Be an astronaut - The power of the overview effect in product

Photo by NASA

You're sweaty, hands are tingling, and can't calm your mind.

This is it… There is no going back. Years of training have been riding on this moment. It's arrived, and you're about to seize it.  

3, 2, 1… Instantly your head snaps back into the seat, and you're now airborne. Zooming headfirst into the atmosphere you head away into the depths of space. Small droplets of sweat form around your hands but then suddenly the oddest sensation takes hold of your body. You forget the sweat…

Effortlessly you can move with no effort at all. Zero gravity takes hold. You excitedly scurry to the closest observatory window to take your first look. It's beautiful—a striking blue ball mixed with dark green blotches as though decorated by an animated watercolour painter appears.

It's your home. Planet earth coming into view.    

I hope you enjoyed your abridged version of space travel. I was inspired by a passage from Adam Grant's latest book "Think Again" that investigates the art of rethinking, how to question options and unearth blindspots. I came across a small anecdote about space travel that caught my eye.

Adam highlights research by a team of psychologists that show how space travel has had a profound impact on astronauts' mindsets.

By looking at interviews, surveys and analysis of autobiographies, these psychologists have highlighted a profound shift from a very closed individual focus to a collective focus. Astronauts "become far less focussed on individual achievement and personal happiness, and more concerned about the collective good".

This shift is known as the overview effect.

So you might ask how is this relevant to product management?

As a great product manager, you need to have the ability to see the bigger picture of what an organisation is trying to achieve.  Often this means letting go of the 'my backyard' mentality.

In a perfect world within the product organisation all teams would have no dependencies, roadmaps would perfectly align, and there would never be tradeoffs. Sadly, even though a large amount of alignment will happen beforehand, some issues inevitably come up. How product managers react will make a significant impact on overall business success over time.

Recognising that as a product manager, you are part of a larger team,  playing a multiplayer game with many contributors is vital.  It's easy to be focussed on your team's immediate goals. It's hard to balance this with the needs of other teams and priorities and still deliver your teams goals promptly. The more senior you become, the more critical it is to understand and align the strategic organisational goals looking beyond your team.

The act of avoiding these alignment issues, looking at the collective is not as difficult as you might think. Being aware of the core strategy, knowing what teams exist and understanding their priorities and goals will get you far.  This knowledge makes avoiding areas that overlap very easy, and where there is conflict, you can often reorder your immediate priorities to unblock the situation.  

The power of having product managers who lean into the overview effect will have a profound impact on the overall organisation. More will get done collectively, and relationships will grow stronger. Reciprocity is a two way street and people have long term memories.

So the next time someone asks you if you can wait to release, assist with a dependency or help with the strategy be open-minded. See the bigger picture. Be willing to forgo your immediate goal for the collective good.

Be an astronaut.