Maximize context, maximize impact

Photo by Dio Hasbi Saniskoro from Pexels

At some point in their career, every individual in the technology industry struggles with answering the question, “how do I maximize my impact?”  If you feel stuck in your career I hope this provides some clarity to you. 

Every job I’ve taken up has been based on the potential of learning and the potential of impact. I started my career in a roughly 300-person engineering team. You get started on the job and learn the ropes in your first few months. In a few months, you start feeling that luck is a big part of working on the most interesting products. Do you wonder what it takes to work on the most interesting projects? How do you determine what work is high-impact and what is not?  

The secret to maximizing impact is to maximize context. Context is the set of invisible rules that guide individual and collective action in an organization. Three things are key in building context to maximize impact: 

  1. A story about the future state of the business

  2. Understanding of incentives of others

  3. Networks of people and teams 

A story about the future state of the business

The ideal future state of any business is to have happier paying customers, higher profit, and more innovation. In the early days of, our initial goal was to be more innovative at solving mapping problems for self-driving car customers. We spoke to over 90% of the companies in that space. A key driver of continued interaction was that the customers resonated with our stories as individuals. 

You need to be good at telling your story to many diverse people. The only way to get better at it is to practice.  The more revolutionary your story, the wider the support it can garner. Think like the CEO of a profit-making enterprise. If you are presented with two ideas - one that increases profit margin by 5% versus 40%. Which one will capture your initial attention? 

The stories you craft about yourself, your projects and your teams show your team and peers how big you are thinking. This ability to keep thinking big requires courage to believe in bold ideas. To keep your story believable you need to keep executing towards the big idea. 

Let’s say you want to increase the profit margin of the products you are selling. Let’s look at a few ways to increase your profit margin by 5 % or 40% in one year. Here are a few ways to do it 

  1. You can do it by increasing the price: Possible in 5% case, tough to execute in the 40% case.

  2. You can increase the number of customers: For 5% you might be able to make it as a part of your sales quota goals. Depending on your product 40% might be hard. 

  3. You can reduce the cost: 5% seems achievable in comparison to 40%. 

You can see that each approach can achieve a 5% change. If you do them all with the 5% scope you are still 25% short to your goal. This will force you to talk to more people. The conclusion of those conversations might lead to the launch of a new product offering. Change the objective and the ways to get there, I am sure you can find similar examples in different companies. One side effect of a bigger goal is that you will need to work with others in your organization to hit the tough goal. The 5% goal could have been achieved with a smaller group, not the 40%.  

You cannot only be a storyteller in your organization. You need to take action in the direction of increasing the profits by 40%. Every milestone you hit towards your fabled destination will keep transforming your fiction into more fact. 

Understanding of incentives of others

Early in my career, I struggled to understand why people acted in the way they did. The actions of others often felt misaligned with the company’s goals and objectives. People would say different things in a meeting and do very different things. This caused me immense frustration. Then I learned about intrinsic incentives. 

There are two main kinds of incentives that are at play in a company. One, extrinsic incentives, bonuses, promotions and other more obvious incentives. Two, intrinsic incentives, the ones that are self-driven. These are often driven by some form of internal principles or values of an individual. A lot of people struggle to articulate their intrinsic incentives of working. This makes understanding co-workers tough.  

One shortcut to understanding the incentives of others is to observe the actions taken by others. In the example of increasing profits, you will encounter different people. Some support your cause, some against it and some figure out if your ideas are worth engaging with. This requires collaboration over multiple months to begin to understand the other people and teams. Be aware of what working relationships click and which ones don’t. The ones that don’t will require a lot more work. 

Each team leader or individual you work with will have different incentives, so avoid generalization. Focus on understanding what makes the people tick. If someone loves working with data, ask them to do the financial analysis for understanding the current sources of profit. If someone likes being organized, ask them to run the meetings. People feel empowered when their work is aligned with intrinsic incentives. A lot of people are not aware of their own intrinsic incentives. This can make the process of understanding others harder. Be kind to yourself through the process. 

In understanding the incentives of others, you will experience a wide range of feelings. Your feelings can be classified into over fifty labels including relaxed, supported, helpless, warm, angry, humiliated, etc. Here’s a more comprehensive list from Hoffman Lab for future reference. This will provide you with language to understand your own feelings in the situation. 

Thinking of what incentives drive beyond the financial will allow you to work with a wider range of people. The more people you can collaborate with, the more enjoyable your experience working with others will be. 

Networks of people and teams

 Crafting your story is not enough. You need to start adding value to the company by delivering value. There are three levels at which you can deliver value. Each level is progressively harder in the short term but compounds in the long term.


Level 1: Ask for a problem that you think matches your skills. Do it yourself.

Level 2: Ask for a problem that you think matches your team’s skills. Work with a teammate to get it done.

Level 3: Ask for a problem that you think matches the skills within your entire company. Work with the different parts of the company to get it done.


Solving a level 1 task will teach you how to work with the tools and ecosystem within your company. Don’t skip this level. This task will teach you about the various processes and tools within your company. While operating on level 2 and level 3 tasks, this skill is valuable. Level 1 tasks are valuable in larger organizations. It exposes the various gatekeepers in the organizations. It sets your expectations on how long it takes your organization to do certain basic actions. 

Level 2 tasks are great at getting to know people. This is a good time to set up one-on-one meetings with your collaborators. In these one-on-ones, you can share progress on your level 1 task and get feedback. You will always be enlightened by the suggestions. These one-on-ones are a great place to start understanding the incentives of your team. It also forces you to test your understanding of the company so far. You can share your understanding of why a certain level 2 task is important to your team. This will give you feedback from your teammates and clarify your understanding of how your team works.

Level 3 tasks are the toughest to make progress. Succeeding in them will teach you how your company functions and what are the incentives of different teams. Level 3 tasks are typically not assigned to you. You define them and get them done. The skills you gained doing level 1 and 2 tasks are helpful in level 3 tasks. They will include convincing a large group of stakeholders on what they need to do and why. The timeline of such a task would often be a few months to a few years, depending on the size of your company. Accomplishing this task will require you to build strong networks within the company and understand business priorities better. Success will also cement your place as a valuable employee to your company.

What are the principles of being effective in leveling up?

  1. Ruthless prioritization against a timeline

  2. Cut complaints and maximize action.

  3. Be open-minded to feedback.

  4. Have a plan A, plan B, plan C. If needed plan D, plan E, plan F, etc. 

Developing the context of different teams and individuals helps you bypass a lot of steps for your next big idea.

Closing thoughts 

Attempts to maximize context will expose you to business-aligned priorities. This enables you to get a head start on identifying and solving high-impact problems for your company. Often there are high-impact low-effort business problems staring at you. You only need to zoom out a little. 

Organizations are constantly changing and evolving and so are the people inside them. Building context is a muscle worth building in the rapidly changing world. Maximizing context frees up a lot of your time. I hope you can use this insight to make the desired impact you wish for. The greater your impact the happier you will be at work. A personal inspiration to challenge my circumstances at work has come from this quote by Daisaku Ikeda, “If you’re passive, you’ll feel trapped and unhappy in even the freest of environments. But if you take an active approach and challenge your circumstances, you will be free, no matter how confining your situation may actually be.”

A note about rabbit holes

What do you do about rabbit holes that you keep discovering? Working on interesting problems yields an endless list of rabbit holes to explore. Be curious and follow some rabbit holes. They help you develop a broader context that is often useful at a later date.