stoic

What a 2,000 Year Old Philosophy Can Teach Technologists

The Stoics are known for their control of their emotions and for their pursuit of wisdom, truth and perseverance. After 2,000 years, the philosophy of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus still hold true. This is because Stoicism is practical in nature. While I find the history and inner workings of philosophy interesting, most do not. Stoicism is popular for a number of reasons. It is practical and not just conceptual.

 

The writings of the ancient philosophers focus on real-world tips and tools to apply Stoicism in your daily life. This is why people, like Tim Ferris, choose to use philosophy as a personal operating system. Technologists should use this 2,000 year old method to identify what matters and focus solely on those things. Here are four things Stoicism can teach us.

 

1. Your product must serve a real, identifiable problem.

 

A product must serve a problem that a customer has and is willing to pay for a solution. The problem must be real enough to cause customers to change. Seneca talks about life being similar to a play but the importance is “not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

 

The same goes for everything about your product, operations and business. The excellence of delivery is the only thing that matters. And it all starts with one thing - a problem worth solving.

 

The first step is to have a real problem to solve. But that isn’t the only thing that matters. You must have a clear reason why you are solving this problem. The cliche and often overused words by Seneca apply here: if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.

 

The “why” not only drives your development process, go-to-market strategy and tactics but it influences team dynamics and hiring decisions. It has been written before, but you must know your why.

 

2. Focus on your minimally viable segment.

 

If you ask technology strategists how to launch a product they will come back with a number of buzzwords and phrases. Start lean. Be agile. Build an MVP. Launch a beta. Sure, this is fine advice. But often an important piece is missing.


“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” Seneca wrote this words to help his students uncover the importance of mindfulness and focus. This applies even more so when selecting a first group of customers to tackle. The technologist should think in this way. To try to serve every one is to try to serve no one.


Identify your first core group of users and solve their problem first. They will be your early adopters and referrers and provide early feedback on how to grow your product.

 

3. Data and customers are your true north.

 

Marcus Aurelius wrote a daily meditation while running his military campaigns. He journaled frequently on topics of perseverance and wisdom.

 

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” – Marcus Aurelius

 

Marcus Aurelius sought truth, the best technologists can find is data. You cannot ignore data as a technologist. All aspects of data are important but some are more important than others. Usability labs, traffic, customer behavior, feedback forms and digital metrics are just the beginning. When you encounter information on how your customers behave and what they want, you must adapt your strategy and tactics.

 

4. Anyone on your team can add value to your product.

 

Every team has a leader and every company a CEO. But, team members at every level could provide value to your product. Data scientists, software engineers, UX architects and product managers all have their relative expertise. Do not discount the potential for an intern or your CFO to provide excellent input and insight on features to build next.

 

Seneca the Younger in his Letters to a Stoic echoed this sentiment in his writings “I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.” He was referencing ethics, reason, and good and evil, but the concept applies to product management. CFOs and interns can have great UX ideas.

dali

A Logical Approach to Creating New Products

Most people think coming up with new product ideas is meant for only a select few. You have to be a visionary, a genius or special in some way. This thinking is counterproductive to most people. In reality, just about anyone can come up with new product ideas.

There is a simple and scalable process for new product ideation called Systematic Product Ideation.

In the most basic way possible, new product ideation fits in to one of two categories: problem solving or growth.

You may be trying to solve a discreet and identifiable problem. An easy example is a seatbelt, helmet or most safety equipment. Or, you may be coming up with a new feature or use that did not exist before. A simple example is a smart phone or 90% of the technology you use on a consistent basis.

There are really only two ways you can come up with new product ideas, too. You either do it on purpose or you do it by accident. Another way to think of this is you come up with ideas either by feeling or by thinking.

You have 4 real categories of ideation:

  1. On Purpose and Thinking
  2. On Purpose and Feeling
  3. Accidental and Thinking
  4. Accidental and Feeling

Your brain has two main modes of thought: focus and diffuse thinking. When you are actively trying to solve a problem, read a book, learn something new, engage with a new person, you are more than likely using the focus mode of thinking. Thoughts are linear and connected. This thought method is perfect for deliberate ideation.

Deliberate Ideation

When you start out on an effort to create new product ideas, you can choose to focus deliberately and guide yourself through a number of questions:

  • What do our customers complain about?
  • What do our customers ask for?
  • What isn’t working in our product today?
  • What are customers using our product for that we did not intend?
  • What other products are our customers using with our product?
  • What are the physical limits of our product?

In this way, you are using the thought process called focused thinking. This is straight forward and obvious.

Accidental Ideation

But what about the other method, diffuse thinking? Diffuse thinking is where your mind and thought process wanders. Your thoughts are not necessarily connected and often non-linear. This happens frequently when you are engaged in a repetitive, low cognitive load task. Where does your mind go when you are doing the dishes or running? What do you think about on long, silent walks? Your mind can shift in and out of diffuse thinking just before sleep, as well.

You can prime your mind for diffuse thinking. Many great minds have used diffuse thinking to expand their thought process and come up with new ideas.

Salvador Dali was known for using a technique to open his mind to diffuse thinking. He would use focused thinking when looking for new ideas for his art. Then he would become tired and sit in a chair while holding a key. His mind would slowly shift to diffuse thinking and drift to sleep. As he fell asleep the key in his hand would fall to the floor instantly waking him and taking him out of diffuse thinking and back into focused thinking. He used this exact technique to come up with one of his more famous pieces of work — “The Persistence of Memory”.

So, what does this have to do with product ideation?

You can use either thought process to come up with problems to solve or areas of growth for your products and customers. Choose the right process for the situation at hand. Focused, deliberate discussion and thinking has its place in ideation. But do not forget to let your mind — or your team’s mind — wander while focused on other tasks.

Or just grab a key and take a nap. That works just fine, too.

blueprint

5 Questions for Product Requirements

It is too easy for executives to say "I don't know where to start" when defining new requirements for a product. The truth is, product requirements should be one of the simplest procecesses about building a new product.
 
Most of the time the requirements process is inconsistent across industries, departments and teams - even when building the samet ype of product. The methodology doesn't impact the overall success of the product if you do not start with the right questions.
 
Any leader can take a small block of time and work through the following questions
 
Requirements should not be complicated.
 
  • In 10 words or less what problem am I trying to solve? 
  • In 10 words or less what am I trying to build? 
  • In 3 sentences or less what does this product do? 
  • In a list form, what benefit will users have from this product?
  • In 10 words or less, how will users realize each benefit? 
nomatterwherewe are

A Simple Gift for Those Who Create

I have an innate desire and passion to create. This desire has driven me to become a professional writer, jazz musician and ever-struggling chef.

I like to take materials, ideas and ingredients and turn them in to something useful. Perhaps this is why I ended up working in technology building products.

Over the years, I've noticed a common mistake when people start to build things. They like to jump ahead to the fun part. Branding. Logos. Color schemes. Product names. URLs. Marketing campaigns.

I can't blame anyone, that part really is a lot of fun. I believe there is a better way to design and build products. Building things is very much a hands on process.

That is why I created handreqs – templates for hand-written product requirements.

Anyone can use them. If you are a seasoned product manager you can use these to guide discussions and planning sessions with those outside of technology. If you are a business leader, you can work through these on your own and use them as a framework for discussions with your technology teams.

I would love to see what you create with handreqs.

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