Narrowing the focus to move faster

Photo by TAHA AJMI on Unsplash

One of the invariable truths about startups is in having way more work than the available resources can possibly do. I have experienced two strategies when trying to deal with this conundrum. One is to prioritize and focus. The other is to multi-task, similar to time division multiplexing. One of those works and the other doesn’t.

Time-division multiplexing (TDM) is a method of transmitting and receiving independent signals over a common signal path by means of synchronized switches at each end of the transmission line so that each signal appears on the line only a fraction of time in an alternating pattern. Source: Wikipedia

The applicable approach here is to pick parallel tasks and work on them all simultaneously, but continuously context switching between them. For example, a team might work on building a new feature and put that down as soon as the feature is “good enough”, then switch to investing in your build system, then switch back to the feature and so on.

This approach appears to be extremely productive. After all, your teams are working furiously and juggling numerous projects simultaneously. That’s what a startup is all about.

Wrong.

Your teams will be busy, but they won’t be productive. This approach works well for signal processing not for work that requires uninterrupted flow. There is empirical evidence in support of this argument as well. In his book, Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking, Gerald Weinberg illustrates the percentage of time spent on a project relative to the number of projects a person is working on. Unsurprisingly, the relationship is non-linear. We spend less than 50% of our time per project when working on two projects, less than 30% when working on 3 and so forth. Context switching takes a toll on our productivity.

But, I hear you say, “I have to do all this work, it’s critical to the business”. That again, is yet another illusion. Yes, the work is important, but not all work is equally important. There’s always a way to prioritize work.

“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Karen Martin

Prioritization is a critical skill to master. It enables teams doing the work to focus on the job at hand, which presumably is the top priority, without being distracted by anything else. Moreover, it allows for a team leader or management to think about the next set of priorities without interrupting their teams.

Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously. The team will likely fail at each of those tasks. Instead, leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute. When overwhelmed, fall back upon this principle: Prioritize and ExecuteExtreme Ownership

The effect of prioritization and focus is perhaps best summed by none other than the legendary Frank Slootman. Frank has built not one, but 3 amazing businesses: Data Domain, ServiceNow and more recently Snowflake. Here’s what he says about prioritization and focusing.

“The fastest way to move a dial is narrow the focus. People naturally resist focus because they can’t decide what is important. Therein lies a problem: people can typically tell you after some deliberation what their top three priorities are, but they struggle to decide on just one. They may also be incorrect about their priorities, so there is potential for misallocation of resources. What is too much and what is too little focus? Do you ever even discuss this? Most teams are not focused enough. I rarely encountered a team that employed too narrow an aperture. It goes against our human grain. People like to boil oceans.

Just knowing that can be to your advantage. When you narrow focus, you are increasing the resourcing on the remaining priority. It doesn’t have to time-slice and compete any more with a bunch of other stuff. And then things begin to move, stuff is getting done, and we move to the next thing. Many people and organizations are focused a mile wide and an inch deep.” Amp it Up! by Frank Slootman

Prioritization is hard. It’s why we resort to TDM, as a cop-out and not wanting to make the hard calls on what really matters. When I try and prioritize work, I tend to use a framework that I dub 4Cs, which I will describe in more details in my next post.

  • Context: The business/environment/operating context that this work fits into
  • Capabilities: The capabilities needed to accomplish this work. These could be specific skills, equipment or other resources
  • Cost: The cost of doing this work, both in terms of $ and time.
  • Consequence: The benefit to the business of doing this work. I also look at the potential harm of not doing it.

There’s no silver bullet to being able to correctly prioritize work. As with most skills, it is one in which you get better the more you practice it. The key message is that it is far better to prioritize and focus, even if the priority isn’t perfect (hint, it won’t be in hindsight) than trying to do “everything” at once.

Originally published at https://karimfanous.substack.com.

Tech leadership at various early stage startups: Qumulo, Dremio and now Kheiron Medical

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