How the Productivity Myth is Killing Your Startup
You have to admire the insipid, dogged and naive devotion people have to believing they are going to get this huge list of things done.
You have to admire the insipid, dogged and naive devotion people have to believing they are going to get this huge list of things done. Even when presented with releases that slip by weeks and months, objectives and projects that slip by quarters, commitments that never materialize as brutal sacrifices are made on the altar of underestimation and overconfidence — even then, they will cheerily present their plans and strategies, dripping with ambitious and doomed optimism.
Why do we keep believing we’re going to get so much done?
Each day is given only 24 hours. Even with the bare minimum of coordination costs, cut down by your tools and your processes and your homegrown blend of agile, whole hours of that day are lost to meetings, status updates, course correction, revision, company chatter, building consensus, setting and measuring, iterating and reporting. Life decimates your team with unerring and unrelenting creativity. Pregnancy, paternity/maternity leave, illness, death, burnout, vacations, weddings, freakish seasonal variants of the flu. Then there are the inevitable bugs that would make shipping irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst. Urgent customer issues. Scope creep and intervening crisis. The combined weight and force of your team bleeds the blood of a thousand paper cuts:
- People predictably overstate how much they work, especially when they’re working long weeks
- Working more than 40 hours a week is useless anyway
- Interruptions take 15-20 minutes or more to recover from
- People spend a stupid amount of time doing non-work things at work
- People are absolutely terrible at estimating how long it will take them to complete any sort of task imaginable, and not in a good way, like, “surprise wow that took less time than we thought,” but in an “oh fuck that took way longer than we thought” way.
If you think your startup employees are somehow an exception to these rules, or you can somehow contain enough of them to significantly alter the result, you are a fool.
The Dire Consequences of the Productivity Myth
- Team 1 tells Team 2 they are going to do X, Y and Z on t timeline, and Team 1 only did X and it took them two times t, and now Team 2 is SOL on Y and Z, which they needed for A and B, and now their project is late and on top of that, they deeply distrust Team 1 and will avoid any dependencies on Team 1 going forward, not trust a single word out of Team 1's mouth and believe Team 1 to be entirely incompetent. The myth of productivity: breaks inter-department communication, cooperation and collaboration; jeopardizes all work that requires bridging functional units; and often irreparably damages trust between colleagues.
- Group sets out on 10 different projects to be achieved this quarter. Group starts out working in parallel on all 10 projects, believing with foolish whole-heartedness they can complete all projects within the given period. Of course they are wrong. Projects inevitably begin to slip and fall through the cracks. Over time, desperate re-allocation of resources and last-minute compromises are made. All 10 projects are delivered late and half-assed. This is most sad for project number 4, which was the most important project of them all, and could have been completed and done damn well if everyone had just worked on that. The myth of productivity: means you won’t complete the most important things because group parallelization will occur based on erroneous scoping and estimation.
- Team perceives slack in the assessment of time and resources and provides implicit or explicit permission to fill this slack with non-core work. Team begins producing a number of interesting, cool or fun but ultimately completely worthless demos and projects that die because they aren’t tied to company priorities, can’t get resourced and are passed over as the false slack inevitably yields to crunch time. The myth of productivity: means you will hemorrhage what precious output you have with reckless abandon into dozen of disconnected initiatives, pet projects, and low-priority tasks.
- Team takes on five high-touch partnerships believing they have the bandwidth to cover all of them. Suddenly a minefield of unexpected obligations and emergencies appears: last-minute launches, production downtime, integration hell, co-customer negotiation and on boarding, etc. This slows response time, carries a large opportunity cost as additional partnerships aren’t pursued, and scatters attention across many partnerships that aren’t creating equal value. The myth of productivity: makes more external commitments than you can fulfill, introducing more urgency but no more value to your work, preventing new opportunities, and dooming medium-term projects to the murky unforgiving sea of “long term projects.”
- Management concocts a company strategy that takes into consideration how much work the company can reasonably be expected to complete. A number of decisions are made based on this strategy, ranging from budget to allocation of resources to hiring to parallel product initiatives. The myth of productivity: means your management will make decisions, set goals and judge progress made on fundamentally inaccurate projections.
Out of Delusion
You don’t have that much time to work with. You are going to get a very few number of things done. You are going to get way fewer things done than you think you’re going to get done. And those things will take you much longer than you plan for.
Much as you must talk to teens about drinking, you must talk to your team about productivity.
- Start with thought experiments. Next time a roadmap is presented, imagine a world where each release slips by weeks and months late. How does that change priorities, resource allocation, how you feel about what is important?
- When you make decisions about the next three months, six months, year, think about what happens if it takes you twice as long to do everything you want to do.
- Challenge the assumptions of your company about productivity — when a team tells you their goals, push back on them to prioritize more strictly and cut down their list. My rule of thumb is to take a list of to-dos, cut it in half, and double the time estimate. Most of the time, it’s eerily on point. Hey, you can always add more in. This is always less expensive than taking things out.
- Create a culture of truthfulness about productivity by continually comparing plans, roadmaps, and strategies to their actual results — often the number of things that were cut, late, or done poorly will shock and awe. What would you have done differently if you knew what was actually possible from the onset? Only by constant confrontation of evidence that we estimate incorrectly, that we bite off way more than we can chew, that we are wrong about productivity can we change our belief in the myth.
- Try reducing parallelization of tasks in favor of serialization that forces action to align with clear and ruthless priorities — this is a powerful technique that acknowledges the productivity myth and focuses on doing the most important things first.
- Often, initial estimates and assumptions about time and resources are never revisited — try open, ongoing assessment and communication of how timelines, priorities and plans are changing. Minimize the cost of poor planning by changing the plan as soon as better information is available.
Getting out of the productivity delusion is more powerful than any tool, methodology, rune or religion for getting more things done. It creates a pervasive approach of measurement and honesty. It yields more effective decision making. It results in clearer priorities and aligns work and resources with those priorities. It can be a true force multiplier on results as strategy, priorities and effort align with reality. My favorite effect is FOCUS. By cutting out the lies we tell ourselves about productivity, by prioritizing and planning and allocation better, we focus more on the things that actually matter.
And that is the most important thing, after all.