Product Management Confessionals

Plus: how I learned to make Zoom tolerable

I recently did a five-part podcast series with Rocketship.fm about real-world challenges product people are facing. Each bite-sized episode is set up like a confessional where I confront a series of real challenges submitted anonymously by listeners. Many of these scenarios were familiar from my coaching practice.

Here’s the first episode: “what do you do when the board brings in a CPO who has no product experience and is butting heads with everyone internally?”

In the other chapters, we deal with unempowered product teams, overcoming our biases during customer interviews, finding success as the first non-founder player/coach product hire at a startup, and building trust with a new team over Zoom.

I had a lot of fun recording these, and I hope you enjoy them and show your support to Rocketship.fm by subscribing and leaving a review.


Speaking of Zoom, most of us are now more than a year into full-time remote work and well past the point of video chat fatigue. If you’re like me, video exhausts the mind and body in a way that in-person meetings never did (and they could be pretty exhausting!).

It took a lot of experimentation and advice from others, but I’ve discovered some tricks to reduce the discomfort. I’m frequently surprised that many people haven’t tried them, so I’m sharing them with you here.

Turn off self-view

Have you ever dined in a restaurant with mirrored walls? It sucks, right? Unless you’re a complete narcissist, nobody wants to be constantly distracted by their reflection. I hate looking at my own big, bald head.

A recent Stanford study reinforces this:

"When you see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself. Many of us are now seeing ourselves on video chats for many hours every day. “It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful. And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: turn off self-view. (Here’s how to do it in Zoom, and here are the instructions for Google Meet). I now immediately disable self-view every time I join a meeting. There’s no way to do this by default in Zoom, but it only takes a quick second, and it’s easy to get in the habit of doing it every time you join a meeting: join, unmute, hide self-view. Every time.

Shrink the window

If you have a display bigger than 13-inches, faces in video chats are probably unnaturally large. It turns out close-up eye contact can be psychologically intense and lead to fatigue. From the same study:

When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict. “What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is you’re in this hyper-aroused state,” Bailenson said.

Yikes.

I now shrink the app window and position it near the top of my screen. This eliminates the “head too big” problem and has the added benefit of increasing a sense of eye contact because I’m directing my gaze closer to my camera lens. (I’ve even had people ask how I’m able to maintain natural eye contact.)

Occasionally switch to audio-only

Interpreting and exhibiting non-verbal cues comes naturally in person but is much more troublesome over video. We expend a lot of mental effort trying to figure out what the person on the other end is trying to say. Did that sideways glance indicate they’ve lost interest and started browsing Twitter? Or are they just feverishly taking notes because what I said is so fascinating?

That same anxiety carries over to when you’re a listener. I expend a ton of energy trying to demonstrate that I’m actively listening and am interested when others speak: exaggerated nods, forced smiles, a performative hand on the chin (in full view of the camera, of course). It’s exhausting.

Researchers at CMU found that videoconferencing can actually make you dumber in certain situations:

“We found that video conferencing can actually reduce collective intelligence. This is because it leads to more unequal contribution to conversation and disrupts vocal synchrony. Our study underscores the importance of audio cues, which appear to be compromised by video access.”

I’m finding more and more advice suggesting switching to phone or audio-only, especially for one-on-ones. Several of my coaching clients have asked for this, and I find the discussions can be even more engaging and fruitful.

With groups of more than two people, you might need to work harder to keep everyone engaged and involved in the conversation, as it’s less noticeable with audio when a few voices dominate and others recede into silence. One tip: I’ve found switching to the phone works best after you’ve taken the time to develop a good working relationship with someone in person or over Zoom.

Kill unnecessary meetings

Finally, the best meeting is one you don’t need to have. Maybe it doesn’t need to be a meeting after all. Or perhaps that three-hour marathon session can be reduced to an hour to preserve everyone’s energy, or divided into two parts across separate days.

I have many more tips to improve your meetings and prune your calendar in my piece, Meetings That Don’t Suck.