Products and People

“In the end, there are two things that matter: products and people. What you build, and who you build it with.”  – Tony Fadell One of the most common questions I’m asked is how to convince your CEO to take a hard look at how you create your products, and consider adopting the practices of...

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Coinbase is testing a real-time employee feedback system. It sounds rough.

The crypto exchange Coinbase is testing a real-time workplace feedback tool called Dot Collector, created by hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates.

Slack your colleague to say hello? Perhaps you’ll be rated as being off-task. Babbling too much in a meeting? You’ll get a low rating in efficiency. Tired after a night awake with your sleepless toddler? That’s a low enthusiasm rating. At any moment of the work day, you can rate and be rated, watching as your scores fluctuate up and down.

Per a report from The Information, Coinbase has been using Dot Collector since the first quarter of the year, emulating a less intense version of the practices at Bridgewater.

Dalio is notorious for promoting a culture of “radical transparency” at Bridgewater. The fund has been known to videotape almost everything that happens at the office for reference, and employees walk around with iPads to grade each other on their adherence to Dalio’s Principles, a collection of over 200 rules for business and life.

With the Dot Collector program and Zoom plug-in, any company (like Coinbase) can invite their employees to judge each other’s performance in real time, even while working remotely.

“It’s hard to have an objective, open-minded, emotion-free conversation about performance if there is no data to discuss. It’s also hard to track progress,” Dalio wrote in a tweet about the product. “This is part of the reason I created the Dot Collector.”

But this data-driven, “emotion-free” approach to management ignores the humanity of the people behind products.

Feedback fatigue

Using Dalio’s Dot Collector app, Coinbase employees rate their colleagues based on how well they adhere to Coinbase’s cultural tenets, which include “positive energy,” “efficient execution” and “clear communication.”

An assistant management professor at the Wharton School, Samir Nurmohamed, told TechCrunch that there hasn’t been much research conducted on these kinds of feedback systems — but if a system works in one workplace, that doesn’t guarantee it will translate effectively in others. Plus, different workplaces and industries have different standards for churn. At Bridgewater, 30% of employees leave within 18 months of their start date. While Dalio might be okay with that, other managers might find that concerning.

Bridgewater aims to “champion diversity,” but Nurmohamed says that in the workplace, people are more likely to think favorably about people who share similar views, which may impact the way they rate their colleagues.

“So, if people from marginalized backgrounds are making comments that are not in line with my own values or ideology, I might suddenly penalize them when it comes to these rating systems,” he explains. “The question becomes then, how are these ratings being looked at? If there’s systemic bias across the board, how will they evaluate that data?”

Proponents of Dot Collector argue that the system levels the playing field, since it allows lower-level employees to provide honest feedback to managers. But that transparency comes at the cost of constant surveillance.

“From a managerial standpoint, it might be helpful, right? We know that sometimes, those with more power are more likely to dominate the conversation in meetings, rather than listen,” Nurmohamed says. “But those with less power are already getting worried about what kind of impression they’re giving off. It could induce a sense of fear in the organization.”

These systems may also cause a feeling of “feedback fatigue,” where workers become desensitized to criticism and are less likely to benefit from such constant feedback.

“Sometimes people just have a bad day — something went wrong at home last night, or maybe it’s a virtual meeting and their technology wasn’t good,” Nurmohamed adds. “It could be very exhausting for people at work to constantly get this feedback.”

‘A cauldron of fear’

Dalio credits Bridgewater’s unique and divisive corporate culture as its secret to success — his hedge fund is the largest in the world. Coinbase is similarly known for its company culture, which controversially bars employees from political activism.

In June 2020, a group of Coinbase employees staged a walk out in response to CEO Brian Armstrong’s refusal to support Black Lives Matter. Then, weeks before the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, he instituted this apolitical policy and offered severance packages for those who didn’t want to stay.

Over at Bridgewater, Dalio’s “radical transparency” isn’t always effective in practice either. In one high-profile case, an employee filed a complaint against the company, calling it “a cauldron of fear and intimidation.” That doesn’t seem too surprising a description of a workplace where workers are given iPads for the explicit purpose of judging each other.

According to a 2016 report in the New York Times, this employee alleged that he experienced sexual harassment from his supervisor, but kept this a secret out of fear that he wouldn’t be promoted. He suddenly withdrew the complaint jointly with Bridgewater, but then the National Labor Relations Board filed a separate complaint, arguing that Bridgewater was preventing employees from speaking about negative treatment due to the rigorous NDAs they sign upon employment. Bridgewater reached a resolution with the National Labor Relations Board over the complaint, but like most of what goes on at the hedge fund, the final agreement is secret.

Dalio has denied these claims, noting that “If Bridgewater was really as bad as the New York Times describes, then why would anyone want to work here?” (Money, probably.)

“It can sound mean, crazy or like a cult to people who don’t know what it’s really like,” Dalio said to Business Insider in 2016. “Some people describe it as being like an intellectual Navy SEAL. Others describe it as being like spending time with the Dalai Lama to obtain self-discovery. To me, it’s a wonderful community of people who bust their asses to be excellent.”

It’s still up in the air whether or not Coinbase will continue using Dot Collector. For now, companies using the tool must decide whether they hope to emulate Bridgewater — a profitable, yet intense company — or hone a culture where employee happiness is a priority.

Reform your startup’s meeting culture

Bad meetings are the fast food of the knowledge worker; it’s so deliciously quick and easy to throw a 60-minute default meeting on everyone’s schedule, but the long-term costs are extremely unhealthy.

Busy meeting organizers drive-thru schedule meetings because they think they don’t have time to plan. They expect good outcomes to come from little preparation, which doesn’t happen. The meetings are being held and progress is stilted.

One way to save everyone significant time (and win lots of friends) would be to just get rid of all meetings, but a well-prepared and well-run session can expedite communication and get a team closer to its goals. Unfortunately, most meetings are lazily planned and poorly run, imprisoning attendees and halting productivity.

So how can you separate the good meetings from the bad?

Measure your meeting waistline

No one measures the impact of their meetings. So the first step is to start keeping meeting metrics so that you can identify the bad meetings on your teams’ calendars.

Every time a recurring meeting is added to a calendar, a kitten dies.

My company has created a calendar assistant that automatically measures and stops bad meetings before they occur, but if you can’t automate the prevention of bad meetings, survey and learn from attendees after the meeting to record and measure them.

Create taxonomies and quantify the types of meetings that are being held — for example: “information sharing,” “brainstorming,” “1:1,” “decision-making,” etc.

After several months (ideally a year) of collecting metrics, you can grade the quality and look for patterns. You will probably find something along these lines:

  • Very few employees decline meetings, even when it’s obvious that the meeting is going to be a doozy.

Practice agile, iterative change to refine products and build company culture

I firmly believe that principles as much as products drive a company’s success. A startup may have a persuasive brand story and good public relations, but if it’s internally inconsistent — if its employees and executives cannot identify its central values — sooner or later there will be trouble.

At Heap, the analytics solution provider I lead, a defining principle is that good ideas should not be lost to top-down dictates and overrigid hierarchies. Although I’m the CEO, I recognize that I don’t always have the best view simply because I’m on top of (the) Heap. The best results come when you approach leadership like you would create a great product — you hypothesize, you test and iterate, and once you get it right, you grow it.

Most of us have had the experience of receiving a sudden decree “from above” that makes little consideration for the actual, as opposed to the theoretical, situation of people on the ground.

One-and-done decrees versus agile, iterative change

I’ve used this method in the businesses I’ve managed. The scientific method, with its cycle of observation, reporting, hypothesizing, experimenting, analyzing and reporting, is a powerful tool for product and process development.

While my process isn’t quite as rigorous as the scientific method and tends to sprint where science slowly marches, it’s based on similar principles. Before I describe the system, a warning: Although it’s a simple way to iterate new concepts and evaluate new designs, my method requires a genuine commitment to the principles of cooperation and collaboration. In an organization predicated on hierarchy and strict structure, it could be a recipe for groupthink and unearned consensus. Iteration is not, however, a justification for delay: There may be several iterations of a project, but those iterations follow each other quickly.

Most of us have had the experience of receiving a sudden decree “from above” that makes little consideration for the actual, as opposed to the theoretical, situation of people on the ground. You know the kind of thing I mean: The sales team in the saturated territory is told they must increase revenue by 20%, the already lean division is told to cut costs by 10%. Moves like this are bad for morale; they inspire resentment and cut corners. It’s precisely to avoid this kind of top-down debacle that Heap takes a collaborative and iterative approach to change.

Passing ideas back and forth

We put our business’ best minds to work to devise an initial prototype of whatever our business may need. That prototype might be a minimum viable product for commercial release, polished messaging for our forthcoming releases, or even a compendium of internal workflows.

But we can’t consider a project perfect if it’s never been exposed to the world outside the office. Whether we’re crafting a project, tweaking our messaging or establishing pricing tiers, we test in the real world. We show products to consumers, prospects and advisers, who invariably have needs that we hadn’t anticipated. The testers’ concerns may send us rushing back to the drawing board, but that’s accepted and expected. It’s the testing and refining that leads to the best product. While some businesses prefer a rush to market, we’ve observed that doesn’t work. A rushed product will frustrate users, lose word-of-mouth enthusiasm and provide an opportunity to our competitors.

But this isn’t just for product releases; we adopt a similar strategy for determining changes inside the company.

What is product? The past, present and future of our craft

This article looks at the future of product practice and product management — at how far we’ve come, our present-day understanding of product, and the challenges we still need to meet. It should help you, as a product person, to better understand:- Why we keep asking “what is product management?” and why we find it so [...] Read more »

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Building And Scaling Empowered Teams: AMA With Nate Walkingshaw

In this AMA session, exclusively for MTP Leaders, Nate Walkingshaw reveals some of the tough leadership lessons he learned early on in his career, how to build and scale a culture of trust, and why he wishes we’d all stop using the word ‘failing’. If you missed it, you can watch the whole session again, [...]


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The Hidden Costs of Constantly Shipping new Things

I worked for 8 years at a successful startup called Base CRM. It was acquired by Zendesk 2 years ago. During this time I saw the company take different approaches to many problems startups have, but one remained unchanged: unparalleled, obsessive focus on shipping new functionality. Lately, I’ve been thinking a bit more about a [...]


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The Blind Spots of B2B Product Vendors (And How to Fix Them)

One of the interesting things about developing software in the Business-to-Business (B2B) space is that you often don’t know what users need, even when you think you do. Such blind spots may not be entirely your fault. Early in my career, I developed a software distribution tool for a CRM solution that ran on the [...]


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Georgie Smallwood on Product Culture, Leadership and Fintech

Georgie Smallwood on mind the Product.Georgie Smallwood has a lot to say about the different ways that product management is practised around the world. In a product career that has taken her from Australia to Hong Kong and to Europe, she’s currently Chief Product Officer for Berlin-based challenger bank N26. She’s spent her eight years in Product working for a variety of digital companies – from startups to publicly listed multinationals.

In her opinion, there are marked differences in product management practice in AsiaPac and Europe. She says that although AsiaPac can sometimes lag behind other parts of the world in terms of market and technology trends, the region can leapfrog over these trends really quickly, with mobile adoption being one particularly strong example of this. “There’s a strange dynamic where the region does skip over entire trends. You have to look at what the US and the UK are doing and then ask ‘what’s not going to happen here? What are we going to skip over?’.”

Georgie says her experience is that product management is more of a tech role in AsiaPac and is confused with product ownership. This took her by surprise when she moved to the region. She adds: “I thought I was going to learn about technology and tech innovation. And while they have things like jumping and talking robots, when it comes to the commercialisation of technology, the region is a little bit behind the US and Europe.”

Constraints in AsiaPac

The constraints in the region also surprised her. Mobile adoption rates are high, so you would think that a mobile app or an advertising product would be a huge monetisation opportunity. But huge numbers of people in the region still don’t have a bank account. “Users often don’t have a plan associated with their very fancy iPhone. The only time they’re ever connected to the internet is when they’re using the free bus WiFi or they’re in a cafe. Then download speeds are quite low, so you have to think about app size,” Georgie adds.

I come from Australia where building a high-performing team is about giving people decision-making power. But in AsiaPac people don’t want to stand out.

But Georgie found the biggest surprise came from the cultural differences she encountered in AsiaPac business. She explains: “I come from Australia where building a high-performing team is about giving people decision-making power. But in AsiaPac people don’t want to stand out.” She found she had to think hard about the education system and the culture in the region to understand what people wanted. “They don’t want to be the person who gets called out and given a trophy at the end of the month, they want everyone to be at the same level. They operate as a team and they want their manager to be close, checking in on them, in the office and making sure that everyone’s okay.”

Understanding Cultural Influences

Georgie says she’d been working in AsiaPac for six months before she realised this. “I kept asking myself ‘why isn’t this working? I know how to do this.’ I was so frustrated until I realised that while the outcome needed to be the same, how I got the team there had to be fundamentally different.” She quickly learned that the same management techniques were still needed  – for example, she still had to identify the people who were the cultural influencers within the team but the cultural influencers were different sorts of people from those she expected. In Australia, it might have been the person who got everyone down to the pub at the end of the day, but in Hong Kong it was the person who knew everyone’s parents’ names and invited the team to their child’s first birthday party. She adds: “I think that was the biggest learning I’ve had in my career. Everyone talks about high-performing teams and hyper-growth and we all know what a high performing team looks like. But how you get a group of people there is very different in different cultures.”

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Strong and Established Community

Now that she’s based in Europe, Georgie is enjoying the focus on product management rather than product ownership. And she likes being part of a strong and established product community. She also likes the diverse range of backgrounds that product managers come from. “You need product managers with a tech background, as well as those with a business and an analytical background,” she says, “the fundamental parts of product management are innate and you can see them in any role – thinking from a customer’s point of view, providing clarity on the outcome that they’re trying to achieve and how they’re going to get there. The hard skills of product management, the backlog grooming, the acceptance criteria, which is more product ownership, that can be taught, that’s not the difficult part.”

Georgie’s current job is presenting her with a new set of challenges though. She’s been at N26 for two years, having joined initially as director of product. Her CPO left two months after she joined, “which was unexpected, certainly for me,” she says, so she took over the role, gaining responsibility for design and user research in addition to product management.

When she started at N26 it was a relatively small company with about 380 staff, half of whom worked in customer support. There were eight product owners and about a dozen designers across brand design and product design. Today there are 45 product managers. “Essentially, the whole thing has just exploded. I now look after 110 people, that’s across user research, design, product management and product marketing,” she says.

Working at Pace

As N26’s CPO Georgie no longer directly manages any products, but she practises product management in other ways. “Everyone asks me what changes when you get to the CPO level, and certainly a lot changes. For example, my team is now my product,” she says. But her biggest eye-opener was discovering that her peers had no product experience. She says: “They think about things in different ways. I think about everything in product management terms. I know what my goal stage is, I know what the ideal product is going to look like. I also know what the MVP is. That generally then becomes my delivery plan, though I know it probably will not be what I deliver. I have an iterative approach to everything.”

Everyone asks me what changes when you get to the CPO level, and certainly a lot changes.

She also says that she’s never worked at such a fast pace, though much of her product experience has been in businesses at a similar stage of development – coming out of their startup phase, with an established product. “I’ve never worked as fast as I do now, not in Asia, not in Australia. Maybe it’s Europe, maybe it’s fintech, maybe it’s N26?.”

She likens this scaling to a hyper-growth phase to playing Tetris: “Whether it’s the team, the product, the model, the pricing, it doesn’t really faze me. You just need to understand what the ingredients are, and put them together in the best way that you can. It can feel like you’re playing Tetris – as it speeds up, you can only play the pieces that you’ve got. For instance, if one of my product directors says they’ll get me something tomorrow, and then comes to me with it three days later, sometimes I find I can’t play it any more.”

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What Being Product-led Means

Georgie uses a couple of approaches to deal with her peers with no product experience. She tries both to teach them about product and to adjust her own way of working. She says that when she first arrived at N26 she spent a lot of time explaining what a product-led organisation was and what it meant. She says that the term “product-led” leads people to think that the product team leads the organisation. “That’s not what product-led is at all – the product leads the organisation,” she says. “The product team is not the only team with an impact on what the product is. If customer support doesn’t pick up the phone, the consumer thinks that’s the product. If the advertising doesn’t match the product, that’s the product. Product led means putting the product the heart of everything, and ensuring that every executive feels responsible for the product. It sounds simple, it’s incredibly difficult when there’s a team called product, and there’s an executive called the Chief Product Officer.”

The product team is not the only team with an impact on what the product is. If customer support doesn’t pick up the phone, the consumer thinks that’s the product. If the advertising doesn’t match the product, that’s the product.

As N26’s Chief Product Officer, Georgie is responsible for revenues – there is no sales director – and marketing is responsible for growth, “so together we make up the profitability of the organisation”. “At the moment we don’t have a sales arm because the marketing arm is the sales arm – it’s app downloads essentially,” she says. “We have a free product and a very good free product. The marketing arm is responsible for getting as many people to N26 as possible and it’s my responsibility to monetise them, whether that’s by getting them to use N26 on a daily basis, or getting them to upgrade to a premium product.”

It takes a certain type of product manager to work in fintech, Georgie feels. She says she looks for someone who is as passionate and driven as someone who works at Netflix or Spotify, but someone who at the same time finds creativity in the constraints of fintech. “Other businesses that aren’t as heavily regulated as banking,” she says, “so people in other industries can sometimes forget about their constraints, but constraints can create really beautiful things.”

The Challenges in Fintech

The main challenge, though, is that the competition in banking is so fierce. Georgie thinks a shakedown is on its way, but it won’t be a traditional shakedown. Many of the slow-moving traditional banks have spent the last 10 years addressing their tech stacks. Says Georgie: “This was the biggest thing that was holding them back. So I think we’ll see some of the benefits of them doing that come through in the next five years.” But she points out that while this would have been effective if nothing else was changing, consumers are changing faster than anyone can even remotely adapt to. “We’ve gone from Facebook to Instagram to TikTok in the blink of an eye,” she says. “While banks’ tech stacks might be in much better shape and allow them to be more flexible and faster, they won’t know necessarily what to do fast enough to adopt the consumer behaviour. We have the Googles, the Amazons and the Facebooks coming into payments as a function rather than a banking function, and a trend towards banking as a service.”

As for the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgie says that N26 is better placed to weather the economic downturn than other businesses in the same phase of their lifecycle. Any expansion plans are on hold and N26 is focusing on deepening its presence in its current 25 European markets and ensuring that it’s profitable in all of them. “Your bank is not necessarily what you cut off at a time like this,” she says. “And we have a big enough customer base – five and a half million customers.” Customer growth dropped at the start of the pandemic. It’s on the rise again now, but there is a change in transaction behaviour and people are spending less. Georgie adds: “We’re not a bank that is run on our loan book. We’re very much focused on subscription and interchange, and our business model is pretty secure. We want to make sure that we’re doing the responsible thing by our customers and make sure that we are protected against whatever happens in the next year.”

Further Reading

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