Hiring for Product Scale

Andi Mastrosavas

“Organisations learn only through individuals who learn.”- Peter M. Senge

Product scaling and growth requires doing things you haven’t done before. To grow and innovate you need teams of people who are lifelong learners, taking their existing knowledge, combining it with new information, and expanding your business and themselves simultaneously.

In today’s complex world, with the constant evolution of new technologies, access to global markets, and emerging opportunities for economic growth, the ability to learn and adapt on the job is the most critical skill.

A growth mindset is the differentiator between evolution and obsolescence for a company.

Defined by Carol Dweck, and discussed in her book “Mindset”, it is the belief that your abilities can be developed over time. As opposed to a fixed mindset that limits intelligence and talents as fixed traits. One of the defining features of a growth mindset is embracing new challenges without the fear of failure because failure is viewed as learning, and a necessary step towards improvement.

Product scaling demands hiring the right product people for this mindset, to enable organisational learning and adaptability.

So who are these people? 

Generalists versus Specialists

The traditional approach to a career emphasised specialising early with a narrowly defined focus. This allowed hiring managers to recruit highly specialised people to tackle very specific tasks. Specialists are reliable, predictable, and fit for purpose. They are able to tackle highly complex problems in an identified field.

Popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers: The Story of Success” where he suggests the 10,000-hour rule, the notion that achieving world-class expertise, requires 10,000 hours of perfect practice. In other words, specialisation.

However, this might not be the right approach in a modern, ever-changing, tech-driven world. The best ideas apparently emerge through pattern recognition across fields, by combining disparate insights that don’t initially seem connected. Known as generalists, they are the swiss army knives of the workforce. Deploy them as needed with their extensive range of experience and enjoy their calmness during times of uncertainty.

David Epstein discusses this idea at great length in his book, “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” where his research shows that for top performers, early specialisation is actually the exception, not the rule.

Whether you are in favour of generalists or specialists or prefer to hire both as needed based on the job at hand, one thing remains true: the generalist versus specialist debate is enduring and the jury is most definitely still out on which is better to hire for.

I consider myself a Product generalist, able to build products in any domain, leveraging good practice and sound methodologies. But I have a specialisation in HCI and I use that discipline to give me an edge when developing products and turning them into viable business models.

Enter from stage right – the T-shaped person.

I, T, and X Shapes

Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO popularised the phrase T-shaped person and thus began the debate over I, T, and X shaped people. T-shaped refers to the philosophy and approach of hiring people for their breadth and depth of experience. A T-shaped person is able to apply their knowledge across domains but is an expert in at least one. Whereas an I-shaped person is an expert in one domain. In other words, a specialist.

If ever there was a role that benefited from being T-shaped, it is surely the Product Manager, able to solve any kind of problem through good product management practice. Hiring T-shaped product people means you can do more with less, and they can typically communicate more effectively with people who have different perspectives.

However, it is suggested that neither Is nor Ts are sufficient for leadership. Hence the inclusion of the X. The X represents someone who can manage and lead across disciplines. They’ve built credible, interpersonal skills on top of their expertise enabling them to lead diverse teams.

People that Scale

Having worked in a number of high-growth environments that were in a constant state of rapid change, what I learned is that more than generalists, specialists, T, I or X shapes, if you want to scale your business, you need people who scale.

Scaling a business isn’t just a set of activities you can undertake such as raising funding, defining processes, procuring tools, rapidly hiring, and organisational design. Scaling demands a growth mindset. In order to scale your business, you need people with this mindset. People that can not only scale your business, but scale themselves along the way.

One of the benefits of hiring people that scale is that they are typically adaptable in the face of adversity. They usually remain flexible in rapidly-changing environments, and almost like a magic trick, they can see around corners and predict outcomes long before they emerge.

So how do you hire for people who scale?

Seek out lifelong learners.

When hiring people to be the engine of product growth and scaling, look for specialists who are flexible and willing to apply themselves to a wider range of problems. Find the generalists with a T-shape, whose depth allows them to effectively collaborate with the specialists and connect their work to the broader business multiplying the value of themselves and others.

And lastly, identify those who are on the precipice of becoming X’s, with the adaptive skills required of leaders and the enduring capacity to learn more.

Want more great product insights? Learn if your teams are in the innovation zone.

Andi Mastrosavas

Andi Mastrosavas | Author

Andi is a Principal Product Consultant at Brainmates, specialising in strengthening product management practices, to deliver value to customers with products that outperform in the market. Andi has a Master of Science in Human Computer Interaction and a Master of Science in Global Technology & Development. If you are interested in learning more about how you can apply mixed methods to maximise the impact of your research, or anything else product related, you can reach her via andi@brainmates.com.au.

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