned with it. They avoid statements like “I’m only doing this because I was told to”, “I did not agree with this and tried my best to convince folks otherwise”, or “management said”. They regularly get everyone aligned with the decision and then re-enforce their commitment to the plan (even if they still disagree).

Disagree and Commit applies to everyone, including individual contributors and
managers. Exhibiting this principle is particularly important for people managers because they are responsible for effectively communicating and streamlining information from their team to upper management and vice-versa. As a result, you need to be cognizant of how you communicate these decisions to your team. As a people manager, what you say or write, carries additional weight and it is your responsibility to exhibit conviction in your communication. If you don’t disagree and commit, your employees will lose trust in you and won’t execute effectively.

If you have questions or comments about this topic, please feel free comment below.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Kindel’s Law

I’m not sure how this law thing works. But I’m jealous of folks like Moore, Atwood, and Shannon. I think everyone should have a law named after them.

In 2013, when I was tasked with build Amazon’s equivalent of ApplePay I had an epiphany. After studying all of the payment systems going back to the invention of currency up to credit cards, Amazon’s payment products, Bitcoin, PayPal, and so on, I noticed they all ended up being far more about defending against fraud than anything else.

This was certainly true at Amazon where the largest amount of resources, the most energy in reducing costs, and the place where the highest IQ was applied was on fraud.

So I coined Kindel’s Law:

Every payment system eventually becomes an anti-fraud system.

-Charlie Kindel, 2013

So there you go. My law is now on the Internet. It must be true. Someone please write a Wikipedia article.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

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.