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Matt LeMay on One Page / One Hour

“How many times have you done an hour of something?”

Matt LeMay is a product management consultant and author. He’s a co-founder and partner at Sudden Compass, which helps companies reconnect with their customers and helps teams focus on addressing human needs. He’s the author of Agile for Everybody and Product Management in Practice. In this conversation, Matt shares with us One Page / One Hour, his pledge to make project collaboration more agile.

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Jorge: Matt, welcome to the show.

Matt: Jorge, thank you so much for having me.

Jorge: Well, I’m very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you please introduce yourself?

About Matt

Matt: Sure! So, my name is Matt LeMay. I’m a partner at a collective consultancy called Sudden Compass. My career has been kind of all over the place. I was a professional musician in my early twenties and a music writer. I worked in marketing for nonprofits. I accidentally became a product manager and made so many mistakes, mistakes that keep giving in the sense that I am still learning and sharing lessons from the many mistakes I made as a product manager. And now I’m mostly helping teams manage the way they work together to solve problems, which is really, I think, the thread that’s run through everything I’ve done from being a musician and working with my band, to being a product manager and working with developers and designers, to being a coach and consultant and working with cross-functional teams that span marketing and sales and everything else.

Jorge: Well, that makes me super intrigued. What are the connections between managing the work of creating music and product management?

Matt: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s kind of the question that got me into product management in the first place. When I was in a band and kind of informally managing the band, a lot of the work I did was managing specialized skills. You know, our bass player was a really good bass player. I didn’t know how to play bass like that, but I knew where we needed to go.

When we worked with mastering engineers and mixing engineers, I didn’t know how to do that work, but I knew what we needed to deliver. It was a lot of managing complex specialized work to achieve some outcome, which spanned both emotional outcomes, creative outcomes — and though they were hardly in the super exciting range — business outcomes as well. We needed to be able to at least break even when we were going on tour in order to have any plausible defensibility to continue going on tour, which was something we really wanted to do. So, a lot of what I learned was about how to motivate and communicate and coordinate specialized work in the service of creating something that nobody could create on their own.

And really that’s a lot of what I was able to bring… when I was doing well as a product manager, what I was able to bring to that experience was… you know, I’ve told people that when I was a musician, convincing four tired people to wake up at six in the morning to drive from Columbus, Ohio to Dayton, Ohio, and play a concert for 10 people and lose money on it, it was a great team motivation challenge. You have to really learn why people are doing what they’re doing. What they’re excited about, how to get people through difficult times, how to get people excited about the work that they’re doing, even when that work isn’t really giving them the kind of external validation that I think we all want. So, in a lot of senses, I think software product management is much easier than being a musician. And in other ways, it’s more challenging.

Jorge: I’m not a musician myself, but I would imagine that musicians also have like their own expression that they want to bring to the project. And somehow balancing the personal needs of the individual with the overall needs of the group must also be a factor, no?

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, It’s kind of a joke among mixing engineers. But when you’ve got a band in a room and they’re finishing a record, everybody just wants their own instrument to be louder. And at a certain point, if you make all the instruments louder then everything sounds quieter. If you’re not willing to be subtractive, then everything you add actually makes the finished product weaker and less focused and less compelling.

Which I think is very true in product development as well. If everybody has their feature that they want to build, if everybody wants to highlight their own individual contributions, you very quickly get to a point where the thing you’re building no longer makes any sense. Where if you can’t prioritize, if you can’t think systematically and then think structurally about how everybody’s contributions come together to create something new and meaningful, then you wind up with something which is just a collection of features, or a collection of ideas that really don’t coalesce into something interesting or powerful, or that solves a problem.

So, I’ve been on both sides of that one. I’ve been the person saying, “make my instrument louder in the mix!” I’ve been the person doing the mix and trying to manage a band full of of people saying, “make my instrument louder in the mix.” I think both in music creation and in software product management, you really learn to recognize the power of subtraction. That the most meaningful work you can do is often subtractive work, not additive work. That constraints and subtractions and blank spaces are really what define the work that you’re doing more so than features and additions and things that you add in.

One Page / One Hour

Jorge: That is a perfect segue to the reason why I wanted to talk with you, which is that I saw something that you built called, “One Page / One Hour.” And I was hoping you could tell us about that.

Matt: Sure. So, One Page / One Hour… I’ll give you the kind of brief backstory. In my coaching work, I spend a lot of time talking to product managers who are torn between two things. Between on the one hand, the work that they believe is going to deliver outcomes for their team, their customers, and their business. And on the other hand, the work that they believe is going to bring them recognition and praise as individuals. And these two things are almost always in some degree of tension with each other. Because in a lot of cases, for product managers, the most meaningful work you can do leaves no trace. That leaves no deliverable. There’s nothing you can point to and say, “I did this.”

Instead, your team’s success is your success. Your team’s work is your work. And for product managers who… many of us tend to be overachievers. Tend to be, you know, people who are very accomplishment and recognition-driven. This creates a real tension. As if you’d make, for example, a beautiful 20 slide deck and present it to company leadership, then you are likely to get praise and recognition.

However, all that time and effort you spent on that beautiful 20 slide deck is likely not going up in the product. It’s not resulting in any value for your customers. And I’ve seen product managers who will, for example, pull visual designers off of product design and have them help them design the deck, and walk out of that presentation, feeling validated and accomplished, even though they’ve just spent tens, if not hundreds of hours on something which doesn’t actually deliver any value to the customer and only marginally delivers value to the business.

So, in my coaching work, I found myself advising a lot of product managers to start really small, make something that is incomplete and messy, bring it to your team and then work together to co-create from there. I brought this experience to Trisha [Wang] and Sonny Bates, our other partner, and they both kind of smirked at me. And I said, “why are you smirking at me? What’s that look?” And they said, “Matt, you are worse about this than anyone we know! You are always showing up — just in our internal meetings -with these beautiful, like 20 page, ‘look at this incredible workshop plan I put together!’ You are the thirstiest person we have ever worked with in terms of wanting feedback and wanting that validation! And it’s funny, but good that you are realizing in your coaching work that that is not the most productive pattern.”

So, I thought about that for a second, and I said, “you are absolutely right. I need to shift this.” Because Trisha is a genius and a powerhouse and I want her to be impressed by the work I’m doing. I want her to be like, “Matt, you’re smart. I feel good about working with you.” So, I realized that if we wanted to change that behavior, we needed to change the incentives. In other words, we needed to create a situation where if I showed up with something too finished and polished and impressive, I would actually get negative feedback, not positive feedback.

So, I wrote up this pledge to my business partners saying I’m willing to forego the sense of individual accomplishment that comes from presenting finished and polished deliverables to my colleagues. I promise that I will spend no more than one page and one hour working on any deliverable — any document — before I bring it to the team. In other words, if I show up with five beautifully formatted pages or a one-page that took me 10 hours to create, I want you to hold me accountable to that. I want you to say, “man, why did you do this? We made a deal. We made a commitment to each other! We all know that if we actually want to deliver value, if we want to do valuable work, we need to collaborate earlier on. You can’t go off onto your own and create this big thing, and then just want us to tell you how great it is!”

So, I did this and massive credit to Tricia who said, “publish this!” Who said, “put this out there. This is not just for you. This is really gonna make a difference.” So, we put together a One Page / One Hour website and we’ve been putting it out there and it’s been just incredible to see folks from so many different organizations, people who I have never spoken to, who so far as I know, have never attended a talk I’ve given, just find this and share it with each other and take this pledge, which now has over a hundred people from over 75 organizations all over the world committed to spending no more than One Page / One Hour on anything before sharing it with their colleagues.

Jorge: That’s really awesome. And it’s… well, proof that it works: it’s how I came to you, right?

Matt: I hope so.

Jorge: I feel totally identified with the problem as you described it. I too am very thirsty for that kind of adulation that comes from making something beautiful — and perhaps overwrought — if I am hearing correctly, the spirit of it. And you’re describing it as a tool to collaborate with your colleagues. I’m wondering, as a consultant, if the boundary for collaboration stops with your team, or if you also extend this to your customers as well? Your clients. Because I’ll just say, like, in my case, I feel most compelled to share the beautiful thing when I’m presenting to the customer, right?

Matt: You know, it’s funny. I used to do a lot of training work in ad agencies. And I would talk to them a lot about how to do paper prototyping in particular, how to do really low fidelity prototyping. And they would all say the same thing, which is, “yeah, this is great, but we could never show this to a client. We can never sketch something on the back of a napkin and show it to a client.” They would say, “why isn’t this finished? Why isn’t this beautiful?” And I kept thinking to myself, I’m also training and coaching a lot of the companies that are your clients… people are pretty capable of understanding if you show them a sketch on the back of a napkin that it’s not intended to be something finished and polished. People are actually much more open to seeing unfinished and to participating in the co-creation of unfinished things than I think we think they’re going to be.

And one thing I’ve found really helpful about One Page / One Hour is especially since it’s one of our calling cards as a consultancy now, it gives us a way to present unfinished, unpolished deliverables to clients that feels purposeful. Where rather than just showing them something and saying, “yeah, here’s what we did. Whatever.” We’re letting them in on this little operational secret of ours. We’re saying, “we have this guiding principle called One Page / One Hour, and we’re going to agree to this with you. So, you’re always going to be in on the ground floor with us. We’re never going to bring something to you, which you’re going to have to feel even remotely guilty about ripping apart.”

We did a One Page / One Hour exercise with a client once where they were 75 pages into an organizational transformation plan. And they had brought us on to help them with this plan. And we said, “tell you what, what if we do a One Page / One Hour pass, just synthesizing this down. You put together all … this big thing. We’re going to just spend One Page / One Hour reading your 75-slide deck, distilling it down and reflecting it back to you.” And they said, “sure, why not?” So, first of all, it’s very hard to read a 75-slide deck in one hour, which already helped them understand that asking everybody in their company to read a 75 slide deck means that you’re asking people for a lot of their time. But we did our best to distill this down, and we presented it back to this leadership group. And they got furious.

They said, “this is not what we intended at all. We don’t want people to take this away. We don’t want people to take that away. You captured this idea, which is totally the opposite of what we wanted.” And we said, “Great. Hey, if this is the best we can come up within one hour, then there’s probably some contradictions in this document you put together. What may have happened is that you have a leadership team, which can’t actually agree on some of these things. So, each person just puts 10 slides in there. Those 10 slides are totally in conflict with each other, but because you can always add more, you haven’t actually identified that conflict. You’ve just worked around it.” And they said, “huh. You’re right. This is really… this is really helpful!” but then something really interesting happened. They started saying, “well, but you know, don’t worry. We don’t have to throw out the work you did. It’s great. We realized….” I said, “I don’t care! I literally spent an hour on this. You know, how long I spent on this!”

How many times have you done an hour of something? If the takeaway from this one hour is that you need to align as a group and work within constraints to actually resolve these conflicts? Then it’s a success, even if we throw it out. So, it’s been really helpful, not just to work in this One Page / One Hour way with clients, but to share with them why and how we’re doing this. To let them in — into this world of One Page / One Hour, so when they receive an unfinished, unpolished deliverable, there’s no chance that they’ll think, “why is this unfinished and unpolished?” They understand that they’ve been inducted into this world of One Page / One Hour and they feel really awesome because they’re seeing this work better for them too, and they’re like, “wow, I get to participate in this in a different way!” So, there’s that meta layer on top of the One Page / One Hour pledge where it’s not just the way of working, but it’s the conversation and the agreement to the way of working that also clears and creates a different kind of space for collaboration, including with clients and customers.

Modes of communication

Jorge: Sounds like a little bit of a jiujitsu move, where you take what is potentially a liability and turn it into an asset, right? And it speaks to this shifting of incentives that you spoke of earlier. I’m wondering what that does to the intensity of communications. Because obviously if you’re spending less time working on the artifact and sharing it more quickly, that speaks to a higher volume of messaging. And is that an issue? How does that get managed here?

Matt: I’m so glad you asked that question because part of the point of One Page / One Hour is to force us out of our comfort zone a little bit. Is to get us having those conversations with other people before we’re sure about the path that we’re taking. Before we’re confident in the deliverable we’re creating. And that is emotionally difficult. It forces people into a very challenging mode of communication. And as I coach more teams through this, I’m just appreciating that much more. That in a sense, One Page / One Hour also forces you to level up your communication skills. It forces you to get more comfortable communicating when you don’t have control.

This has been a big theme in so many of the conversations I’ve been having with teams in the last couple of weeks is: what does it mean to be willing to give up control? When are we truly willing to give up control? When are we willing to let someone else see something we’re working on before we feel confident enough in it that we would do that necessarily of our own accord, if we hadn’t made this commitment to each other? I think that’s really one of the biggest challenges around this, and one of the reasons why it’s so hard to keep up with it is that we do have to be forced into… I think you’re right: a more intense form of communication, a more vulnerable form of communication, a form of communication where we don’t know what the outcome is going to be going into a conversation nor are we trying to convince or persuade or sell people into an outcome. We are genuinely open to things going in an unexpected direction. And the value of that is pretty clear and straightforward. But the challenge of that is something that I think people often underestimate until they find themselves having to do it themselves.

Jorge: One method that I was reminded of when I read about One Page / One Hour is Amazon’s 6-page memo idea. And the main similarity there is that it feels like they both impose constraints on the format in which things are going to be. It time boxes the activity, and also constrains the format in which it’s going to be presented. As I understand the 6-page memo, the idea there is that it’d be shared prior to meeting so that people have an opportunity to review that. And I’m wondering if there are any communication best practices around One Page / One Hour that would be analogous to that.

Matt: That is another great question. It’s funny. To me, the big differentiator between the narrative memo per Amazon and One Page / One Hour? Well, two things. Number one: One Page / One Hour includes that explicit time box. You cannot spend more than an hour. The trap I’ve fallen into with narrative memos as a writer is that I can spend forever writing a page. It’s funny, the program I was in in college had a one-page maximum on all papers. It was sort of a critical theory, very like, post-modern studies kind of program. And a lot of people would take it because all the papers were a maximum of one page. So how hard could it be? It turns out it is really hard, especially when you’re working with really complex ideas. So, for me personally, if I just have a format constraint, I’ll spend way too long trying to make it perfect. So, it’s the duality of the format and the time constraint that I’ve found really helpful for me to not let myself negotiate out of the constraint.

The other thing is that One Page doesn’t need to be one page of text. One page can be one page that you’ve sketched out. It can be one drawing with some text around it. You know, I work with people who are very visual. I’m not a very visual person. But One Page / One Hour can be one page of visuals. It can be one slide. You can use visuals within that format to communicate between people who are more words-oriented and people who are more visuals-oriented.

As to the question of how to share it, the timing of this is perfect. I’ve been using this technique a lot, which I’m planning to write up later today called the “Synchronous Sandwich.” The synchronous sandwich is how I’ve been structuring almost every meeting and activity that I do remotely in particular. And a synchronous sandwich is: an asynchronous pre-read, a synchronous meeting, and an asynchronous follow-up. In other words, you send something through as a pre-read, using a lot of these same concepts. So, you time box how long you expect somebody to take to send the pre-read and how long it will take them to read the pre-read. Then you work through the document or do something synchronously together, and then you send through a follow-up or a revised copy of that deliverable or whatever it is afterwards.

I’ve been really lucky because in a lot of my coaching work, I’ve worked with people who are not afraid to raise questions and challenges. And when I started doing more of this synchronous working through things, some of the people I coached said, “you know, for me personally, I need a little time to think about it before we go into a meeting. I don’t like being on the spot. I don’t like showing up and you’re asking me something I haven’t had a chance to think about until we’re in the meeting together.” So, I found that that synchronous sandwich format gives people who need a little bit of time to process offline, a chance to do so.

You’re really structuring and using that synchronous time well, and then you have a chance to follow up afterwards. A lot of the day-long whiteboard-y type sessions I used to do in person are now three, one and a half hour synchronous sandwiches. We have a chance to pre-read work together, regroup, pre-read, work together, regroup, and… it works really well with One Page / One Hour-style documents so that we can actually work through the document, edit the document together synchronously, and still have a chance to do some of that preparation and pre-reading asynchronously.

Granularity of problems

Jorge: That makes a lot of sense, and this sounds like a really good approach. I love this idea of the synchronous sandwich. It sounds like something that can be applied even to other ways of working, you know, beyond the One Page / One Hour. I’m wondering if there are some types of… I don’t like using the word “problems?” But some types of issues that you’re working around that lend themselves better to the One Page / One Hour approach than others? And I’m wondering specifically about granularity. If there are some… I’ll use the word problems, why not? That are small enough to be dealt with in a One Page / One Hour format versus others that are so huge that maybe you need to pull back too far for it to be useful.

Matt: It’s so it’s so funny because that was how I approached this work at first as well. I was thinking of it for more granular issues One Page / One Hour would be a more accessible and more valuable approach. A year into this, I actually feel the exact opposite way. That the bigger and more strategic and more high-level something is, the more important it is that you take this One Page / One Hour approach and involve more people earlier on.

I’ve been finding myself in a lot of coaching conversations with product managers, hearing people say to me, “we’ve got to put together a strategy for my team. So, I need two weeks to come up with a strategy.” Which is dangerous when you think about it, because if one person goes off for two weeks and crafts this impeccable-seeming team strategy, the team might not feel invested in it. But that person who came up with it is going to feel really invested in it.

So, I’ve been finding for some of these high level, really big picture challenges, One Page / One Hour is actually the best possible approach. I’ve had some coaching conversations where I’ll say to our product manager, “all right, we’ve got a half hour left on the call. Let’s draft our strategy now. Who are we solving for? What problems are we trying to solve? How will we know if we’ve solved them? Great. Bring that to the team and see what they think!” So, the kind of paradox of One Page / One Hour is that the bigger and more difficult to granular-ize a problem seems? The more transformative a One Page / One Hour approach can be, which has genuinely surprised me.

Closing

Jorge: That is so exciting to hear that and intriguing. And I also think that it is a good place for us to wrap the conversation. I definitely want to learn more and I’m expecting that folks listening in want to as well. Where can folks follow up with you?

Matt: Yeah. So onepageonehour.com is the website. We just worked with the fantastic team at Design Stack to revamp the site. So, we now have some templates and resources, some kind of “One Page / One Hour — Getting Started” if you are somebody who is terrified of a blank page, as many of us are. You can see a list of all the people who’ve taken the pledge. You can take the pledge yourself and add your name to the website. I am still — manually, I receive an email every time somebody takes the pledge and I go into our website and add their name and go into MailChimp and add their email address, if they’ve requested so. You can join the mailing list where we communicate with each other and share our own experiences and tips and tricks. So, onepageonehour.com is definitely the place to start.

Jorge: Fantastic. Matt, thank you so much for being with us.

Matt: Thank you so much. This was such a great conversation. I appreciated the questions very much.