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While listening to the Jocko podcast I was introduced to MCDP 1-3, "Tactics". A publication from the U.S. Marine Corps about winning in combat. It's a philosophical publication that presents a way to think about the art and science of using tactics to achieve victory. Tactics include "achieving a decision", "gaining advantage", "being faster" and "adapting".

The publication is filled with blunt yet profound insight that can be applied beyond the battlefield. For example:

Consequences of a tactical engagement should lead to achieving operational and strategic goals.

If you're going to invest time to engage in a project, an activity, or a meeting among colleagues, don't do it just to do it. Have your goals top-of-mind. Why are you pursuing the activity? Without a clear objective the consequences may be lost time, or a frustrated colleague wondering why the meeting was scheduled. Yet it if the objective is clear, the consequences may be mitigated.

In the final chapter "Making It Happen", there is a discussion on how to deliver a "critique" after a training exercise:

The standard approach for conducting critiques should promote initiative. Since every tactical situation is unique and since no training situation can encompass more than a small fraction of the peculiarities of a real tactical situation, there can be no ideal or school solution. Critiques should focus on the students' rationale for doing what they did. What factors did a student consider, or not consider, in making an estimate of the situation? Were the decisions the student made consistent with this estimate? Were the actions ordered tactically sound? Did they have a reasonable chance of achieving success? How well were the orders communicated to subordinates? These questions should form the basis for critiques. The purpose is to broaden a leader's analytical powers, experience level, and base of knowledge, thereby increasing the student's creative ability to devise sound, innovative solutions to difficult problems.

Critiques should be open-minded and understanding, rather than rigid and harsh. Mistakes are essential to the learning process and should always be cast in a positive light. The focus should not be on whether a leader did well or poorly, but rather on the progress achieved in overall development. We must aim to provide the best climate to grow leaders. Damaging a leader's self-esteem, especially in public, therefore should be strictly avoided. A leader's self-confidence is the wellspring from which flows the willingness to assume responsibility and exercise initiative.

This "standard approach" is straightforward, yet practical and nuanced in it's objective of promoting initiative and helping the leader grow. The objective is to focus on a leader's "progress achieved in overall development".

Each company that I've worked for required companywide "employee reviews". I would fill out templates about what I worked on, and rate myself on a subjective scale. My managers and colleagues would do the same. The process was time-consuming and I rarely learned how to get better.

The critique approach presented in MCDP 1-3 isn't a step-by-step guide to delivering a critique. It's a mindset. It presents an objective, a way to think about achieving that objective, and some tactical questions for getting there. It's up to the company to take this approach and adapt it to their situation and needs.

I believe many organizations could benefit by reassessing their approach for conducting critiques, because the "standard approach for conducting critiques" is not so standard outside the US Marine Corps.

One of my guitar heroes is John Petrucci from the band Dream Theater. John is widely recognized as one of the best rock guitar players in the world. He's also composed some of my favorite guitar solos. One of them is in the song "Under A Glass Moon".

The minute long solo is very technical. Mastering it requires timing, flawless technique, and confidence. It's a complex solo that could take months for a seasoned guitar player to master. In order to perform it at John's level (to play it clean, in time, while being relaxed and confident in every note) requires a particular approach in learning it.

One approach to learning this solo is to learn the entire thing, and keep playing it over and over until you've mastered it. This approach will likely not yield the results you seek. By playing the entire solo you don't end up focusing on the specific sections that you may struggle with. Therefore those sections remain messy, and you may not master the entire solo.

John takes a different approach when teaching the solo. Here he talks about one section:

The next thing is to master a sweep, hammer on, pull off combination lick. We'll break into smaller pieces.

In a minute long solo this section lasts for about one second. And yet there is a lot happening in that one second. A lot of technique and nuance that needs attention in order to be well performed. Now if you're approach is playing the entire solo over and over, how much attention are you giving to this one second section? One second as you fly through it.

Instead John recommends isolating this one second, breaking it down to it's core components (getting the timing of the right and left hands, getting the fingering down) and keep play it until you've mastered it. Start slow, build up speed. Then after you've mastered it, continue to the next section.

This idea of breaking it down to smaller pieces has a much broader application. If you want to run a marathon, start by running a mile. If you want to be able to cook a multi-course dinner, start by making an entrée.

The tech world excels in this. Strong product teams seek to break down large problems into smaller pieces, and solving those pieces one at a time. For if you don't break things down, and just go straight into running the marathon, you likely wont get the results you seek.

What does it mean to be a data-driven Product Manager?

SQL queries? VLOOKUPs? Definitely. Add to that: metrics, data, KPIs. These terms have become commonplace at technology companies. If you're interviewing for a Product Manager role in 2019, I guarantee you'll be asked some of these questions about your past experience:

  • What were your KPIs? Why did you pick those?
  • Talk about a time when you used data to make a decision.
  • What metrics do you use to illustrate if a feature is successful or not?
  • When is it not appropriate to use data to make a decision?
  • Sketch out your data model.
  • Talk about a time when the data suggested you should go in a different direction from your strategy.

You'll need to succinctly explain what you measured, how you measured it, and most importantly why you measured it. You should demonstrate the ability to hypothesize and associate metric(s) to evaluate.

Demonstrate an ability to focus. "Out of the 10 things I could have measured these three were most important". Focus may be the biggest value a Product Manager can offer. The ability to say these are the few things we should measure and why. And then have the awareness to know when those metrics have served their purpose and it's time to measure something else.

Demonstrate the ability to question. Was there a time when the data misled you? How did you adapt? What was your goal and why was monitoring metrics part of the solution? A concerning answer for why you measured a certain metric/KPI is "we've always done it this way". Even if you do resort to status-quo industry standard measurements, explain the reason for that. It will demonstrate that you at some point questioned the status-quo, and received a sufficient answer that resulted in you maintaining it.

Some practical examples.

Today, tech companies are vying for your attention. YouTube prefers you watch their videos instead of Netflix's, or going to the movies, or reading a book. They want your time allocated to YouTube. This is why when you finish a video the next one is already queued up and a long list of tantalizing recommended videos is in clear view.

The way to measure attention is through Retention & Engagement.

Retention, getting you to come back (e.g. open YouTube X times per month). Engagement, getting you to use the product (e.g. watch 10 videos per day on YouTube).

The gold standard Retention measurement is "N-Day Retention". The goal with measuring Retention is to understand who and how often is coming back to your product. Amplitude, a tool I currently use has a great overview of measuring N-Day Retention.

Engagement is about measuring who and how often is performing the "key action" in your app. In YouTube's case one of those actions may be "watch video". The gold standard Engagement measures are: DAU ("dow"), WAU ("wow"), MAU ("mm-ow") DAU/MAU ("dow-mm-ow"). These metrics measure: Daily Active Users, Weekly Active Users, Monthly Active Users. These are the unique number of people that perform the key action (such as "watch video") on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

DAU/MAU will demonstrate how engaged your user base is by reflecting the % of monthly active users that come back everyday. This can also be a measure of your apps "stickiness". Again Amplitude has great overview of this concept. It's also worth noting that although DAU/MAU is an industry standard metric for Engagement, it has shortcomings.

If your focus is Engagement & Retention, DAU, WAU, MAU, and DAU/MAU are great pulse metrics. Define a company-wide standard to an active user. Be very specific. For example an active user is an account holder that watches at least 10 seconds of video in 24 hour period. Then measure them consistently. They will help track if you're product is improving over time, and signal if things are getting better or worse.

You will also need to come up with metrics that are more specialized to your product and goals. What metrics are you going to try to improve that will directly impact DAU, WAU, MAU?

Here is a famous example from the early days of Facebook. When Facebook opened up beyond colleges, they entered hyper user acquisition and retention mode. Facebook's growth team united around the following insight: 7 friends in 10 days. The team discovered that users that added 7 friends within 10 days of creating a Facebook account were likely to remain an active Facebook user. Therefore their focus (features, experiments, design decisions) was channeled to getting as many users as they could into the "7 friends in 10 days" cohort. This "north star" behavior metric became one of their primary metrics for growing their engagement KPIs.

There is a group of individuals I'll label as "wake up early individuals" (WUEIs). People that get an early start in order to tackle goals before the day begins.

For some it's waking up early and exercising. Jocko Willink consistently posts photos starting his day at 4:30 AM. The book "How Children Succeed" gives an example of a middle school chess prodigy who woke up early to practice chess. Joe Satriani, electric guitar extraordinaire practiced in the mornings before school

When I was a kid, I’d get up and practice guitar for an hour before school, and during that hour I’d do all the boring stuff just to get it over with. That way I could come home, do my homework and then jam with my friends.

How are they able to do it? In a world of distractions (mobile phones, YouTube, etc.) WUEIs find a way to go to sleep early and pull themselves out of bed to get after it. Jocko in his book "Disciple Equals Freedom" argues that discipline is the enabler:

Discipline: The root of all good qualities. The driver of daily execution. The core principle that overcomes laziness and lethargy and excuses.

And that waking up early is the starting point:

Discipline starts with waking up early. It really does. But that is just the beginning; you absolutely have to apply it to things beyond waking up early.

Discipline is one common trait WUEIs share. Fuse the desire to achieve a goal with discipline and you get an individual that will wake up at 4:30 AM. Someone that will do whatever it takes.

Yet discipline is only an enabler. It's a starting point. Showing up isn't enough.

Before discipline you set a goal(s). I want to be a: entrepreneur, author, musician, fit individual, etc. This broad goal (musician) may start to become a bit more specific: 80s shred guitar player.

And thus with your goal you channel discipline to show up and put in time towards reaching your goal. This alone will not be enough. For you can show up everyday at 6 AM and practice guitar, but if the practice isn't focused and the goal is open-ended, one year later you may have not made the progress you imagined.

You must set yourself up for success. So when you do show up you take full advantage.

Break down your goal by setting mini-goals with deadlines. This month I'll learn three 80s metal guitar riffs and will write three original ones. I'll also learn to play one full song. Even more specific: by the end of this week I'll learn one riff and the first 2 sections of the song. With clear goals you now have a roadmap towards where you want to be.

To fulfill the roadmap you'll need a system. The system may even impact how you define the roadmap (the path to reaching your goal(s)). Once you define the path your system is how you divide your time. If I have 90 minutes in the morning, my system may be 20 minutes guitar exercises, 30 minutes learning the song, and 40 minutes composing.

Your focus and attention must be deliberate. It's easy to fall into a habit of repeating the same system everyday. But you're showing up so it must be enough right? Just put in the time and results will follow. This is dangerous and you'll likely stagnate. Today you may need to spend 45 minutes learning the song and 45 minutes composing. Tomorrow it may need to shift again.

With deliberate focus you are constantly aware of the goal, your system, and the progress you are making. You make adjustments as necessary so you don't fall into a mindset that just showing up is enough.

If you combine discipline, goals, deadlines, systems, and deliberate focus, you will significantly increase the likelihood of achieving your goals.

In my teens and twenties I played a lot of pickup basketball. Didn't matter where or with whom - as long as the rim had a net and the ball had air I was game.

I've written this in the past, but I continue to marvel at the life lessons you can identify in a pickup basketball game. Obvious ones such as teamwork and sportsmanship to less obvious ones such as mindfulness, confidence and restraint.

Certain days (or every summer day in NYC) the court would get crowded. It could be a two to three game wait before you get to play. So once you get on the court both teams have a lot of incentive to not lose. In basketball recognition comes to the scorers. Players that put the ball in the basket. So naturally the moment you get the ball you're making a play with the intention to score. The problem is all your teammates likely share this mindset.

Add in the influence of razzle-dazzle players like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving whose effortless handles and pure scoring abilities are viewed with such awe that the moment a player touches the ball, they feel they must replicate Curry or Irving in order to mesmerize and garner the respect of teammates and opponents. It becomes less about the game and more about showmanship. It's a formula for losing your spot on the court and waiting another two to three games until you get back on.

So what do you do? Complain the person guarding you that your teammates are ball hogs. Or get confrontational and call out your superstar teammates to shoot less, pass the ball and make the right play. But this is pickup basketball, no one likes a player coach.

So shift your mindset, shift your responsibility: plug the hole.

If your team can't get a rebound, get in the paint and get rebounds. If an opposing player is dominating offensively offer to guard that player (always offer nicely). [1] If you need to set some picks to get teammates open, set the picks. The mindset is to do whatever is necessary to set your team up for success.

In most cases that means refraining from launching a three ten feet behind the line and turning around and celebrating prematurely as the ball drifts through the air. [2] It requires swallowing some pride and realizing that in this game your team doesn't need you to take ten shots. Identify the hole and make it a personal challenge to plug it. See how much you can influence the game even if you don't take a single shot. Teammates that know the game will appreciate you and will go out of there way to set you up offensively.

And if you win the game you get to stay on the court - and maybe in the next game you'll plug some offensive holes.

 

Notes

[1] Do it strategically and nicely. There is a lot of pride on the basketball court. If you just got scored on a couple times in a row it's embarrassing and frustrating to have a teammate tell you to switch on D. By telling you to switch with them are implying that you are not good enough to guard that player and they will now take over defensive responsibilities to show you how it's done. Don't be that teammate. Instead tell them they are doing a solid job, but you are trying to get better at defense and want to improve your skills. Ask them if they would be OK with you trying to guard their defensive assignment for a few plays. If they say no back off. But in most cases they will agree and appreciate you not showing them up on the court. It may also reciprocate back to you as they become more likely to pass you the ball in appreciation for your help defensively.

[2] Actually in all cases. Just don't do that. I'm a fan of confidence. But not at the cost of fundamentals. This new trend of shooting the ball and immediately celebrating by turning around and walking away because you "just know" that you made the shot is ridiculous. It's showboating and should be avoided.