Ready, Set, Read: Starting a PM Book Club at Your Organization

Ready, Set, Read: Starting a PM Book Club at Your Organization

Originally published on Product Craft, October 20, 2020

Are you looking for a way to transition your org to a more product-focused mindset? I wouldn’t blame you — there are numerous benefits to shifting to a product mindset, from becoming truly Agile to transforming into a fully-fledged product-led organization. But how do you do it?

Here is one idea that can help: Start a product book club.

Step 1: Invite everyone

Since you want the product-mindset transition to happen throughout the organization, invite as many people as you can from different departments, groups, and teams. You will want to include stakeholders, engineers, QA, UX/UI designers, customer success, sales, you name it.

If your organization is very large, sending an open invite will diminish the effectiveness of this initiative. Pick a select group that will really drive change: individuals whom others listen to and true leaders who are motivated and humble enough to learn new things.

Most importantly, make sure that your close teammates and key stakeholders are included.

Remember: You can also start small and iterate later with additional books, all while learning from the experience.

Step 2: Pick the best product books

It’s always good to have book recommendations, and even better to have your own favorites. For my book club, the first one I picked was Marty Cagan‘s Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love. In it, I found what you should look for in your first book:

  • Concise
  • Written in a clear and simple way
  • Covers all the basics and more
  • Not a 1000-page totem

Once you finish the first book, you will be in a better position to dive into additional books that cover very specific angles or areas of Product. Todd Olson’s The Product-Led Organization: Drive Growth By Putting Product at the Center of Your Customer Experience is one example if you want to focus more on, well, product-led organizations.

Remember: There are so many great books out there. Picking those that most resonate with you and your organization will make the book club a success!

Step 3: Purchase the book for everyone

You want to make it easier for everyone to attend, so don’t wait for them to purchase the book. Instead, buy it for them. Find a budget line where it could fit — education, lunch and learn, you name it.

Don’t forget to ask your participants about their preferred book format. Many of us still like physical printed books (yes, the way it feels in our hand … sometimes how it smells … it’s a full package!) so order in bulk and have it shipped to the office. If most people are working remotely, send it directly to their homes.

Digital formats are a bit trickier since consumers have to order them using their names/accounts. I haven’t found a way to bulk-purchase e-books yet. For those who prefer an e-book, send them the Amazon (or another online bookstore) link to purchase it and keep nudging them gently to buy the book. Give them an Amazon gift card to buy it, or make it expenseable.

Remember: You want to make sure there are no excuses about not being able to get the book!

Step 4: Publish a reading schedule

A reading schedule is important. It will determine the cadence of your progress and the amount of reading between each discussion meeting. You want to make it fast enough so that you keep good momentum, yet slow enough so that everyone has a chance to read the required pages while maintaining a busy schedule.

I found that a good cadence is around 50 pages a week, and aligned with the book’s chapters or other logical breakpoints. Take the book you have decided to read and look at the Table of Content. Try to break it down so that every week you read the number of pages decided (such as 50, plus-minus), and see how it aligns with the chapters. During some weeks, you might have to read a few extra pages, while others might be a bit lighter.

Once you have the breakdown, publish a schedule on your favorite calendar application and invite the book club members. The invite should include:

  • The book you are reading
  • The meeting cadence
  • The page range to read each week
  • What they should bring with them to the meetings (see next step)

Set it up a couple of weeks in advance, while making sure that everyone got their book copies, so that they have time to read the first part.

Remember: The book club is not everyone’s first priority, so don’t expect them to read as you might. Keep the schedule simple and realistic.

Step 5: Ask everyone to bring quotes

I’ve tried many different ways of conducting book club discussion meetings. The one I’ve found that works the best and covers the most ground is to ask everyone to bring quotes from the section they read that week. To encourage participants to gather these quotes, tell them to highlight while reading and take a screenshot or a photo of the page on their phones. Then, bring these to the meeting. It’s even better if they send the quotes beforehand and you upload them all into a shared document or presentation.

Most importantly, bring your own quotes and assume no one else will bring theirs. It will help you run the meeting and cover the aspects of the book that you wanted to discuss.

Of course, you won’t be able to address every aspect of the read section during the meeting. But the quotes will focus your discussion around the parts of the reading that are the most important and the most applicable to your team’s interests.

Remember: Being ready for the discussion meeting is two-thirds of the work to make it successful!

Step 6: Meet weekly and discuss what you read using the quotes everyone brought

Generally, I’d suggest a weekly cadence for the meetings to keep things moving. If you meet more often, it can be hard to maintain the reading speed. Meeting less frequently might mean participants forget what they talked about in the last meeting, especially if you had to stop in the middle of a section.

My preference for meeting time is over lunchtime, and even better if lunch is served. We all know that where there is free food, more people show up. Try to sense if they came for the food or for the learning. That could be easily done by asking them questions about the book and seeing who participates.

Most importantly, keep the book club discussion centered around the quotes. If possible, go through them in the order they appear in the book. As the facilitator of the discussion (or if you named someone else to facilitate, make sure they do the following), encourage everyone to:

  • Share opinions about the quotes or other relevant learnings from the book
  • Ask “why” to drive additional observations
  • Think of times when the specific topic of discussion was applicable to their work. Stories from your past and present shared experiences are the best way to apply learnings.

Remember: Keep the club friendly and open to everyone. Encourage participation, and not just from the same people again and again. It’s a learning opportunity for the entire team, no matter their individual perspectives.

Step 7: Ask “How can we improve based on this?”

This is the one question you should always ask. Reading a book is not about finishing the pages or consuming the information. It is about learning and growing. We must try to apply the learnings to our own life to facilitate growth.

So always ask, “How can we improve based on this?”

It can be small or big improvements, immediate or long-term. It doesn’t matter as long as we grow, and doing it together is the point.

Remember: Always ask, “How can we improve based on this?”

Step 8: Celebrate the completion of each book

Finishing reading a book together is always an achievement. During the weeks we read and discuss the books, there will be interruptions, and some discussion meetings will likely have to be delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. Some areas of your team will be so different from what the book recommends that you might think it is impossible to change.

Don’t fret about those small setbacks. Keep going with the book to learn and grow together. And when you have finished it, celebrate. Have lunch together — one without reading and discussions — just for fun. Or play a game. Or do whatever you like doing to celebrate both small and big wins.

Remember: It’s all about small steps that when taken together, make a huge difference. Now that you completed a book together as a team, you have shared knowledge and understanding about the topic, as well as a list of action items to improve your team. That is a huge win!

Step 9: Choose your next book

Don’t lose the momentum — keep reading. Bring a few options to the team and vote on which book they would like to read next. Or pick the next one, too. Either way, don’t stop after one book. There is so much more learning to be had!

Remember: Other team members can take over replacing you in the organization and facilitation of the club. It doesn’t always have to be you.

Final thoughts

A few final thoughts for you:

  • Have fun! Maybe some people don’t enjoy reading, but don’t make it into a chore. Try to have fun with it. Suggest audiobooks if they are available. Or maybe discuss the book with them beforehand so they have the details even without reading.
  • Did a specific book resonates strongly with your entire team? Make it your bible. Refer to it on a regular basis. Keep quotes on your (virtual) walls. Study it again and again.

Do you want to share how this idea works for you? Send me a line on my LinkedIn profile. I would love to hear from you.