Product Management is a Contact Sport

Product Management is a Contact Sport – while many think that product management is the equivalent of being the CEO of your products, I see it more like the head coach of a soccer team. You have a team of players, you have to create a strategy for each match, and then adjust throughout. You report to the owner, but your contribution to the financial goal of the organization is how you rank in the league.

As such, there are some important things for us to remember to do in this kind of role. First, we need to take care of our players. We need to make sure they feel safe, wanted, and fulfilled. The morale of the team is a critical element to getting the team revved up for a win. Here Tom Worville applies his learning from The Only Rule to this concept…

Product Management is a Contact Sport

I’m currently reading the excellent The Only Rule Is It Has To Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. It’s the story of two stats-inclined baseball writers who help run a small indy league team in California, attempting to implement analytical tools and a smarter approach to decision making — or what they’d call playing Moneyball without any money.

It’s a great story, and the Sonoma Stompers are a pretty fucking cool team. They made history twice in the past twelve months for big cool reason #1 and big cool reason #2. Any local Stompers heading to London soon let me know, I need some of this sweet stash.

In the sixth chapter of The Only Rule (titled “No Feel” for those who want to check it out) there’s a decent chunk written about quantifying clubhouse (team) chemistry. Considering how often in football you hear it’s not possible to quantify team chemistry, I found this quite amusing. After digging a bit deeper, there’s some really interesting work in this area — which I’d like to highlight and demonstrate here.

The main research cited in The Only Rule is by Katerina Bezrukova. Bezrukova’s work looked at quantifying fault lines in a team. Taken from Miller’s original piece for ESPN three years ago, below is a primer on what they are:

If five friends all love cheerleading and five other friends all love marching band, then those 10 people are divided into two groups that don’t interact. But if girls from each group are also into, say, running the school’s canned-food drive, there is now a third, overlapping group. And if there’s a conflict between a cheerleader and a flutist, there are networks for resolving it.

It’s an OK explanation, but here’s a more contextual one. Visually, I think of this problem as a big Venn diagram. Let’s take our team, Chemistry FC:

Currently there’s no overlaps or fault lines within our team, so it’s not realistic at all. Let’s introduce a fault line — age. We’ll call all of our players 25 or above Veterans and all of our players 24 or below Talents.

Straight away you can see the fault line within the team. This may mean a lack of chemistry between the two sides — the younger guys probably don’t have spouses or children meaning they have more time to spend with their Talent teammates, for example. To bridge this gap, we need to look at overlaps within the team.

In Chemistry FC, there is a pretty even spread of Englishmen between the two segments of the Veterans and Talents, meaning the original fault line of age becomes less problematic due to the overlap of both segments who are English.

Digging deeper, we can see whether the fault lines of nationality, race, pay, minutes played or tenure on the team are important. Even though I don’t work at Chemistry FC, I was able to collect a lot of fairly basic data on the players on the team and create a similar model to Bezrukova’s.

It’s worth noting that not all fault lines and overlaps are going to be of equal importance: language may be a massive fault line compared to race, for example. Additionally, there may be some fault lines that aren’t identifiable with publicly available data alone. From my basic model Chemistry FC look very good, but information about player temperament, proficiency in other languages and wages, that aren’t available to me, could further help understand their chemistry.

Additionally, fault line analysis can help us understand the sort of squads a manager (or GM) looks to build. In the case of Chemistry FC, it could be that the manager’s characteristics affect his team construction.

The main takeaway here is that team chemistry isn’t invisible. These are all things we see and know about players and teams, even if you know very little about the sport.

Jeff Carlisle’s excellent piece this week about helping international MLS players settle is peppered with examples of MLS GMs and players inadvertently (or not) identifying and bridging fault lines. A few quotes below, first by Seattle Sounders General Manager Garth Lagerwey, echo the importance of these overlaps:

Ideally, when you sign a guy, you want someone who speaks English. You also want someone who has played outside their home country. Both of those things tend to predict an ability to adapt to a culture other than your home culture. They’ll have some aptitude for being able to take on a new apartment, new car, new country, new language, that kind of thing.

Tim Bezbatchenko — General Manager of Toronto FC — had this to say:

If a player has played outside his home country, where did he play? Did he spend multiple years there or did he bail after six months? And perhaps more critically, what kind of support network does the player have around him?

And finally, Mauro Rosales of FC Dallas noted the importance of language in the locker room:

I think [the language is] the most important thing. Not just because you need it to survive, but to communicate with your teammates in the game, with the referees, with the coaches, everyone that you want to explain about your situation or what you think about the soccer, what you think about you playing, everything.

Bezrukova’s research indicates that a team with plenty of overlaps is worth about three wins a season over a team with major fault lines. That’s pretty big, with Miller indicating that the market value of that is roughly $15million (that’s in 2013 MLB money — so likely more now).

The quotes from Lagerwey, Bezbatchenko and Rosales show how these guys think about (and are affected by) these fault lines, and understand the importance of the overlaps can seal the cracks. Considering the big conclusions from the baseball applications of this analysis….

….If it works for them, surely it can work for us too?

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