Ryan Singer Felt Presence LLC Product Strategy & Tooling

What's the unit of impact?

By Ryan Singer •

PMs often prioritize work by something called "impact." But too often what a PM considered "high impact" doesn't get a green light from leadership. Why?

A big piece of this problem is we don't know what 'impact' really means. What's one "unit" of impact? How do we weigh two projects against each other? You can't when the unit is too abstract. It's like saying "goodness" or "desirability."

Sometimes, it's about money. That's when we need to show that this change earns $X more or reduces cost by $Y, over time T, because of pressures we're under.

Sometimes, it's about buzz. There's been nothing new to talk about in a while, so we'll choose something that will be easy to publicize over something that silently improves things.

Sometimes, it's about morale. If too much time goes by since we've thrown a bone to this team or that stakeholder, they'll start getting outraged, and that will make it hard to work together. So we'll choose things that improve their quality of life even if those things don't objectively move the needle.

And sometimes, it's about buying time. Suppose we've got something big in terms of $ or buzz in mind, but it needs more time to shape. Meanwhile, the teams still need work to do. So we may choose things that are smaller optimizations in the above categories — not necessarily big wins — that are still improvements and don't take much attention away from formulating the bigger thing.

None of these are good/bad. They are all responses to different changing situations that can arise in a company. The same company will have different needs and different priorities at different times and at the same time across different teams.

As leaders, it helps to be more explicit about why we're doing something. And if we're a layer down from the decision-making, we'll find we get many more wins and "yeses" when we tune in to the dynamics and pressures that leadership is trying to solve.

For those who know Shaping in Real Life, this belongs in the topic of framing. When we frame a potential project, we need to both define the problem and make the case for investing in it. Those different dimensions — money, buzz, morale, time — are about building our case. It's table-stakes that whatever we do should positively impact our customers and users. But to align everyone around doing it internally, it helps to know what this thing impacts and how, and when would be the right time for that kind of impact.

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