Tuesday, December 21, 2021

2021 - The Year Of 21 Books

2021 is coming to an end, I thought to take this moment to reflect back on how the year was and what did I do differently this year. This year has been special in so many different ways, and I am grateful for more things that I can list down here. 

Having said that, I want to talk specifically about a new habit that I am super grateful for. It's a habit that I have developed over the past 1.5 years: The habit of reading books! 

I was never a reader, I hated it, most of the time I would sleep when I try to read a book. I always knew the importance of reading, but never could get into a good cadence for reading a book on a regular basis. 

But since last 1.5 years slowly but steadily, I have stared reading more than ever and on a regular schedule.

So what changed? Well I have to thank 2 people mainly for this change. First is Abhishek, he is the most ferocious reader I have ever known. I have always wondered how he manages to read so many books. Actually meeting and seeing a person who can read so much, gave me confidence that it's definitely doable. 

And second, I need to thank Roopesh, he has pushed me hard to read and keep reading. His belief that everyone should read, learn and grow is infectious.

Reading needs a conducive environment. You need the following things for the reading habit to be cemented:

  • Time
  • A good book 
  • Strong desire to learn and grow 
He has been instrumental in all 3 of them. 


Although, Makkajai is a startup, we do not work in constant stress of timelines, we have a very calm approach to getting stuff done. This ensures there is time at hand to do more than just work. In fact reading to learn and grow during office hours is not only considered acceptable, it is encouraged! 

Now, don't get me wrong here, it's not ok to lax around, not do our work and pretend to read. Most of the time we are reading so that we could do our job better than what we are already doing. The belief that everyone can learn something that they didn't know before - the growth mindset, is core to our culture.

A good book

Having a good book available for your disposal is another ingredient to consistent reading. Buying a book takes money, sometimes it's less but sometimes the books are more expensive. The monitory resistance to forming this habit is a real thing. 

To remove this friction we have a simple rule: If you want to buy a book to learn, read and grow, its on the company! 

In fact, all of us have a corporate card assigned to us. We can be used it to buy any book we want to read. This might be a small thing, but helps remove the friction of buying a book.

Strong desire to learn and grow 

Desire to read has to come from within, you got to feel it. Looking at other people around me reading consistently and growing, certainly motivated me to do better and be a better version of my self.

Now that my rant is over, let's look at the list of books that I have read this year:

  1. The 5AM Club
  2. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
  3. Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts
  4. Thinking, Fast and Slow
  5. Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
  6. Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works
  7. The Strategy Book ePub eBook: How to Think and ACT Strategically to Deliver Outstanding Results
  8. Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business
  9. The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons in Creative Leadership from the CEO of the Walt Disney Company
  10. Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters
  11. Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days
  12. Elon Musk
  13. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
  14. Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide for Leaders, Managers, and Facilitators
  15. Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
  16. The Coaching Habit Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever
  17. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
  18. Thinking in Systems: International Bestseller
  19. An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management
  20. Will
  21. INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love (Silicon Valley Product Group)
I know its not a lot, but for a person who read close to 0 books the previous year, it's quite a list! 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Scotland of India - Coorg!

In October, my dear friend and partner was planning to move cities, we decided to accompany him and help him settle down. I decided to take this opportunity and visit the coffee capital of India - Coorg or Kodagu. We decided that we will stay for 7 days in Coorg and then visit Mysore on our way back home. 

This was not going to be my first trip to Coorg, we had been here before and we kind of knew what to expect, but boy was I in for a ride! The stay this time around was so much more relaxing and energising. 

We started off in a cab from Mysore to Coorg, on the way we saw a beautiful sunset.

Sunset On The Way To Coorg

We had booked a traditional homestay in middle of dense 30 acer coffee plantation. It was called 4C's Little Paradise. Its clean, cozy and very comfortable. The family that runs this place is very loving and we felt like we were living with our extended family! 

4C's Little Paradise

The View From Our Room

The pictures do not do justice to the beauty of this place. The mornings were blissful and enchanting. We could hear so many birds, it was almost as if they were welcoming us to their kingdom. 

That blue thing is a swimming pool

The place is almost 1KM off the main road. That road cuts through coffee estates on both sides. We regularly walked that path and it was always energising. 

Path To the 4C's

For a coffee lover like myself, its heaven on earth. Looking at acres and acres of coffee plantation is mesmerising.

Every coffee plantation you would see these tall trees covered with black pepper creeper.

Pepper covered trees

At the entrance of the 4C's estate there are these two giant African trees, they looked huge and majestic, they remind me of The Gates of Argonath from LOTR

I just could not capture both of them in one picture frame - my bad.

Next to one of the tree there was a hug log, we though it was a fallen tree trunk, turned out it was just a fallen branch from this humongous African tree!

If you look closely in the above picture, you will see the parts of the broken branch. 

During the weekdays we used to work from our homestay, they had fast broadband connectivity. Over weekends we visited some of the places in and around Madikeri. 

We traveled like a local, didn't hire a cab, we went to to different places in public transport and rickshaw. On Saturday we visited Abbey Falls and Raja Tomb.

Abbey Falls

Raja Tomb

Raja Tomb is a beautiful monument with beautiful sculptures all around the place.

Next day we visited Mandalpatti. To go there you will need to hire a Jeep, its best to hire it from the Madikeri Bus Stop. The journey is an adventure itself, the jeep has to go through rough rocky path. The ride is fun, but the view from the hill top is well worth the effort. 


Here, weather keeps changing very fast, one moment everything is clear and another moment you cannot see the person standing next to you.

After that we visited Kote Abbe Falls. 

Kote Abbe Falls

The water here is so clear that you can see the floor clearly. We dipped our legs into this cool stream and got free natural fish pedicure.

Can you spot the tiny fish?

What can be better than having a nice warm camp fire after a long trying day? 

The time seems to run fast when you are having a good time, before we could realise, our 7 days at Coorg were over and it was time to go to Mysore. 

We didn't have a lot of time in Mysore but in the few days that we had we got a glimpse of the city. One evening we managed to visit a small carnival in the city, it refreshed some of my childhood memories!

 Next day we visited the Chennakeshava Temple in Somnathpura. Its temple build in the 13th century and the intricate stone carvings in the temple are very beautiful. 

The temple is situated away from the hustle bustle of the city. Being there and sitting there for a while installs a feeling of calmness in you!

We created many lovely memories that we will cherish for our entire life!

Friday, September 24, 2021

Practical Guide To Waking Up At 0500 Everyday

There is a sense of calm early in the morning. Everything is silent, there is no hustle bustle of daily routine. It's the time of the day when you can get a lot more done in a very short period. 

I can do a shitty job at describing what it feels like. But to really understand what I mean, you have to experience it yourself. 

Almost a year ago, I start listening to the book "The 5AM Club" on Audible, it was just like other self help books that try to teach you one thing. I used to listen to book and not really read them. I always wanted to read books regularly but in my messy schedule, I never got around doing it consistently. 

Listening to "The 5AM Club" changed it for me - I am very grateful for its advise. I have been reading consistently since about a year now. On an average, I read around 2.5 books in a month. That's an exponential improvement over 0!

What Changed?

I think you must have guessed it by now, I decided to try out the advise mentioned in the book. The book talks about getting up at 5AM at least 5 days a week so I started waking up at 5AM all weekdays. 

It was super hard to do it initially but then slowly but steadily it started getting better. This post is an attempt to document what worked for me in the hope that in someways it can help you make the transition to "The 5AM Club".

First Thing - Read The Book

There is no shortcut to this, you must start by reading/listening to "The 5AM Club". I am not getting incentivised in anyway to say this, I do like the book very much. It's a quick and easy read, you will feel like you are reading a story. At times it does get repetitive (just like any other self help book) but you could easily skim through those parts. 

The Why?

Now you need to think a little bit and find answers to the following question
  • Why do you want to get up early? 
Our mind is a big trickster, if you do not have a strong reason to this question, you are at a huge disadvantage. When the time comes, the mind will come up with a million reasons why it such a bad idea to get up early. If you do not have a strong reason, you will lose the battle. Your fluffy soft bed will attract you like a magnet and you will go back to sleep. 

It has happened to me a million times, but once you have a strong reason to get up early, something changes in your mind. It sort of knows that you are determined to get up early and supports you in doing that. 

For e.g. When you have to catch that early morning flight, do you not get up early? Thats the thing, have a strong reason for getting up early. The reason could be anything like

  • I want to read 
  • I want to go for a walk
  • I want to get some calm, peaceful time for myself
  • ...
My reason was "I want to read and become a better version of myself".

The How?

Start Sleeping Early

People want to wake up early but they don't sleep early. As simple as it sounds, most people will fail at this point. 

Nobody is a Superman, don't try to stay up till midnight and then expect that you will wake up at 5AM. It might work for a day or two or even a week, but it's not sustainable as an habit. 

Getting up early doesn't mean we sacrifice on good sleep, it just means adjusting your sleep schedule a little to reap incredible benefits of rising early. 

Start slow, I started by adjusting my sleep schedule by just 15 minutes every week. This means, I was sleeping 15 minutes early every week and waking up 15 minutes earlier in the morning. I continued that for 2 months and voilĂ ! I was sleeping at 2200 and waking up at 0500.

Before you go to bed

You need to setup the environment so that it's ripe to sleep early and rise early. Here are somethings you could do

  • Set an alarm for when you want to wake up and keep it at a place where it's out of your reach. It should be placed in such a way that, to turn it off you would have to get up from the bed. It needs to be in the same room that you sleep but not reachable from your bed. There are two essential things here
    • You should be able to hear the alarm - so it needs to be close enough
    • You should not be able to stop it without getting up from the bed 
    • This simple trick does the difficult job of getting you out of the bed easily. 
  • To prime the environment further, think about why are you getting up?
    • If you plan to read the book, keep the book that you want to read next to the place where the alarm was kept
    • If you plan to walk, keep your shoes next to the clock
    • You get the point right?
    • This will motivate you further to actually quit the laziness and work towards achieving your goals. 
  • Stop staring at screens 60 minutes before you plan to sleep. This includes no mobiles, TV, iPad or laptop. 
  • Before you sleep, remind yourself about why are you doing this? Remember "The Why?" thats driving this whole thing. It needs to be a strong force, something that you always wanted to do.
After you wake up 

The brain will make excuses and it will tell you to go back to bed and sleep for another 5 or 10 minutes. It's a trap, don't fall for it, remember "The Why?" and get out of bed.

Knowing what you are going to do after you get up, helps a ton! Follow a schedule, it helps getting into some sort of rhythm. Here's my rhythm:
  • 0500-0530: Getting fresh
  • 0530-0600: Meditate 
  • 0600-0700: Reading 
  • 0700-0745: Any form of exercise i.e. run, walk, jog, skip, yoga etc. 
  • 0745-0800: Breathing exercises with family (started after the COVID19 hit us)
  • 0800-0830: Shower and getting ready
  • 0830-0900: Breakfast
  • 0930 onwards: The work day begins!
I am not like the Subodh from Dil Chahta Hai, I do not follow the schedule to the minute. But jotting down what you are going to do when, improves the chances of that thing getting done. 

Your rhythm doesn't need to follow mine, experiment a little and do what works for you. By the time it's 0930 so many important things get done and I start my day with a feeling of content!

One specific problem that I struggled with a lot was, feeling very sleepy especially while Meditating or Reading. I tried a few things but the thing that worked the best was to follow this advice 

Keep Calm And Drink Coffee

I usually make a cup of hot black coffee and sip it while reading. It makes me feel super fresh and my brain feels sharp, fully ready to absorb all the new ideas!

Final Thoughts

I am not going to sugar coat the reality, getting up early consistently is hard - at least for me. Doing this consistently needs a lot of discipline. 

There are days when my body doesn't feel like getting out of bed and I don't. I do fall off the wagon and the rhythm breaks but keeping the focus on "The Why?" helps me get back and continue doing it. 

I hope this memoir helps you in some way, if it does or doesn't or if you have a better way of doing it, please do let me know!

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Book Notes: Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works

The next book I decided to pick was Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works by A.G. Lafley, Roger L. Martin. This book is considered as one of the best book on strategy, how to think about it and how to go ahead and implement it. 

Who is this book for?

This book is a must read for budding CXO's. It also is a good read for people who generally want to understand how to think about strategy and how to go about implementing it. 

Usual Disclaimer

This post is by no means a summary of the book, the notes mentioned here are extracts from the book. If you find these interesting, please pickup a copy of the book and give it a go.

Book Notes


Strategy is about making specific choices to win in the marketplace. It therefore requires making explicit choices - to do some things and not others - and building a business around those choices. In short, strategy is choice. 

More specifically, strategy is an integrated set of choices that uniquely positions the firm in the industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to competition.

When an organisational bias for action drives doing, often thinking falls by the wayside. Strategy is not
  • A mission or a vision statement. 
  • A plan 
  • An optimisation of status quo. 
  • A best practice. 
It is natural to want to keep options open as long as possible, rather than closing off possibilities by making explicit choices. But it is only through making and acting on choices that you can win. Yes, clear, though choices force your hand and confine you to a path. But they also free you to focus on what matters. 

Strategy Is Choice

A company needs to have people that have clear and defined approach to strategy, a thinking process that enables individual managers to effectively make clearer and harder choices. 

Strategy can seem mystical and mysterious. It isn't. It is easily defined. It is a set of choices about winning. Again, it is an integrated set of choices that uniquely positions the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition. 

Specifically strategy is the answer to the five interrelated questions:
  • What is your winning aspiration? 
    • The purpose of your enterprise, its motivating aspiration.
    • Aspirations are statements about the ideal future. At a later state in the process, a company ties to those aspirations some specific benchmarks that measure progress towards them. 
  • Where will to play? 
    • A playing field where you can achieve that aspiration
    • It represents the set of choices that narrow the competitive field. 
  • How will you win? 
    • The way you will win on the chosen playing field.
    • This choice is intimately tied to the where to play choice. 
    • Organisation must decide what will enable it to create unique value and sustainably deliver that value to consumers in a way that is distinct from the firm's competitors. 
  • What capabilities must be in place?
    • The set of systems and measures that enable the capabilities and support the choices.
    • This question relates to the range and quality of activities that will enable a company to win where it chooses to play. Capabilities are the map of activities and competencies that critically underpin specific where to play and how to win choices. 
  • What management systems are required?
    • The systems and measures that enable the capabilities and support the choices. 
    • These are systems that foster, support and measure the strategy. The systems need to ensure that choices are communicated to the whole company, employees are trained to deliver on choices and leverage capabilities, plans are made to invest in and sustain capabilities over time and the efficacy of the choices and progress towards aspirations are measured. 
These choices and the relationship between them can be understood as a reinforcing cascade, with the choices at the top of the cascade setting the context for choices below and choices at the bottom influencing and refining the choices above. 

What Is Winning?

Aspirations are the guiding purpose of an enterprise. The first box of the strategic choice cascade defines the purpose of your enterprise, its guiding mission and aspiration, in the strategic terms. What does winning look like for this organisation? What, specifically, is its strategic aspiration? These are the foundation of your discussion of strategy.

Winning is worthwhile; a significant proportion (and often disproportionate share) of industry value-creation accrues to the industry leader. But winning is also hard. It takes hard choices, dedicated effort, and substantial investment. Lots of companies try to win and still can't do it. When a company sets out to participate, rather than win, it will inevitably fail to make the tough choices and the significant investments that would make winning even a remote possibility. 

Desire to win spurs a helpfully competitive ind-set, a desire to do better whenever possible. Winning aspiration should be crafted with the customer explicitly in mind. 

Looking at the best competitor, no matter which company it might be, provides helpful insights into multiple ways to win. Who really is your best competitor? More importantly, what are they doing strategically and operationally that is better than you? Where and how do they outperform you? What could you learn from them and do differently?

Where to Play

The choice of where to play defines the playing field for the company. It is a question of what business you are really in. It is a choice about where to compete and where not to compete. Understanding this choice is crucial, because the playing field you choose is also the place where you will need to find ways to win. Where-to-play choice occur across a number of domains:
  • Geography: In what countries or regions will you seek to compete?
  • Product type: What kinds of products and services will you offer?
  • Consumer segment: What groups of consumers will you target? In which price tier? Meeting which consumer needs?
  • Distribution channel: How will you reach your consumers?
  • Vertical stage of production: In what stages of production will you engage? 
A choice to serve everyone everywhere - or to simply serve all comers - is a losing choice. Choosing where to play is also about choosing where not to play. 

You should avoid three pitfalls when thinking about where to play. 
  • Refuse to choose: Attempting to play in every field all at once
    • Focus is crucial winning attribute. Attempting to be all things to all consumers tends to result in underserving everyone.
  • Attempt to buy your way out of an inherited and unattractive choice. 
    • Companies often attempt to move out of an unattractive game and into an attractive one through acquisition. Unfortunately, it rarely works. 
  • Accept a current choice as inevitable or unchangeable. 
    • It is tempting to think that you have no choice in where to play, because it makes for a great excuse for mediocre performance. 
Giving in to any one of these temptations leads to weak strategic choices and often to failure. 

It can be easy to dismiss new and different Where-to-play choices as risky, as a poor fit with the current business, or as misaligned with core capabilities. And t is just as easy to write off an entire industry on the basis of the predominant where-to-play choices made by the competitors in that industry. But sometimes, you must dig a bit deeper - to examine unexpected where-to-play choices from all sides - to truly understand what is possible and how an industry can be won with a new place to play. 

How to Win

Where to play is half of the one-two punch at the heart of strategy. The second is how to win. Winning means providing a better consumer and customer value equation than your competitors do, and providing it on a sustainable basis. 

In cost leadership, profit is driven by having a lower cost structure than competitors. While all companies make efforts to control costs, there is only one low-cost player in any industry. Having lower costs than some but not all competitors can enable a firm to stick around and compete for a while. But it won't win. Only the true low-cost player can win with a low-cost strategy.

The alternative to low cost is differentiation. In a successful differentiation strategy, the company offers products or services that are perceived to be distinctly more valuable to consumers than are competitive offerings, and is able to do so with approximately the same cost structure that competitors use. 

All successful strategies take one of these two approaches, cost leadership or differentiation. Both of them can provide to a company a greater margin between revenue and costs that competitors can match-thus producing a sustainable winning advantage. Competitive advantage provides the only protection a company can have.

Where-to-play and how-to-win choices do not function independently; a strong where-to-play choice is only valuable if it is supported by a robust and actionable how-to-win choice. 

Play to your Strengths

Most corporate mergers fail to create value. The bigger the deal, the less likely it seems to produce success. Any acquisition should satisfy these criteria 
  • Growth accretive - in a market that was growing (and likely to continue growing) faster than the average in its space and in a category or segment, geography or channel.
  • It should be structurally attractive - a business that tended to have gross and operating margins above the industry or company average.
The acquisition is only really successful if the acquirer is a better owner of the business than either the previous owner or the company as an independent company. 

An organisations core capabilities are those activities that, when performed at the highest level, enable the organisation to bring its where-to-play and how-to-win choices to life. 

When thinking about capabilities, you may be tempted to simply ask what you are really good at and attempt to build a strategy from there. The danger of doing so is that the things you're currently good at may actually be irrelevant to the consumers and in no way confer a competitive advantage. Rather than starting with capabilities and looking for ways to win with those capabilities, you need to start with setting aspirations and determining where to play and how to win. Then, you can consider capabilities in light of those choices. Only in this way can you see what you could start doing, keep doing and stop doing in order to win. 

Manage What Matters

Without supporting structures, systems and measures, strategy remains a wish list, a set of goals that may or may not ever be achieved. To truly win in the marketplace, a company needs a robust process for creating, reviewing and communicating about strategy; it needs structures to support its core capabilities; and it needs specific measures to ensure that the strategy is working. These management systems are needed to complete the strategic choice cascade and ensure effective action throughout the organisation. 

Strategy is formulated at all levels of the organisation, and to be successful it needs to be clearly communicated at all levels as well. The businesses must communicate their strategies to management, but management must also communicate the company-level choices to the whole organisation. The challenge is to find simple, clear and compelling ways to do so. A massive binder to thick power point deck won't rally an organisation. Best way to communicate the strategy is by communicating its essence broadly and clearly. Ask, what are the critical strategic choices that everyone in the organisation should know and understand?

Every company needs systems to support the building and maintenance of its key capabilities. The capabilities are so important to competitive advantage that ta company needs to install systems to ensure that these capabilities are properly nurtured. 

If aspirations are to be achieved, capabilities developed, and management systems created, progress needs to be measured. Measurement provides focus and feedback. Focus comes from an awareness that outcomes will be examined, and success or failure noted, creating a personal incentive to perform well. Feedback comes from the fact that measurement allows the comparison of expected outcomes with actual outcomes and enables you to adjust strategic choices accordingly. 

Think Through Strategy

For any company, there are many possible strategic choices that could be selected, an almost infinite amount of data that could be churned, and a wide array of strategic tools that might be brought to bear on the problem. It can be overwhelming, even paralysing. The bad news is that there is no simple algorithm for choice. The good news is that there is a framework that can give you a place to start. 

It is essential to define a winning aspiration up front. Without having an initial definition of winning, it is difficult to assess the value of any subsequent choice. Strategy is an iterative process, and you'll need to return to refine your winning aspiration in context of the subsequent choices. 

Then consider the real work of strategy as beginning with where to play and how to win. These are the choices that actually define what you will do, and where you will do it, so as to generate competitive advantage. There are four dimensions you need to think about to choose where to play and how to win:
  • The industry. What is the structure of your industry and the attractiveness of its segments?
  • Customers. What do your channel and end customers value?
  • Relative position. How does your company fare, and how could it fare, relative to the competition?
  • Competition. What will your competition do in reaction to your chosen course of action?
These four dimensions can be understood through strategy logic flow. It poses 7 questions across the four dimensions. 

The flow of the logic runs from industry to customers to relative position to competitive reaction. It is in considering all of these together that strategic choices emerge. 

To determine where to play, you must ask, what might be the distinct segments of the industry in question. Which segmentation scheme makes the most sense for the given industry today, and what might make sense in the future?

Once you have articulated existing and new segments, you must understand the structural attractiveness of the different segments. A firm would want to play in segments that have higher profit potential based on their structural characteristics. 

Regardless of whether a firm wishes to be a cost leader or a differentiator, it needs to understand precisely what customers value. 

Understanding end consumers is a challenging thing, because you can't simply ask what they want, need and value. Recall Henry Ford's famous quip that if, at the dawn of the automotive industry, he'd asked consumers what they wanted, they would have said, "A faster horse". To understand the consumer value equation, you must truly get to know your consumers - to engage with them beyond the quantitive survey, through deeper, more personal forms of research - watching them shop, listening to their stories, visiting them at home to observe how they use and evaluate your products. Only through this kind of deep user understanding can you hope to generate insights about where to play and how to win.

To make good choices, you need to make sense of the complexity of your environment. The strategy logic flow can point you to the key areas of analysis necessary to generate sustainable competitive advantage. 
  • First, look to understand the industry in which you play (or will play), it's distinct segments and their relative attractiveness. 
  • Next, turn to customers. What do channels and end consumers truly want, need and value - and how do those needs fit with your current or potential offerings? 
  • Next, answer the question what are your capabilities and costs relative to the competition? Can you be a differentiator or a cost leader?
  • Finally, Consider competition; what will your competitors do in the face of your actions?
Working through the framework takes both patience and imagination. It also takes teamwork. Any new strategy is created in a social context - it isn't devised by an individual sitting alone in an office, thinking his or her way through a complex situation. Rather, strategy requires a diverse team with the various members bringing their distinct perspective to bear on the problem. 

Shorten Your Odds

In strategy, there are no absolute answers or sure things, and nothing lasts forever. Having a clear definition of winning, a robust analytical framework such as the logic flow, and a thoughtful review process can help organise thinking and improve analysis, but even still, a successful outcome is not guaranteed. In the end, building a strategy isn't about achieving perfection; it's about shortening your odds. 

Asking a single question can change everything: what would have to be true? This question helpfully focuses the analysis on the things that matter. It creates room for inquiry into ideas, rather than advocacy of positions. It encourages a broader consideration of more options, particularly unpredictable ones. 

Until a real choice is articulated, team members can't understand cognitively or feel emotionally the consequences of the different ways to resolve the issue. 

Next tasks is to broaden the list of possibilities. The objective in this step is to be inclusive rather than restrictive of the number and diversity of possibilities on the table. 

Next, team needs to reverse engineer the logic of each possibility. That is, it needs to specify what must be true for the possibility to be terrific choice. 

The fourth step in the process constitutes a 180 - degree flip. Now you can cast a critical eye on the conditions your team has identified. The ask is to assess which of the conditions your team believes are the least likely to hold true. 

Once key barrier conditions are identified, they must be tested in ways the entire group will find compelling. A test may involve surveying a thousand consumers or speaking to only one supplier. 

The test design process leads to the actual testing phase and the analysis of results. First test the things you are most dubious about. Take the condition the team feels is the least likely to hold up, and test it first. 

The choice making step becomes simple and even anticlimactic. The team needs only to review the test results and make the choice dictated by the pattern of results. 

The Endless Pursuit of Winning

It's not getting any easier to win in the real world. Growth is slowing, and the pace of change is increasing. As the world continues to globalise, companies face more competition for customers and consumers than ever before. 

There is no perfect strategy - no algorithm that can guarantee sustainable competitive advantage in a given industry or business. But there are signals that a company has particularly worrisome strategy. 

  • The do-it-all strategy: Failing to make choices, and making everything a priority. 
  • The Don Quixote strategy: Attacking competitive walled cities or taking on the strongest competitor first
  • The waterloo strategy: Starting wars on multiple fronts with multiple competitors at the same time. 
  • The something-for-everyone strategy: Attempting to capture all consumer or channel or geographic or category segments at once. 
  • The dreams-that-never-come-true strategy: Developing high-level aspirations and mission statements that never get translated into concrete where-to-play and how-to-win choices, core capabilities, and management systems. 
  • The program-of-the-month strategy: Settling for generic industry strategies, in which all competitors are chasing the same customers, geographies, and segments in the same way. 
There are some common signs that a winning strategy is in place:
  • An activity system that looks different from any competitor's system
  • Customers who absolutely adore you, and non-customers who can't see why anybody would buy from you. 
  • Competitors who make a good profit doing what they are doing. 
  • More resources to spend on an ongoing basis than competitors have. 
  • Competitors who attack one another, not you. 
  • Customers who look first to you for innovations, new products, and service enhancements to make their lives better. 
Even companies with these telltale signs shouldn't rest, because no strategy lasts forever. Ideally, companies should see strategy as a process rather than a result - adapting existing choices before business and financial results start to turn down. 


This book teaches us how to think about strategy. What questions to answer in order to discover a Winning Strategy!

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Book Notes: The Coaching Habit Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

Another aspect of enabling great team works is, becoming a good leader. In my pursuit to become a good leader I decided to read the book "The Coaching Habit Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever" by Michael Bungay Stanier. This post is a collection of notes from this book. 

Who is this book for?

At times when team members enter into a 1-to-1 session with their leaders, they are thinking "I look forward to being more confused and less motivated after my session with you". It is the leaders job to make the session not a complete and utter waste of time. This book gives you practical tools to become a better leader. Hence, everyone who is leading a team or is going to lead a team should definitely read this book.

Usual Disclaimer

This post is by no means a summary of the book, the notes mentioned here are extracts from the book. If you find these interesting, please pickup a copy of the book and give it a go.

Book Notes

You Need a Coaching Habit

Simple behaviour change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult. 

Coaching should be a daily, informal act, not an occasional, formal "It's Coaching Time!" event.

When you build a coaching habit, you can break out of three vicious circles that plague our workplaces: creating over dependence, getting overwhelmed and becoming disconnected. 

Over Dependence: You've trained your people to become excessively reliant on you, a situation that turns out to be disempowering for them and frustrating for you. The more you help your people, the more they seem to need your help. The more they need your help, the more time you spend helping them.

Getting Overwhelmed: As you're pulled in different directions by proliferating priorities, distracted by the relentless ping of email and hustling from meeting to meeting, you lose focus. The more you lose focus, the more overwhelmed you feel. The more overwhelmed you feel, the more you lose focus. 

Becoming Disconnected: It's not enough just to get things done, you have to help people do more of the work that has impact and meaning. The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create Great Work. 

At the heart of the book are seven questions that will break you out of these three vicious circles. 

How To Build a Habit

A little more asking people questions and a little less telling people what to do. Before we look at what to change, we need to understand how to change. 

To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice and a plan.

Reason: Think less about what your habit can do for you, and more about how this new habit will help a person or people you care about. 

Trigger: If you don't know what triggers the old behaviour, you'll never change it because you'll already be doing it before you know it. 

Micro-habit: You should define your new habit as a micro-habit that needs to take less than sixty seconds to complete. It's about getting really clear on the first step or two that might lead to a bigger habit. 

Effective Practice: Practicing small chunks of a bigger action, Repetition, repetition and repetition, and finally being mindful and noticing when it goes well. 

Plan: Resilient systems build in fail-safes so that when something breaks down, the next step to recover is obvious. Make your habit a resilient system. 

There are three parts to the New Habit Formula: identifying the trigger, identifying the old habit and defining the new bheaviour. 

Identifying the trigger: There are 5 types of triggers: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. 

Identifying the old habit: Articulate the old habit, so you know what you're trying to stop doing.

Defining the New Behaviour: Define a new behaviour, one that will take sixty seconds or less to do. 

Ask One Question at a Time

Sometimes being on the receiving end of someone with a pocketful of questions can be unpleasant. Questions come hurling at you left and right, there's no time to answer any of them and you're left feeling dazed and confused. Some call it drive-by questioning. And rather than feeling like a supportive conversation, it has the unpleasant vibe of interrogation. 

Ask one question at a time. Just one question at a time!

1. The Kickstart Question 

One of the reasons managers don't coach more often than they do is that they don't know how to start. 

The Small Talk Tango: Small talk might be useful way to warm up, but its rarely the bridge that leads to a conversation that matters.

The Ossified Agenda: This situation is commonly found in standing meetings - same time, same people, same place, same agenda. It becomes a dreary recitation of facts and figures. 

The Default Diagnosis: There's no question or conversation about what the issue is. You're sure you know what it is. Or they're sure they know what it is. Or may be you both think you know what it is. But you're in the wrong hole. 

The Kickstarter Question: "What's on Your Mind?"

An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation is this question. It's a question that says, Let's talk about the thing that matters most.

Decide which aspect of a challenge might be at the heart of a difficult that the person is working through. A challenge might typically be centred on a Project, a Person or a Pattern of behaviour. 

Projects: A project is the content of the situation, the stuff that's being worked on. It's the easiest place to go to and it will be the most familiar to most of us. 

People: Situations are always made more complex when you -  in all your imperfect, not-always rational, messy, biased, hasn't fully obtained enlightenment glory - have to work with others who, surprisingly, are also imperfect, not always rational, messy, biased and a few steps short of full wisdom and compassion. When you are talking about people you're talking about a relationship and specifically, about what your role is in that relationship that might currently be less than ideal. 

Patterns: Here you're looking at patterns of behaviour and ways of working that you'd like to change. They are personal and challenging.

2: The AWE Question

"And What Else?" the AWE question has magical properties. With seemingly no effort, it creates more-more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, more possibilities-out of thin air. 

When you use "And what else?" you'll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success. 

We've all got a deeply ingrained habit of slipping into the advice-giver/expert/answer-it/solve-it/fix-it mode. Instead you need to have the best of intentions to stay curious and ask a few good questions. In short, even though we don't really know what the issue is, or what's going on for the person, we're quite sure we've got the answer she needs. 

When you're not entirely sure what's going on and you need just a moment or two to figure things out, asking "And what else?" buys you a little extra time. 

A strong "wrap it up" variation of "And what else?" is "Is there anything else?" that version invites closure, while still leaving the door open for whatever else needs to be said. 

In some ways, our unconscious brain counts like this: one, two, three, four...lots. That probably explains why we can remember the names of people in four-person bands, but not of those in bands of five or more. 

Stop offering up advice with a question mark attached. That doesn't count as asking question. 

3: The Focus Question

They could be describing any number of things: a symptom, a secondary issue, a ghost of a previous problem which is comfortably familiar, often even a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue. 

Your team has trained you well to do their work for them. Any time there's a problem, rather than trying to figure it out themselves, they now come to you for the answer. 

Not only is the team overly dependent on you, but now you're feeling overwhelmed and you're slowing everything and everyone down. You've become the VP of bottlenecking. 

You need a way to manage the temptation to jump into fixing that opening challenge. Instead, ask the focus question: "What's the Real Challenge Here for you?"

It keeps the question personal and makes the person you're talking to wrestle with her struggle and what she needs to figure out. 

Resist the temptation to do the work and to pick one of the many challenges as the starting point. 

4: The Foundation Question

What do you want? "The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place". The illusion that both parties to the conversation know what the other party wants is pervasive, and it sets the stage for plenty of frustrating exchanges. 

When you ask someone, "What do you want?" listen to see if you can guess the need that likely lies behind the person's request. 

Five times a second, at an unconscious level, your brain is scanning the environment around you and asking itself: Is it safe here? Or is it dangerous? When your brain feels safe, it can operate at its most sophisticated level. When the brain senses danger, there's a very different response. Here it moves into the familiar fight-or-flight response. 

If the brain believes that you're on its side, it increases the TERA quotient. If what's going to happen next is clear, the situation feels safe. Are you more important or less important than I am? is the question the brain is asking, and if you've diminished my status the situation feels less secure. If you believe you do have a choice, then this environment is more likely to be a place of reward and therefore engagement.

When you ask someone one of the seven essential questions, sometimes what follows is silence. Echoing, endless silence. Bite your tongue, and don't fill the silence. I know it will be uncomfortable, and I know it creates space for learning and insight. 

5: The Lazy Question

You want to "add value" and be useful. You like to feel that you're contributing. However, there
is being helpful, and then there's being "helpful" as in stepping in and taking over. And way too often, you get suckered into doing the latter. Your good intentions often end up contributing to the relentless cycle of exhaustion, frustration and ironically, reduced impact. 

There are three labels Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer, these aren't descriptions of who you are. They are descriptions of how you're behaving in a given situation. No one is inherently a victim, persecutor or rescuer. They are roles we end up playing when we have been triggered and in that state find a less than effective version of ourselves playing out. 

When we're in the Rescuer mode, we're constantly leaping in to solve problems, jumping in to offer advice, taking over responsibilities that others should rightfully keep for themselves. 

Lazy Question: "How Can I Help?"

This question forcing your colleague to make a direct and clear request. It also stops you from thinking that you know how best to help and leaping into action. 

One of the most compelling things you can do after asking a question is to genuinely listen to the answer.

6: The Strategic Question

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. "If you're saying Yes to this, what are you saying no to"

For most of us, there are two groups of people to whom it is easiest to say No. Those closest to us-spouses and kids- and those distant from us-event telemarketers. It's much harder to say No to everyone else. Which, unfortunately, tends to be everyone we work with. 

Saying Yes more slowly means being willing to stay curious before committing. Which means asking more questions.

Do remember that strategy is about winning choices. It is the coordinated and integrated set of five very specific choices. As you define your strategy, choose what you will do and what you will not do. 

Remember to acknowledge the person's answer before you leap to the next question. You don't need to say much. It's about encouraging them and letting them know that you have listened and heard what they said. 

7: The Learning Question

People don't really learn when you tell them something. They don't even really learn when they do something. They start learning, start creating new neural pathways, only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what just happened. 

The Learning Question: "What Was Most Useful for You?"

The act of creating your own connections to new and presented ideas... When we take time and effort to generate knowledge and find an answer rather than just reading it, our memory retention is increased.

The learning question immediately frames what just happened as something that was useful and creates a moment in which to figure out what it was. 


I feel this book give a great head start in taming the advise monster in us. It gives us the right foundation to start our coaching habit. I absolutely loved it!

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Book Notes: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

I already knew that, building a great team is not an easy task. Hence, the next question is, how to build a great team? Search for answers to this question led me to the book called "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni. This post is a collection of notes from this book. 

Who is this book for?

Teamwork is the only way one can achieve success and make incredible things happen. This book is for any one who is trying build a great teams or is part of a team that wants to become great. 

Usual Disclaimer

This post is by no means a summary of the book, the notes mentioned here are extracts from the book. If you find these interesting, please pickup a copy of the book and give it a go.

Book Notes

Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare. 

If you could get all the people in the organisation rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time. 


The first dysfunction of the team is Absence Of Trust. Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. And so the first dysfunction is a failure on the part of team members to understand and open up to one another. 

Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their concerns without fear of reprisal. 

If we don't trust one another then we cannot be the kind of team that ultimately achieves results. 

Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability. 

Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another. 


The ultimate dysfunction of a team is Inattention To Results: The tendency of team members to seek out individual recognition and attention at the expense of results. This stems from status and ego. 

The key is to define goals, results in a way that is simple enough to grasp easily and specific enough to be actionable. 

Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think. 


The next disfunction right after absence of trust is Fear Of Conflict.  If we don't trust one another, then we aren't going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict. And we'll just continue to preserve a sense of artificial harmony. 

All great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow. This is true in marriage, parenthood, friendship and certainly in business.


Next disfunction of a team is the Lack Of Commitment and the failure to buy in to decisions. The evidence of this one is ambiguity. This basically is committing to a plan or a decision and getting everyone to clearly buy in to it. 

Disagree and commit: You can argue about something and disagree, but still commit to it as though everyone originally bought into the decision completely. 

Commitment is a function of two things: clarity and buy-in. Great teams make clear and timely decisions and move forward with complete buy-in from every member of the team, even those who voted against the decision. 


Next disfunction is, Avoidance Of Accountability: Once we achieve clarity and buy-in, it is then that we have to hold each other accountable for what we sign up to do, for high standards of performance and behaviour. And as simple as that sounds, most executives hate to do it, especially when it comes to peer's behaviour, because they want to avoid interpersonal discomfort. 

Leaders need to be intolerant of behaviour that demonstrates an absence of trust, or one that focuses on individual ego. They need to encourage conflict, drive for clear commitments and expect all team members to hold each other accountable. They need to call out bad behaviour when they see it, and they expect the same from other team members. They have no time to waste!

Some people are hard to hold accountable because they are so helpful. Others because they get defensive. Others because they are intimidating. It's not easy to hold anyone accountable, not even your own kids.

Genuine teamwork in most organisations remain as elusive as it has ever been. Organisations fail to achieve teamwork because they unknowingly fall prey to five natural but dangerous pitfalls, which are the five dysfunctions of a team. 

It is the willingness of team members to call their peers on performance or behaviours that might hurt the team. 


Absence Of Trust: This stems from the unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation of trust. 

Fear of Conflict: Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.

Lack Of Commitment: Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.

Avoidance Of Accountability: Without committing to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven people often hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviours that seem counterproductive to the good of the team. 

Inattention to results: This occurs when team members put their individual needs - such as ego, career development, or recognition - or even the needs of their divisions above the collective goals of the team. 

Truly cohesive teams have the following qualities:
  • They trust one another.
  • They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
  • They commit to decisions and plans of action.
  • They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
  • They focus on the achievement of collective results.  


I enjoyed reading the book. Its packed with great advice. It also narrates the advise as a story which makes it easy to read and grasp. Totally recommended. 

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Book Notes: Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters

 As part of improving our delivery process, I decided to read the book Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters. This post is a collection of notes from this book. 

Who is this book for?

This book is for product development teams who want to learn new way to think about shipping a product. It teaches you techniques and tools to define focused projects, address unknowns, and increase collaboration and engagement within the team.

Usual Disclaimer

This post is by no means a summary of the book, the notes mentioned here are extracts from the book. If you find these interesting, please pickup a copy of the book and give it a go.

Book Notes


As software teams start to grow, some common struggles appear:
  • Team members feel like projects go on and on, with no end in sight.
  • Product managers can’t find time to think strategically about the product.
  • Founders ask themselves: “Why can’t we get features out the door like we used to in the early days?”

Six-week cycles

Six weeks is long enough to build something meaningful start-to-finish and short enough that everyone can feel the deadline looming from the start, so they use the time wisely. The teams that run the six-week cycles are called the cycle teams.

Shaping the work

A small senior group works in parallel to the cycle teams. They define the key elements of a solution before we consider a project ready to bet on. Projects are defined at the right level of abstraction: concrete enough that the teams know what to do, yet abstract enough that they have room to work out the interesting details themselves.

Instead of asking how much time it will take to do some work, ask: How much time do we want to spend?

Making teams responsible

Give full responsibility to a small integrated team. They define their own tasks, make adjustments to the scope, and work together to build vertical slices of the product one at a time. 

Targeting risk

At every step of the process, target a specific risk: the risk of not shipping on time. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if you can’t act on it, what good does it do?

  • In the shaping process, reduce the risk by solving open questions before committing the project to a time box.
  • In the planning process, reduce the risk by capping the bets to six weeks. If a project runs over, by default it doesn’t get an extension. This “circuit breaker” ensures that we don’t invest multiples of the original appetite on a concept that needs rethinking first.
  • In the building process, reduce the risk by integrating design and programming early. The team sequences the work from the most unknown to the least worrisome pieces and learns what works and what doesn’t by integrating as soon as possible.

Principles of Shaping

We need to Shape the work at the right level of abstraction: not too vague and not too concrete.

When design leaders go straight to wireframes or high-fidelity mockups, they define too much detail too early. This leaves designers no room for creativity.

On the other end of the spectrum, projects that are too vague don’t work either. When a project is defined in a few words, nobody knows what it means.

Properties of shaped work are:
  • It's Rough: Designers and programmers need room to apply their own judgement and expertise when they roll up their sleeves and discover all the real trade-offs that emerge.
  • It's Solved: All the main elements of the solution are there at the macro level and they connect together
  • It's Bounded: Shaped work indicates what not to do. It tells the team where to stop. There’s a specific appetite — the amount of time the team is allowed to spend on the project. Completing the project within that fixed amount of time requires limiting the scope and leaving specific things out.
Shaping is a closed-door, creative process. You might be alone sketching on paper or in front of a whiteboard with a close collaborator. When working with a collaborator, you move fast, speak frankly and jump from one promising position to another.

You can’t really schedule shaping work because, by its very nature, unshaped work is risky and unknown. For that reason we have two separate tracks: one for shaping, one for building. During any six week cycle, the teams are building work that’s been previously shaped and the shapers are working on what the teams might potentially build in a future cycle.

Here are the steps for shaping:
  • Set boundaries: First we figure out how much time the raw idea is worth and how to define the problem. 
  • Rough out the elements: Then comes the creative work of sketching a solution. We do this at a higher level of abstraction than wireframes in order to move fast. 
  • Address risks and rabbit holes: Take a hard look at the solution to find holes or unanswered questions that could trip up the team. Amend the solution, cut things out of it or specify details at certain tricky spots 
  • Write the pitch: Package the whole thing with a formal write-up called a pitch. The pitch summarizes the problem, constraints, solution, rabbit holes, and limitations. 

Set Boundaries

The first step of shaping is setting boundaries on what we’re trying to do. Sometimes an idea gets us excited right away. In that case we need to temper the excitement by checking whether this is really something we’re going to be able to invest time in or not. Other ideas are less exciting and feel more like a challenge we didn’t ask for. 

It helps to explicitly define how much of our time and attention the subject deserves. 
  • Is this something worth a quick fix if we can manage?
  • Is it a big idea worth an entire cycle? 
  • Would we redesign what we already have to accommodate it? 
  • Will we only consider it if we can implement it as a minor tweak?
This is called the appetite. Appetite can be thought of as a time budget for a standard team size.

An appetite is completely different from an estimate. Estimates start with a design and end with a number. Appetites start with a number and end with a design. This principle, called “fixed time, variable scope,” is key to successfully defining and shipping projects. 

It’s too early to say “yes” or “no” on first contact. Even if we’re excited about it, we shouldn’t make a commitment that we don’t yet understand. In addition to setting the appetite, we usually need to narrow down our understanding of the problem.

When it comes to unclear ideas, the worst offenders are “redesigns” or “refactorings” that aren’t driven by a single problem or use case. When someone proposes something like “redesign the Files section,” that’s a grab-bag, not a project. It’s going to be very hard to figure out what it means, where it starts, and where it ends. Another sign of a grab-bag is the “2.0” label.

Find the Elements

Now that we have the constraints of an appetite and the problem we’re solving, it’s time to get from an idea in words to the elements of a software solution. Two things enable us to move at the right speed at this stage:

  • We need to have the right people—or nobody—in the room. Either we’re working alone or with a trusted partner who can keep pace with us
  • We need to avoid the wrong level of detail in the drawings and sketches.

The challenge here is to be concrete enough to make progress on a specific solution without getting dragged down into fine details 


A breadboard is an electrical engineering prototype that has all the components and wiring of a real device but no industrial design. We can sketch and discuss the key components and connections of an interface idea without specifying a particular visual design.
  • Places: These are things you can navigate to, like screens, dialogs, or menus that pop up. 
  • Affordances: These are things the user can act on, like buttons and fields.
  • Connection lines: These show how the affordances take the user from place to place.

Fat marker sketches

Sometimes the idea we have in mind is a visual one. In those cases Fat marker sketches come in handy. A fat marker sketch is a sketch made with such broad strokes that adding detail is difficult or impossible. 

This list of elements is extremely narrow and specific. It is exactly the kind of narrowing we hope to accomplish through the shaping process. 

Working at the right “level of abstraction” not only ensures we move at the right speed, it also leaves this important room for creativity in the later stages. 

What we’ve done is landed on an approach for how to solve the problem. But there may be some significant unknowns or things we need to address before we’d consider this safe to hand off to a team to build successfully. 

Also keep in mind that, at this stage, we could walk away from the project. We haven’t bet on it. We haven’t made any commitments or promises about it. What we’ve done is added value to the raw idea by making it more actionable.

Risks and Rabbit Holes

We’re shaping work for a fixed time window. We may trust from our experience that the elements we fleshed out in the previous chapter are buildable within the appetite (six weeks). But we need to look closer, because all it takes is one hole in the concept to derail that. 

In this step, we slow down and look critically at what we came up with.  
  • Did we miss anything? 
  • Are we making technical assumptions that aren’t fair?
  • Does this require new technical work we’ve never done before?
  • Are we making assumptions about how the parts fit together?
  • Are we assuming a design solution exists that we couldn’t come up with ourselves?
  • Is there a hard decision we should settle in advance so it doesn’t trip up the team? 
It is a good idea to call out any cases you specifically aren’t supporting to keep the project well within the appetite. There may be parts of the solution we got excited about during the sketching phase that aren’t really necessary. 

Before you’re ready to write up the idea to share more widely, you might need input on some parts of the concept you aren’t completely sure about. There may be a technical assumption that you need to verify with someone who understands the code better. This is a good time to grab some technical experts and walk them through the idea.  

Beware the simple question: “Is this possible?” In software, everything is possible but nothing is free. We want to find out if it’s possible within the appetite we’re shaping for. Instead of asking “is it possible to do X?” ask “is X possible in 6-weeks?” 

At the end of this stage, we have the elements of the solution, patches for potential rabbit holes, and fences around areas we’ve declared out of bounds. We’ve gone from a roughly formed solution with potential risk in it to a solid idea that we now hope to bet on in the future.

Write the Pitch

The purpose of the pitch is to present a good potential bet. It’s basically a presentation. The ingredients are all the things that we need to both capture the work done so far and present it in a form that will enable the people who schedule projects to make an informed bet. 

A good pitch will have the following 5 ingredients:

  • Problem — The raw idea, a use case, or something we’ve seen that motivates us to work on this
  • Appetite — How much time we want to spend and how that constrains the solution
  • Solution — The core elements we came up with, presented in a form that’s easy for people to immediately understand
  • Rabbit holes — Details about the solution worth calling out to avoid problems
  • No-gos — Anything specifically excluded from the concept: functionality or use cases we intentionally aren’t covering to fit the appetite or make the problem tractable 

Bets, Not Backlogs

Backlogs are a big weight we don’t need to carry. Dozens and eventually hundreds of tasks pile up that we all know we’ll never have time for. Before each six-week cycle, hold a betting table where stakeholders decide what to do in the next cycle. At the betting table, they look at pitches from the last six weeks — or any pitches that somebody purposefully revived and lobbied for again. If it's decided to bet on a pitch, it goes into the next cycle to build. If not, then it's let go. There’s nothing to track or hold on to.

Six-week cycles

We wanted a cycle that would be long enough to finish a whole project, start to end. At the same time, cycles need to be short enough to see the end from the beginning. People need to feel the deadline looming in order to make tradeoffs. If the deadline is too distant and abstract at the start, teams will naturally wander and use time inefficiently until the deadline starts to get closer and feel real. After each six-week cycle, we schedule two weeks for cool-down.

The Betting Table

The betting table is a meeting held during cool-down where stakeholders decide what to do in the next cycle. The output of the call is a cycle plan. Buy-in from the very top is essential to making the cycles turn properly. The meeting is short, the options well-shaped, and the headcount low.  

If we bet six weeks, then we commit to giving the team the entire six weeks to work exclusively on that thing with no interruptions. Teams have to ship the work within the amount of time that we bet. If they don’t finish, by default the project doesn’t get an extension.

The cool-down period between cycles can be used to fix bugs.  If a bug is too big to fix during cool-down, it can compete for resources at the betting table. 

Place Your Bets

When we add features to an existing product, we follow the standard Shape Up process: shape the work, bet on it, and give it to a team to build. 

New products are different. Whereas adding to an existing product is like buying a couch for a room with fixed dimensions, new product development is like figuring out where the walls and the foundation should go so the building will stand

In the R&D Mode, instead of betting on a well-shaped pitch, we mainly bet the time on spiking some key pieces of the new product idea. The shaping is much fuzzier because we expect to learn by building. Rather than delegating to a separate build team, senior people will make up the team. The aim is to spike, not to ship.

Next comes the production mode, where we work in formal cycles with clear-cut shaping, betting, and building phases.

In the final phase before launching the new product, we throw all structure out the window. It's called the clean-up mode. There’s something about putting your finger near the launch button that makes your hair stand up. That’s why we need to reserve some capacity at the end for the unexpected. In cleanup mode.

Some questions that you might hear on the betting table:
  • Does the problem matter? 
  • Is the appetite right? 
  • Is the solution attractive?
  • Is this the right time? 
  • Are the right people available?

After the bets are made, someone from the betting table will write a message that tells everyone which projects we’re betting on for the next cycle and who will be working on them.

Hand Over Responsibility

Don’t start by assigning tasks to anyone. Splitting the project into tasks up front is like putting the pitch through a paper shredder. Everybody just gets disconnected pieces. The team is going to define their own tasks and their own approach to the work. They will have full autonomy and use their judgement to execute the pitch as best as they can 

At the end of the cycle, the team will deploy their work. This constraint keeps us true to our bets and respects the circuit breaker. The project needs to be done within the time we budgeted; otherwise, our appetite and budget don’t mean anything.
Work in the first few days doesn’t look like “work.” No one is checking off tasks. Nothing is getting deployed. There aren’t any deliverables to look at.  Why? Because each person has their head down trying to figure out how the existing system works and which starting point is best 

An important difference between tasks we think we need to do at the start of a project and the tasks we discover we need to do in the course of doing real work. The team naturally starts off with some imagined tasks—the ones they assume they’re going to have to do just by thinking about the problem. Then, as they get their hands dirty, they discover all kinds of other things that we didn’t know in advance

Getting One Piece Done

If the team completes a lot of tasks but there’s no “one thing” to click on and try out, it’s hard to feel progress.  Lots of things are done but nothing is really done. Instead they should aim to make something tangible and demoable early—in the first week or so.

Here are three criteria to think about when choosing what to build first:

  • It should be core.  
  • It should be small 
  • It should be novel 

Map The Scopes

When asked to organize tasks for a project, people often separate work by person or role. This leads to people will completing tasks, but the tasks won’t add up to a finished part of the project early enough. Instead, they should create lists based on the structure of the project. 

In product development, the categories aren’t pre-cut for us. We usually build things we’ve never built before. We break the overall scope (singular) of the project into separate scopes (plural) that can be finished independently of each other.

As the team starts doing real work on the project they learn how the tasks are related and what the structure of the project is really like. Then they become able to factor the project into scopes. This is like dividing the map of the project into separate territories. The scopes reflect the meaningful parts of the problem that can be completed independently and in a short period of time—a few days or less. They are bigger than tasks but much smaller than the overall project.

Well-made scopes show the anatomy of the project. Every project has a natural anatomy that arises from the design you want, the system you’re working within, and the interdependencies of the problems you have to solve. 

New tasks constantly come up as you get deeper into a problem. A good way to deal with all those improvements is to record them as tasks on the scope but mark them with a ~ in front. This allows everyone on the team to constantly sort out the must-haves from the nice-to-haves 

Show Progress

Good-hearted managers don’t like asking for status. Managers would rather be able to see the status themselves when- ever they need to. In our naive notion of a list that’s planned up-front, somebody popu- lates it with items that are gradually checked off. In real life, issues are discovered by getting involved in the problem. That means to-do lists actually grow as the team makes progress.

Estimates don't show uncertainty. To see the status of the project without counting tasks and without numerical estimates we need to shift the focus from what’s done or not done to what’s unknown and what’s solved.

Work is like a hill

Every piece of work has two phases. First there’s the uphill phase of figuring out what our approach is and what we’re going to do. Then, once we can see all the work involved, there’s the downhill phase of execution. 

The scopes give us the language for the project (“Locate,” “Reply”) and the hill describes the status of each scope (“uphill,” “downhill”). To see the status of the scopes, we can plot each one as a different color on the hill.

Nobody wants to raise their hand to management and say “I don’t know how to solve this problem.” This causes teams to hide uncertainty and accumulate risk. The hill chart allows everybody to see that somebody might be stuck without them actually saying it. A dot that doesn’t move is effectively a raised hand: “Something might be wrong here.”

It’s good to think of the uphill to be divided into three parts: 
  • I’ve thought about this
  • I’ve validated my approach
  • I’m far enough with what I’ve built that I don’t believe there are other unknowns.

Some scopes are riskier than others. It’s better to get a few critical scopes over the top early in the project and leave the screw-tightening for later.

Decide When To Stop

Shipping on time means shipping something imperfect. There’s always some queasiness in the stomach as you look at your work and ask yourself: Is it good enough? Is this ready to release? 

Instead of comparing up against the ideal, compare down to baseline—the current reality for customers. How do customers solve this problem today, without this feature? What’s the frustrating workaround that this feature eliminates? How much longer should customers put up with something that doesn’t work or wait for a solution because we aren’t sure if design A might be better than design B? 

Seeing that our work so far is better than the current alternatives makes us feel better about the progress we’ve made. This motivates us to make calls on the things that are slowing us down.

Scope grows naturally. Scope creep isn’t the fault of bad clients, bad managers, or bad programmers. Rather than trying to stop scope from growing, give teams the tools, authority, and responsibility to constantly cut it down.

As we come up with things to fix, add, improve, or redesign during a project, we ask ourselves:
  • Is this a “must-have” for the new feature?
  • Could we ship without this?
  • What happens if we don’t do this?
  • Is this a new problem or a pre-existing one that customers already live with?
  • How likely is this case or condition to occur?
  • When this case occurs, which customers see it? Is it core—used by everyone—or more of an edge case?
  • What’s the actual impact of this case or condition in the event it does happen?
  • When something doesn’t work well for a particular use case, how aligned is that use case with our intended audience? 

Move On

It’s important to stay cool and avoid knee-jerk reactions. Give it a few days and allow it to die down. Be firm and remember why you made the change in the first place and who the change is helping. Remember, the thing you just shipped was a six-week bet. If this part of the product needs more time, then it requires a new bet. 


I loved reading this book. It gives a different way of thinking about how to build and ship things. I am going to try to implement learnings from this book to actual projects. It's a must read for people who want to improve their building and shipping processes.
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