Category: Product, leadership & tech

Principles of product management

The role of the product manager, elusive and vague as it may be in definition, is particularly versatile and challenging. It is an infusion of human psychology, leadership, mathematics, strategy, engineering, and yet more. It brings great humility in its tendency to invite failure, and it’s a role I find particularly compelling, having historically struggled in my search for the ideal blend of the same qualities mentioned.

Build products that empower people and make them feel good.

As with all things in life, there is no definitive recipe for any given outcome, whether it be in maximizing the chances of success of a new product, or anything else. My goal here is to simply express an anecdotal memoir of the principles that I have found to be useful from my own experiences, as well as in my observations of some very strong product managers. These are the principles to which I hold myself to account in practicing, simply because they are borne out of common logic, and known human psychology.

PAINT A VISION

A vision is a picture of the new world; the changed world.

Humans have a uniquely remarkable capacity to imagine things that do not exist. The power of an idea, such an intangible concept, is that it is often used as the basis for mass murder, patriotic war as well as movements of co-operation. Millions of people have perished, and empires built and grazed, all for an idea (whether it be religion, an unsubstantiated belief, or other abstract concoction of the human mind); a phenomenon so intangible as to exist purely as transient electro-chemical states in the brain!

A product vision is similarly an idea that imprints in the human mind how people’s lives will be empowered and improved. It paints a vivid landscape of positive change, and it is the ultimate driver that inspires people to action. Nothing is perhaps more effective in inspiring people to action, not money nor fear, than a beautiful, visceral vision, especially one that they have partaken in cultivating.  

Having witnessed teams that fell on both sides of the spectrum, the difference between a strong and weak vision is palpable. If the vision is strong, the world and your team will stand by one’s side. If the vision is weak or nonexistent, it may be difficult to get engagement, and you will face an uphill struggle. It’s not worth toiling in the name of an illustrous vision.

  • Hitler burnt a hole in human history by painting a vision for German citizens. Trump is where he is now, not due to his diplomacy and political competence, but because he inadvertently paints a vision of a secular, safer and stronger USA.
  • The strongest, fast moving and most influential companies have the most vivid visions (e.g. Self Driving Cars, Uber, Facebook’s internet for the world, etc). These visions are such that they inspire the smartest minds to partake in achieving them, not only due to the boost in one’s own identity and status that is achieved as a result, but also the gratification achieved in working towards a fundamental change in people’s lives.

Hence, a product manager’s first imperative is to paint a vision to inspire people to action.

BUILD feelingS, NOT FEATURES

People live to feel good.

Understanding human psychology is vital to product management. Despite human behaviour appearing seemingly unfathomable, and concealed behind a complex facade of emotional irrationality, humans are actually rather predictable. We all have similar wants, desires and psychological vulnerabilities. Ultimately, we all want to feel good, and we expend the majority of our time in pursuing good feelings (or trying to alleviate bad ones).

It follows that in order to drive people to use and share a product, a product manager needs to evoke good feelings. Furthermore, if one can evoke good feelings repeatedly and consistently, one has succeeded in building a product that will become an everyday component of people’s lives (think Facebook, Instagram, Netflix). I explore this topic deeply with examples in The product is the feeling.

The product manager’s second imperative is hence to build products and features that drive feelings; the innate currency of human energy and motivation. Examples of how feelings can drive favourable product behaviour include:

  • Get people to buy (activation): Customers predominantly activate when faced with a vision of how the product will make them smarter, happier, easier, richer or more attractive. The stronger this promise of future or imminent gratification, the more likely they will activate.
  • Keep people coming back (retention): Retention is primarily driven by feel-good loops and ‘anger management’:
    • Reliable feel-good loops are simply a promise of future gratification on return to the product. For Facebook, this is in new Likes and Comments to ones’ posts. For games, this is in the promise of entertainment, further accomplishment or alleviation in boredom. For Netflix, this is in unraveling uncertainly in how a series or story will unfold.
    • Anger management entails not betraying, frustrating or angering customers at any point in the product experience. This includes poor customer support, a dysfunctional product, not fulfilling promises and failing to provide a satisfactory experience at critical points in their lifecycle. A large proportion of churn is driven by poor experience and anger management.
  • Give people a reason to share (virality):  People share things that make them feel proud of themselves, makes them laugh, or makes them feel altruistic / gain a sense of gratification from sharing something that may help others. Intrinsic reasons to share are almost always more powerful and more effective than extrinsic reasons.

ECHO THE CUSTOMER’s VOICE

He or she who understands the customer best shall build the best product.

Any living entity (human, or otherwise) is biologically selfish, and understandably so. We do entirely what makes us feel good, and yes, even in the cases where our motives may appear altruistic. We vote for political parties that will favour us the most, we help others to give ourselves a sense of purpose in life, and we wave the flags which represent our own heritage and identity.

This inherent selfishness of the biological organism is what makes customer empathy so logical and necessary. Customers will never use your product for your benefit; only theirs. Hence, in order to understand what product to build, or how to drive favourable feelings in customers, one must dig deep into the their profile, wants, needs, lifestyle and problems. Few things are more effective in achieving this than talking to customers about their problems first hand. 

Thus, we arrive at the product manager’s third imperative; to understand the customer best, and offer the most resounding echo of  the customer’s voice in any meeting room. There are a vast array of methods to understand customers and who they are – but nothing beats just raw human conversation, where one can be receptive to their emotional expression, as well as have the freedom to ask for elaboration and dig deeper.

It is however worth noting what customers can and cannot tell you:

  • Customers will tell you their past behaviour, their current problems, and how they feel about them.
  • Customers won’t tell you what your vision should be.
  • Customers won’t tell you how they would behave in the future, or whether your solution will work.

An excellent defining example of a customer centric product is Amazon (think competitive pricing, low cost and speedy delivery options and an excellent cancellation and return service that reduces the psychological obstacle to purchasing from a mountain to a molehill).

IGNORE ALL OPINIONS

Opinions are like gusts of wind; they appear to come from all directions, and leave a scene of clutter in their wake.

The world and the workplace is awash with the opinionated. These opinions are a product of the machine-learning derived from people’s experiences, and, due to the infinite permutations of experiences that any given human can have, such opinions in aggregation tend to amass to directionless noise. The fourth imperative of a product manager is to practice a strong level of discernment in dealing with opinions, and where appropriate, disregard them altogether.

  • Opinions and perspectives: The perspectives and experiences of your colleagues will too often conflict and contradict one another, and will not serve an accurate representation of your target customers. Hence, internal opinions should be disregarded with a degree of ruthlessness, and be considered only when backed by sound reasoning or data. Customers come first, and last. (I dig deeper into the concept of perspectives in The Power of Empathy).
  • Personalities: Don’t be fooled by the tendency of assertiveness, extroversion, or experience level of an individual to illegitimately inflate (or deflate) the validity of an idea. There is little correlation between the vigour with which one believes in an idea, or the forcefulness with which one asserts an idea, and the validity of that idea. Humans are remarkably susceptible to being influenced by irrational factors, such as strong personalities, that bear little relevance to what is right, or what matters [interesting reading].
  • Meetings and discussions: Internal meetings are productive for brainstorming creative ideas, but decisions should never be made solely by committee. Shut down fruitless discussions and meetings in the favour of searching for actionable insights and learnings. There’s nothing more unproductive than sustaining discussions where personal opinions or “I believe” sentiments prevail as the basis of reasoning. (This includes your own opinions – see next section).

Nothing is more potent in shutting down unproductive discussions than being equipped with the numerical and qualitative ammunition to guide decision making. The product manager is mandated with leading the team in collecting and using this ammunition to guide product development (through activities such as customer interviews, user testing, and behavioural data). 

This includes one’s own opinions…

Ironically, a product manager’s own opinions, often manifesting through confirmation bias and egotistical attachment to a solution (rather than the problem) can be one of the most blinding sources of noise. It is something I have witnessed in myself and others on numerous occasions in the past. 

This is primarily solved by owning problems, not solutions. The psychological inevitability of owning a solution (rather than a problem) is such that it will always leave the product manager and the team biased to validate and defend that solution, rather than to solve the problem, which may have an entirely different solution.

GUARD THE EXPERIENCE FROM ALL FRONTS

No product is an island.

A product, where intended for humans, must provide an experience, and a product manager must guard that experience from all fronts. This means leading, challenging or taking ownership of all the underlying inconspicuous components that have the ability to influence that experience in some shape or form. This includes components that are buried deep within the turning cogs of a product or company, and those that may run across other teams.

The consequence of not taking full ownership is in building an experience that is broken, and that fails to meet the product vision or evoke the right feelings in customers. When discussing the second imperative of a product manager (to build feelings, not features), I mentioned that anger and anxiety management was crucial in preventing churn and keeping customers happy – you may find that the most inconspicuous components of a product are what influence anger management the most.

Here’s a few examples in the context of a financial technology product:

  • Customer support; this entails both the propensity of your product to generate contacts to support, as well as the quality of the support itself. Often, what can drive virality in a product is in how excellent your support is in alleviating worries in scenarios where things don’t go to plan. And often, what drives anger is poor customer support.
  • Operations; deep operational processes and technology can great influence the performance and speed of the service you provide to customers. Depending on the nature of the product, this may have an direct or indirect consequence on the customer’s product experience. 
  • Anti-Money Laundering & Fraud; humans have built remarkable structures of imagination, called “rules” and “regulations”. Often, these imaginary structures are borne out of good reason, but they can have a profound influence on customer experience, especially in the fintech sector. Where this is the case, the product manager must take ownership in correctly interpreting these rules, and arriving at a solution which meets both obligations with the minimum impact on customer experience.

Thus, the final and fifth imperative of a product manager, is to not build an island and isolate oneself to the boundaries of one’s team. Product managers with a strong vision, and conviction in building the best possible experience for the customer, may often be obliged to challenge and influence aspects of a company of product that may not immediately be in their control.

ENDING NOTE

To conclude the principles of product management:

  • Inspire people to action by painting a vision with the team.
  • Set out to make people feel good with the features you build, what you say and how you present the experience
  • Echo the voice of the customer, by understanding them better than anyone else. Get everyone in your team to echo the customer’s voice.
  • Ignore all opinions not backed by sound data, including your own, and focus on customer feedback
  • Guard the customer experience from all fronts. No product, team or man is an island.

 

The product is the feeling

Life’s meanings are often concealed behind facades of what we perceive to be reality. I have observed through time that what we perceive through our senses are just veiled representations of the underlying motives, emotions and patterns of truth. Just as there is a story beneath every piece of art and every classical symphony, there is a story behind every human, every facial expression and every action.

In seeking to understand how this could apply to the domain of business and product management, I arrived at the following two sentiments. The first being that the best products exist to evoke emotions in the people that use them, and secondly that people seek products that evoke emotion within themselves. And in this seeking, there is a story;  a primal craving, whether it is of an identity, belonging, status, love or sex. It is in seeking these emotional gratifications that humans derive purpose and meaning in their lives.

Humans don’t buy products, they buy gratifications.

In essence, people don’t buy products, they buy gratifications, and gratifications lead to positive feelings. People pay for products that make them feel good, or that provide solutions which forge a path to this same result.

THE THEORY OF GRATIFICATION

The theory of Gratification states that humans align their time and energy in accomplishing just two main goals; subsistence and gratification. Subsistence (the definition of which has been broadened for this article) entails doing necessary tasks for basic comfort and survival (e.g. jobs, commuting, managing finances, administration and other tasks of necessity), whereas gratification is centered around activities from which we derive pleasure and meaning in life (jobs that bring satisfaction and meaning, entertainment, love, sex, ego validation, status and more).

The theory of gratification states the following:

Humans will forever optimise their lives to minimise energy spent on subsistence, and maximise energy spent on gratification.

The evidence of this traces back thousands of years through the evolution of the human species. As neanderthals and hunter-gatherers, our predominant focus was on survival and subsistence; finding sources of food and shelter. It is only through time as we developed farming, irrigation systems and settlements did sociological constructs such as stratification begin coming to the fore. With the basic humans needs met as a collective society, religion, art, writing, music and social hierarchies began to form. Savage wars raged, empires were built and mankind flourished, scaling every corner of the globe.

The trend is still apparent in the modern day, where people dedicate increasing proportions of their free time to sources of gratification (e.g. entertainment, dating, Facebook, Tinder, Snapchat, Netflix etc) [source], while innovations in science and technology continuously seek to minimize workload on tasks of necessity (the Internet of Things, autonomous drones, self driving cars, etc).

Within the context of building a product or business, the theory concludes that the success of a product or service lies in its ability to either instill gratification in a human being, or to significantly reduce time and effort spent on subsistence.

THE DRIVERS OF GRATIFICATION

Gratification is simply feeling.

Gratification (from gratus, which means “pleasing, thankful.”) is synonymous to a positive feeling, and feeling can be emotional or physical (sensory). Some of the drivers of gratification are explained below, although this list is not exhaustive by any means. The aim of this article is not to criticise these drivers, but simply to highlight these psychological patterns. We are all equally susceptible to seeking gratification, and what differs is only in the specific gratifications we seek. There are no drivers of gratification that are more noble or worthy than others, as they are all simply means to the same end.

SOCIAL VALIDATION

Social validation is the affirmation of ones self-worth through seeking continuous approval of other human beings. We are all prone to seeking validation, whether it be from  our friendship groups or colleagues at work, but the advent of the internet and mobile computing has enabled social validation to be more easily accessible, and from a wider range of sources.

Products that satisfy and accentuate the ego through constant social feedback, and invoke a higher sense of self worth among an individual are among the most successful. Here are a few well known examples:

  • The Like button. I often wonder how Facebook’s growth trajectory would have fared if it did not feature the Like button. The power of the Like button is such that not only is it a wonderful dopamine-releasing social feedback mechanism, but also that the accumulation of Likes leads to the aggregation of status and power (see next section). It is likely that a significant proportion of Facebook’s (and similar apps’) growth is fuelled by the ravenous desire to feel validated than to share experiences. This is largely the reason why the Like button has become a ubiquitous feature of social and community related apps.
  • Tinder matches. It is of no doubt that the greatest driver in Tinder’s incessant usage is the simplicity and ease at which social gratification (the perceived sense of self worth over the number of matches one has accumulated) can be gained. Tinder is social validation on tap!
  • The desire for social validation is of such strength that many can be observed to take photographs and selfies with the sole intention of sharing them later on social platforms. It is fascinating that the desire for a future social validation could surpass the desire to enjoy the simple beauty of the present!

Like all other drivers of gratification, social validation is not a new phenomena. It is in play in the reality of every day life, where we are gratified when others respond positively to our interactions (whether it’d be agreeing with our opinions or laughing at our jokes). We habitually learn the interactions which have had the most positive social feedback and persist these behaviours in future interactions. This is no different in cyberspace.

STATUS AND POWER

Gratification through status is obtained through the attachment of labels to oneself. These labels are forms of social currency that are universally recognised and valued in a community. For example, these could include a degree, a job title, hierarchical position, qualifications, position in the leaderboard, or some sort of statistic attached to a person’s social profile. The current social framework dictates that these labels are to be compared against others’ to determine an individual’s importance, and gratification is gained in elevating ones’ importance by collecting more labels.

In similar vein to social validation, it is now easier than ever to collect social currency in comparison to the pre-computing era, where the options were limited to the more difficult to obtain; war medals, degrees or wealth. Some good examples of the effective use of status labels include:

  • StackOverflow’s ‘reputation’ meter, which can be incremented through activities of engagement (such as answering questions), has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in its success. The cleverness in StackOverflow’s engineering of Status is that ‘reputation’ can be incremented through all forms of engagement, including asking questions, voting on answers and choosing the best answer to a question. This is a win-win, as not only are these clever sources of gratification for users, but they are also very effective growth hacks.
  • Social profile counters, such as the Friends count in Facebook and Endorsements in LinkedIn; I have observed a great deal of social stigma attached to a person’s social profile attributes, to the point where it is often used to assess a person’s social competence. No doubt these simple counters on a profile can have a profound influence on how an individual’s social status is perceived among other humans, regardless of whether this consciously apparent to the human perpetrating the judgement.
  • Leaderboards across all domains and walks of life are simply status indicators; they are the catalyst for inculcating an environment of competitiveness and loyal engagement. It is no wonder that they are a prominent feature in mobile and console games, as well as in sports, and potentially even the workplace.

Our desire to create an impact on the world is no doubt a desire for gratification through Status, albeit one that has had tremendous positive and negative effects on mankind. The driver that has enabled us to scale societies and build prosperous civilisations is the same driver that has caused the historical annihilations of the same.

IDENTITY AND BELONGING

In addition to status labels, there is another form of an identity label that is derived from the association of oneself to a brand, group or cause. This is one of the more perplexing drivers of gratification, and there are two specific branches that protrude from this:

  • The use of an association as a proxy for elevating one’s Status. For example, investing in luxury branded clothing and accessories. All brands are effectively status symbols – when people pay £500 for a pair of jeans, they aren’t paying for clothing, they’re paying for status and an identity. There are no limits on what human beings are prepared to pay for gratification; a piece of artwork with a perceived value of £100 to one human being can be worth thousand times as much to another.
  • In contrast to the above, the second branch entails devoting and submitting oneself in a movement or cause, with the aim of removing focus from oneself and onto the higher cause. Meaning in life is thence regained from the higher cause. As excellently explained in Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”, this is often as a result of the individual losing hope in their ability to make someone of themself; a cognitive product of their own perceived sense of failure. The success of the indoctrination of extremist ideologies in ISIS fanatics is down to such a gratification being induced in its subjects.

SENSORY AND AESTHETIC PLEASURE

Sensory gratification is among the most primal of the bunch because it is accessible to any living organism that has sensory input, whether it’d be vision, touch, smell etc. It can be gained through something as simple as the gentle caressing of the skin by an afternoon breeze, to the breathtaking sight of a beautifully carved and ornamented landscape.

In the domain of modern technology,  the importance of beautiful, simplistic design, whether it is of a physical product or a software interface, cannot be overestimated. This is because the advantages are two-fold. Firstly, the simple pleasure of experiencing and interacting with beautiful design in itself can evoke gratification as well as instill confidence in a product. Secondly, good design can simplify a person’s path to a goal, reducing the time spent on subsistence and allowing more time to seek gratification.

Beyond aesthetic appeal, there are several other sensory routes to gratification at ones’ disposal, including touch and feel, taste, sound and smell. Examples of how companies have been able to capitalise on these include:

  • Apple’s products possess a refined elegance that is unsurpassed by most other companies in the industry. In addition to their aesthetic visual appeal and slick interfaces, they are pleasant to the touch, resulting in the continued dispensation of both visual and tactile pleasure in their day to day usage. I will be digging more deeply into Apple as an example later in this article.
  • Ever been to a café or restaurant where the atmosphere felt ‘just right’? It is unlikely to be a product of coincidence; companies have engineered their sensory experiences to capitalise on these drivers of gratification for centuries, from the ambiance of the background music, the residual smell of culinary pleasure hanging in the air, to the aesthetic soothing of the lighting and surrounding decorations.
  • Obesity is largely driven (in addition to genetics and other factors) by the ravenous desire for gratification through food. One could argue that the overweight derive more gratification from food than others’, and hence it is only with ignorance that many of us conclude that these individuals are lazy or uncaring of their own health. If only we could gain weight from seeking social validation! (We gain ego instead).

Personally, there are few things that gratify me more than the experience of soaring the skies in a small propeller plane. It is the resonance of sensory pleasure, brought on by the breathtaking beauty of the landscapes, the ant-like insignificance of vehicles as they creep along winding strips of grey, and the heavenly rays of sunshine that filter through broken clouds, all accompanied by the soothing hum of the propeller. The gratification is such that I can spend an inordinate amount of money in seeking it, and with a gladness unfitting of a rational man.

LOVE AND HUMAN CONNECTION

Man shall never feel such an uncontrollable deviation from rationality as whilst in state of infatuation over the beauty of another human being. The vigour with which love can grip an individual, regardless of how unflappable one’s general disposition may be, is astounding. Whether one interprets love as a cognitive blindness, or the source of all of life’s meaning, it cannot be denied that love and and the craving for connection with other humans, whether platonic or otherwise, is an incredibly powerful force.

It should be of no surprise thence that the greatest driver of happiness in humans is not money or success; it’s good relationships (See Ted Talk). And neither is it a surprise that allowing friendships to fade is among the top 5 regrets of those who lay on their deathbed [source].

It is a sad irony that, despite the vast array of friendship and dating apps that spring each year, humans could be trending towards having less close friends and less meaningful relationships. While these apps may be instilling some sense of gratification, as indicated by their significant usage, it is likely that they are more aligned with satisfying the ego and social validation rather than genuine human connection.

ALLEVIATION OF ANXIETY

Gratification may also be obtained in simply alleviating or preventing anxieties that can deafen and distract the mind from its main goals. As I know from my own experience, anxiety can be a debilitating mental state which, contrary to popular belief, is responsible for a sizeable proportion of drug and alcohol abuse [source].

  • Familiarity alleviates anxiety. Brands such as Starbucks and KFC have an advantage in using familiarity as a mechanism to alleviate the anxieties associated with venturing into new cafes and restaurants (Will they have food I like? Is the food going to be of good quality? How much is it going to cost?etc). I’d argue that this is one of the prime drivers of Nandos’s success, specifically in scenarios where the food is secondary to the occasion. How often do you have dinner where the food is the primary focal point? (e.g. as opposed to catching up with friends).
  • In a similar fashion to the above, anxiety can be reduced by reducing the amount of choice available in a product range. While choice is positive to a degree, excess choice can leave a human being anxious and in doubt of their ability to make the right decision. Ever browsed a company’s product range which had 15 derivative models of the same product?
  • Insurance and other similar financial products tackle anxiety by restoring predicability in the management of finances. In restoring this predictability and guaranteeing subsistence, the human can return to seeking gratification.

ENTERTAINMENT AND ESCAPE

When an individual’s life is riddled with the mundanity of constant subsistence, gratification can be obtained through seeking temporary escape; in immersing oneself in a parallel world that is altogether more exciting and free. Two well known routes of entry into this are entertainment and illicit drugs, both of which happen to be multi billion dollar industries, irrespective of their legality.

I feel it is not necessary to elaborate on Entertainment, as the examples are obvious (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, etc). The latter route is however particularly fascinating. Such a promising route to gratification, that it is the reason for the imprisonment of more than 25% of US prisoners, and directly responsible for more than 1100 homocides each year. Many of the most vicious and savage gangs in the world are built on the economic foundation of drugs trafficking. These organisations operate with a level of ferocity that can only be explained by the desire for gratification running amok. Our own surrender to the craving for gratification is our biggest enemy.

ENDING NOTE

To live a life without feeling is to not live at all.

Feeling is ingrained in the human psyche. I often joke of my robotic demeanour, but I cannot imagine my existence without feeling, for it drives a great deal of my investments of time and energy, whether it’d be my choice of career, the people with whom I spend my time or my fondness for travel. No doubt, I would not have written this article if I were not to gain some sense of gratification from doing so.

Feeling underpins all of human energy, and it is important not to ignore its importance in all scopes of life. Leadership, influence and emotional intelligence are all simply management of feelings, whether in yourself or others. This is no different in product and business management. In order to build a product that people want, one must build an experience that dispenses the same gratifications that humans have sought for thousands of years, and will forever seek.

The alternative is to make tasks of subsistence substantially easier or lower cost, thereby allowing humans more leverage to spend on seeking gratification. Hence, the elemental human problem is always gratification.

EXAMPLE – APPLE INC.

As much of a clichéd example as it may be, Apple is the epitome of gratification done correctly. Steve Jobs’s ingenuity lay in his understanding of the full spectrum of the drivers of human gratification, and this is what has driven Apple to be the highest valued technology company in the world. The whole Apple experience is beautifully engineered to dispense gratification from start to finish:

  • Browsing Apple products, whether in store or online is a delight, accompanied with personable staff and sales advisors.
  • The product itself, with its aesthetic elegance, refined visuals and tactile features, solves for both subsistence and gratification. Being both sensual and intuitive, it makes the correct assumption that the vast majority of the human population use smart phones simply as a means to an end (gratification). I.e. the solution is the feeling, not the device.
  • Apple over the past decade has moulded its brand into a status symbol, and is built upon and operated on a mission that inspires loyalty and belonging amongst its customer base. It is only in the promise of gratification that humans should queue for hours outside of a store in anticipation of a new release.
  • The experience is topped with excellent customer support that alleviates anxiety and imprints a positive emotional association with the brand, in turn inspiring devotion and loyalty yet again.

Redefining THE MVP

In order to offer something tangible along with this post, I would like to propose a slight change to how the concept of the Minimum Viable Product is interpreted. Instead of seeking to build an MVP, seek to build an MVP that evokes the emotion you seek in customers:

  • If solving for subsistence: make completing a task delightfully easier or lower cost than it is now. The savings in either time, effort or money should be substantial enough for reinvestment in gratification.
  • If solving for gratification: build the minimum experience that provides the emotions and gratification that you seek to evoke. How should your customers feel? What is the driver of gratification that is going to prompt them to share, or return to your product?

Principles of leadership

I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to inspiring workplaces with great leaders and thinkers of all shapes and styles. And through my observations and own experiences, I’ve picked up on some core principles that I find prevalent in all great leaders.

First and foremost, I find the most fundamental principle of leadership to be empathy. It is not management, power, or hierarchal position. And it’s not how extroverted or charismatic you are. It’s the consistent and deliberate practice of placing yourself in the shoes of your customers and the people you work with. The second principle is ego. More specifically; the ability to control it and detect when it is influencing your behaviour. Everyone has an ego, but it is especially damaging if allowed to reign over your decision making. And finally; direction. Direction is about doing the right thing; maintaining focus on what matters, and filtering any external noise which detracts from this focus.

The leadership equation

Leadership = EMPATHY – EGO + DIRECTION

Take away your ego, add empathy and direction, and you have leadership.

In reality, there is a good degree of overlap and crossover between these principles. For example, you cannot be empathetic if you are egotistic. And you cannot be focused on what matters if you are not empathetic. But for the sake of clarity, I will go into the details of each principle separately.

Empathy

Empathy is about seeing the world through other people’s eyes, and leading through their perspectives, wants and needs. Humans have the natural inclination to dwell inside the mental cocoons of their own psyche. The remarkable leader is one who develops the ability to look, feel and think beyond themselves, and understand the viewpoints and thought patterns of others. This is the single most powerful mental skill you can possess, not just in the domain of leadership, but in every aspect of life that involves people.

Great leaders empathise with the people that surround them, and great companies empathise with their customers and the markets they seek to penetrate. Empathy-driven companies solve real problems for the customer, and thus succeed. Ego-driven companies solve problems that don’t exist or don’t matter (e.g. revenue, profits, etc) and thus fail.

Here are some practical way you can practice empathy:

  • Actively aim to look beyond yourself, and understand other people’s viewpoints. This means understanding the limitations of the human perspective and where it comes into play. What your mind renders to be the normal interpretation of an event or situation is not necessarily universal. Your brain has just applied a bunch of its own learned rules to something and made its own judgement. There is nothing wrong with this, and it is responsible for the amazing variety of people you will meet in your life – but being aware of it will make you a more open minded person. Try to keep this in mind next time you have conflicting opinions with someone, or when you’re struggling to meet eye to eye.
  • Listen – people like to be understood, and this is irrespective of whether if their thoughts are acted upon. The act of making the effort to understand and appreciate someone’s viewpoint is powerful. Next time someone expresses an opinion, understand it first, convey your understanding, and then express your response to that viewpoint. Never dismiss an expression of feeling or thought without considering it first.
  • Do not assume that malicious behaviour is necessarily caused by malicious intent. Always make an effort to understand the cause of behaviour, which may be very legitimate indeed. Perhaps you could sit down with the person and ask them how they feel, and what their concerns may be. Never be confrontational with a person who’s acting maliciously, or in an ego-driven manner. You will always exacerbate the situation. In the same way, do not assume that underperformance is caused by conscious disengagement. There’s always a reason. It’s your responsibility to find it first, and then act accordingly.
  •  Understand, and only then critique poor performance. If you don’t understand the causal factors that have led to poor performance, you will be unable to highlight the appropriate actions to take to unblock progress. Furthermore, you may evoke resentment from the people you work with.

Ego

Ego is about self-awareness and introspection. While empathy is about looking into others, ego is about looking into and understanding yourself.  Everyone has an ego. Yes, you too. It’s unavoidable, and it’s human. Your ego has the potential to be highly destructive, and people who are most effective at leading keep their egos from driving their behaviour. Ego-induced mind states and behaviour include wanting to be right, wanting to be obeyed, defensiveness, personalising events, feeling offended and feeling angry.

Ego-driven leadership can be a blocker to utilising and unlocking the talents and skills present in a team. You can either lead through your ego, and keep these talents locked away, or you can disregard your ego and lead through others. This means enabling others to be leaders themselves in some shape or form, whether it is advocating a good idea, or empowering an individual or group to take ownership over something that matters to them.

Ways you can practice the principle of ego include:

  • Be aware of and accept that you aren’t always right, you don’t always have the best ideas, and that you don’t always have to be right. Being a leader isn’t synonymous with being right. What’s more important that you work from a framework of what matters, as described in the next section. Admit when you are wrong – let others be right and commend them for it.
  • An ego-driven leader believes great leadership is about being in the frontline, and the limelight. Not true. Where practical, co-create your vision with your colleagues – grant them a sense of ownership over the team and the project. Even better, empower them; make everyone a leader in some way or form.
  • When you exhibit ego-driven behaviour, you will much more likely trigger the equivalent in the other person. If you express anger and a confrontational demeanour – you will automatically trigger defensiveness and a similar level of ego-driven behaviour in the other person. Often, the same exact words, said with a calm and controlled tone, will have an entirely different effect than if expressed in a rash, demeaning manner.

Direction

Direction is the constant, unrelenting focus on what matters, and what makes an impact. 

Opinions don’t matter; data matters. Words don’t matter; actions do. What your ego says doesn’t matter, but your gut instinct, which is a product of your intuition and past experiences, does. (Yes, there is a difference). Your vision doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t resonate with the customers that you seek to attract.

Direction is also just as much about enforcing focus, as it is about implementing it.

How you can practice good direction:

  • Focus on what matters. Challenge every decision and plan around that same framework. You can determine what matters by assessing what will have an impact on the goals, objectives and KPIs of the company. You should treat any decision or activity which doesn’t fit into that criteria as a distraction, and be relentless in removing it.
  • Filter out noise from outside – that forms a distraction from what matters. Appreciate input but don’t let it sway the team. You should be the stabilising mechanism for unwanted external perturbations that divert the team from what really matters.
  • Delegate based on what people want to do, what they’re good at and where they have potential in developing. There is also a strong element of empathy in this. Placing people in roles in which they do not enjoy is poor direction, just as is placing people in roles in which they have little potential for progress.
  • Identify people who are not suited to the team and role, and remove or relocate them. Being relieved of a job can be one of the best things that can happen to a person, especially if they are smart and competent but proving to be unsuitable for the role. Instead, you will be empowering them by force to find better, more suitable opportunities elsewhere.

In essence

In essence, what does an empathetic, introspective (not ego driven), and focused (directed) leader look like? They know what matters for the company, and they listen and delegate well. They do not lose their temper often, and they shield the team against noise that detracts from focus. They are empathetic and conscious of the need for self-development of the people around them. They are easy to talk to, and approachable, but extremely firm and relentless with maintaining focus. They do not jump to conclusions on poor performance, but they do not hesitate to relieve people of their roles within good reason. They lead by example, and are willing to get their hands dirty. And finally, they can be just like you and I.

Really, this is just an idealistic view of leadership which reflects my personal experiences and viewpoints. There are vastly differing styles of leadership which prove to be effective in different contexts. And mostly importantly, there is also no such thing as a perfect, empathetic, ego-free, focused leader. The human condition means you will sway from these principles from time to time, and you will make mistakes. You will lose your temper, get offended, or sometimes engage in destructive behaviour. But the more you consciously make the effort to develop these skills and traits, the more positive impact you will make in whatever you may be engaged in.

 

© 2019 Mo Shahenshah Khan. All rights reserved.