Episode 12: Just Enough Research

Every product manager builds things for customers, and knowing just who your customers are—what their needs, hopes, desires, frustrations and goals are—is the bedrock of all the work we do.

But how do you go about learning that? And how do you know when you’ve learned enough and can keep building? Well, does has Erika Hall have the book for you! 

Listen in as Sandi MacPherson and I dive into Just Enough Research and discuss how we’ve used the tools and tactics presented there to help us get the best things to customers. We talked through the Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why of user research. 

Episode 11: Inspired

Listen to this month’s episode to learn how to inspire your team and build inspiring products. 

We cover establishing product market fit, how to evaluate your work as a product manager, the difference between product vision & product strategy, how to work cross functionally and more! 

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Episode 10: Different

We wanted to tackle a marketing book, but one that wasn't just about tactics. We chose "Different" by HBS professor Youngme Moon, as her high-level, strategic view on marketing as both a philosophy and an art was very appealing to us.

One of the core ideas in the book is that you can't just go along with the herd of companies and products that change incrementally over time - to be successful, you must actually be different. She highlights 3 separate strategies that you can use to truly differentiate your product, filled with clear examples of companies that have implemented them to become amazing companies and brands - Mini, Red Bull, and Google, to name a few.

Her ideas of getting away from the herd and reinventing your company and products is a perspective that resonated with us, especially as PMs in the Bay Area tech scene where more often than not, most products are hazy copies of others. Her push for readers to try riskier, less clear paths forward is one we both agreed with, and led us to really enjoy this book.

Listen here for our discussion on how to apply the ins and outs of competitive differentiation according to Moon. 

Episode 9: Hacking Growth

Show notes:

Growth determines survival for most startups. If you aren’t increasing revenue, users, or time in-app, you’re probably being overrun by a competitor that is poised to take all your market share or future investors.

But what helps product people drive growth in their companies?

It’s not a series of hacks or tricks, though many successful growth levers can look like clever little tricks in retrospect.

What you can do is set up a team with the right skill set & tools and then task them to experiment as quickly and efficiently as they can to find what works.

In their book, Hacking Growth, Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown lay out exactly what you need in order to do that. They establish what types of companies should form growth teams, common models that work, a playbook for that team, and sage advice on approaching all of this mindfully.

Listen to our podcast, to hear Sandi MacPherson and Anna Marie Clifton discuss which of these tools we’ve personally used in our organizations, if it was successful and what was not, and what we’ve learned from friends at other Bay Area tech companies as well.

Don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher and share or clap for this post to help other product people find it as well! 

Episode 8: Creative Confidence

After a bit of a summer break… we’re very happy to share the next episode of the Clearly Product Book Club Podcast. For Episode 8, we chat about David and Tom Kelley’s book Creative Confidence. In this book, the IDEO cofounders (and brothers!) share their hard-earned experiences, tactics, and general philosophy on ‘creativity’.

While the tech and startup worlds clearly sit on the ‘bleeding edge’ of most industries, organizational practices, and implementations of technology itself, ‘creativity’ is still a bit of a taboo word. Part of the reason (imho) is that it’s not necessarily well defined, and the methods by which you can be creative or increase your level of creativity are chalked up to raw talent, and not explored as skills that can be learned or improved.

We both really enjoyed this book, and dove into some interesting points:

  • What is the balance between experimenting and being creative vs. doing things that are a bit too ‘out there’?
  • How do you encourage people to think creatively on your team, when often times a roles are defined by and rewarded for consistency, which is often the antithesis to being creative?
  • The authors highlight ‘self-efficacy’ as a key attribute with respect to creativity. What does that mean when it comes to working in tech and building product? What is the relationship between self-efficacy and autonomy? How do you you enable people to act with these qualities in-mind, without having the entire org or product spin off into infinite tangents?

We share some examples of how we’ve navigated related issues in our roles, and highlight some of the suggested tactics from the authors that we think are most appropriate to tech companies and startups. We hope you enjoy our chat, and feel free to comment below after listening with any follow-up questions or comments.

Remember to subscribe! And rate the podcast! Our next episode will be out in a few weeks 😁

Episode 7: Crucial Conversations

As product managers, we have a bucket full of tools to finesse an idea from concept to customer. But slice and dice it how you will, we pass each of those hard-earned skills though some filter of how we communicate. Generally speaking, we do most of our communication by spoken word.

How much do you think about how you speak? We wanted to give this a thorough discussion, so we chose “Crucial Conversations” for this months conversation starter. 

Turns out, this book is about a small subset of “crucial” conversation which the authors define as conversations where: 
(1) stakes are high
(2) opinions vary and
(3) emotions run strong

While product managers must be adept communicators, few of our conversations are apt to be “crucial” by the definition of these authors, so we explored related areas outside the explicit domain of the book.

And this led us to a much higher value conversation! Instead of focusing exclusively on defusing potentially volatile moments, we shared our thoughts and experiences across a broad spectrum of conversational skills.

Listen in for our thoughts on PM communication skills: observing beyond the words, making safe space for others, leading with narrative, and more!

P.S. Looking for our thoughts on other types of communication? Check out our episodes on writing and on negotiation!

Like the show? Rate us on iTunes/Stitcher or tweet at us and let us know! 

Have a topic you’d like to see us cover? Let us know in comments or tweets. 

Episode 6: High Output Management

This month we decided to dig into the management side of product management, and dug into Andy Grove’s seminal book, High Output Management.

I don’t want to spoil the podcast ending, but Sandi gave this a solid 5 out of 5 on the pony scale (🐴🐴🐴🐴🐴).

We don’t hand out our ponies lightly, this is a great read for product managers at every stage. 

I’m not a manager, are you sure this book is for me?

Absolutely! I’m not a manager either—not of people, anyway—but this was still one of the most helpful books I’ve read about the craft of getting things in front of customers!

Andy Grove wrote this book for two audiences: 

  • People managers—those who supervise other humans.
  • Know-how managers—those who shape the work of others without direct authority.

I can’t think of a better direct example of a know-how manager than a product manager. While about 100% of the book applies to people managers, close to 90% applies to us know-how managers.

Highlights from the show

Output based v. Activity based

How do you know if you’re a good product manager? I ask myself this question at least once a month (and not in a “well done, you’re so introspective” kind of way… more like a “oh god, I hope I don’t ruin anything today” kind of way).

Grove offers some valuable guidance for anyone looking to measure their effectiveness: don’t judge your activities—judge your output.

That’s basically the premise (and title!) of the whole book. You’re judged for the work that your team does. What’s the output? That’s all that matters.

As a PM it can feel so satisfying to do that bit of data investigation, dig in on that user research, triage those bugs, write that spec. 

All these activities are often needed to get to output, but they have no value on their own. 

You can be the world’s best spec writer, churning out spec after immaculate spec every day, but if your teams aren’t getting features in front of customers, you’re a shitty PM. 


The “out of industry” trap

Grove talks about how hands-on (or hands-off) to be as a manager. His main advice: tailor your approach to how experienced your report is. The more experienced, the less involved you should be in their day-to-day.

Totally sensible. But he adds a little twist—it doesn’t matter how generically experienced that person is, what you should measure is the Task-Relevant Maturity (TRM) of the person you’re managing for the role they're currently in. 

This one comes up in product management all the time! 

It’s very rare to hire a product manager right out of college. Only the largest organizations (Facebook, Microsoft, Google, etc) hire and train new grads, and they each only take about 20 a year. Most people who start working in product management come from some other role (engineering, testing, marketing, etc) or from out of industry altogether.

If you’re managing a PM who’s got 5 years of work experience, you may expect them to be a reasonably autonomous employee. But if all their experience comes from other roles, or out of industry, they are going to have really low TRM in product management and need a lot more direction than you might expect. 

I’ve seen this happen more than once, and even been that fledgeling PM myself. There’s a surprising number of things your new PM won’t know, no matter how many years they worked in tech marketing, finance, or consulting. 

Don’t give your new PMs enough rope to hang themselves. Make sure you allot plenty of time to training a fresh PM, even if they have years of other work experience. 

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the episode. Feel free to tweet at us @ClearlyProduct. Also, let us know if you've got a book in mind that would make a great episode!

Happy listening :)

Don’t want to miss an episode? Subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!

Episode 5: Winning with Data: Part 2

Part 2 is here! Listen to the second half of the conversation around "Winning with Data: Transform Your Culture, Empower Your People, and Shape the Future" by Tomasz Tunguz and Frank Bien.

In Part 1 you heard our perspectives on how to run A/B tests, how this differs from a large org to a small one, what data to focus on when you're starting out, and much more.

Now in Part 2 we talk about how to use data proactively, what to do if you don't have data to work with, how data can hurt you as much as it can help, how to set your org up for success with data and so much more. 

Episode 4: Winning with Data: Part 1

As always, we're talking about a topic through the lens of a particular book we both read. This month we read "Winning with Data: Transform Your Culture, Empower Your People, and Shape the Future" by Tomasz Tunguz and Frank Bien.

Data is something we care a great deal about! So much so, we talked enough for 2 whole episodes!

In Part 1 you'll learn our perspectives on how to run A/B tests, how this differs from a large org to a small one, what data to focus on when you're starting out, and much more.

Episode 3 - On Writing Well

Anna Marie and I found that while we are basically constantly writing — emails, blog posts, proposals — we haven’t read anything beyond a few blog posts on how to become better writers… 


We believe that the craft of writing and the process of becoming a better writer needs real time and attention, so we chose On Writing Well by William Zinsser for the next book club book. It has sold over 1.5M copies. It covers how to approach writing, specific suggestions for various forms of non-fiction writing, and a litany of handy tips and tricks.

Our discussion on the podcast led to chats about writing in all forms — emails, messaging, internal communication, and public blog posts — basically any and all things you may need to write in your product-focused role. 

We dive into:

  • how to get started writing and when (if?) to share your writing publicly.
  • why open source software for engineers == writing publicly for product people.
  • tactics for building a strong, authentic voice.
  • writing as a tool and process to develop your opinions, re-evaluate processes you use with your team, and generally think more deeply about your work. 
  • coming to terms with the inherent power of ego that pushes many to write (…but doesn’t have to).
  • the importance of title and the space your words and sentences take up on the page.
  • the future of writing… emoji and gifs ftw! 🎉 🎉 🎉


Episode 2 - Negotiate like the best: How to move things forward as a PM

When choosing which book to read next for Episode 2 of the Clearly Product Book Club Podcast, Anna Marie and myself decided that something related to communications would be ideal. It’s basically the core of what the PM role entails. All of the overly focused ‘how to communicate with your team’ books seemed fine, but nothing really stood out as being overly interesting or powerful. Until we came across ‘Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It’ by Chris Voss. A Former FBI Hostage Negotiator, Voss’ approach to negotiating is very different from that taught in any academic setting — and, as we found out, much more powerful.

Harvard MBAs ain’t got shi*t on Voss

The book starts by establishing Voss as an expert in negotiations by showing how he was able to basically ‘beat’ everyone at HBS — his fellow students and professors alike. Why? The core of negotiations, as it’s taught today, focus on deciding what is equal and fair, analyzing how to put together a reasonable package for each side, and then deciding together upon the outcome. Many of the ideas taught in hallmark negotiations book ‘Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In’ by Roger Fisher are the tactics used by many business people today. Voss’ main argument is that this overall model doesn’t actually work, and unless you understand emotionally what the other person is feeling, and spend the time to empathize with their position, you’re unlikely to end up with the optimal outcome.

Tips and Tricks and Anecdotes, oh my!

Never Split the Difference is full of amazing advice, in various forms. Voss’ high-stakes experiences as an FBI negotiator leads to many edge-of-your-seat mini-case studies, where he exposes the techniques and strategies he learned while in the field, and how to then apply those to your personal and professional life. 

The book also contains an amazing collection of the science on how people think and make decisions, detailed ‘how-to’ strategies for different types of interactions, tips-and-tricks that you can start using in one of your negotiations today, all anchored to his core belief of the importance of getting to and dealing with the ‘lizard brain’ of your negotiation partner.

But don’t I only negotiate my raise? Resources for next month? Some-other-infrequent-thing?

Negotiations are everywhere, they’re one of the core ways that people interact with each other. A negotiation is simply: 

A discussion aimed at reaching an agreement

I bet you’ve already negotiated several things this week. And, unfortunately, you’ve probably landed on an outcome that wasn’t as advantageous as it could have been. 

We really enjoyed this book, and hope you’ll listen along to the second episode of the podcast as we discuss how we’ve already applied the theories in roles, how negotiating fits into the skill set of great product people, and how we plan on working on becoming even better negotiators at work and at home.


Listen below to the Never Split the Difference episode of the Clearly Product Book Club Podcast, and don’t forget to subscribe!

Episode 1: The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

For the first episode of the Cleary Product Book Club Podcast, we chose an Alan Cooper (of Cooper Design) standard, published back in 1999. The book dives into why software needs to start with design, and explains some of the core problems associated with building software that make it easy to build overly complicated, non-user-friendly products. While many of the ideas presented in the book have become norms across the tech industry over the past 17 years since it was first published, the core concepts are extremely important. If anything, their commonness causes the ideas to be forgotten — and the book offers a first-principles refresher on exactly why design has maintained it’s stronghold on the early stages of building software today.

Some of the core ideas that we talk about include:

  • All users are not the same! Some are beginners, some are intermediate, and some are advanced in terms of their understanding of and how they use your product. To design for only one class of user is setting any of the other two groups up for failure, or at least a non-optimal experience.
  • Working in tech, we’re often blinded to the fact that not everyone experiences technology in the same way. The core understandings of how products work are often very different. It’s quite rare to build for a user that understands technology in the same way that you do. For most users? Technology is much more difficult and confusing for them than for the people who are building it. What may seem like an easy obvious fix for people working in Product may in fact be too much cognitive friction for users.
“He makes a major point that around how hard computers are and how hard they don’t have to be.… We’re living in this world where we’re blinded to it because it’s so much better to have a computer involved in so many things that we’re willing to overlook its downfalls.” — Anna Marie Clifton
  • Designing product requires a ton of communication across the team. Product people need to recognize that all of those people are very different, and while it’s often known that they each use different modes and styles of communication, the actual words that a team use are the same… but the undersanding of what those words mean can be drastically different. If you don’t ‘come to terms’ with the people you’re working with, it’s impossible to have clarity around what you’re actually building and how you’ll get there.
“…when you start working on a project, a certain feature or an entire product together with a team, it’s extremely important to start from first principles in terms of what are the actual words that you’re using, what do they mean and what do people think that they mean.” — Sandi MacPherson
  • Adding features is not the way to solve problems. Full stop. Cooper compares how we solve user problems to that of a Swiss Army Knife — with a physical object, you can’t just keep adding tools. Unfortunately software makes it overly easy to add and add and add features, ultimately leading to feature bloat.

Be sure to subscribe on iTunes, or listen here: 

Episode 0: Reading product books by yourself is a waste of time

Anna Marie and I geek out on product all the time. These conversations tend to be particularly eye-opening for us because of the fact that we work on very different types of products, at very different types of companies. Anna Marie is a Product Manager at Yammer, an enterprise collaboration tool owned by Microsoft. Meanwhile, I work on a consumer news product at my one-person company, Quibb. We’ve learned a ton from each other, and wanted to put a bit of pressure on ourselves to have even better, more focused conversations.

First step? We choose product-related books to read concurrently. Once we’re both finished, we’ll sit down — just the two of us — and have a discussion about the book. We’ll chat about what we learned, what we liked, where we disagreed, and professional experiences that we’ve had that are related to the book’s content.

…And we’ll record it!

The Clearly Product Book Club Podcast

Today we’re happy to announce that these discussions will be the core of our new podcast. We’ll be choosing books that cover some area that is required to be a strong product person. Beyond applying our own personal experiences as they relate to the topics, we’ll sometimes pull in experts and authors too.

Our lucky position

Both Anna Marie and myself are in a very privileged position. Living in the Bay Area, we have access to some of the sharpest, experimental, and experienced product people globally. We’re also both extremely active in holding conversations and meetings with our peers, making sure we’re on top of what matters and what’s new in the realm of product. The openness of founders, product people, and investors in the Bay Area is unmatched, and we’re excited to blend our knowledge and learnings from those interactions with the Clearly Product audience.

Reading is (actually) hard

It’s tough to keep up, we know. We hope that in addition to helping you to narrow in on books that actually matter, we’ll be able to offer a more in-depth, value-add approach to the existing time you spend reading. We’re both (independently) huge fans of Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book. His perspective on how to best leverage the information and time spent reading is one that influences how we approach reading:

“The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.”

It’s only through active discussion and connecting experiences and previous readings that you can truly absorb and generate the most value from the sheets clustered inside any book. 

Helping you become a well-rounded, informed product person

We’ll be choosing books that we believe are relevant and important to add to your arsenal. Through active, informal discussion with two people at the two extremes of the product world in the Bay Area, we’ll expose different ways to think about the content, and share our own real-life trials and tribulations as we work to strengthen our product taste, strategy, and understanding.

We hope you’ll join us :)