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A house with four rooms

A recent conversation with a colleague reminded me of a model for great products that I have used for a while, but not actually seen written anywhere.

My hopes are that this model illustrates the tensions between having a great value prop, feature cohesiveness and product character.

This is the story of a remote house in Italy that had four rooms.

The first room was an empty room. Nothing to it but white walls. It was a somewhat big room, with lots of light, no apparent problems.

The second room was a room with 3 pieces of very high end furniture. It had this ultra elegant chair right in the middle of the room. Next to the chair was a state-of-the-art mirror, one of those that you can actually speak to and check the weather. Next to the mirror, a lamp – you guessed it, no ordinary lamp either, this one was bathed in gold. The room itself was poorly lit, as the only source of light was the after mentioned lamp.

The third room was a room in where all furniture seemed to come from IKEA. Picture a hotel room, and you pretty much got it. It had a comfortable looking king-size bed, was overall well lit and was well round in every aspect possible.

The fourth room is your childhood room. It has your bed in it, all those posters you had glued to the wall, your term papers shuffled around in a corner, corny pictures of you with weird hair and your wardrobe with all those weird clothes you used to wear (you know the ones i’m talking about!).

Room #1 – Minimum viable product and foundational assets

Using a minimum viable product can sometimes feel like walking in room #1. The world is filled with possibility with what you could do with that room. The challenge with room #1 is that the open-ended nature of the room lends itself to different interpretations of value for different people. Maybe John is thinking the room would do a great studio, but Mary is thinking it would make an amazing walk-in closet.

The key lesson of this room is:

No matter what you do, you’ll disappoint someone.

The key point is to make a room that matches a need a good enough number of people have.

The corollary:

Leverage the structure you’re building on

Room one is also a great opportunity to assess the foundations you’ll be building upon. This is a room with plenty of light, plenty of space and good electrical structure. This means what you can do with the room can choose to leverage those assets. But if the room had neither of these, the chances of building something great are decreased.

These foundations represent the structure you’ll be building your product on. Examples of structure include your existing user base, intellectual property, “real estate” in users computers/phones, marketing dollars, sales structure, and so on. Do you have a good user base you can test your ideas on, or good real estate in your users phones, computers or servers, or even do you have a good slot of time you can re-use/use in their daily schedules. What about intellectual property as a foundational asset, is there something unique about what you’ve been doing/acquiring that you can re-purpose. Great foundational assets smooth the way to great value propositions. Not having these is not a blocker, but the road to success is much steeper.

Room #2 – have a unique value proposition

Let’s start with an idea: great products excel at doing one thing very well.

Using a product that doesn’t, can feel like walking into the second room. Even though some aspects of it are very well put together, somehow the whole of it does not serve any function.

The key lesson of the second room is:

If there is no unique value proposition, it doesn’t matter how good the individual components are

And the corollary:

Given a unique value proposition there is a level of tolerance for missing features

Take from this tolerance budget if you’re just starting your application, but be aware of not going into overdraft. “How much to take” you only know by learning which you get by shipping. Assuming the tolerance budget is zero, likely will result in not-shipping-soon-or-often-enough syndrome. Are you hearing “we can’t ship without that feature!” when it’s time to ship? Understand that “Cutting is shipping” (S. Sinofsky) and as long as you’re not cutting in your unique value proposition, and your tolerance budget isn’t zero you’ll likely be ok.

So… you add a bed to this room. It’s now a bedroom.

The thing is it’s really really hard to differentiate. Maybe you add a bed, but so what, any other room in the world has a bed. Given that the bed quality is the same, what is unique about this room that makes people stay here and sleep? Are you providing a faster, better or cheaper bed? In itself this is not a new idea, but this next thought might very well be: The answer again is not in the quality of the individual components, but in their arrangement to support the unique value proposition (eg maybe the mirror is a very cool one, but there’s a different aspect to this room if you put this mirror lying around in a corner, or if you put it on the ceiling right on top of the bed).

One last thing about room number 2: If a room is for sleeping, poor light doesn’t matter. But take away the lamp and people won’t even consider sleeping there. You need a lamp, but having a good-looking lamp is not what makes or breaks the room. This relates to those features of a product that are basic user needs. Sometimes this is security, auditability, reporting, etc. Take them away and that’s all users can think about. These features need to be executed well, but mostly at supporting the value proposition of the product, ie they don’t need to be great at doing everything (eg do you really need a captcha for an in-house business app?)

Some business use those (“basic user needs”) as their unique value proposition, which is great. It’s also true that they are reproducible given enough man days (ie they are not “new” problems). If you are in a business that sells these as your unique asset, good for you – but look at the timeframe those are a relevant asset and ask yourself what will you do to stay relevant at the end of it.

A great focus on having a unique value proposition is key for great products.

So, the executive bullet point summary for room #2 is:

  • Have a unique value proposition (UVP) and excel at doing that first
  • Once you have your UVP, and you get access to a missing-feature tolerance budget that is different from zero
  • Focus on the U of your UVP
  • For all the other components of the app, make sure they become supporting components of the UVP
  • Some features work just like oxygen. Given that it exists, people don’t even think about it, take it for granted and move on. But if it doesn’t exist, that’s all they can think about. Oh… and it’s hard to find people that would pay more for “better” oxygen.

Room #3, #4 – What stories are you facilitating for your users

This brings us to room number 3, and there is no way you can talk about this room without comparing it to room number 4.

Room 3 is an interesting one because it indeed serves a purpose. It has a bed that’s quite comfortable, it’s well-lit and has all the amenities you could expect. The challenge with room number three is that it lacks soul, it lacks character. For the purposes of our discussion, character is “the stories you’ve shared with it or because of it”.

Compare room three with room four: even though the furniture in your childhood’s room might not have been state of the art, or that it might have been a tad smaller than you’d like, room number four is FULL of stories and my bet is that just thinking about it causes a smile in your face.

That very same reaction is what I believe great products should strive for. Doing so mostly has to do with two things: 1) great product design 2) do no evil.

There are plenty of things you can do with product design to facilitate character. Start with the flow of actions, think how can you get out-of-the-way, try to set a more friendly tone in your messaging, and many many more.

But more than facilitating character by using any of these “tactics”, make sure to build your product so that it creates opportunities for users to share a story with. Here’s an example: do you have a transport app? build a feature that helps users get home on new years, specially tailored for that day.

On the other hand, resisting the temptation to “do evil” can be quite substantial, especially in a business that’s growing. But every time it happens, it takes a huge chunk away from the “love capital” you’ve worked so hard to collect.

Good product design helps here too: e.g. are you sending your users too much e-mail, too many push notifications? Convert those into helpful scenarios (eg easyjet spams their users quite often, but they missed the opportunity to actually alert me when i flew into london with them and the gatwick express was not working).

So they key lesson of room #4:

Great products cause that same smile on your face you get from thinking about room #4 and you get that from creating opportunities to share a story that would not exist without your product

And here you have it, the 4 room model for building great products.

So, what would the world lose if your product didn’t exist? What is the last story you remember your product helped any of your users create? Did it put a smile on their faces?


(this is part 1 of 2)

Solution based therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses more ion what can be done with solutions rather than what is the origin of the problem.

It’s a great tool set for communication and influence and most of the techniques apply for organisational change as well as they apply for individual change.

These are questions that I use every day at work and that I see other people use as well.

Here are twenty solution focused questions / techniques:

  1. The desired situation question. These are questions that help clarify what the desired outcome of a situation is. Questions like “what does the desired situation look like?” , “would you like instead of the problem?” , “what does success look like?”
  2. The what’s better question. Refocuses back on what the progress has been so far. It often has a motivating effect. Useful guidelines are to keep the question simple (“so, what’s better since the last time we met?”) and to repeat it often until the receiver “runs out” of good things to say Continue reading

The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top (part 5 of 5)

(this is the last [fifth] part of a five part series)

As I mentioned before, i’ll follow-up the habits with some commentary on how I see these in my daily life.

The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top

16. Not listening: the most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues. 

Not listening, or it’s close cousin “interrupting someone mid-sentence” is one those habits that you’ll spend a lifetime correcting if you don’t have awareness you’re doing it wrong and the tools to do it better.

Personally, I struggle more with not-interrupting as I tend to jump-in mid conversation if something didn’t quite sound right or if I (think) I know what the other person is going to say.

On the other hand, making sure other people feel listened-to is one of those things I know helps build great rapport from the start and sets relationships on a high note from the get-go.

Here’s what I think helps:

First, get back to the “now” by scanning your body for sensations from your head to your toes (i usually wiggle my toes as a result). You know those Simpson’s cartoons in where the boss is speaking and all Homer can hear is “blah blah blah”. Scanning your body tunes the moment back to the present and helps turn that voice from “blah blah blah” to something useful.

Second, paraphrase. Use your own words (or better yet use their own) to recap what you’ve heard. “Can I paraphrase to make sure I understood you right? I heard you say X and then Y. Is that right?”

Finally, apologise. If you find yourself interrupting, make sure you apologise and are the one aware of your own fault, before someone points it out to you. This does not help with the problem per say, but the first step being awareness, from that moment on you’ve committed publicly not to do it again.

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The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top (part 4 of 5)

(this is the fourth part of a five part series)

As I mentioned before, i’ll follow-up the habits with some commentary on how I see these in my daily life.

The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top

11. Claiming credit that we don’t deserve: the most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success. 

Claiming credit we don’t deserve is, if anything, severely annoying. This day and age, it’s almost delusional to think that anything worth accomplishing is accomplished alone. You know that, and believe me, other people know that as well.

Yet, what is also true is that people love faces and stories. Steve Jobs didn’t sat down to design the iPhone yet people see him as the man that brought it to the world. This attribution phenomena is a common one, and you should expect it (or even take it as an opportunity) when communicating to other people about the amazing job your team did.

Standing up and saying “my team did all the work, not me” is humble, but pointless. Does this mean that you should go in front of the camera’s and say that it’s all your invention and everybody should feel so lucky that you’re even talking to them about it? – definitely not. Bear with me while I explain further.

You see, when you say “my team did all the work, not me” the only thing people hear about that message is “not me”. That you didn’t do it and you’re just a spoke person for some huge expensive structure of people, processes and tools that somehow managed to [luck maybe?] deliver results. As one of my mentors told me, as good as this structure is, they still need someone to coordinate, provide direction and leadership, and that’s you. Leadership is either implicit or explicit. By taking ownership, directing and delivering results, you promote accountability for delivering the results. It means you can take ownership to improve things and to do so at the risk of failure. If anything goes wrong, everybody knows who’s to blame. Think football managers (they’re not the ones kicking the ball in the field you know?). The opposite is a team in where somebody is involved but not committed to be in charge. In this sort of team, you don’t do anything perceived as risky, and when things go wrong, usually fingers start pointing.

You’re only a “genius with a thousand helpers” if you start trying (and failing) to answer all questions, from UX to product features passing by operations and architecture.

Be the face that is accountable for the success or failure of what you’re doing – be the face that your stakeholders attribute to the structure of people, processes and tools that deliver success and take your core team with you to do so reliably, wherever you go. Just don’t stand in front of everybody pretending you had no help.

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The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top (part 3 of 5)

(this is the third part of a five part series)

As I mentioned before, i’ll follow-up the habits with some commentary on how I see these in my daily life.

PS: Apologies for taking too long to post these. I’m back to weekly updates now.

The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top

6. Telling the world how smart we are: the need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.

This one has gotten me in trouble. When coupled with “adding too much value” this sixth habit empowers me with an abundant source of annoyance to give other people 🙂

The gist of it here is that announcing how smart you are turns them off.

Getting rid of this habit is simple: 1) before opening your mouth ask yourself: Is anything I’m about to say worth it? 2) Conclude that it isn’t; 3) Say “Thank you!”

Simple but not easy. I have been in too many situations myself (giving/receiving feedback, job interviews, meeting new friends) in where I’ve managed to close my mouth concluding that what I am about to say adds no value, only ends up passing the message that I think somebody is wasting my time (even if I don’t even mean that at all), and that I’m better off saying “Thank you” and not prolonging the conversation.

One of the situations that I was able to manage this was after announcing a lessons learned workshop in a team meeting, only to be approached later by a colleague who was a bit surprised by the announcement. In simple terms, he felt like he should’ve been the owner of this activity and I ended up not involving him. I resisted the urge to start showing how he wrong and how smart I was that I managed to take initiative when all he had done was talk about it for the past two weeks. Instead, what I did was listened to his feedback, took three seconds of silence to acknowledge it in, and said “Thank you”.

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The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top (part 2 of 5)

(this is the second part of a five part series)

As I mentioned before, i’ll follow-up the habits with some commentary on how I see these in my daily life.

The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top

1. Winning too much: the need to win at all costs and in all situations – when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally besides the point.

This one I find mostly when there are differences of opinion between parties. Say you’re in a call, somebody says we ought do A, somebody else says doing B is so much better. Sometimes people are even agreeing but doing it so violently that it has to stem out of a need to win (in this case when it doesn’t matter). The best way to resolve these is with a common higher up purpose. We often come back to “what’s best for customers?”. Another common higher up purpose can be built by having a product plan in where you specified priorities and a framework for making decisions in advance.

What’s key for me is that sometimes it’s just ok to say “lets do B”, and move on. Energy, willpower and focus are finite resources and we are doing a disservice to the company if we debate every single detail instead of focusing on adding value to the end result. Sometimes nobody knows the answer, so A is as good as B. Discussing it to eternity is not the point, not trying to have your word as the final say however, is (specially when you end up  more time discussing than doing).

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The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top (part 1 of 5)

I was recently reviewing one of my favourite books, Marshall Goldsmith “What got you here won’t get you there”. This is a gold book that’s very well written and offers insight on every page.


The big gist of this insight packed book is that we all have habits that we’ve built that brought us to where we are today. Those habits however are now setting us back if we are to reach the next level. Yet, as creatures of habit, we fall superstitious that the behaviour we had is correlated to the success we’ve attained, and that’s… simply holding us back.

Marshall lists twenty habits that are preventing us from getting to the top. I see these everyday and am guilty of some of them. Awareness of these is important, but so is doing something different in at least one of them. As Marshall puts it “your wife isn’t going to believe you when you get home and tell her you’ve been to this enlightening talk and are going to change twenty things in your life starting today… Yeah right!”, so focus on one at the time.

What I thought would be most useful than just copy pasting from the book, was to share some stories on how I see these playing out everyday. I’ll break this post down in 5 parts (this post + one for each five habits).

As a disclaimer: names are omitted and these opinions are my own, not my employers.

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