The Randy Silver Hypothesis: When the World Changes You Need to Reassess Your Assumptions

A recovering music journalist and editor, Randy Silver has been working as an interactive producer and product manager across the US & UK for nearly 20 years. After launching Amazon’s music stores in the US and UK, Randy has worked with museums and arts groups, online education, media and entertainment, retail, and financial services. He’s held Head of Product roles at HSBC and Sainsbury’s, where he also directed their 100+-person product community. He is the author of What Do We Do Now?: A product manager’s guide to strategy in the time of COVID-19 and a co-host of the Product Experience Podcast.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how Randy wrote a book so quickly and the insights he has for how the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for rethinking how we work.

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Resources

Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Randy Silver Hypothesis: When the World Changes You Need to Reassess Your AssumptionsHow did Randy go from a music journalist to a product leader? What are the skills the carried over? Where did he first encounter the Agile framework? Why is Athena the goddess of product management, and also the goddess of strategic warfare? 

How does Motivate Design think about discovery? Why is “when’s the last time you’ve talked to a customer” the wrong question to ask? How do you talk to customers through people they already know and have a relationship with? What is the Insider Insight network and how can you use it? What does this kind of research look like in action? Why are the best conversations the ones where people start cursing?

What is Randy’s new book, What Do We Do Now? about? What were the conversations he had that were the impetus for him to tackle this topic? What was it like working with Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden? How did he write a book so quickly? How is everything we do in product based on hypotheses? How do we prioritize our work correctly during COVID-19? How do you know if you’re asking the right questions? How is our decision making process different and how do we adjust?

What is Randy hearing from organizations trying to adjust to the changing work environment? Why are we at pivot point for reorganizing our work flows longterm? Why is planning a specifically tough challenge in a remote environment? How can scenario planning strategies help? How do you put them into action?

Why is a focus on outcomes rather than outputs a superpower that product people have? Why is the transition to entirely remote and mixed teams an opportunity to align organizations around what you’re trying to do in product? Why is it so important to recognize the difference between urgent channels and social channels, and how do you use each? What advice does Randy have for product leaders figuring out their next six months in these times?

Quotes From This Episode

When's the last time you talked to a customer...that's the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is when is the last time you actually listened to one? Click To Tweet

My favorite customer conversations are always the ones where people start cursing because you know they're honest and you know they've let down their guard and they're telling you the truth. Click To Tweet

I came up with the idea that Athena is the patron goddess of product management because math and strategy and logic and lots of other things. And on really bad days, she's also the goddess of strategic warfare. Click To Tweet

Sometimes an assumption has an emotional component and that's when it becomes an opinion. Assumptions are things you can test… Opinions—they're notoriously impervious to data. Click To Tweet

Transcription

Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi, and welcome to the Product Science podcast, where we’re helping startups, founders, and product leaders build high growth products, teams, and companies through real conversations with people who’ve tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
This week on The Product Science Podcast, I’m super excited to interview Randy Silver. Some of you may already know Randy since he’s one of the cohosts of The Product Experience. And Randy is also author of a book about what we do now in the time of COVID-19. So welcome, Randy.
Randy Silver: Thank you so much, Holly. I really appreciate it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I’m so excited to talk with you. So, I always like to get started just kind of getting to know people better and their background a bit. So, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your journey? How did you get to where you are now?
Randy Silver: Like everyone else, completely by accident. So, I left school as a music journalist, which is a really weird thing to do, and had a great time with that. I worked for Amazon as their first hip hop and children’s music editor. I launched their sites in the US and the UK. And it was after being here for six months in London or [inaudible], which is like the Jersey city of London, that I woke up one day after we launched the site and realized I knew how to launch the site and work on all that but I didn’t know anyone in the UK. I didn’t have the network that I had in the States of writers and editors and publicists and things like that. I didn’t want to spend years rebuilding my network. So I started thinking about what is it that I actually do.
And it turns out that working with writers and editors and designers and developers and helping them all create something that’s greater than the sum of the parts and targeted at delighting customers, it’s a very transferable skillset. So I do pretty much the same job I always did. I still think of myself primarily as an editor, I just use different frameworks and toolsets. I have a slightly different focus, but it’s working with a diverse group of people in the product management framework.
So I went and did that for a long time. And then after Amazon, I thought I might be a project manager, and very quickly learned that that’s something that is not me at all. And it was back in New York as an interactive producer, which is exactly the same thing as doing product except with no frameworks and no discipline whatsoever. And then I came back to the UK and someone offered me a job as a product manager. I asked them what that was. They told me about agile and scrum and all these other things. I said, oh my God, there’s a better way of doing this. And that was 13 years ago, and I haven’t looked back since. And I’ve been doing it for lots of different places ever since.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s awesome. Tell me a little more about that place, that first place you went that told you about agile and scrum and you realized there was a better way. And they were like, this is the title, it’s product manager. What was that place like? How big was it? Where were they at in their journey?
Randy Silver: Sure. It was a place called Global Radio. They’re the largest network of private radio stations in the UK. And when I left the music business in the US, I accidentally went to go work for Sirius Radio where I was a producer. But this time I wasn’t doing music stuff, I was actually doing the technology, the site and doing the producing. So when I came to the UK, I hooked up with this group here. I was in charge of their online media player, which was their biggest ad property, and the biggest thing prior to iPlayer here in the UK for streaming audio. And that was a lot of fun. I did that. And I also did their backend CRM systems. I was the product manager for both because I had the only database guy and I needed both. That was the right team to handle both of these things.
And that was a lot of fun. It was a bunch of people who had helped build up Yahoo in the UK and Europe had come over here. It was the guy who founded the Django framework, was working with us. We had some really interesting technology people with us, and people who’ve gone on to do great things. And we had a team of about 60 some odd people. I was there for about a year when the financial crisis hit. And we went from a team of 60 to about six. So, that was the end of that job, but it was a lot of fun. I learned a ton, I had a great network of people around me. And it was the first time I’d ever done proper retros and sprint planning and all kinds of things like that.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. And that timeframe is fairly early in the adoption of agile. I think at that point in time, most companies you spoke to said they were doing agile but they weren’t necessarily doing scrum, which obviously you can do agile without doing scrum. I started coming across more and more companies that were doing the full set of scrum activities I would say a couple of years after that. So, it must’ve been sort of early days to be practicing.
Randy Silver: Yeah. There was already a pretty robust community here in the UK that I didn’t discover for another couple of years after that. But it turned out I’d just come to London at the right time to get thrown right into the heart of it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. And what made you go to London? Did you go there for the job or something else?
Randy Silver: I had lived here originally when I was working for Amazon. They’d sent me for six weeks and I stayed for three years. And then I went back to New York. And then I was just traveling back and forth every once in a while because I had a lot of friends here in London, and one of the trips I met somebody, and now I’m stuck here.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh, that’s awesome. I’d love to go to London. I’ve never been. So someday, I will learn why you like to go back and forth from New York to London. What about more recently? Aside from your podcast life, what is your role now and how did you get to that?
Randy Silver: Yeah, so for the last couple of years, I’ve been primarily consulting. I’ve been doing interim leadership gigs, coaching and mentoring. And then alongside that, I work with a group out of New York called Motivate Design, who has a really interesting take on how to do discovery that I’d never heard before. And when I first heard that, I said, my God, why isn’t everyone doing discovery this way. It throws the whole idea of when’s the last time you talked to a customer on its head, because that’s the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is when’s the last time you actually listened to one. And this is about being able to get to customers and potential customers and hear what they really think in a way that doesn’t involve you speaking to them, that has them talking to people they already know and have a relationship with. And they tell you so much more in that case than they would otherwise.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh, that’s really intriguing. So how do you get someone to talk to someone they already know about things you want to know about?
Randy Silver: So we have a network of about 2000 people globally. It’s a technique called Insider Insight. And anyone can do it if you want to. In fact, we give away the technique for free. But the basic idea is we don’t employ researchers because researchers are really, really bad at this, and so are product people for the same reason, because we’re trained so well now to ask leading questions and not to take bias out, to get rid of bias and things like that, or at least we try to.
The reality is, you’re not going to tell me the same thing if you’ve just met me as you would somebody you already know. You’re going to have a much more honest conversation with them. So we have teachers and nurses and social workers and yoga instructors and taxi drivers. I think we even have a retired FBI agent as one of our insiders. And there are people who are good at having conversations and just like having chats with people. And they’re not actually the people we want to talk to. But they have access to the people that we want to talk to.
So, one client of mine wanted to do some research into personalization in the fashion industry. So they were looking for people of a certain age range and demographic who spent a lot of money on fashion and really cared about it. Now personalization can mean totally different things. It can mean a really expensive way of doing search and customization on the site. It can also be a handwritten note in the packaging from a stylist explaining something about the garment. And one of them, you can test the next day. And one of them takes months and months. So we want to know what does personalization actually mean to the customers, what do they care about?
And so we set up this mission of getting people to, our insiders to talk to people they knew that fit the demographic, and then want to have the conversation with. We give them one or two questions. And they just came back and said, oh, what’s the last time a brand really got you and when’s the last time a brand really got it wrong? And they told us stories about jewelry and travel and luxury and buying cars. All of these things are valuable because the difference between luxury clothing and luxury anything else is just what you’re purchasing that day. You still want a good shopping experience. And you can learn so much from all these other things rather than just looking at your competitor sites and trying to copy features.
And it was a fascinating thing, we learned so much. And my favorite conversations are always the ones where people start cursing because you know they’re honest and you know they’re telling you, they’ve let down their guard and they’re telling you the truth when they’re cursing with each other.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s awesome. That’s a really good point. I’m super intrigued, I’d love to try that sometime. I have a lot of honest conversations with people but I’m usually the one doing it, not someone they know from inside their industry. So that’s a really cool angle on it that they’ll speak differently. And the consultant that you’ve been doing, that’s with Out of Owls. Is that your own company?
Randy Silver: Yeah, that’s the brand that I use. It’s me and any friends that I happen to work with on various projects. I like partnering with other people whenever I can get the chance.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Cool. It really resonated for me because I love owls. I named my daughter Athena. The owl is their picture.
Randy Silver: That’s actually where the brand came from. I did a talk a couple years ago about gods’ product managers and superheroes. I came up with the idea that Athena is the patron goddess of product management because math and strategy and logic and lots of other things. And on really bad days, she’s also the goddess of strategic warfare. I wanted to come up with a name that was inspired by her. And so, I hit on owls and I was trying to teach my then six year old son about brainstorming. So we were walking to school one day and I said, “Okay, I need an owl inspired name.” So he’s walking saying, “Car Owl, Sky Owl, Blue Owl, Brown Owl.” And after a 15 minute walk, he looked up at me and said, “Daddy, I’m all out of owls.” I said, “You’re going to hate me, but that’s the name.”
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s awesome. Oh my God, I love it. That’s so fantastic. Don’t forget arts and crafts. She’s also the goddess of arts and crafts, which also goes well because design, it’s good. There’s a famous story with the weaving. Awesome. So, let’s talk about your recent book. So, tell us why you wrote this book and what should we know about it?
Randy Silver: Sure. So it’s called What Do We Do Now? It’s a guide to what we do now. And it was based on the idea that at the beginning of lockdown, or pretty much early to mid March, I was having conversations with lots of product leaders and lots of friends. And they were all struggling, they were all really worried about what to do next. They felt a real lack of control and a lack of how sure they were about what the next step should be. I kept giving them advice and it seemed to resonate really well and it seemed to be the same advice that was resonating well. So instead of having one to one conversations, I sat down to write an article and try and share it further and generate a bigger conversation. I’m a former journalist and putting words on paper was never really a problem for me. And that article just kept growing and growing. And then I started outlining all the points I wanted to make. And it turned out they were about 10 points.
And I said, “Okay, this isn’t an article. This is either a series or possibly it’s a book.” And I pitched Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden for two reasons. One, they’ve got Sense & Respond press and they’re really smart guys. And they publish these short books that are meant to be read quickly. And also, I figured if they endorsed the types of things I was saying and would do a quick edit on it, then I knew I was onto something and had a pretty good point. And to my surprise and terror, they agreed to publish it. They also agreed with me that it was something that had to be done really quickly. And that for something that short, we could put all the profits to charity and to pandemic relief.
And so, we just did it really quickly. It took a few weeks, a couple of rounds of edits of going back and forth on making things a little bit clearer and a little bit better. And we got it out. So it’s been out for about a month or so now, and it’s doing really well. I’ve gotten some great response from it. And the basic idea is everything we do in product is based on a series of hypotheses. And those hypotheses generally start with our customer and understanding our customer and/or potential customer and their problem, as well as doing a market analysis and understanding how we can solve that problem for people better than anybody else.
But when you’ve got this punctuated equilibrium or this disruption, well, your customer’s priorities have changed massively or at least potentially changed massively. And if you can tell me what’s going to happen in your particular market a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, then you’re better than I am. But the idea being that we need to start again at the basics and figure all that out and then work our strategy back together. Make sure we’re having the right conversations and asking the right questions, both with our product development teams, but also with our management teams to make sure we’re all prioritizing the right things. Just that we’re doing the right work right now.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s awesome. So, tell me a little more about how do we figure out if we’re asking the right things, especially for the time that we’re at now?
Randy Silver: Hopefully you’ve got personas or avatars or whatever model and flavor of them that you use. Go back first and just say, is this still accurate? Are the things that Sally sales or whatever the silly names you’ve given them, always within the alliteration for some reason, go back and look at them and say, is the thing that they cared about, the thing that they want to solve still the most important thing for them? Is it still the same level of priority or with the changing lifestyle, do they even have this problem at all? And then also look back at the market and understand, where did you fit into the market, what were the competitive pressures and where did you Excel and what are the opportunities that you have now?
So start off with revalidating that at the basic level. Then you start to go back to the way we always work on things, which is a series of bets or iterations that we do, and these hypotheses. And that’s usually based on two things, a fact plus an assumption is a bet. But the facts that we knew may or may not be true anymore. So we have to revalidate those and say, yes, this is still true, so I have a solid foundation for this bet. And then these assumptions is the assumption we still want to test. So starting at that point and going through again, your personas and your market analysis, and then just going back to your roadmap and looking at is this the right way to do it.
There’s another component to that, which is those assumptions can be trickier than we usually think because when you’re dealing with stakeholders, sometimes an assumption has an emotional component. And that’s when it becomes an opinion. And assumptions are things you can test and bring data back, and everyone says, okay, yes, we were wrong, let’s move on. Opinions, they’re notoriously impervious to data. So you need to go back and really map this out and understand in times of stress, when people are not necessarily wearing their full faculties or when they’re distracted by other things, are they ready to deal with things and deal with things rationally as an assumption or is there an emotional component to it?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Is there ever not an emotional component to it?
Randy Silver: Well, true. I mean, stakeholders are tough and that’s why we give them names like hippos and seagulls and zebras and things like that. But there are times when you can have, especially when you’re in person, where you can have, develop a bit of a rapport and deescalate things. And sometimes, that’s a lot harder to do on video, or when you’re dealing with these siloed conversations, you don’t have any of the ambient signals that the rest of the office. At one point, that can be easier, but it can be a lot harder as well.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. I’m just [inaudible].
Randy Silver: If it was easy, we’d all do it, right?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It’s been one of my great principals that I go back to all the time is like, so much of economics is wrong because so much of economics assumes rational actors and everything we’ve learned in the time where we’ve realized, well, wait a minute, we should not be mapping out what would happen if people acted rationally. What are we thinking? They’re not rational. Humans aren’t rational. They can’t be. But they also are emotional and we have to account for that. But I love it.
So, what are some of the responses you’ve gotten, in particular, I’m really curious how are you hearing it’s going for people who are in organizations trying to say, wait, we got to step back to some basics because so much has changed?
Randy Silver: It’s been interesting. The first couple of months, I had certain hypotheses about how things were going. And then I sat down with a bunch of leaders in the call and tried to get them to share what was going on. And they totally surprised me, they were much cheerier than I expected them to be. They were all really enthusiastic. And then they explained, well, we’re the ones in the organization who are used to indecision or are used to dynamics be, things being very dynamic and changing. So we can actually get stuff done right now. And people who are working in retail chains, well, the stores, the brick and mortar were all shut down, but they were still active and able to do things. So they were just happy to be working and doing things.
They also found that there was some really intriguing things. So they were able, there was one company I was talking to that dealt with genealogy. Their objective earlier in the year have been all about acquisition. With everyone locked down all of a sudden and not being able to go out and do something, acquisition was no longer a problem. People were looking for hobbies and things to do. So now they just have to shift to activation and retention. So it was a really interesting discussion about what were the challenges and how do we change our long term plans to take advantage of short term trends and things like that. So they were really engaged.
That was a couple of months ago though. And now in the summer, we’re finding that low hanging fruit, the strategies that people had put out and they were able to just cherry pick and say, we’re going to do this, this and this, and concentrate on it. A lot of that work is done. And now they’re trying to face what comes next. How do we work next? People are starting to think about, are we going to go back into the office or when are we going to start, how are we going to use the office space? Should we resign it?
And that details into their own strategies of if our customers are people that are in city centers or things like that, or if they’re podcasters who podcasting is something people, a lot of people do on commuting. And the numbers may have gone down because people are stuck at home. Lots of things like that, you have to factor this into your planning. And now for the first time, people are trying to do planning remotely. And they’re also acutely aware that they don’t know what the world is going to be like in three months or six months. And this is something that I’m seeing a lot of people really struggling with.
This is where you start looking at things like scenario planning and trying to do some other things that really help you to understand, well, we can’t predict the future, we can never predict the future, but we can predict a range of likely futures, and we can put out strategies for each of these, and we can come back and meet and see how things are going, how close did we get. So there’s a lot in there for that.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Can I ask you a question about that part? So, I think that’s really interesting because obviously scenario planning is something that’s been around for a while. I know in cash flow forecasting and things like that, these are things that people do regularly. But I think in product management and planning products launches and things, it’s not something I’ve come across nearly as much as maybe people might in other disciplines. So I’m curious if you’ve worked with some teams on that, if you have any insight into what kind of tools or techniques people use. How do they go about doing scenario planning for products?
Randy Silver: Sure. There’s a couple of different ways. I’ll have to admit, I had never used it as a formal methodology before writing the book. It was something I did first draft and Jeff Gothelf, I’m sorry, Josh Seiden actually took a look at it and said, “Why aren’t you mentioning that?” And I looked it up and said, oh my God, I’ve been doing variations on this informally myself for years, but I never realized that this was a formal management consultant methodology. So I’ve looked into it since and I’ve started playing around with it. There are lots of variations on it.
But the idea as with almost every tool and framework that we use in product is not the end result of it. It’s what are the conversations you have on the way and how do you get all these assumptions out and make sure that everyone’s on the same page. But it’s basically the idea of having a fiction writing workshop or something like that, where you say, let’s talk about three or four plausible futures. Let’s take one or two major things. So everything opens up, there’s a vaccine and we’re able to go back to work in September. And everything goes back to the way it was. Or we’re able to go back to work in September, but psychologically, people aren’t ready so it’s only 50 or 70% of people are back and the economy recovers a certain amount. Or there’s no vaccine ever.
And you can do a few different variations along the way and figure out what are some potential likely ways of doing this. It’s not about necessarily getting the right answer, it’s about having really good discussions about how would you act in each of these things, how would that impact things? And then saying how likely, from the same way we do planning poker or [inaudible] or anything else, how likely does your management team think any of these things are and which of them are you going to concentrate on and say our strategy is based around this assumption right now but we’re going to come back every two weeks, six weeks, three months, whatever it is and reforecast and see how we’re doing against it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that. It made me think too. One of the things that I’ve often, I also haven’t used the term scenario planning when I was doing this, but a lot of times when I’m planning out sort of a roadmap or a technical plan with the team, I’ll ask them to do what you just described. And then we’ll often notice that sometimes what we would do, and sometimes there’s two or three scenarios where there’s some key thing we’d be doing in all three of them. And then that gives us more confidence at least that one thing where it’s like, oh, we’re probably going to need that no matter what. Let’s get started on that one.
Randy Silver: Yeah, absolutely.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay. So far we’ve got go back to the basics, go back to the personas, ask the questions, test the assumptions. Really put it through the rigorous because so much has changed for everybody. Do scenario planning to think about the future now that people are starting to look ahead more than how I’m going to get through the next month. Are there other key messages from the way you’ve been looking at this that you want to share?
Randy Silver: Yeah. The next thing we need to look at is, we’re always asked to predict the future both from a scenario planning perspective, but your customers and your executives all think you’re psychic because they’re always asking you when am I going to get it. So, we do that based on what our priors are. We have a team that has worked in this way and we have an estimate, it’ll take us this long to do it, which we usually miss, but we’re not going to concentrate on that.
But the reality is, right now, people are working in a very different way. So you may or may not have access to all the tools that you had in the office. You’re certainly working differently. People are distracted. I know from my own perspective, I’m homeschooling a lot of the time that I wasn’t doing before. This isn’t working from home. People keep saying, if it’s working from home with the rest of your family around, if you’ve got one, add a lot of distractions that you didn’t have before. Some people are much more productive right now, but a lot of people are not able to concentrate the same way.
So it’s thinking about what is realistic for your team now? What are the resources and the timelines going to be? And what is the best way for you to work, what is the best way to look at the ways of working that you and your team have? And that’s something that it was a new normal two weeks in, another new normal four weeks in. And I think we have to keep going through this because there’s different waves of how people are feeling and how they’re dealing what they need to be dealing with. So right now we’re recording, it’s beginning of July. So school’s out in the States, it’s just about to be out here in the UK. And that’s going to be a massive change for a lot of parents.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I’m a parent, by the way, I’ve got two kids. And so for me, I’m thinking, well, school being out has, I’ve been reading some emails about the summer of dread instead of the summer of joy because you can’t take your kids anywhere or something, we’re allowed to do in New York City. The playgrounds are open again, but obviously you have to try to teach your kids to go to the playground in a mask and it’s hard. But I also think there’ll be some really big changes in the fall.
I don’t know about some of the other countries, but here in the US, they’re just starting to put out some plans for what going back to school will look like. And they just announced in New York city that their kids are going to go back. The plan is that they’ll be in the school building one to three days a week. And so, it’s going to be a totally, it’s a whole new thing. Instead of it being all homeschooling or all at school, now we’ve got an in between and we got to figure out what that looks like. I think we’re going to see some huge shifts again in what workers are doing.
Randy Silver: Yeah. And then the question is, even if you start opening up offices again to a certain degree, how often are you going to go in? What are you going to use the office for? Lots of people have found that they like working from home to a degree, but maybe not all the time. And you may not need to have a desk, you may not need, I think the one positive that’s going to come out of this and something that we have as a superpower as product people, is we tend to try and focus on outcomes rather than outputs, or at least if we’re good, we do that. And the idea of presenteeism, of just being at your desk and giving the appearance of productivity, productivity theater by sitting at a computer and typing and writing emails, that’s got to go away. And it’s just not as effective when your manager can’t see you because well, you’re working at home and they’re working at home.
So, the ability to do this has always been something that’s really been good for us, but I think a lot of the rest of the world is catching onto it as well. And if we can get other teams aligned to us on this and doing things around impact mapping and impacts and outcomes, then we’re in much, much better shape.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think you’re right about the outcomes over outputs thinking that we are already practicing as much as we can, or people are striving to do better putting us in a place where we are kind of leaders of, okay, well, there’s a lot of these things we’ve been doing already.
One of the other areas that you mentioned before that I’d love to come back and touch on is this idea that we’re already the people who are comfortable with the uncertainty that we’re able to keep getting things done. How have you seen that play out with the people that you’ve been talking to in these times?
Randy Silver: They tend to be really excited. I mean, they’re freaked out. We’re all freaked out. I think it has a lot to do with the level of seniority as well. There was someone I was talking to just yesterday. She was talking about her team. She’s the CPO of a medium-sized company and she’s comfortable with a certain amount of insecurity around what decisions are or the fact that they will have to change priorities from week to week and sometimes even day to day. But somebody lower down on the food chain who has a different perspective on the company, who’s able to, looks at one feature or one product, when something changes, it feels like their whole world is changing.
So, creating that environment for people where they understand that there’s only so much certainty right now and you have to be comfortable with it, and also not disrupting them too much. So giving them enough information that they understand context, but also recognizing that they’re working from a different perspective than you might be, and that they need a certain amount of buffering sometimes to be protected from some information, or you can only change directions every so often because you’re not creating the psychological safety for the team. That’s a really important thing to keep in mind.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah. I think you’re totally right. Are there any other sort of techniques that you found helpful in putting those people at ease?
Randy Silver: Not specifically. I think it’s just the normal things that we do of trying to be good managers and creating a good environment. I think it’s [inaudible] was talking about soft skills are not soft skills. They are the hardest skill of all. And I think creating an environment is something that any manager has to do but heads of product and above, it’s incredibly important because so much of what we’re doing is influencing without power in a lot of cases. So, the best thing you can do working across multiple silos is getting people to understand what is it we’re still concentrating on, what’s the important thing. Even if specifics change on a regular basis, what is the big picture we’re still trying to deal with. And making people feel comfortable. And also recognizing that they’re not going to feel comfortable sometimes. You’re going to have to put in the extra effort.
One of the things I’ve seen towards that to helping communicate better, that I’ve seen some teams do, especially teams that were already remote before lockdown started, was the idea that they recognized that they were urgent channels and social channels. And urgent channels were ones where you needed an answer, and anything on there was a high priority communication. People had to read it and had to reply to it. But it didn’t get mixed into the normal slack or social channel because those, they just get overwhelming over time. And you’d have to be able to dip in and out of those. And if you need an answer, put it in one channel. And then maybe using a different tool entirely or at least a different channel within the tool.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Absolutely. I love that. I remember the guys at base camp, one of them had written a piece that I loved about the instant messaging sort of treadmill that you end up getting on with slack and how teams can get away from that. It’s one of these subtle culture elements that just has such a big impact on everybody.
Randy Silver: I think it was in they wrote, welcome to the all day meeting with no agenda and no fixed attendee list that never ends.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yes. Yeah, exactly. I read it and I was just feeling it so much. I was like, yes, this is what this is like, and it’s awful. And then sometimes you work with, sometimes I talk to people where their culture is such that they feel they’re supposed to respond to that even when they’re with their kids at bedtime or things like that, where it’s like, no, we have to create space for everyone to have a human balanced life.
Randy Silver: Oh yeah. When you don’t have that fixed location or the fix on off time, it’s incredibly hard. And setting that expectation for other people. I know some people who, the best thing for them was to carve out time during the day for their family, which meant that they were working after their kids went to bed or very early in the morning. And that put pressure on other people below them or adjacent to them. And they had to have those conversations say, no, this is what’s working for me. I don’t expect you to respond during this time. We have to be reasonable about this but I have to write the email at two in the morning because that’s the only time I feel like I can get any work done.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah. One of my tips for that is I actually will use a send later thing. At times in my life when I was doing some of the odd hour working, I would try to make not send until eight in the morning. So people would not get that feeling of like, oh, she sends me emails in the middle of the night.
Randy Silver: I worked with a boss at one point where she was based in Dubai, which was a challenge because she didn’t work on Fridays, but she didn’t work on Sundays. So Fridays were reasonably easy day, but you’d come in on Monday morning if you were good enough to now look at email on the weekend, but you had a box full of stuff, but she’d spent all day Sunday just queuing everything up for you.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s interesting. Cool. Well, what are you excited about with what’s coming up for you or for the companies that you work with?
Randy Silver: I think it’s an incredibly exciting time because so much is up in the air. And the ability to experiment right now is incredibly high. And I’m seeing a lot of companies that are embracing the fact that they’re not sure of everything, and they’re happier to experiment, they’re happier to put out things before they’re done, done, to see what kind of results they’re going to get. They’re embracing the ability to change. And they’re embracing the idea of how they’re going to work across silos and work well together. When everyone is in a meeting and is the same size on a video screen, there’s this incredible democratization of best idea wins. It’s still unfair for people who are not good communicators, who are not comfortable in that environment. So we’re far from perfect. But there’s a lot of change in the way that power dynamics worked, that I’m seeing a lot of positive things and trends along companies.
I’m seeing people, like I said, trying to experiment more and having the ability to do that. And a lot of people going back and doing different things with the way they do research, with the way they use data and interpret things. And they’re just going back to the basics and doing the things that they always wanted to do but never had the opportunity to and getting the permission to do some of these things.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s really exciting. I’m super excited about that too. Do you have any final words that you would share with a product manager who’s, or a product leader who’s figuring out their next three, six months in these times?
Randy Silver: First off, buy the book. You can go to outofowls.com/book to do that. It’s only five bucks and all profits go to charity. So I’d highly encourage that. It’s also a really short read. And it’s not just stuff from me. It is a lot of links to some absolutely brilliant people and resources that I’ve read about in, had the chance to talk with people over the last few years. So, I would definitely say that. But beyond that, I’d say just be open to new ideas to seeing how things go. That whole idea of Jeff and Josh has titled their company Sense & Respond. I think that’s really the key thing. That’s one way of saying it, the OODA loop, they observe orient decide and act. All of these things where we’re kind of saying the same thing of let’s take in the information, let’s reevaluate what our assumptions are. Let’s make a decision, let’s act on it. And then we evaluate that and keep going.
This whole idea of iteration and experimentation and the basic philosophy of Agile, we use Agile with a capital A lot of the time, and we get stuck in some very specific ways of doing things, that can be a trap. But that philosophy of little a agile, of we’re going to experiment, we’re going to figure things out, we’re going to respond to that. That’s the key and that’s what we tend to be pretty good at.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. Well, if people want to learn more from you, where can they find you?
Randy Silver: Outofowls.com. I’m on Twitter. I have a podcast where I talk to a lot of the same people as you do, and we get totally different things out of them. So it’s always a ton of fun to listen to them on your podcast. And I’m so excited to have finally come on. Thank you so much.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay. I’m so excited, too. Wonderful. And just to, what is your Twitter handle if they want to find you on Twitter?
Randy Silver: Yeah. It’s Randy_Silver.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay, great. So, awesome. People can find you in all those places, and I’m super excited. Thank you so much. This was really fun.
Randy Silver: Thank you, Holly.
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