Outcome-Driven Sabbaticals


Sabbaticals are common in professions like research and education. Several companies such as Microsoft also offer paid sabbaticals. In most cases, professionals return to their regular jobs after the time off.

But outside of employer-provided sabbaticals, many working professionals are afraid to take time off.

Yet, sabbaticals are a great way to push the pause button on your life, and to take stock of what you want to do next. My hypothesis is that workforce productivity will increase if more working professionals take time off to learn new skills, gain new knowledge and expertise, catch up on reading, reconnect with loved ones, make new friends or experience new things.

Yet, many working professionals are afraid to take time off for fear of the gap in our work histories, fear of the costs and because it’s not common practice.

But research shows that pushing the pause button improves health and productivity.

In a study titled, “Are vacations good for your health? The 9-year mortality experience after the multiple risk factor intervention trial” on 12,338 middle-aged men at high risk for coronary heart disease (CHD), at the Department of Psychology, State University of New York, Oswego, researchers found that lifespan was positively correlated with the frequency of vacations. Those who skipped vacations for five consecutive years were found to be 30% more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who took at least one week off each year. Missing even one year’s vacation was associated with a higher risk of heart disease. Further, the men who took vacations tended to be better educated and had a higher income.

A separate study on 749 women aged 45 to 64 years found that women who took a vacation once every six years or less were almost eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than those who took at least two vacations a year.

Further, in a three-year experiment on 1,400 employees of the Boston Consulting Group, Professor Leslie Perlow of Harvard Business School required employees to take time off, or predictable time off (PTO) as she called it. In a first experiment, employees had to take one day off in the middle of the work week. In a second experiment, employees weren’t allowed to work beyond 6PM on one night each week. The results of the study showed that downtime was positively correlated with job satisfaction and tenure at the company. 59% of those who embraced PTO agreed with the statement, ‘I am excited to start work in the morning’ compared with 27% of those who did not. And 78% of those who had just one evening off a week said they felt more satisfied with their jobs versus 49% of those who rejected it.

Shmita is a custom in Judaism. It is a sabbath or sabbatical year which occurs cyclically every 7 years when the land is allowed to rest. Those who observe Shmita are promised a bountiful harvest afterward.

Similarly, sabbaticals give you the opportunity to rejuvenate, re-energize and re-invent – your next personal or professional adventures.

Successful sabbaticals require purpose. If your purpose is to do nothing, it’s still a great goal, as long as you’ve consciously set it. Else, you can end up feeling de-moralized at the end of your time off. The key is to set conscious targets.

Health Sabbatical

Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to build back your stamina, get into the habit of eating healthy? A health sabbatical allows you to focus your energy on this goal.

Community Work Sabbaticals

Take time off to work for the betterment of your community or to advocate for a cause. You can make a list of organizations and causes and develop a plan to get involved and then spend your time off doing just that.

Learning Sabbaticals

Learning sabbaticals allow you to focus on learning one or more new skills. This is becoming very easy through online courses, which are making knowledge accessible and enabling the mobility of working professionals from one career to another. This is good for people as they discover hidden talent and fit, in addition to the opportunity to shift to more financially lucrative professions.

Research Sabbaticals

Is there an industry, topic or profession you’re interested in getting into? Taking time off to thoroughly research these will enable you to shift your career in a different direction.

Expertise Sabbaticals

These enable you to take the time to become an expert in a particular subject, whether it’s a combination of reading, taking online courses, conducting research, connecting with other experts in the field, and more.

Reading Sabbaticals

Do you have a list of books you’ve been wanting to read for many years? A reading sabbatical can be about one thing and one thing only: to catch up on your reading.

Traveling or Cultural Immersion Sabbaticals

Spend your time off climbing mountains or running marathons around the world or just traveling for pleasure or to experience different cultures.

Relationships Sabbaticals

Take time off to spend with family and make new friends.

Personal Projects Sabbaticals

Do you have a laundry list of personal projects? Get them done by taking time off, so you can clear your shelves and de-clutter your mind.

Joy Sabbaticals

These allow you to take time off to chase pure pleasure – dancing in Shanghai, hiking in Torres Paine National Park, taking a dip in the cold water of Deception Bay in Antarctica, watching the world go by in a café in Buenos Aires, and more.

Bucket List Sabbaticals

Life is short. Do everything on your bucket list before it’s too late. Give yourself the best birthday present you can – fulfill your dreams.

Consulting Sabbaticals

Take on short-term projects for a variety of customers in different industries and get exposed to a variety of problems, organizations, and functions.

Entrepreneurship Sabbaticals

Do you want to start your own business? Take time off to do just that. But make sure you’ve selected an idea first, and done some of the ground work and research on its viability. Or you can make it a research sabbatical and research business ideas during your time off.

Combo Sabbaticals

This is a mix-and-match of any of the above forms of sabbaticals and other ideas you have.

The key to successful sabbaticals is to first give yourself permission to take the time off and next to clearly define their purpose. As you dive into any of the above-mentioned forms of sabbaticals, there will be a lot of up-front legwork that is required, which will eat into the time you have to execute. For example, if you want to do community service, you will have to research organizations, talk to them and then select the ones that are right for you. Make sure you do this legwork before taking the time off or leave enough time for it during your sabbatical.

© Copyright Alpa Agarwal 2013


Designing a Product Management Organization


According to Wikipedia, “Product Management is an organizational lifecycle function within a company dealing with the planning, forecasting, or marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product lifecycle. The role consists of product development and product marketing, which are different (yet complementary) efforts, with the objective of maximizing sales revenues, market share, and profit margins. The product manager is often responsible for analyzing market conditions and defining features or functions of a product. The role of product management spans many activities from strategic to tactical and varies based on the organizational structure of the company. Product management can be a function separate on its own, or a member of marketing or engineering.”

Product management is an exciting function – a great fit for both right-brained creative’s and left-brained analysts, as both competencies are required equally to build great products. Very often though, product management turns laborious, if product management leaders do not set up the right infrastructure & processes to enable their managers to do their best creative work – to analyze & to create in a virtuous cycle.

The product management process within an agile environment begins with a customer problem or unmet need and solution ideation.

Solution Ideation

During the process of ideation, many ideas or solutions to the customer problem or unmet need are considered, vetted and/or combined together. These ideas may have come from past customer collaboration, backlogs or from team creativity. Product management leaders must set up processes for solution ideation or the brainstorming of different ways to solve the problem and next, the selection of one or more ideas to concept test.


The selected ideas are next prototyped for concept-testing. The product manager can create Microsoft PowerPoint mock-ups, use software such as Balsamiq to create more interactive mock-ups, create sign-up pages to gauge customer interest or marketing collateral such as press releases, product advertisements, demo videos or brochures – to describe the product and its use, in order to solicit customer feedback. It is better to concept test a prototype versus conducting qualitative or quantitative market research using verbiage to describe the solution.

Concept Testing

Concept testing is the process of putting the prototype or mock-ups in front of customers to gauge their interest in using the product, intent to purchase, and whether they will recommend its use to others. Concept testing can be qualitative or quantitative, depending on budget and time constraints. Various techniques such as personal interviews with customers, either on-site or where customers are likely to use the product such as their home or office, usability labs, focus groups, surveys or the use of SAAS panel and research providers – can be utilized.

Revenue Modeling

Customer feedback from concept testing provides input along with analytics data about the business on the number of customers who will use the different product concepts, frequency of their use and their willingness to pay. This allows the business to project revenues and determine the ROI on the development investment.

Back-of-the-Napkin Product Roadmapping & Shirt Sizing

A rough product roadmap, made up of a series of minimum viable release milestones can be developed & shirt-sized to get an idea of the resource investment. While agile software development does not require the entire solution to be spec’d up-front, it helps to understand the product’s vision & key use cases/scenarios or functions and features. This not only helps with user validation, but also helps in determining the return on investment.

Further, mock-ups or prototypes of additional scenarios can be validated with users to lend more weight to the go or no-go decision.

Go or No-Go

Based on an assessment of customer needs, the size of the need, revenue potential and resource investment, the product management leader is now able to make formal decisions for the concept – move forward, modify or discontinue.

Minimum Viable Product Roadmapping, Prioritization & Resources Sizing

Now that the solution has been validated with end-users and justified from a financial perspective, the product manager is next ready to create a roadmap for a few or several minimum viable product releases or builds. If a big idea is chunked & tested in bite-sized pieces, the minimum viable product can be released with agility.

UX Design, Usability Research, Development & Test

As features are designed and/or developed, their usability should be tested with customers as often as possible before going live. And after going live, the solution should be wired on after A/B or multivariate testing.


Measuring the customer’s response to the new solution is obviously key to modifications as well as to the next build. Analytics data along with data from split testing – on customer use & impact on revenue is best. But some companies also use surveys as proxies.

For product management leaders, the key to agile software development is to make sure that key product management functions are available to product managers – on-demand & inexpensively. These are (1) lean ways to collaborate with customers, gather requirements and feedback & conduct usability testing, (2) competitor tracking, (3) lean user experience design, & (4) lean testing and analytics.

Customer Collaboration   & Requirements Gathering


User Experience Design   & Illustration


Experimentation &   Analytics


*Qualitative   Market Research*Quantitative   Market Research

*Usability   Research

*Target   Market Identification

*Concept   Testing

*Competitor   Tracking*Business or Marketing   Requirements Document

*Revenue   Modeling

*Go-to-Market   Planning

*Customer   & Sales Training

  *Team Product Reviews

*Product   Roadmapping

*Feature   Prioritization

*Resources   Estimation

*Product   Requirements Document

*Backlog   & Bug Tracking

*A/B or   Multivariate Testing*System   Performance & Usage Analytics

© Copyright Alpa Agarwal 2013

Waterfall & Agile Software Development Methodologies

Most product development methodologies follow five basic steps:

  1. Identification of an unmet customer need, solution ideation, customer research & requirements gathering & business justification
  2. Prototyping & design
  3. Development & testing
  4. Release/launch
  5. Modifications, enhancements and maintenance

With respect to software development, the differences among the software development methodologies lie more in the “when” each step occurs, how frequently they occur, and “who” is involved in each step.

Broadly, there are two software development methodologies: (1) waterfall and (2) agile.

Software-Dojo-Waterfall-Development-Methodology-Alpa-Agarwal-10-20-13In the waterfall software development approach, the software product is fully defined and spec’d up-front. Development occurs sequentially after this, followed by testing and release. The downsides of this approach are that the product release cycle is long, pushing out revenue and increasing the risk of changes in the competitive landscape and customer needs. Further, there is a
burden on product managers & developers of getting “everything right” up-front, and the work itself can become monotonous because of the large scope. And, testing & integration can become laborious as team members are testing & integrating a large solution.


The agile software development approach follows the same five basic steps in product development, but does so differently. Instead of defining the product fully and writing granular specifications for the entire product up-front, in the agile approach the product is divided into bite-sized chunks of minimum viable releases. Instead of granular specifications, the product requirements document articulates scenarios of what the customer will accomplish in each minimum viable release or a set of functions/features. Each release is stand-alone in that it meets a customer need or a few needs, but is not the whole solution. And testing and customer validation occur for each minimum viable release, providing a continuous feedback loop. Further, there is enhanced collaboration among team members. Product managers, designers, engineers & testers collaborate with customers, in addition to business managers. And, during daily stand-up meetings, product managers, engineers and testers highlight problems and help each other solve them. But agile development also has its downsides. As each minimum viable release is in and of itself a product development cycle in itself, the process can become very intense for team members. Further, it is not always possible to complete each step in the cycle, due to time and resource constraints.

But the lines of software development methodologies blur based on the complexity of the problem, technical, organizational, project, and team considerations.

The key difference among the methodologies is that in agile development, the solution is divided into small minimum viable releases. Each release is tested, validated & modified incrementally. Thus many of the five basic steps of any product development process are performed; they are just performed more often.

Common problems in software development are miscommunication among team members, including having a common understanding of the specifications; miscommunication with customers, customers who don’t know exactly what they want, or worse – think they do until they try the solution, or changing customer requirements. There are also unanticipated problems with technology and other problems.

Agile attempts to mitigate these software development problems. And for the methodology to succeed, product management leaders must “agilify” or make agile three key product management functions: These are (1) design, (2) usability & customer research, & (3) A/B or multivariate testing. If product managers are given on-demand and inexpensive access to these functions, it results in the development of great user-centered products.

© Copyright Alpa Agarwal 2013

The Do Week

Software-Dojo-The-Do-Week-Alpa-Agarwal-10-17-13Bill Gates spent two, one-week periods every year, alone. During this time called, “Think Week,” Gates read white papers written by Microsoft employees on topics such as new products or technologies, socio-economic trends impacting technology use, or shifts in strategic direction. The basic idea was to provide an egalitarian channel for employee creativity, knowledge sharing and resultant action. Any employee could submit their paper for review. According to About.com, Gates’ record is to have read 112 papers in one week.

I’ve recently started taking week-long “Do Weeks” (DoWeeks). Similar to Think Weeks, DoWeeks take me on week-long trips to serene places with lots of trees, Chinese food restaurants & Internet Access. On these trips, I basically “do.” I get things I’ve been wanting to start, started, and things I’ve been wanting to get done, done. Alone, I don’t have to spend time on everyday responsibilities; I can simply work all day and all night and get stuff done, while at the same time looking out of the window at the unhurried trees, while sipping a glass of wine.

© Copyright Alpa Agarwal 2013

Five Tips to Building a Successful Career

Software-Dojo-Five-Tips-to-Building-a-Successful-Career-Alpa-Agarwal-10-16-13The book, “What Color is Your Parachute” was first published in 1972. The 2014 edition is still the world’s most popular job-search book. The author Richard N. Bolles covers three fundamental topics: (1) What do you most love to do? (2) Where do you most love to do it? (3) How do you find such a job and persuade those employers to hire you?

Knowing your strengths and what you love to do or lose yourself in doing can be a very challenging journey. Your thought process may be impacted by trends, examples of how others have succeeded, salary scales, and more. Therefore the first tip to building a successful career is to try to figure out who you are, what you love to do and what you are good at doing.

  1. Figure what you love to do and select a job function: There are many great techniques to help you figure out what you love to do. Two simple techniques are (1) to observe how you spend time or what you lose yourself in doing and (2) to take a variety of personality and archetype tests. Both techniques will help you narrow down choices and help you determine the job function that best fits you – marketing, sales & business development, HR, customer service, operations, product management, engineering, project management or other. Richard Bolles’ book has many exercises to help you figure out your strengths and passion and in turn the job function.
  2. Select a domain or an industry: Building a specialty in a domain or industry is very important as business becomes global, advanced & complex. Organizations look to hire experts who can hit the ground running & deliver results immediately. Domains & industries can be defined in many ways. Is it the retail industry? And clothing, shoes & accessories in particular that you want to develop an expertise in? Is it the auto industry? Collaboration software? Business-to-Business or Business-to-Consumer? Do you want to become a specialist in small & medium-sized businesses? Or in the enterprise domain? Once again, there are many ways to select a domain or an industry, but building an expertise in your selected domain is key to success.
  3. Build relationships & find multiple mentors: Relationships are one of the joys of life as well as of our careers. Friends & mentors provide support, knowledge, guidance & pull you up as they themselves advance in their careers. They open doors, provide new perspectives & new opportunities. Make sure you’ve built a network of people you like & respect in your job function & domain, so you can extend help and receive help in return. As Mike Davidson said, “It’s all about people. It’s about networking and being nice to people and not burning any bridges.”
  4. Keep learning: Learning or as Dr. Stephen Covey called it, “sharpening the knife,” is critical to success. It is very important to become an expert, and to keep up with new trends, changes & advancements in your job function and domain of expertise. This allows you to contribute your best to the organizations you work for.
  5. Change companies and/or geographies: In order to keep learning and keep contributing, it is also important to change companies and/or geographies – in order to learn new ways of doing things and to contribute your own growing knowledge & experience.

© Copyright Alpa Agarwal 2013

Reminder Tips on Product Roadmapping & Prioritization from the Silicon Valley Product Management Association

Software-Dojo-Barbara-Nelson-Product-Roadmapping-and-Prioritization-9-5-13-Alpa-AgarwalProduct roadmapping & prioritization is the most important function of a product manager. And since it’s been done for so long, it should have become a science. But as Barbara Nelson, VP of Marketing at Sage Construction & Real Estate, pointed out in her talk at the September 5th meeting of the Silicon Valley Product Management Association, product roadmapping is an art.

A creative activity at its core, product roadmapping starts with a customer problem & the envisioning of solutions to address the problem. After customer collaboration, competitive benchmarking, industry trending & internal technology & resource assessments – a solution and timeline of feature releases is developed. But it’s not that simple. Product roadmapping & prioritization is one of the most challenging functions of a product manager.

In her energetic & interactive talk, Barbara reminded the audience of the top five principles of successful product roadmapping & prioritization.

  1. Strategic Planning Process: Product roadmapping is first & foremost a planning tool and process. It begins with strategic roadmapping at the portfolio level & then comes down to individual products or services. This strategic process is very important and if done well by the company’s leadership, provides focus to the product teams & clears cross-company prioritization & dependency questions.
  2. Target market identification: While, there are many ways to narrow down the number of target segments & in turn customer requirements, in reality, the product or service must still meet a number of varying needs. Nelson reminded the audience of the value of using affinity maps. Affinity maps lay out the list of requested features on one axis and the customer segments they map to on a second axis. The idea is to consider backlogging those features that don’t appeal to as many segments. However, this is only one of many tools & criteria a product manager must use for prioritization.
  3. Market Opportunity Score: This is another tool product managers can use in feature prioritization. Customers should be asked two critical questions during requirements gathering – “How important is the particular function or feature?” And two, “Are you satisfied with how you solve it currently?” Customers rate on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most important or most satisfied. The equation is as follows: Market Opportunity Score = [Importance + (Importance – Satisfaction)]. For innovative products, a good way to get customer feedback is to focus the customer on the outcomes they are looking for & if the product helps them achieve the outcome.
  4. Writing a Press Release: Product managers should discipline themselves to write press releases for their products. This helps them focus on those product attributes that matter most – themes, customer segments or features that will have the most impact.
  5. Minimum Viable Product: Nelson reminded the audience that less is more. Two ways of avoiding bloat ware are to remove items from “old” backlog lists and slotting features for new customers over existing ones. She also referenced a great definition for MVP from Saeed Khan’s, “Devil’s Dictionary for High Tech,” as “a set of product functionality that can best be described by the following phrase: ‘Well, it’s the least we could do.’”

SVPMA LogoNelson also talked about other important product management practices such as persona creation, identifying themes, learning how to say no, getting alignment, and more. All in all, a great talk hosted by Silicon Valley’s largest product management association, SVPMA.

© Copyright Alpa Agarwal 2013

The Emotional Design of the Shopping Cart

Emotional Design of the Shopping CartMore than half or 51.8% of Americans shop and spend money to improve their mood, including 63.9% of women and 39.8% of men. This is according to a national survey conducted online by TNS Global on behalf of Ebates.com in March 2013 among 1,000 adults.


In a second study published in the Journal of Psychology and Marketing by Selin Atalay and Margaret Meloy with two hundred shoppers in the USA in 2011, researchers found that those participants who reported being in a bad mood on their way into a mall were more likely to admit to having made an unplanned self-indulgent purchase, on their way out. In a third study, performed by the same researchers, 69 undergraduate students were asked to complete two retrospective consumption diaries, two weeks apart, documenting their purchase behavior, mood and regrets. All the participants in the first diary admitted to having bought themselves a treat (clothes, food, electronics, and entertainment). 62% of these purchases were due to low mood & 28% as a form of celebration. Treats purchased for mood repair were half the price of treats purchased for celebration. Moreover, the unplanned self-indulgent purchases led to mood improvement without any regret or guilt.

As shopping is such a pleasant activity for many of us, e-retailers and ecommerce companies are already well-placed to create user experiences that build on the positive emotion of shopping.

In his book “Emotional Design,” Don Norman provides a framework for creating emotional design. He lists three dimensions great designs must include: (1) visceral or the attractiveness of the product, (2) behavioral or the functionality & usability of the product & the feeling of control it gives to users, and (3) reflective or the prestige-value of the product or the value the product brings to people’s self-images.

In his book “Designing for Emotion,” Aaron Walter uses Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to present several characteristics of emotional design: reliability & safety, usability, personality, pleasure such as through the use of images, surprise & delight, anticipation, feeling of exclusivity, & variable rewards.

Online retailers are doing many things to keep their users emotionally engaged.

  • Free shipping, returns & low-price guarantees make customers feel safe.
  • By streamlining the search-find-purchase process, the sites are effective & efficient with respect to usability.
  • Video & images are used to convey the attractiveness and features of products.
  • Minimalist designs reduce clutter and are soothing and restful.
  • Price promotions surprise & delight.
  • Endless browse, personalization and recommendations provide anticipation & the thrill of the hunt.

But the shopping cart has remained highly utilitarian to-date and for good reason. It is a usability red route and you want to stay clear of the customer’s path to purchase. Yet, it provides a great opportunity to test emotional design elements – to push users into purchasing more of those items they’ve already fallen in love with and placed in their shopping carts. Below are five thoughts to test.

  1. Create a visual journey of photos of the items in the cart – larger photos, slideshows, horizontal displays, collages, and so on.
  2. Reinforce choices already made by users for the items in the cart. If product ratings are above a threshold, if returns are free, if the product has won an award, if the product is exclusive to the particular retailer or if the price is the lowest among other retailers, the information should be displayed – to nudge users towards the soundness of the purchase decision.
  3. If the item in the cart is the last one or going fast, provide the information to the user – to create a sense of urgency.
  4. Surprise & delight users by giving them more value for their purchase – free product samples, bag of candy, an automatic discount on their current or next purchase, free upgraded shipping, etc.
  5. If the shopping cart is empty, display daily deals & promotions, giving users a reason to return to their shopping cart each day.

© Copyright Alpa Agarwal 2013