Getting Things Done In A Chaotic Environment

It’s impossible, outside choreographed entertainment, to fight two guys together at once; they’ll kill you; the trick to fighting two is to make sure and put one down for long enough that he’s out of the picture long enough to put the other guy down. - Infinite Jest

One of the first things my CEO told me is that things move fast, so you have to get things done as completely as possible and move on to the next thing. I think about that advice a lot, and I find myself telling people that same thing again and again.

However, execution of that sage advice is not easy. Of course everyone wants to get stuff done completely. But I find people make four common mistakes when trying to get things done:

  • Having more than one main focus
  • Ignoring things you can’t ignore
  • Not completely finishing things
  • Taking too long to do things

Having more than one main focus

In a fast-paced environment, having more than one focus is a recipe for getting nothing done. The best people may have many things in-progress, but always have one thing that they are trying to get done; they fanatically focus on finishing that thing.

Think of it like being a Ninja Turtle. You’ve got your one main focus - that’s defeating Master Shredder. There’s other stuff going on, like chowing on pizza and skating the sewers, but you gotta make sure your main focus is always defeating Shredder. As long as Shredder is still active, you can’t also be saying you’ll definitely learn a kickflip by next week - if you truly try to prioritize both, you’ll end up doing neither.

So whether it’s a project, or a new process, or whatever - every week (or handful of weeks) should have one main thing you are finishing:

  • This should be at the top of your TODO list, checked every day, pushed as fast and as hard as possible.
  • Avoid delays like the plague. If people aren’t giving you feedback, book a meeting to force them to give you feedback. Don’t schedule the meeting next week when it can be tomorrow. Don’t schedule it tomorrow when it can be today. Book the meeting as early or as late as necessary.
  • Many big efforts get stuck on last minute minutiae. If this happens, just trim down the work, and ship whatever is viable. I’ve seen projects delayed for months when they were a day from shipping over debate on things that weren’t truly necessary. Just get the thing done.

Ignoring things you can’t ignore

While having a main focus is important, sometimes you focus to a fault. Some managers protect teams to a fault. The fault lies when things that you can’t ignore - bugs, customer issues, feature demand - get ignored.

While having one main focus at a time, you need to knock back the other non-ignorable stuff that always comes up, and you must do it as completely as possible, so you can get back to your main focus..

Think of the distractions from your main focus as Shredder’s minions. You never see a Ninja Turtle fighting Shredder while having a minion grab their legs. No - minions arrive and you knock them out ASAP. Then get back to Shredder. The problem is that many people either ignore the minions or don’t knock them out.

So, don’t ignore things you can’t ignore, for example:

  • Low priority support issues that last too long turn into high priority support issues.
  • Some demand signals from customers, especially in B2B SaaS, will not go away. In fact, as a customer renewal approaches, it’ll sometimes become drop-everything important. Something you could have prioritized healthily ends up a major distraction.
  • Pages and incidents are a classic example of things that people hope go away but don’t do enough to solve. The number one cause of a page or an incident is not solving the last page or incident.

Whether it’s bugs, feature requests, or minions - if they’re not going to lay dormant, you must knock them out, lest they creep up on you and overwhelm you, letting Shredder sneak out the back door.

Not completely finishing things

The third mistake people make is not finishing things. This was the crux of the feedback I got in the early days. It’s easy to let minions linger, still conscious, coming back again and again. These are support tickets and bugs and stability work that many people will keep pushing forward but never quite getting complete.

Progress is better than perfection, but it’s important to not fall into the trap of what I call procrastgress - little bits of progress that are not getting any closer to done, and in fact are just a form of procrastination. Procrastgress is particularly pernicious because it gives the appearance of progress and resourcing - surely we’re not ignoring something, our on-call is working on it! No, they’re not, they’re just kicking the can ever so slightly down the road until the next on-call shows up.

Procrastgress in the Ninja Turtle World would be going around and jabbing each minion in the face. Yeah, you’ll stop them for a second, and maybe you’ll feel like you’re in a fight, but you’ll fall behind quickly. You have to knock things out; finish them. Practically, this often means three main things:

  • Over-react to issues. Many issues sit under-resourced for long periods because people worry about bringing in too much help. You must create a culture where people know you can and should escalate rapidly to get things finished.
  • Be decisive. Much operational slowness originates from people not wanting to make a call. Always, always ask “what is the thing we need to do to be done with this.” Don’t end the meeting until that is answered. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Make the decision. One of the only valid reasons to delay a decision is to get more information, but even then, you must be careful about researching yourself into paralysis.
  • Make things simple. The antithesis of done isn’t unfinished, but complex. Simple things often have multiple natural stopping points where they add incremental value. Complex things are all-or-nothing, and you never quite get to them actually being great.

Taking too long to do things

OK, say you’re doing all the things above - the final trap people fall into is taking too long to get their main focus to a stopping point and milestone. Sometimes people say “we need to focus for twelve months.” If you’re at a startup, you don’t get twelve months. We’re a different company twelve months from now.

Many companies have year long plans and many people get upset when those year long plans are disrupted 6 months in by urgent and important work. But guess what - that’s not the fault of the urgent work, it’s that your year long planning set expectations wrong. The most important thing changes and you must be ready to change with it. This means doing things in reasonable time frames (e.g. 1-2 quarters) and then looking around to make sure whatever you planned next is still the right thing to do.

Think of it this way - if the Ninja Turtles spend an exorbitant amount of time with Shredder, some other bad guy will show up and now you’ll have two main focuses (see section one). Every superhero needs to defeat their villain before the end of the episode, so don’t expect multiple seasons to get your main focus to a stopping point.