The Power of Asking For Help

Lifebuoy. Photo: ranieldiaz via flickr/CC BY 2.0

At what point in facing a challenge should we resort to asking for help?

The trick here is the word “resort”.

In spite of our better judgments, most of us wait until we’re stuck in the quicksand of a problem before we turn to someone for advice or counsel. But why wait until we’re desperate to seek out assistance? Why let ourselves get to a point of anxiety and frustration when it’s often altogether unneeded?

Why not, instead, make asking for help a built-in part of our work process?

There’s this metaphor in a book by Stephen Covey I read a while back, about the importance of sharpening a saw between cuts, so that the saw doesn’t get stuck in the wood it’s working through.  

“We must never become too busy sawing to take time to sharpen the saw.”

Dr. Stephen R. Covey

When we get busy, it’s easy to spend all of our time working and grinding away at whatever to-do item is looming overhead. But we should remember to find time to “sharpen our saws”, in the sense of finding ways to get better and more efficient at our work. Allowing us to ultimately get more done.

Asking for help is one of the many ways we can seek to “sharpen our saws” as we’re heading into new tasks. And the earlier we seek assistance, the less likely we are to get stuck.

Broaden your perspective

Leading product management for a team can be a lonely job. Often your peers — like the head of engineering or marketing — can’t relate to the specific challenges you face.

I found myself in this situation back when I was running product for Plaxo. As described in a previous post, I was facing a whole host of frustrating challenges. Fortunately, my boss at the time was super supportive and recommended I join Collaborative Gain, something he had received a lot of value from over the years.

Collaborative Gain is an organization founded by Phil Terry that’s anchored by a semi-annual retreat with “asking for help” as its cornerstone.

As a participant, you join a year-round “council” of 15-20 professionals in your line of work, from different organizations and industries. The council remains stable over time (save for an average turnover of 2 or 3 members a year).

This week marks my 14th retreat with my council.

Around the time of my first retreat I was considering applying Lean Startup methods to try various pivots we might make with the business. It was a big moment for myself and the company, and I wasn’t totally confident in my approach. Through what we call a “Request For Help” I led my council through the situation, and the approach I was considering. They not only gave me the confidence I needed to proceed, but also helped me fine-tune the approach, and advised me on how to best position it to my staff.

We often think our situations are unique. But more often than not, they fit into larger patterns that actually are quite common. Having access to a wider range of perspectives and experiences illustrates this, and allows you to apply the lessons already learned by others.

Ask your boss

External peers really help in diversifying your perspective, but perspective isn’t the only thing we should be asking for help with.  

It isn’t always comfortable for you or your boss, but if there’s something in their power that could enhance your performance, it’s necessary that you make it clear to them. It might be something you need their help fighting for. It might be a new challenge. A promotion. Or a more flexible schedule.

Whatever it is you need, be proactive and make it clear to them.

Hit the books

Pursuing higher education is often connected with career advancement, with the educational virtues regarded as almost an afterthought. A means to an end. But a big reason I went back to school for my MBA was fill-in a personal knowledge gap — to understand how product and business leaders think. One of the most valuable aspects of my time at Haas was applying the HBS Case Method where, again, we gained perspective around what previous business leaders did right or wrong by placing ourselves in their shoes. By covering dozens of cases we racked up experience that would have taken decades to learn first hand.

Of course, education comes in many forms, and you never know what new lesson might change your entire outlook on things.

Ask for feedback

Feedback is a gift, and if you don’t ask for it you won’t always get it. For an individual, it might be 360 surveys. For an organization, it might be employee NPS.

If your boss isn’t giving you regular feedback, or maybe they skipped your recent review — take initiative and ask for it. Present your self-review to them and ask for their assessment.

Whatever format suits your situation, don’t wait till it lands at your feet. Be proactive about identifying weaknesses and figuring out how to work around them.

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”

Bill Gates

Early in a career, it can feel like everyone but yourself has it figured out – and if you want to move up, you’ve got to start being the one with the answers. But the people who move up and lead prosperous careers do have something figured out — asking for help.  

Everyone has their gaps. Gaps in perspective, gaps in wisdom, and gaps in a skillset. The gaps really aren’t important though – what’s important is what you do about them.

Asking for help should be an early stage of our routine. Something we do automatically – like muscle memory. Without prideful or timid hesitation.

By viewing assistance, and advice as tools in our wheelhouse, and not just last-resort, life-saving devices, we can save ourselves a lot of time and frustration.

Everyone needs help.

Get it early, and get it often.

Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera.

Running an Innovation Center at a Fortune 500 Company

I recently spoke on how to run an innovation center within a large company at both the Lean Startup conference in SF and the Strategic Planning Innovation Summit in NYC. As part of the leadership team running the Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t especially within a BIG company.

How can you apply Lean Startup principles at your company? I have 6 pieces of advice:

  1. Ask for forgiveness, not permission
    The eBay mobile app almost didn’t get built as the mobile team was restructured away shortly before Apple announced the App Store in 2008. By “hiding” a small team of people building MVP (Alan Lewis, Ken Sun, Karlyn Neal) enough momentum was established that the Exec team went along.
  2. Build credibility thru projects–then scale
    The Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center was built out of an earlier acquisition made a couple years earlier in Plaxo. By running projects under the Plaxo brand and then Comcast Labs, credibility in the approach was established with the executive team. Over time its scaled to include higher profile projects, such as SEEiT.
  3. Don’t just swing for homeruns
    We take a VC mindset for “funding” concepts at the center. Ideas can come from anywhere (often Hack Days) and get evaluated using a Lean Canvas. Receiving “Seed” funding means we might assign a few engineers for a month or so. If they prove their hypothesis they might get “Series A” funding where they could build an MVP. Meanwhile we’re always looking for an “exit” which could be an “acquisition” from another internal business unit–so a solid “double” in baseball helps offset the “strikeouts” that might occur.
  4. Adapt Lean Canvas for your company
    I adapted Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas to better fit within the enterprise. Cost included the number of FTEs / time and Revenue includes indirect improvements to retention/acquisition. Finally a new cell was added for “Strategic Fit” which evaluates how well the concept fits within the corporate strategy and who on the Exec team will sponsor it.
  5. Watch out for corporate antibodies
    Organizations are just like the body and will attack what they see as “foreign objects” (different ways of doing things). You need to be aware of who’s toes you might be stepping on and building allies at the exec level is important. It’s also helpful to understand resource allocation is often a “zero-sum-game” so don’t scale your resources too fast or they become a target for others looking for funding.
  6. Use vanity metrics (but don’t believe them)
    As you analyze using rate-based metrics that ruthlessly look at acquisition, activity, and retention is the only way to go. However its important that you present your product fairly alongside others at the company. Shining a bright light on all things wrong with your project may not give you the time you need to pivot and get it where you want it to go. So occasionally, its useful to share “vanity metrics” alongside the equivalents of other products at your company. 😉

Here’s some of my favorite tweets about my talk:

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

As with the rest of this blog, the above are my personal views and not that my employer. 

Should we take off our black turtlenecks and give up “ownership” of interaction design in order to take it mainstream?

Shailesh Shilwant and I submitted a discussion topic to the Interaction 2010 conference yesterday on a something that’s near and dear to our hearts: Product Discovery as a transparent and facilitated process. I encourage you to comment on our proposal and offer your suggestions.


As we evolve interaction design as a field, one approach we should consider is to open up the facilitation and ownership to people that don’t have the word “design” on their business card (e.g. product managers, development leads). We’ve recently tried a number of techniques that does just this at eBay and would like to discuss with you the following topics:

  • Giving up “ownership” of design (how to do it, pros and cons)
  • Impacts this shift has on the role within the company and our field
  • How language and terminology can help or hinder you
  • How to build on initial successes and institutionalize the methodology

In this discussion you’ll hear real world examples from companies such as Facebook, Intuit, Yahoo! and eBay. We hope to create some healthy debate so come with your strong point of views to share.

IxD10 Topic Submission

Reflections on Interaction08

Wow! What a terrific conference! I’m fired up about Interaction Design following the inaugural IxDA conference in Savannah, GA. As I reflect on the conference, here are the highlights for me:

Bill Buxton [video, book] – We must embrace our unique qualities as interaction designers, respect the talents of others (e.g. developers), and together change our organization so that our talents are used. We must “stop whining!” Buxton pointed out that Jonathan Ive was at Apple for 5 years before the Steve Jobs came back–and yet made little difference on the products. Jobs first move was to use the existing design talent at Apple to turn around the company. Finally, Buxton pointed out how Moore’s Law and the Growth of Features run counter to the fact that human capacity is not increasing.

Bill Buxton on Moore’s Law, Buxton’s Law, and God’s Law

Aza Raskin [video] – Aza is the first second-generation interaction designer I’ve met which I think is pretty cool. His late father, Jef Raskin, of course is responsible for designing the Macintosh and Aza founded his company Humanized to continue his father’s work. Aza is a refreshing speaker and clearly articulates his strong point of view that the best user interface is no user interface. In other words, selection and direct manipulation in the modern GUI has gone too far and we’d be better off with a recall based smart command line (see my previous post on his product Enso). By focusing hard on simplicity and reducing interactions where possible we just may fit under what Buxton’s called God’s Law (see above).

Chris ConleyiPhone Home ScreenChris spoke on how the use of dramatic features in interaction design yields more enjoyable and engaging products. He defined drama as “an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events”. Furthermore he described how it’s only thru drama that you create truly meaningful products. Chris described how Pixar approaches this subject thru the heavy use of storyboarding. They spend years honing the story and using a series of design critiques, until it is just right. Only then does production begin. As interaction designers we must choreograph these dramatic elements in order to delight our customers. One example he shared was how to customize icons on the iPhone home screen. When you move into customization mode all the icons start jiggling and then jump out of the way as you drag icons. Very fun indeed.

Matt Jones [video, deck] – Matt is the designer behind Dopplr and his witty British humour was a joy to listen to. My favorite quote from his talk was a definition for serendipity (something we regularly discuss at eBay):

“Serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter” – Sir Hans Kornberg

He also built on the notion of delight as a key to product design. For example, one hotel left him a rubber ducky in the tub on the 4th night. On Dopplr they surprise their customers with customized Dopplr logos based on their travel history.

Jon Kolko – While Jon was not an official speaker, as a former professor at Savannah College of Art and Design he played a key role in bringing Interaction08 to SCAD. A designer on my team, Riaz, was a former student of Jon’s and introduced me to him over pizza and beer at VinnieVanGoGo’s the night before the conference. Jon cuts right to the point and is very direct about his POV on design (as well as other things). I found his attitude refreshing and it has motivated me to be less nuanced in my opinions. I’m halfway thru his book which I’d highly recommend.

Quick Tidbits:

  • Bill DeRouchey: Conversations w/Every Day Objects [video, deck] – How button’s have evolved and their affordances…
  • Gabe White: Ethics of Design [video] – Should we discourage addictive or compulsive behavior (e.g. twitter)?
  • Sarah Allen: Cinematic IxD [video, deck] – How to use visual cues in transitions to maintain context…
  • Gretchen Anderson: Concept Ideation [video] – If meeting with the CEO, tell a story about your customer and be dramatic…
  • UI Design in Agile Environment [video] – How to use a design studio and team offsites to make Agile work…

List of all video available from Interaction08.

SxSW 2008

I’m looking forward to attending next year’s SxSW and am impressed at all the panels that people have proposed. Below is one I’d like to moderate, provided I get selected. 🙂

SxSW 2008

Letting Community Content Shine Through

How do you design a site that lets users feel it is truly “community owned and operated”? A site that supports business objectives centered around creating user-generated content, and differentiating it from company content? This panel will explore the issues surrounding a user-centric site, including voice, interaction, and visual design.

Some potential panelists could include folks from: Yahoo! Answers, YouTube, Facebook, WordPress, and perhaps Ning. Vote for this panel.

Other panels I’m interested in:

Event: CHI2007 Next Week

CHI is returning to San Jose for their 25th anniversary and I’ll be attending for the fourth time. While the conference at times is more academic than I would like there are always some good sessions.

Here’s what I’m most excited about:

Welcome Sarah!

One of my favorite designers, Sarah Culberson, made her blogosphere debut today where she reflects on her experience at SxSW. Here are some excerpts I found interesting:

  •  “It is better to be flamboyant failure than mediocre success.” Jeffrey Zeldman on being fearless with design. Lots more great quotes from Sarah’s notes.
  •  Lots of great advice from a panel on creating a “Kickass Design Team” including providing direct mentorship/coaching, importance of outsourcing and junior designers, and feeding execs great UE questions. Love it.
  • How designers can add value in big companies by helping them get Unstuck.

Thanks Sarah and Welcome. 🙂