The Minimum Viable Product Manager & Disproportionate Impact

© Angeli Recella

One of the things that stuck with me when I “read” (not sure what the correct term is since I listened to the audiobook) How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, which is a core book at where I work, was the idea of disproportionate impact:

“[…] successful athletes possess rare skills that are tremendously leverageable. When they do well, they have a disproportionate impact. They help teams win, and winning drives huge business benefits: more fans, more viewers, more jerseys and hats sold. Hence, the big money. Smart creatives today may not share many characteristics with professional athletes, but they do share one important thing: the potential for disproportionate impact.”

Of course, I have a lot of takeaways from the book — including the nugget about how excellence at the core of the company, which is almost always product, overflows to the other areas — but this one got me thinking because it shed some light into how hiring decisions should be made. I’ve been interviewing again (oh no, I can never get out of it) and I’m starting to pick up on traits I think would be a great fit for STORM’s culture of relentlessness, entrepreneurship, and “hanep” service. For example, in my last MVPM post, I talked about the value of ownership and how it’s the minimum requirement for anyone who wants to be in product management. And this week, I was able to pin down disproportionate impact as another one of those must-haves, especially for businesses who plan to scale fast through innovation.

Earlier this week, I delivered a talk to engineering students at my alma mater. I was a bit frazzled when one of the organizers asked me, a couple of minutes before the talk, how I wanted to be introduced. I was nervous enough as it was, so I asked helped from our People Operations Head, AR, who was right next to me. The words that she spoke in that moment struck a chord in my heart; she said that the way she would introduce me would be (non-verbatim): Deirdre’s a whiz kid in product, she’s been with us for less than a year but her impact in STORM goes beyond her role.

She might not have used the exact phrase “disproportionate impact” but I’d like to think that in a sense, that’s what she meant. It was touching. In the short time I’ve been with the company, I’ve suggested some things here and there. They’re minor things like conducting debriefs for our launches (so we keep learning and improving!) and consolidating data for product insights (to help us in consulting). I’d like to think that these little things made an impact somehow, even if it’s not as grand as starting a new product or process. I’d also like to think that these little things compounded to make the company even just a little bit better, and that the efforts of a product minion were appreciated.

I’ve been told a couple of times that I should clone myself (y’know, like in true minion fashion). STORMers don’t know how much I wish I could. Not to toot my own horn, but it is kind of difficult to find someone who can go beyond what’s expected — not because the people are so rare, but because it’s difficult to assess such a quality through interviews or auditions.

I know I didn’t exhibit such a trait myself when I was applying for the job. I just started being the way that I am now because I was so engaged in the work. That and the environment was open enough for me to feel that if I suggested anything or did work beyond what’s asked of me, it won’t be shut down or taken in a negative way. I guess the point I’m trying to drive at here is because it’s difficult to spot someone who can contribute exceptionally from the get-go, you should at least cultivate a culture that inspires people to be the stars of the show. My take on this is that given the right setting, everyone has the potential for disproportionate impact.

So. What does this have to do with product management?

There are roles where exceptional performance isn’t required. Of course, that’s always preferred, but companies can get by and survive on just the right amount of energy and investment from its employees. Because they’re so hard (and sometimes quite expensive) to recruit, it also may not be the right move to populate the entire organization with superstars. Sports teams get the ball rolling with even just one star athlete, and I think work teams can flourish with just one too — they just have to be in the right role.

Revisiting my other takeaway from How Google Works, which is how excellence at the company’s core overflows, my belief is that the brightest star should at least be in product. If anyone is to contribute anything in excess, it should be in wherever the innovation happens. Let’s face it, breakthroughs normally don’t happen between the hours of 9–5. And they don’t usually come from people who can clock out after doing the bare minimum of their role. A product manager with that mindset and that low of an engagement with the company will definitely miss out on opportunities to progress the product (and himself! and his team!) exponentially.

Okay, back to STORM: we’ve been on the lookout for more PMs to join the team in the past couple of months. We’ve interviewed so many candidates; a lot of them were perfectly qualified on paper, but never made it through the hiring process. Were our standards way too high? Perhaps. I don’t think that’s an issue though. For any other role, it would be relatively easier to settle for someone who can simply get the job done. For product, hiring someone like that is the equivalent of getting a quarterback that’s just physically skilled — yes, there’s still impact, but is that enough when the role requires the ability to also cooperate, lead, and physically barrel through?

In that quarterback analogy, potential for disproportionate impact becomes a requirement. The Minimum Viable Product Manager should be capable of not only getting the job done, but also of inspiring and motivating his team, of creating a vision for them to follow, and of coming up with strategies that can be executed. The MVPM, like his product, should have the potential to deliver something more than what’s expected.

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