Plus / minus

Last month I heard Slack’s Noah Weiss speak at a First Round Capital event here in NYC.

When I first started in product, Weiss’s reading list was my north star. I spent my first month as a PM pouring through its articles, writing down everything I learned along the way. It’s still the first resource I point people to when they tell me they’re interested in product management.

At the event, Weiss told his story and sprinkled in a few do’s and don’ts throughout. The advice that stuck with me most was a sports analogy: “+/-”.

+/-, or plus-minus, is a statistic that measures a player’s impact on a game. If your plus-minus rating is positive, your team scores more points than its opponent when you’re in the game. When your plus-minus rating is negative, bad things.

Why do sports statisticians track plus-minus? Because it helps show the intangibles, it shows which players make their teams better.

Basketball player Shane Battier, who earned his own write-up in the Times on account of his stellar plus-minus rating, is a good example. By any conventional measure—points, assists, steals—Battier lagged behind others in the league. He was regarded as a “marginal athlete at best.” But a trend emerged. In spite of Battier’s box score reputation, his team won more when he played.

“Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.”

“A magical ability to win.” But why Battier? Because, despite his shortcomings, he brought an intelligence and a hustle to the game that showed up in his plus-minus rating, even if it didn’t show up in the stats we talk about most—shooting percentage, assists, steals. The example of Shane Battier isn’t meant to de-value these traditional statistics (the top of the all-time plus-minus leaderboard is full of players we’d normally associate with great box score stats) but instead to show that there are other, less visible elements of the game that contribute to winning.

Let’s tie it back to product management. When you first start out as a product manager, with that bountiful range of responsibilities in front of you, it’s natural to gravitate towards those that help you stand out, to the parts of the role you’ve spent months reading about. Market research, feature definition, prototyping. You want to pull up from beyond the arc and toss up a deep three, that game-changing silver bullet of a feature that’s going to define your legacy.

The more time you spend in product, the more you realize that as important as the big ideas are (and they are important, just like points and assists are important in basketball,) it’s the work you do to make the team better that matters most. What can you do as a PM to make design, engineering, marketing, services, and others, more successful? What can you do to give your company a “magical ability to win”?

This is the great insight of Andy Grove’s High Output Management, that a manager’s output is measured not by what they produce in a vacuum, but by what his or her entire team (and the teams within his or her sphere of influence) accomplishes.

Sometimes that’s the game winner from deep, other times it’s QA, documentation, removing blockers for engineering, thinking through the details of a piece of UX. In my own experience as a PM, it’s helped a lot to keep these other focuses in mind, the ones that only show up on plus-minus, even when I’m stewing on some larger product theme.