Five Ideas That Defined My 2015

2015 was a year where I went in feeling like one person, and came out feeling like an entirely different one. This has happened before, but more than any other year I can point at specific ideas and resources that have permanently altered the way I look at the world. Here are the ideas that changed me the most:

Empathy is a learnable and measurable skill

This idea started out with a friend recommending "Non-Violent Communication" to me for some relationship issues I was having with my partner, and started an obsession with improving how I understand others' thoughts, feelings, and needs.

Actually approaching empathy with a growth mindset, as something that can be taught, learned, and improved, has improved every human relationship I have, and I credit my biggest accomplishments of the year to a greater focus on understanding peoples' problems before trying to solve them. Likewise, I'm starting to see the vast majority of interpersonal and organizational problems around me have as failures of empathy.

This topic also helped give me the idea for my first conference talk, at DevOpsDays Detroit. You can find that talk as well as my favorite empathy-related readings at dshack.net/empathy.

Bayes' Theorem is at the heart of good decision-making

1% of women at age forty who participate in routine screening have breast cancer. 80% of women with breast cancer will get positive mammographies. 9.6% of women without breast cancer will also get positive mammographies. If a woman in this age group had a positive mammography in a routine screening, what is the probability that she actually has breast cancer?

Hint: it's not 80%. Most people don't intuit the answer correctly, even if they've studied conditional probabilities in school. Kalid Azad and Dan Slimmon have good explanations, though.

Failure to correctly understand Bayes' theorem means that any time you are describing events with uncertainty— an experiment to boost trial-to-paid conversion, success prospects for your startup, or approving a new medicine, your conclusions are less accurate than they could be, and are more likely to fail in your goals. Join the Bayesian Conspiracy!

The road to hell is unmanaged queues

I first learned about this in Principles of Product Development Flow. Queueing theory is all about how items of work in a list get processed. The more things you have to do, the longer the average thing on that list takes. Whether it's supermarket cashiers, a product backlog, or a software queue, not actively looking at your inbound vs. outbound work means you'll drown in an endless to-do list.

Along with a few other cognitive biases and counterstrategies, I'd also say it's one of the core tenets of Marie Kondo's "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" so effective. For more on this, read my post about the book

Good product management is boring

"Boring" here is maybe the wrong word— PM is still the most exciting, rewarding, and fun job I've ever had or expect to have. But this year I've gotten over some serious imposter syndrome and unrealistic expectations of myself. I've taken better care of my work-life balance, while simultaneously shipping more work of higher quality, and moved my conception of product management to a profession with a best practice, rather than the romanticized image of half brilliant ideas and half herding cats.

I've learned to ask what problem someone (our customer, a partner, an exec) is trying to solve, dig in until I feel like I really understand it, then help everyone else who's going to be solving it understand it as as well. Agreement is not always critical to a project succeeding, but mutual understanding about the what, why, how, and when absolutely is.

I've learned to inventory what and who we need to start solving a problem, and ask for those things, rather than assume I have to do everything. I'm still scrappy and always up to cover where needed, but for any given speciality within a project— tech design, UX, marketing copy, documentation— there's probably someone available who's better and more efficient than I am.

And finally I've learned to let go more when working with my team(s). No matter what their role, they are fully capable of handling themselves, and the less I talk, they're able to get into actually solving the problem. I've been able to step way back from the hands-on design work, and focus on — and get better at — talking to customers, understanding their needs, and bringing those needs to the business.

Making good things takes a fucking long time

I've spent more time this year polishing things before I release them into the world. Coming up with, drafting, prepping, and practicing my DevOpsDays Detroit talk was several dozen hours at least, and probably hundreds if I include the reading, conversations, thinking, and writing that led to the ideas in it. Our 4.0 mobile release had the most testing and iteration cycles we'd gone through before, and the impact showed in our customers' positive reactions to it. I've spent more time than usual writing and re-writing my last few Medium posts, especially this one.

Corollary: do fewer things. I've culled my side projects and hobbies. Some of my side projects at work I had the wherewithal to set up nice transition plans for, some I just mercy-killed. I've cultivated the friendships most important to me, and stopped feeling guilty about not putting energy into less-connected ones. My rock climbing habit was unfortunate attrition, but I'm still overall happy with the way I've been able to trade quantity for quality in things that get my attention.

So that's the list! Excited about the new year and wondering what 2016's big ideas will be.