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How to build most valuable teams (MVTs)
Extending a product management concept to leadership
The acronym MVP gets thrown around a lot. In team sports, it refers to “most valuable player”; if you’re managing a team, you probably have some idea of who your MVPs are and what you’ll do to retain them.
How can you recognize an MVP? While there’s no single formula for success here, in our work, MVPs often demonstrate curiosity and well-rounded knowledge of different business areas beyond just their own specialization. They also have cross-functional experience, are always learning, and appear to generate consensus effortlessly. (In reality, they are really skilled in stakeholder management, team motivation, and frequent leadership through influence vs. a direct reporting relationship.)
In product management, MVP stands for minimum viable product. This is the core functionality set needed to roll out a product to market to attract an initial set of customers. Product leaders need to be mindful of managing product vision and execution while ensuring that what they’re rolling out goes beyond the bare minimum—it should be attractive to your desired prospects.
If we apply this concept to professional skills, we’ll soon get into some variant of the specialist vs. generalist debate and who makes a better team member or leader. As in product management, the answer isn’t either-or, but both: While some roles require deep specialist expertise, *all* roles benefit from more breadth and general understanding of the world beyond one’s immediate professional purview.
So how can you MVP your way to a team of MVPs? How can you leverage the minimal viable product concept to create an environment where multiple valuable players can emerge and work together as part of the same team?
This isn’t a new topic for One. We’ve previously explored what colleagues from non-product backgrounds need to know about product and, similarly, what those coming from other disciplines should understand about marketing. If you’ve worked with us on an organization design project, you’ve seen more of these “What X should know about Y” scenarios, broken down by different levels; these exercises provide great input for job descriptions and interview-panel evaluation criteria for key roles. It got us thinking: What are some ways to engineer a deeper cross-functional understanding across your organization? We recommend starting with the following three:
1/ Everyone should know how your company makes money
I can see some of you rolling your eyes at this suggestion, but don’t take it for granted that folks who are not on commercial teams truly understand how that particular sausage is made. On a recent engagement with a rapidly scaling tech company, the question of how the company makes money came from a colleague in HR. In another, engineering leadership was flummoxed about why a particular product that was very expensive to support seemed to be gaining significant traction. When we walked them through how the sales team’s incentives highly favored this product, all sorts of light bulbs went off. For some teams, questions about company commercials will be obvious; for others, it’s an opportunity for clarification and ensuring team alignment.
What tends to help across the board is having clear and open lines of communication along with internal dashboards that communicate key KPIs, which anyone can access. (If these don’t answer your colleagues’ questions outright, they’ll at least know who to ask for more information.).
2/ Incentivize cross-functional learning in OKRs
Companies expect each team member to keep improving and gaining additional knowledge in their main role and functional area. But organizations don’t necessarily support those wanting to color beyond those often rather rigidly drawn functional lines. In a recent piece for The Drum, Myles Younger described this challenge as a Sisyphean struggle and contributor to burn-out.
The easiest way to avoid this is to articulate the value of cross-functional explainers (to borrow Myles’ term) and codify it in OKRs. If you’re managing a naturally curious team member who others look to for simple answers to complex questions, consider a discretionary increase in their learning and development budget and articulate a formal OKR that addresses your organization’s overall level of knowledge. Even if it’s symbolic, it will have a positive impact and recognize valuable work that is often assumed instead of rewarded.
3/ Enable ‘tours of duty’ on other teams
In the before times when we were all in physical offices, there was a lot of informal cross-team shadowing that would happen organically. In remote-first organizations, this type of collaboration needs to be thought out and built with purpose. A common frustrating scenario is when a highly valued team member feels unfulfilled in their current role; rather than losing them and all of their institutional knowledge to a competitor, is there an easy way to create opportunities for them elsewhere within the organization? Very large companies like GE are known for their various training and staff rotation programs, but rotations aren’t limited to companies of that size, breadth, and organizational diversity anymore.
Today, cross-functional exposure can take many forms. In rapidly scaling companies, it helps to have a reliable “first person through the door” type of leader who can land somewhere, figure out how to quickly gain some traction, build the team to take it over, and about sixish months in, they move on to the next growth challenge. In large companies, the time horizon for these types of tours tends to be longer; instead of sixish months, it’s often two-plus years, but the learning and experience are similarly applicable across the board. It doesn’t even have to be very structured—simply opening up team meetings to other teams or joining customer calls (or offering them on demand via Gong or similar tool) can go a long way.
Professional sports teams don't just wait for MVP-caliber players to hit free agency before they offer major contracts; they also develop players internally through farm systems that give young talent critical training and experience. Companies should do the same. They can foster environments in which most valuable teams (MVT) can be cultivatedemerge and encourage team members to grow in different directions, complementing each other's skills.
And in shameless self-promotion, Sparrow’s coaching practice specializes in building cross-functional acumen. While we mostly work with senior executives on this, we’re piloting some additional team-level offerings that have grown out organically from our organization design and team training projects. Many of you are just coming out of annual planning prep and presentations of your budgets for next year. If this is a topic of interest, let’s talk.
Speaking of budgets and budget cycles, what’s the most reliable way you’ve advocated for staff development resources, whether for yourself or for your whole team/org? Any new and nifty ways of articulating ROI here that you’d like to brag about?
Thanks for reading,
Ana, Maja, and the Sparrow team
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We’re a results oriented management consultancy bringing deep operational expertise to solve strategic and tactical objectives of companies in and around the ad tech and mar tech space.
Our unique perspective rooted deeply in AdTech, MarTech, SaaS, media, entertainment, commerce, software, technology, and services allows us to accelerate your business from strategy to day-to-day execution.
Founded in 2015 by Ana and Maja Milicevic, principals & industry veterans who combined their product, strategy, sales, marketing, and company scaling chops and built the type of consultancy they wish existed when they were in operational roles at industry-leading adtech, martech, and software companies. Now a global team, Sparrow Advisers help solve the most pressing commercial challenges and connect all the necessary dots across people, process, and technology to simplify paths to revenue from strategic vision down to execution. We believe that expertise with fast-changing, emerging technologies at the crossroads of media, technology, creativity, innovation, and commerce are a differentiator and that every company should have access to wise Sherpas who’ve solved complex cross-sectional problems before. Contact us here.