Moving the Needle When You’re On Fire

Recently in my performance review at work, a core area for improvement was to Focus on Moving the Needle.

The first thought that came to my mind when I heard this was why would I do anything other than that; the second thought was if I’m not doing that, then what in the world was I spending my time doing?

I was frustrated because I was giving work everything I had and it clearly wasn’t producing the results I had hoped for. To succeed, I had to change the way I worked, but how?

So I did what any person does when they don’t know the answer to something, I googled how to focus on moving the needle. After reading several articles and receiving a ton of quality advice from my wise manager, Mark Andrews (quick shoutout!), I finally understood what was wrong with how I spent my time at work.

TLDR; While I felt I was busy and doing things that mattered, I was actually spending my time on issues that were Urgent but Not Important, aka Snacking.

As I went through the process of categorizing my day by urgency and importance, I realized that I spent 65% of my time on less important tasks. No wonder I wasn’t moving the needle..

The question that remained for me was why is this happening and why hadn’t I encountered this problem in the past?

As I reflected on the differences between my previous roles at Yo and Meetup in comparison to Intercom, I realized there was one major distinction. At Yo and Meetup I developed a product for an external consumer; at Intercom I was developing a product for an internal consumer. While serving external vs. internal consumers could be an entire blog post on it’s own, the key distinction in your relationship with an internal consumer is the accessibility that they have to you. For better or worse you get immediate feedback. This can lead to distraction and an inability to focus on the right things .

You get caught up trying to put out fires, rather than concentrating on how you can prevent the fires in the first place. I think Warren Buffet has a great perspective on this when he said

“Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” — Warren Buffet

By becoming aware of this difference, I made a few key changes to my workflow that have helped me get significantly better at Moving the Needle

  1. Have a single person on the internal team consolidate feedback and bring you the highest priority issues
  2. Always ask for data to justify the importance of an issue, instead of relying on anecdotal recollections (which is often fraught with unproven assumptions)
  3. Focus on what will prevent future fires

I still have a lot to improve before I consistently move the needle, but I’m confident that with this new understanding and with guidance from my manager that I’ll get there.