Setting the context

Sometimes I wonder about the value of what I do at Google[ref]To be clear, my manager values the work I do at Google – I just sometimes question myself[/ref]. In the search ads organization where I work, there are hundreds of people building new features and products. And then there’s me wandering around, looking at big picture business metrics, and thinking about long-term trends and how they might affect Google. I’m not developing product ideas, I’m not writing difficult code, I’m not doing sophisticated statistical analyses. I don’t produce anything tangible, other than a couple decks with observations on the business.

And then I have a meeting like the one I had yesterday with the metrics team. This is a team of PhD statisticians that does amazing quantitative analyses of our ad systems – I can’t even understand the one-page summaries of their analyses. But their director invited me to their team meeting to share my thoughts on what’s going on with Google’s business as they brainstorm about their planned analyses for 2015. And they were all super engaged and excited to get my big-picture view on Google and how it fits into the business ecosystem – several members of the team stopped me today in the hall and told me they really enjoyed my talk and then asked me more questions.

One of them asked a great question at the end of the meeting yesterday – he noted that I had given them this 30,000 foot view of the business, and then he has his 10 foot view of the business in his day-to-day work, and he asked how we could do a better job of connecting those. Understanding the big picture doesn’t add value unless it translates into day-to-day work in the form of new products and features. And that’s one of my ongoing challenges with being a generalist – I struggle to translate my viewpoint into action (as I discussed in my understanders vs. fixers post).

But one thing I’ve realized over the past few years is that by talking about the big picture repeatedly, I am helping to set the context for the people doing the work. When they make decisions in their day-to-day work, maybe they make different decisions because they have heard the big-picture story I told. They might prioritize things differently – the engineer might implement a feature differently because they know better how their code fits into the larger system. In the ideal case, different results start to happen because of the stories I tell, even though I myself don’t do any of the work; for instance, the metrics team I talked to will be thinking about how their analyses can answer some of the big questions the business is facing in 2015.

This is the value I feel I bring to a team at work. By helping to set the context, I hope to make everybody on the team more productive. This is also the role that managers and leaders play in an organization – it’s why companies have all hands meetings and the like. Getting everybody onto the same page and focused on the same problems is one of the biggest challenges of an organization, and figuring out more scalable ways of creating that alignment is one of the questions I’m most interested in these days.

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