Sharpening the axe

Jeff Gardner
Aug 16, 2018 · 3 min read

There is a quote that is often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln.

Give me X to cut down a tree and I’ll spend the first X/2 sharpening my axe.

The times vary wildly from citation to citation but the point remains the same. Preparation is important to the outcome of any task. This is a non-controversial point of view. We train for marathons, we plan for retirement (well, we try to at least), we prepare for important meetings at work.

And when you view it this way, you’re left with the impression that preparation is always something that you actively do. It’s an item on your todo list or an action you pick up in a meeting.

What is less appreciated is that often preparation actually feels more akin to frustration. To a feeling of missing something important. To the perception of wasting time.

Spinning wheels

Have you ever worked on a project that didn’t seem to get anywhere. No matter how much time or how many meetings you poured into it, progress remained elusive. With the benefit of hindsight, do you feel like you had a clear grasp on the problem you were trying to solve? Did you understand what outcome you were actually driving towards?

Properly understanding the goal you’d like to achieve and the problem standing in the way of that goal is fundamental to coming up with an appropriate solution. But goals are often stated in the abstract. And frequently the problem itself isn’t clear or obvious to anyone.

This is a surprisingly common situation in knowledge work. We might be able to readily detect the symptoms of a problem; but getting the root cause, let along solving for that root cause, is non-trivial. Or we know what we want–to hit $100M in revenue next year–but relating that concrete goal back to the problem in front of you isn’t straightforward.

Perspective is everything

To make matters worse, your perspective and the context you bring to that perspective change everything.

For example, imagine if I asked you to improve a website’s weekly unique visitors without providing any other context. There are a near limitless number of things you could do to improve visits. A quick and expensive solution might be to run an ad where you promise to give $5 to anyone who visits the site. Voilà, weekly unique visits improved.

It’s a trite example but the point remains. Without the right framing it’s unlikely that you’ll come up with the right solution, even if you do have a clear goal and a succinct problem definition.

Sit with it

Which brings us back to preparation. How are you meant to prepare in a world full of incomplete context, fuzzy problems, and abstract goals?

The answer is to sit with it. Soak it all in. Ask questions. Listen to the responses. Ask more questions. Try and write down everything you know about the problem. Trash that doc. Try again.

Recently I’ve been working hard to moderate my strong bias towards action. There is a time and place where being action oriented is helpful. The ability to get sh!t done, and lots of it, in rapid succession has served me well for a long time. But there are many problems where the answer isn’t clear to anyone. Not you, not your boss, not the CEO. No amount of action can get around that fact. Moving faster only creates waste, not progress.

So the next time you go home frustrated after a day thrashing around with a problem you can only barely describe, take heart. You’ve just spent a day sharpening the axe.

Jeff Gardner

Written by

American living in Italy. Head of Platform Partnerships @intercom. Musing on the outdoors, technology, and lifelong learning.

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