Elezea Newsletter — Issue 2019.26
A weekly newsletter to help you create better products, and understand the broader impact of technology on our work and our lives.
I’ve been thinking about memories a lot. I just finished the novel Recursion by Blake Crouch. He wrote the excellent Wayward Pines series (which was later turned into a really bad Fox show). He also wrote Dark Matter, which is not a prequel but kind of a precursor to Recursion.
Recursion is about how memory is everything. About how without memories, we cease to exist. It’s a science fiction novel, yes. But it’s that particular brand of science fiction that is rooted in just enough Actual Science to mess with your head a little bit. Or, in my case, mess with my head a lot.
I’ve always had a weird relationship with my memories. I’ve moved around a lot, I’ve lived in too many places, and I’m naturally a nostalgic person. In a way I’ve always felt like I’m in a Fog of War video game that I’ve explored too quickly and now there’s no turning back. For that reason I’m prone to silly things like Sunday Night Blues and listening to Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” over and over (and over) again while I remember the past. I don’t know, it makes me feel safe. As Counting Crows said:
If dreams are like movies then memories are films about ghosts.
So back to the book — I am intrigued by this idea that even the present moment is just a memory, and that reliving memories is a form of time travel. I’m not going to spoil the book, but I am going to say that it takes that idea too far (in the best possible way), and that it’s making me take a real hard look at my propensity to live too viscerally in my past experiences and regrets.
That, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with product management. But sometimes you just have to write a thing out of your system, you know?
Enjoy this week’s issue — it’s a good one!
Featured product management articles
I really like Jeff Gothelf’s approach to the question “Does every project need to be Agile?” in his newsletter:
No. Every project does not have to be Agile. However, each project you work on should encourage and support agility. This means that every initiative creates the ability, desire and safety to change course in the face of evidence that contradicts our original plan.
He goes deeper on what it means for teams to have the ability, desire, and safety to change when needed.
I like Matthew Ström’s concept of Responsive Roadmaps that “visualize the process of turning uncertainty and complexity into outcomes and output.” He presents this as an antidote to all the things that are wrong with traditional roadmaps:
Traditional project roadmaps are right about our knowledge in a moment of time. They are good records of our beliefs about the correct sequence and magnitude of our work. But these roadmaps are wrong about the reality of work, and almost every roadmap I’ve ever used goes out the window as soon as the work starts. No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
Responsive roadmaps are right about the nature of work: it is full of uncertainty and subject to change. They are wrong about what we’ll be doing in the future; the farther out we look, the less accurate a responsive roadmap is. That tradeoff affords us time to focus in the present on delivering at the highest level of quality.
He goes into much practical detail on how to create, maintain, and use responsive roadmaps.
Ulaize Hernandez Troyas makes a good argument for involving full teams in the prioritization of what to work on:
This type of ongoing communication throughout the prioritization process has a definite cost, but the number of benefits from this approach is worth it. We have reduced friction between teammates, which has saved us from long-winded conversations that stemmed from misunderstandings. The sense of ownership and purpose has increased the team’s motivation. On a more personal level, having these open product discussions has challenged my own thinking many times over, which has definitely improved our product direction as a result.
In terms of the specifics of how this works in practice, I tend to prefer a combined approach rather than asking the team to come up with an initial list of priorities themselves. We have a leads team that comes up with a proposal for our priorities for the quarter, based on our business goals and customer insights. We then spend about a week with the entire team discussing our proposal, refining the approach, and making sure everyone is aligned and excited about what we’re working on.
Quote of the week
“Bad strategy is not the same thing as no strategy or strategy that fails rather than succeeds. Rather, it is an identifiable way of thinking and writing about strategy that has, unfortunately, been gaining ground. Bad strategy is long on goals and short on policy or action. It assumes that goals are all you need. It puts forward strategic objectives that are incoherent and, sometimes, totally impracticable. It uses high-sounding words and phrases to hide these failings.
A hallmark of true expertise and insight is making a complex subject understandable. A hallmark of mediocrity and bad strategy is unnecessary complexity—a flurry of fluff masking an absence of substance.”
— Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters.
Work better together: resources and tools
GitHub, Atlassian, and Basecamp — where some or most of the employees are remote — share their tips for designing offices that are good for workers, wherever they are.
A fascinating deep-dive into the history and evolution of “teleconferencing”.
4 skills you need when you work in solitude.
An excellent, practical overview of how to interview customers, and what pitfalls to avoid.
A simple tool that calculates how much free time you really have. What you find might surprise you, as they say…
A tool that opens 100 random browser tabs of pure madness to fool ad trackers into thinking you’re someone else.
Technology news and reflections
Surveillance on my mind
It feels like our online consciousness has shifted — at least from the moment — from a general “privacy” one to a more specific look at the problems of surveillance. Consider The Pentagon has a laser that can identify people from a distance—by their heartbeat:
A new device, developed for the Pentagon after US Special Forces requested it, can identify people without seeing their face: instead it detects their unique cardiac signature with an infrared laser. While it works at 200 meters (219 yards), longer distances could be possible with a better laser. “I don’t want to say you could do it from space,” says Steward Remaly, of the Pentagon’s Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office, “but longer ranges should be possible.”
Casey Newton goes so far as to say that China's social credit system is coming to America:
I’ve linked to stories about China’s social-credit ambitions here several times over the past couple years, but never written about them at any length. Until recently, the social credit system struck me as a particularly grim aspect of life under authoritarian regime — one unlikely to ever materialize in the United States.
And yet the more I look around, the more it seems like an American social credit system is springing up around us — and it doesn’t look all that different from China’s.
In addition to the stories Casey links to in his newsletter, I’ve seen a bunch more over the past couple of weeks:
You No Longer Own Your Face describes how students were recorded for research — and then became part of a data set that lives forever online, potentially accessible to anyone.
The Strange Politics of Facial Recognition explains how politicians seem to have found common ground on facial recognition, and how that’s exactly what its makers want.
Meanwhile, The Washington Posts says that airport face scans are a privacy trap.
But by far the most interesting article about all this, and how dangerous this trend really can be, is Aggression Detectors: The Unproven, Invasive Surveillance Technology Schools Are Using to Monitor Students:
In response to mass shootings, some schools and hospitals are installing microphones equipped with algorithms. The devices purport to identify stress and anger before violence erupts. Our testing found them less than reliable.
Further technology reading
Researchers at Princeton expose just how many shopping websites use dark patterns to convince you to buy more or give up more data.
The latest version of the bot detector reCaptcha is invisible to users and has spread to more than 650,000 websites. It’s great for security—but not so great for your privacy.
People are beginning to fight for their social media rights — and those battles have been as strange as they’ve been successful. This is an overview of some of the most bizarre battles sharpening the blurry boundaries of social media sovereignty.
Back doors to your personal data can be found in everything from smart fish tanks to Wi-Fi pineapples. In short, do not, ever, under any circumstances, use hotel Wi-Fi.
Random things I like
📡 Come for the amazing story about the land where the internet ends (the town of Green Bank that adheres to the strictest ban on technology in the United States). Stay for the beautiful photos.
👴 Pretend Facebook seems so much more fun than Real Facebook.
📦 Vicki Boykis on “reverse cardboard origami” — the process of breaking down Amazon packaging — and what all these boxes say about us.
🎺 On the history of Muzak, and the emergence of music as “acoustic wallpaper”: How Ambient Chill Became the New Silence.
👺 How Google search results are being manipulated by shady online reputation consultants
🤳 Instagram is sweet and sort of boring — except for the ads.
💪 BMI is a terrible metric for health. Push-ups and the like tend to encourage people to be conscious of what the body can achieve, not body image itself.
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