The impact spectrum

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 11, 2018, 10:37 PM | comments: 0

I can't find the post that I wrote at some point in the last decade, but I know I've written about the range of impact that you can have at your job and on the world in general. For example, one might aspire to establishing new industries, like commercial space flight, but can you really say that this is more impactful than educating children? It depends entirely on your frame of reference and the circumstances. If you're the teacher that influenced the industry creator, and improved the lives of hundreds of children, then I think you can argue that the teacher had the greatest impact.

Work is like that, too. Back in Microsoft's old days (OK, it was only a few years ago), the company was obsessed with promotion to the point that it penalized "stagnant" individual contributors and anyone not ascending to leadership positions. That obviously created a lot of toxic situations between people, since it was a disincentive to help out your teammates, but it also implied that banging out quality code for 40 hours per week also was less impactful in the long run. You don't have to work in the business to understand why that's silly.

In talking with a co-worker this week, I also realized that the wide spectrum of impact, and the desire to have it, has a compatibility matrix with company size, role and context. It seems like there are infinite combinations of circumstances that define impact scope. Going back to Microsoft, you could be the guy that wrote the algorithm to SUM a series of cells, and at this point, millions of people have used that functionality billions of times. But most people working on Excel will do mundane things that are totally necessary, and likely completely unrecognized by end users. I never worked on anything that big, but it's kind of cool to see the reputation system on MSDN has gone largely unchanged since my team of 3-ish developers built it and watched it process 100 million transactions per month in the first year.

Working in a growing company, I see that there is definitely a transition that people make in terms of impact breadth and depth. In a small shop, everyone takes out the trash, I like to say. That means you're forced into a situation where breadth puts you on many different problems at once, and the best you can do is find adequate solutions and move on. In a bigger shop, the problems become more complex, and typically many people have to engage with depth in more specific things. Managers actually get into the reverse situation, where as a company grows, they have to avoid depth and do their best to solve one problem at a time and quickly move on to the next. All of these situations lead to people being impactful, but the shape of that impact varies a ton.

Why does this matter? I think it's because teams have to understand how the breadth or depth of impact translates to being effective. If you're working in the world's largest software company, you can't be concerned with taking out the trash. At a small startup, you can't not have that concern. Effective people have a clear understanding of where they necessarily have to be on the impact spectrum.


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