The Andrew Skotzko Hypothesis: If You're Going to Try and Change Somebody's Behavior, You Better Understand It
In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover the importance of distribution to product success, creating a culture of experimentation on product teams, and the role cognitive science plays in product management.
Andrew Skotzko is a product discovery & strategy advisor to tech companies who has built products and led teams for 13 years. By day, he advises companies on product leadership & strategy to make products which find traction in the market and help people thrive in the process. By night, he picks up the mic on his podcast, Make Things That Matter, and explores how product innovation, cognitive science, and org design are creating the future of work.
Before discovering product management, Andrew worked in both engineering and marketing, and has worked in a wide range of spaces: consumer web, consumer hardware, decentralized communities, human performance, open-source software, mental health, ocean science, and agriculture/aquaculture. He’s worked with all stages of companies, from nascent startups to the Fortune 100.
In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover the importance of distribution to product success, creating a culture of experimentation on product teams, and the role cognitive science plays in product management.
Questions we explore in this episode
Why is distribution important for startups and how can they find the right traction channels?
- Andrew shares insights from the book "Traction" by Justin Mares and Gabriel Weinberg. The book provides a "bullseye framework" for exploring and narrowing down potential distribution channels.
- It’s important to find a channel that works on the way to product-market fit and then adapt as the company grows.
- He talks about different traction channels, such as e-mail marketing, content marketing, search engine optimization, and social media advertising.
How can product teams develop a culture of experimentation and emotional detachment from their ideas?
- Teams need to surface risks and figure out how to manage them instead of getting too attached to their ideas.
- He also emphasizes the importance of psychological safety and power distance in creating a culture where people can openly speak truth to power.
- He recommends creating a culture of experimentation where failure is seen as a learning opportunity and where team members are encouraged to test their assumptions and hypotheses.
What are some resources on cognitive science and behavior change that Andrew recommends to product teams?
- Books such as "Hooked" by Nir Eyal and "Atomic Habits" by James Clear provide valuable insights into behavior change and how to apply it to product development.
- BJ Fogg's work at Stanford, particularly in his Persuasive Tech Lab, is also useful for product teams looking to understand behavior change.
- For those working on specific areas such as mental health or human performance, understanding foundational neuroscience can be helpful.
- MOOCs such as those on Coursera or MIT OpenCourseWare can provide useful resources for those looking to learn more about cognitive science.
Quotes from Andrew Skotzko in this episode
If you're going to try and change somebody's behavior, which, by the way, is super hard, you better understand it.
It's so easy to get attached to our precious little ideas and we just love them and we think they're going to work so well. So, I think the hard parts are really the emotional detachment and the willingness to say, "Yeah, we're going to try this," and actually expecting it not to work. I think that's actually a much healthier place that it takes you to because you divest your emotions from any particular campaign or feature or whatever working
One of the things that I think I learned viscerally from that experience that is really easy to overlook as product people because we so fall in love with what we are building is the importance of distribution. And most products die, not because they didn't make a product, it's because no one uses it and no one might use it because maybe the product's not very good or maybe it's just completely disconnected from a user need or a user want but, a lot of the times, the company hasn't found any traction channel. And so, I think that's really a big takeaway.
When I talk to early stage founders, there's always this tricky question of at what point do I start really investing in culture. Because, a lot of the time, they're just trying to stay alive and make their next milestone or get their numbers to the right level that they can raise their next round and so on and so forth. But there's also a point where, beyond , you have the culture you have. At a certain number of people, you have a culture and, if you didn't design that culture intentionally, well, it's a lot harder to change it than it is to design it in the first place.
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Holly Hester-Reilly:Hi, and welcome to The Product Science Podcast, where we're helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren't afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I'm your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.Welcome back to The Product Science Podcast. This week, my guest is Andrew Skotzko. Andrew is a product discovery and strategy advisor to tech companies who has built products and led teams for 13 years. By day, he advises companies on products, leadership and strategy to make products which find traction in the market and help people thrive in the process. By night, he picks up the mic on his podcast, Make Things That Matter, and explores how product innovation, cognitive science and org design are creating the future of work.Before discovering product management, Andrew worked in both engineering and marketing and has worked in a wide range of spaces, consumer web, consumer hardware, decentralized communities, human performance, open source software, mental health, ocean science and agriculture aquaculture. He's worked with all stages of companies from nascent startups to the Fortune 100. Welcome.
Andrew Skotzko:Thanks, Holly. It's great to be with you.
Holly Hester-Reilly:I have to dive right into a question about your work with ocean science and agriculture. So, what's that?
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, I was wondering where you'd pick up that thread. Yeah, so I've had the good fortune to have a wide range of interests and get to work on a lot of stuff in my career. What that was referring to is I've worked on a number of different things, whether they were automated farming, I spent a few years doing it, working on a big project in fishery health management for aquaculture. So, basically, how do you make farmed fishing a more sustainable, healthy operation. And then I also was part of a team that incubated a startup that is in stealth mode right now that's about ocean health monitoring and how you do, let's say, high-resolution and high-frequency data of the water column in really important bodies of water.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Wow, that sounds super cool.
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, I spent a lot of the last five years of my career working on environmentally-related projects and products. That's one half of my big domains of interest and the other half is essentially all things about ... Really, the through line of my career for 10 years or so is about how do you help people thrive in harmony within themselves and within the physical environment we all live in. So, there was a big chunk of my career very focused on the physical environment, around nature and the way human systems interface with it and then putting a lot more energy into the human thriving piece of this now in terms of how do you help people be well, be flourishing, be thriving as they do the things they do in the world. So, that's all the things around mental health, performance, future of work, so on and so forth.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah, that's really exciting stuff and so important for all. I'm really glad people like you are working on it.
Holly Hester-Reilly:How did you get involved in product management?
Andrew Skotzko:So, I think, like most of us, I have a weird winding story. I don't even know if there is a prototypical story into product yet other than it was all over the place. For me, it actually started before I ever knew of this thing called quote, unquote product management. I actually started my career in marketing, doing very quantitative driven marketing, what we would probably call growth hacking now. This was before that term had gotten popularized. And then, after doing that for a few years, I was collaborating really closely with the product engineering teams and spending a lot of time with them, really trying to understand the product and who is it for and how are we doing it and really collaborating on coming up with new features and new angles for the product.And eventually I just realized, wait a minute, I want to be on that side of the house, I want to be in that other room doing stuff. Basically, on the startup I was working on, I had started hacking and coding on things inside and learned a little bit of coding and started hacking together my own tools to try to make the marketing campaigns that I wanted to at the time and there weren't tools that were doing what I wanted. And so, at some point, I had hacked together multiple APIs. It was like the Mailchimp API and the Facebook API and one other one I can't remember to do some totally custom marketing campaign that worked really well. And our CTO was like, "Wait a minute, you're in the wrong room. You should be on my team."And so, he internally poached me and I switched to engineering in house. Basically, it was like, "Hey, if you want to try, we think you could pull it off. We think you could learn to be a full production engineer," and this was before coding bootcamp thing was popular so that wasn't really an option. So, it was effectively we're just going to throw you in the deep end but the team's going to help you figure this out. So, I went into a cave for a year and I was either studying or working six days a week for a year and switched to the engineering team, did that and then I spent the next five odd years doing engineering and working on all kinds of different projects.And then somewhere around 2014, 15, in there, I rediscovered or maybe discovered for the first time this thing called product management. And I was like, "What? There's a thing that puts these two sides of my brain together. There's actually a label for this that has the human stuff and the technical stuff?" And, from that moment, it felt right and I was like, "Yeah, that's where I want to be." So, that was my way in.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah, that sounds like a really fun journey and you have a good place for you and your skills.
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, I think it's nice if you're somebody with a brain like mine that likes lots of different things, product is a really good fit. There are certain people who just want to do one thing and go as deeply as possible into that one thing and that's wonderful, my mind doesn't really work that way. My mind really prefers being an integrator, a synthesizer, a bridge and playing the game that way. So, yeah, it's nice to find a place that felt right for me.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Tell me more about some of the places you've worked at. What are some of the ones that you're most proud of?
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, thanks. There's been a lot of different ones. I've worked on everything from early stage startups up to working with some very large companies in the Fortune 500 and 100. And for me, the sweet spot has really been that early startup up through series B, what feels like my favorite zone or working with a large company that is really, truly spinning out a new thing and so it's functioning like a startup anyway just within a much larger context. I think, for me, some of my favorite ones that are just top of mind lately, and this is totally biased by the fact that I was just talking to people who I worked with on this, so little recency bias here.Two of the ones that really come to mind that were favorites for me were the startup I was just describing where I went through this real journey from marketing into engineering and product. That was a startup called Namesake that pivoted a bunch and became a lot of other things and then it became chill and then it became tappy and that ended up being Tinder's first acquisition. So, that's still maybe the most fun I've ever had working with a team just thinking of some of the crazy experiences we had, we went through a hyper scaling phase.And then another one that really comes to mind that a fair number of people know and really enjoyed was Pebble, the smartwatch, which was the first hardware product I ever worked on. It was a few years after the Namesake startup but those are two that, I think, really shaped me. And then, later on, I was learning new skills but I think it was very much laid on top of that foundation.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah. So, let's dive a little further into your work at what was once called Namesake. How big was the company when you joined?
Andrew Skotzko:Oh, it was very small. I was, I think, the first employee not on the founding team. So, I was a single digit number person there and we went through a whole bunch of different phases. This is where I learned viscerally what a pivot means. And the thing that was amazing about that team, still maybe the highest density of talent I've ever worked with, just some incredibly talented people. The most crazy period of that one was we were, at the time, so this was product number, I think, three, we went through quite a few of them. And I'm not talking tweaks, I'm talking entirely new products. Throw the thing out and build an entirely new thing.But at the time, the one that took off and got big was what people lovingly referred to at the time as Pinterest for video and it was right as the world of social video was becoming a thing. The thesis we were exploring was how do consumers explore and discover video they really care about. So, we were here in Los Angeles, obviously, the entertainment industry is huge here and so there was a lot of tie-ins to what is the future of TV, how does indie film play into all of this. And so, we happened to hit an inflection point right as Facebook Open Graph was becoming a thing and so it was a lot of luck, right place, right time.And between that and a lot of really intense email marketing work, we grew really quickly and there was a phase where we grew from in the tens of thousands of users into the tens of millions of users in a six to eight month period.
Andrew Skotzko:No one was sleeping. I lost count of the number of times I was sleeping at the office, the number of times that everything was breaking. We were on 24-hour a day rotating shifts of the team, it was insanity for quite a while. It's the most intense phase I've ever gone through in anything I've worked on, I think.
Holly Hester-Reilly:It sounds really intense.
Andrew Skotzko:It was fun but crazy.
Holly Hester-Reilly:For all the startups I've worked at, I've never actually slept at the office.
Andrew Skotzko:That's good, that's a good thing. I really try not to do that anymore, I've done it more times than I like. But the one thing I'll say on that, I know that your audience really likes, not just the story, but what's the takeaway, what's the principle. One of the things that I think I learned viscerally from that experience that is really easy to overlook as product people because we so fall in love with what we are building is the importance of distribution. And most products die, not because they didn't make a product, it's because no one uses it and no one might use it because maybe the product's not very good or maybe it's just completely disconnected from a user need or a user want but, a lot of the times, the company hasn't found any traction channel. And so, I think that's really a big takeaway.The other day, I was actually just rereading what I think is one of the best books on this ever which is Traction by Justin Mares and Gabriel Weinberg. And it is, I think, a must read for product people. Particularly the first five chapters, I think those are actually evergreen and timeless of how to think about this. Everything after that has probably expired in terms of its tactics by now but those first five chapters, I think, I'll probably read once a year for the rest of my career.
Holly Hester-Reilly:That's so fascinating. Can you share a little bit about what's in those first five chapters?
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, absolutely. So, what they really lay out in there is what they call their bullseye framework which is they give a bullseye target where you have this concentric circles. And the idea is that there's a huge number of possible channels that could work and they list out something like 20 different channels in the book. Everything from blogs to viral marketing to SEM to offline events and trade shows, a huge, really, broad range. And the idea is having this framework to help you, first of all, counteract your own bias and explore widely of the possible channels that you might use and then start to narrow that in and get a subset of that that you're going to go really aggressively test with the hopes of finding one or maybe two channels that actually work for you.And I think there's maybe two important things about this. One is that, most people, most of us have a bias that we don't really acknowledge. It's very traditional bias is a lot of engineers and product people really dislike the idea of sales and that's super common but maybe sales is exactly the thing this company needs.
Andrew Skotzko:And so, if you have a bias against that and you're not even willing to explore, that could be a real disadvantage. You could be setting yourself up or your company up to get stuck or not succeed. So, that's, I think, big thing one. And then I think big thing two is just that, if you find any traction channel at all that works, that can make your company. Most companies that work only have one channel that works or at least works for the stage of the company that they're in. If you're early, you're trying to figure out what you're doing, find the value, it's very likely the traction channels that work in your earliest days will have to change as you go through the different phases of growth.I think that's probably the other big takeaway is what works in the first year on your way to product market fit is very likely not going to be the thing that's going to take you from that initial product market fit into a very significant company later on.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yes. I love what you're saying because I think a lot of product people discount the importance of distribution and focus so much on building the right thing, which is extremely important, but you also have to spread the news about the right thing.
Andrew Skotzko:Totally. I don't know about you but I remember my dad saying to me growing up so many times, if you build a better mousetrap, they'll beat a path to your door or whatever the phrase is. Maybe, not if they don't know about it or maybe the path to my door is too expensive and the numbers don't work and now we have to reinvent the business. That's the game.
Holly Hester-Reilly:How did that startup stumble on the thing that finally worked?
Andrew Skotzko:Great question. So, we had been experimenting to that point from their bullseye framework. We tried a lot of stuff. I don't know if we tried all 20 channels they listed out but, if we went through it, we'd probably tried at least half of them. And we had tried everything from offline events to email to virals, really a lot of weird stuff. What ended up finding earlier traction was email, actually. And so, at the time, because I had just come out of the marketing side, I was still doing both and so I was very involved in that and then also coding. And in fact, I was doing a lot of producty work there. But my point is we found an email format that was really working for people because the whole idea of the service at that time, the product at that time was to help you find the gold.Everybody knew there was a lot of cool stuff out there but you couldn't find it, there was just too much noise. And so, we were essentially saying the whole point of this product was we're going to help you find that gold and have fun connecting with people around it. And so, one of the things we started doing, and this is right on that bridge between do things that don't scale, do things that do scale, was we had a few folks in-house who, let's say, had very good editorial taste. They knew what was great, they really did. They looked at so much content, they knew the market, they were almost in-house curators, although they had normal jobs too.And so, we would look at that and combine it with data and figure out here are some of the best videos and we would send out an email. And, at one point, we started sending it to everybody and then, later, we split it into segments but it was like, "Here's the one video you need to watch," and people love that because it took so much noise and it says, "Nope, one thing." And that started doing really well and people would start forwarding it to each other and then we'd built in links back into the site and so we had all these onboarding loops set up.And when we found that started to work, then we said, "Okay, this is working, let's get fancier," and then you can start to layer in, getting more complicated, adding segmentation, doing maybe more customized onboarding flows. But it was after we found that core mechanic of, oh, wow, people really like this thing where we just send them one email a day and just here's the one video.
Holly Hester-Reilly:I think that a lot of what you're talking about is getting at this idea of experimentation and rolling with the changes and that is both incredibly valuable and maybe a lot harder than people think it is. And I guess I'm curious, how you develop skill at it?
Andrew Skotzko:At actually doing it? Running experiments? I'm laughing to myself because I feel like I should have a better answer for this but I feel like it's one of those things where you just do it and there's a lot of really good conceptual models out there for this. There's a ton of books and blog posts and podcasts and whatever that explain how and there are really good ones but I think most of it's you just try it. I don't think, actually, the skill side of it is that hard. People are smart, they figure it out. I actually think the harder part is emotional, not so much cognitive. I don't know if that's interesting to push into but that's where my spidey sense goes.
Holly Hester-Reilly:No, it is. And I think, actually, I wasn't very specific but what I had in mind about it being hard was more emotional and cultural.
Andrew Skotzko:Oh, yeah, okay. In that case, yes, I definitely have things to say. The concepts, just go read the blogs or whatever. But on the emotional and cultural, I think they're actually really tied. And what I mean by that is people respond to incentives and incentives are sometimes explicit and, other times, they're implicit in the culture. And so, I think this is where good product leadership, at whatever level, if you have one product person for the whole company, it's them or it's the founder or the CEO. But wherever that's coming from, it needs to be baked in, there needs to be this sense of discovery and experimentation and the old writing saw about killing your darlings. It's so easy to get attached to our precious little ideas and we just love them and we think they're going to work so well.So, I think the hard parts are really the emotional detachment and the willingness to say, "Yeah, we're going to try this," and actually expecting it not to work. I think that's actually a much healthier place that it takes you to because you divest your emotions from any particular campaign or feature or whatever working. And so, for example, one mental flip that I do that I think most people may, I don't know if people have heard this or not, but I do a lot of advising and consulting on early stage projects and companies and sometimes that's informal, sometimes that's formal. But I'm thinking of one that I recently started talking with a friend about, he's very excited about this. And he's also a veteran of startups so he knows the game but he's so in it that he's too close.And so, it's very interesting to see how is that conversation different than a conversation that might occur with somebody who's not used to this. And the thing that I observe is there is a detachment emotionally from the thing and we're actually both trying to kill it. We're both trying to figure out all the ways it's not going to work because, if we can figure those out, we can build stuff around them or change course. It's a weird inversion from the, oh, I have this precious idea that I'm going to do everything in my power to bring into the world. Ironically, the best thing you can do to bring into the world is try to figure out all the ways the world's going to kill it and then deal with that ahead of time.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Absolutely. I teach around that concept as well that you need to surface the risks and figure out how you're going to manage them or can you manage them or are they too big.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Because it's not uncommon for major product launches to fail when there was some major risk that everybody knew and no one would talk about because it was the elephant in the room and you got to get rid of that.
Andrew Skotzko:Yup. And what you're describing there, I think that goes really big into the culture piece you were pointing to. This is where something like psychological safety or power distance as concepts within culture really come into play and that could be true in a company culture but that's also actually true cross-culturally in the world. Certain cultures have much more power distance than others. The United States and Scandinavian countries are democratic in terms of that there's lower power distance but, if you go to Japan, there is much higher power distance and so the ability to openly speak truth to power is different in those contexts.And so, I think that's something that people can and ought to look at if they're serious about this. What are the cultural factors that, frankly, are making it harder for people to do what we would like them to which is come up with great stuff and put it in the world.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yes. So, you said that you do a lot of coaching and advising for startups. How did you get into that part of your career?
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah. For me, it started organically. I was working on other things full-time as a product person and you just get to know people over time. It started informally. A friend of mine who worked at a VC firm was like, "Hey, we're doing a thing with our newest batch. Can you do some mentoring for us?" "Yeah, sure. No problem." So, it was a lot of informal and then, piece by piece, it started to become more formalized. It made sense to do a bigger formal engagement because it was too big for, hey, let's just have lunch, which is one thing and it's great, but sometimes we really need to get in here and work on something for a month, three months and that's just a whole different order of magnitude of work.So, it started organically and then it's something that, a few months ago, I started saying, "You know what? I really want to push into this and explore this as a full-time thing." And so, I'm doing that for now and we'll see how that evolves. And I've got some stuff I'm working on now and really enjoying it and we'll see how it evolves. But, thus far, it's been really fun and it's satisfying to get to work like that with not just one thing and that's the big difference. And I think you and I have spoken about this before is I have a lot of energy and it's fun to be able to channel that, to contribute that energy to multiple projects simultaneously.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah, it's like the portfolio approach for your own career projects.
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, absolutely. Which is nice but sometimes I think it's important to go deep on a thing when it's the right thing for you. And I always remain open to that possibility if I see a thing that I'm like, "Oh, my God, I have to stop everything and go build this." Okay, that's fine but that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be that way all the time.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yes. So, one time, when you and I spoke, I remember you were dealing with a fairly complex product area. Can you tell our listeners more about that area?
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, I think I know what you're talking about. So, it was a few years back, it was the fish health monitoring system I was talking about in the aquaculture space, which is now out in the world called Falcon if anybody wants to go look that up, and that was a joint venture with a very large animal health company. So, the issue that I think, if I'm remembering correctly, was we were pretty close to launch. We were, I think, eight or nine months out from launch and we were getting stalled. And at this point, just for context, we had a pretty sizable group of people working on this thing. We had, depending on how you want to count it, because we had different partner companies involved and everything, something like 50 people working on this across six countries, spread out in a bunch of different time zones.And not only were they spread out, that came from different cultures, there was different cultural backgrounds. There were Scandinavians involved, there were Israelis, there were Canadians, there was Australians, there was a few Asian folks. So, the point here, what was really going on was, these teams, we had different teams and so I'd be talking with the lead of one team and they would talk about how it's going and they'd be like, "Okay, we're doing great here but this is driving us crazy." The thing that was driving them crazy, they would point at another team. And then you go talk to the other team and they would basically do the same thing but pointing back at the first team.This starts to become this pattern where I'm checking in with my different team leads and, suddenly, you're like, "Wait a minute. Everybody's pointing fingers at each other. What is going on here? What is really happening?" Because technically, stuff was working. Technically, the thing was developing along a pace it needed to but it was still running a little bit behind where we wanted. The algorithm development wasn't where we needed it to be yet, certain metrics were not where we needed them to be yet, really, to go live in public. The launch that was looming and putting pressure on this was there was a major trade show happening in Scandinavia that we were going to launch at, I think, that was in August or September of the year and this is back in January, February of the year.So, everyone's looking at this saying, "Okay, we've got seven, eight months to do an enormous amount of work," and there's fingers starting to get pointed. And the thing in particular, everyone was doing good work. And that was the first thing was to realize, when I went and talked to people, everyone was working really hard and had really good intentions. But when I would start to dig into the problems and say, "Okay, tell me about what's going on," they would articulate some struggle with another team and these were cross-cultural teams, the key points.So, for example and specifically, one of the development teams that I was working very closely with was based in California, in two different cities in California and then the counterpart team was in Norway. And so, there was these two different cultures in a very bad time zone setup, it was nine or 10 hours apart. Someone on every call is really tired, which is already not a helpful thing, it's a really crap setup, frankly. And you're also far away and it's hard to go visit and FaceTime makes all the difference in the world for this thing.
Holly Hester-Reilly:That's rough.
Andrew Skotzko:But as we started to talk, the California folks would say, "We don't understand. Why can't they make a decision? They're so slow, this is driving us insane." And then I would talk to the Norway folks and they were like, "Why are they going so fast on this stuff? They're breaking everything and then we have to fix the problems that they break." And so, each side has a very valid perspective that this is what's getting deployed in Norway so they were closer to the field and so that is a whole other set of problems they had to deal with that the California folks didn't. Anyways. And so, we start to look into it and I realized that ... I was starting to lose my mind a little bit, frankly. I was going crazy because nothing anybody was trying was working.We were trying everything we could think of, all the standard stuff and it wasn't really fixing it. The problem remained and I don't know how I found this but somehow I found a book, it's called The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, I think it is. Maybe getting that author name wrong but she's a professor in a business school in France, I think, and she had done a study basically how does business and how does collaboration work across cultures and has mapped it out on a number of different dimensions. I mentioned power distance earlier, that's one of those dimensions and there's 10 of these dimensions or something. And I read this book and I was like, "Oh, my God, I think this might be it."And so, specifically, what I noticed was there was a really big difference when you mapped out, along these dimensions, the cultures of the teams involved. Basically, where you see two cultures far away from each other on a dimension, you were very likely to have conflict and it's usually the kind of conflict that is not obvious because you just don't understand where it's coming from because it's in the implicit worldview level that people are operating from without even knowing that they're doing it.So, specifically, the one that was driving everybody crazy, there's a dimension in her model that I don't remember the name of but it's basically about how decisions get made. And the gist of it was, in a culture like the United States, we tend to make a lot of decisions and we make them fast with the expectation that I'm going to make a call now, it's a two-way door and then we'll figure out where we're wrong and we'll adjust, we'll make a new decision and we will repeat that process. It will iterate our way to a decision with a big D, the big final decision where it's a go and it's a one-way door.Now, when you looked at this one dimension of culture, of work culture specifically, the other team had almost the opposite default place that they came from. They would do is very much consensus building. They would go get everybody involved and they would beat on the ideas on paper and stress test everything on paper and get everybody on board. And by the time it got to the point of saying, "Okay, we are making a decision and we are going," it was a big decision and it was a one-way door but it was two very different ways of getting to the same point. But because neither side understood how the other side viewed the world, they both just thought each other were crazy. But as soon as I introduced this model to some of my team leads in California, they were all like, "Oh, my god, that's why they're so slow."And so, they started realizing, "Oh, this is what's going on." And not that it fixed everything but, I can tell you, within about two to three weeks, team dynamics improved significantly and then, doing that, adding some FaceTime and trying to move on other things really made a difference. And so, maybe the moral of the story here is, a lot of times, the conflicts that make things difficult are coming out of a worldview level thing when they're really intractable type problems. And I think, as product people, one of our superpowers is empathy and having empathy for the unsaid, I think, might be a really important thing to consider.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah, that's great. I definitely have seen that kind of clash specifically with the decision making process in a lot of tech companies because there's a move fast and break things camp and there's the let's look for the got yous before we get their camp and they don't always meet very well.
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, but it's crazy because, when you lay it out like this, it's actually obvious. You're like, "We're all trying to do the same thing here. We're trying to get this thing right, we're just taking two really different strategies towards that same goal."
Andrew Skotzko:And when we don't see that, we make each other insane.
Holly Hester-Reilly:And where did it end up? Did it end up some compromise in between or how did they learn to work together better?
Andrew Skotzko:So, first, what changed was the team leads from each side. I went and I had one-on-ones with each of the team leads from each side and basically tried to get them to see through this lens. Once they did, they were like, "Oh, huh, okay." And so, then, they came together and I got out of the way and I said, "Okay, if you all go talk, I don't need to be there. I can be if you want but this is really between you two." And they started to understand each other and then they started to make explicit agreements about when we would do each way. There were certain things from the go slow, get it right on paper the first time, there were certain situations where that did make sense and a lot of that had to do with stakeholder constraints on their side.So, for example, some of their upper management couldn't sign off on stuff until it had gone through a certain process. And so, understanding that made the California folks a lot more understanding. But then, by the same token, understanding the California approach really helped some of the Norway folks have more tolerance for the things that they were not that exposed to. So, they were doing a lot of the close to the field edge hardware testing and the teams that I'm referring to here were doing a lot of the initial hardware design that was getting handed off and then a lot of the ongoing algorithm development and testing. Realizing that those two different pieces of this product, which have to come together into a holistic product, they can be treated differently but we had to find a way to sync them up, that helped.And so, basically, getting those teams to agree on sync points and say, "Okay, we are going to come together at this interval or this cadence and, at that point, however you got there, you've got to be ready to sync this stuff up and both sides have got to be ready to mesh what they've got." But independently, you can get there however you want and then there's this set of things in the middle that we are agreeing, we're making a new agreement about how we're going to deal with. So, that's how it ended up working out in the relatively short term and then, team wise, it got more complicated because we had then more teams getting involved as we got closer to launch which changed the puzzle again. But in terms of that specific situation, that's how it played out and it ended up working out fairly well.The other thing was, if you've never led a distributed team ... Well, I guess, most people will have done that now thanks to the pandemic. But I think one of the big takeaways as we're coming out of the pandemic and into a time where we can co-locate even for periods of time is just how important FaceTime is. Every company I've ever studied, whether it was on my podcast or just reading about them or talking to people, every company I've ever encountered that had a really good culture that was a distributed team, they prioritized FaceTime. And that doesn't mean co-location all the time but it means enough of it, a heartbeat of co-location that people felt connected because we, just as biological creatures, we still need that.And buying some very expensive plane tickets and sending people halfway around the world for two weeks at a time was also extremely important in that product working out, frankly. I remember us buying some very expensive trips but completely worth it.
Holly Hester-Reilly:That makes a lot of sense. One of those things that I think, it's hard to replace that in-person FaceTime but, also, I have worked at companies that have done a pretty good job but they're few and far between.
Andrew Skotzko:I think part of the reason for that, and I agree with what you're saying, is it's always a tricky question. When I talk to early stage founders, there's always this tricky question of at what point do I start really investing in culture. Because, a lot of the time, they're just trying to stay alive and make their next milestone or get their numbers to the right level that they can raise their next round and so on and so forth. But there's also a point where, beyond [inaudible 00:29:45], you have the culture you have. At a certain number of people, you have a culture and, if you didn't design that culture intentionally, well, it's a lot harder to change it than it is to design it in the first place.So, I don't know if there's a specific number but I think, once a team hit double digits, I think you really need to start thinking about your culture, ideally thinking about it [inaudible 00:30:05]. One of my mentors always drilled into my head that your first 10 people set the culture for the rest of the company. And so, I think it's really easy to make short-term trades to get something done in terms of saying we just need acts done and not think about the people and how they shape the culture and that can actually have some really long-term implications.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Definitely. One of the other things that came up in your bio that I'm curious to hear more about is your involvement in cognitive science. I think that's a really fascinating topic and something that products people couldn't really benefit from learning more about. How did you first get interested in it?
Andrew Skotzko:For me, I think there's the initial interest and then there's when I realized I was interested in it. I think I've always been interested in that, really, in the mind. I think my deepest fascination is the thing that, for me, connects all the dots of the things I work on in my life is this sense of how do we unleash the creative power of the mind. To me, it's the most amazing thing ever, it's just the potential walking around in people's heads all day. And so, whenever I look at stuff, whether it's organizational design or product discovery techniques or whatever, for me, it's all aimed at that point. It's people have genius in them and I want it to come out in the world and do something with it.I think explicitly, for me, the pathway was, I think it really came for me out of meditation. I got really interested in meditation initially when I was finishing college and then, I'd say, about 10 years ago, I got seriously interested in meditation and started really leaning into that practice and that's actually become a really big part of my life. It's something I spend a lot of time on, I think a lot about. And then, from there, I assume, like a lot of product people, I'm very interested in psychology, how do people work, what makes these people tick, what helps them thrive. And from there it went to psychology into behavioral economics and then into neuroscience and then how do you smash all this together and do something with it.And so, for me, it's just become this intellectual passion in a lot of ways that I think is fascinating on its own but then it just also, I think, happens to be pretty useful for the stuff that we do. So, yeah, that was my weird road into it. I think it depends what someone's trying to do and this is where I think the context really matters for somebody. I think everybody would benefit tremendously from understanding basic consumer psychology and cognitive bias. That, I think, is across the board useful.
Holly Hester-Reilly:What are some of the resources that you found really useful as you walked down that pathway?
Andrew Skotzko:I'm looking at the bookshelf right now and one that's jumping out at me is Hooked by Nir Eyal is a great one. Design for Cognitive Bias by David Dylan Thomas. I interviewed him on my podcast about a year ago and I really like his work of bringing cognitive bias into the design, the product design process specifically. In terms of behavioral economics, actually, Atomic Habits by James Clear is quite good. I personally prefer the work of BJ Fogg at Stanford. He had or has a lab called the Persuasive Tech Lab and has written a few books about how to apply these things directly both into product development. He has an earlier book from 10 years ago about that but then, also, just in terms of behavior change. And that, I think, is actually useful if we're designing something. In some ways, many products are behavior change interventions.And so, if you're going to try and change somebody's behavior, which, by the way, is super hard, you better understand it. So, I think looking at behavior change, behavioral economics is a gold mine as well. And then, depending on what someone is working on, some of the folks I've worked with and collaborated with are working specifically on something like mental health or human performance and at that point it makes sense to go deeper. So, at that point, you may actually need to tap into some of the neuroscience and actually pop the hood on the mind and get down to the brain itself.In terms of resources on that, I don't know any great ones that are good starting points. I would probably suggest people look at, if they really want to learn this stuff, look at some of the really good MOOCs out there. There's some really good stuff on Coursera, MIT OpenCourseWare has a really, really good course about the brain and understanding foundational neuroscience. But again, I don't know that that's actually that useful for people. I think most people are better served through cognitive psychology and behavioral economics.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah, those are some great recommendations. Some of those I've checked out myself and Nir Eyal's been on this podcast twice, so definitely a fan of him. If listeners haven't heard those episodes, go back and check them out.
Andrew Skotzko:Oh, there you go.
Holly Hester-Reilly:So, how do you use that knowledge when you're working in startups?
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, I think it's a really juicy question. This is where I go back to context matters so much. So, I tend to bring an intersection to three lenses to my work which is, and this is not an order, but basically product, organizational design and leadership and then cognitive science. Those are the three circles on my Venn diagram, basically. And so, those can be applied in a lot of ways and what I try to do is to just meet the people where they are and understand what do they need. And that, I think, is very much dependent on the size of the org and what they're trying to do.So, one project that I'm working with right now is a new consumer hardware play. And so, they think they see an opportunity to make a new device, gadget, that people are going to love that is in a very competitive market. And so, some of the work we're doing there is to really try to dig into the consumer psychology of what do these people really want and need and then what's going to get them to switch. So, that's much more of behavioral economics thing of, great, what is the struggle that they are actually dealing with and what either hooks or what interventions or habits can we create for them that are going to make them adopt this instead of their existing alternatives. That's one where you're like, "Okay, go to the behavioral economics angle."Another one that I'm helping is very much a mental health intervention and it's about helping folks recover from addictions. And so, that is much more of a clinical situation where there are doctors involved and there are clinical healthcare facilities involved. And so, there, it's some combination of neuroscience and psychology where, on the one hand, it's understanding some of the psychological issues that these folks are dealing with and how that is likely to affect them day to day. Because if they understand the cycles that these folks are going through, that these patients are experiencing in their journey, they can design interventions for their product to be able to jump in there at risky points.So, for example, if they understand how someone is experiencing the cycle of stresses that they're going through in recovery, they can figure out, okay, here's a really important point for us to be able to get in there and help them that can make the difference between them relapsing and staying on their program. And that's affected by both the neurobiology of that person's experience recovering from addiction but also the psychological things that they're going through as they're reforming their identity, finding new structures for their world. So, in that one, it's an intersection of the neuroscience and positive psychology, so to speak.
Holly Hester-Reilly:That sounds super cool too. I am really interested in being involved in products that help people like that.
Holly Hester-Reilly:So, that sounds like an awesome application of your skills.
Andrew Skotzko:Yeah, for sure. And next time I talk to them, I will float your name out there and see if we can get you involved there.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah, please do.
Andrew Skotzko:I think this is such an interesting area. I think for folks who come out of the world we've spent so much time in, I am all for building cool stuff. There's certain categories of products that I'm personally not interested in for my own reasons and those are usually my own sense of values or ethics or what I believe is important. But then, beyond that, people can do whatever they want. But I think it is great when, if you see an opportunity to use the skills that you have for something, that really does help people. And not in the Tech Pro On Stage, at TechCrunch Disrupt coming up with we change the world by X, Y, Z but legitimately helps people solve important real problems. You don't find those every day but, when you do, it's really nice to help.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Absolutely. It's awesome.
Holly Hester-Reilly:We should probably wrap up. Where can people find you if they want to learn more?
Andrew Skotzko:I would say the best two places are, first of all, on Twitter at askotzko, A-S-K-O-T-ZK-O. And then you can always find me on my podcast which is called Make Things That Matter. The title of that is probably obvious after listening to me and you can do that on anywhere you find your podcasts or makethingsthatmatter.com.
Holly Hester-Reilly:Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today. It's been great talking to you, Andrew.
Andrew Skotzko:It's great being with you, Holly. Thanks for having me.
Holly Hester-Reilly:The Product Science podcast is brought to you by H2R Product Science. We teach startup founders and product leaders how to use the product science method to discover the strongest product opportunities and lay the foundations for high growth products, teams and businesses. Learn more at h2rproductscience.com.Enjoying this episode? Don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss next week's episode. I also encourage you to visit us at productsciencepodcast.com to sign up for more information and resources from me and our guests. If you like the show, a rating and review would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
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