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Short-cuts and Epiphanies

Topic: Entrepreneur Evangelist | Comments (1)

Posted on January 14, 2010 by admin

Let me describe a common scenario that I recently relived for the 1000th time in my career:

  1. Agree to scope of project and set out to get it done by the due date.
  2. Encounter problems that put the date in jeopardy.
  3. Deal with stakeholder upset at the prospect of a late delivery date.
  4. Someone comes up with a brilliant idea that simplifies something and buy back some time.

Rubik's CubeOf course, whether or not Step 4 buys back enough time keep the project on target varies from project to project, but the part that interests me is the first half of Step 4. When I was first starting out in my career, I would typically find myself surprised when it would seem to happen at the darkest hour of a project. Over time, I came to expect that it would (and I still often get frustrated if it doesn’t).

This phenomenon was what was on my mind when I read the blog post on 37signals‘ blog, Signal vs. Noise, called “You can always do less.” The recent VentureBeat post I wrote about asked a similar question in a different way: “What initiatives could be done half-assed without significant impact?

To me this is a point worth considering for a number of reasons.

Too Attached to the Original Point of View
As noted in the 37signals’ post, often times the problem is rooted in becoming too attached to our original plan, and not adapting accordingly. (This is something I am often guilty of doing.) All the work goes into planning, and the last thing anyone wants to do is feel that time was wasted — so we will often stick to a plan, even if updated information reveals that plan to be outdated.

In the world of software development, this issue is at the heart of the Agile Development methodology. Traditional Waterfall Development approaches were originally borrowed from the world of manufacturing, where extensive planning was a must due to the investment of time and resources that went into building a factory. The world of software proved to have trouble with this model, though, because technology shifts too quickly, and business needs are too fluid. So if you spend two years planning and building a product, chances are, by the time you launch it, the business conditions that led you to build it in the first place have changed, rendering the whole thing (or at least large parts of it) a wasted effort.

The same is true of business: being agile is at the heart of entreprenurial survival. I wrote a post last year about the importance of agility in business, as well as technology development. Truth be told, agility is also the biggest advantage that startups and small businesses can potentially have — assuming they have the right attitude and organizational structure to support dynamic and fluid change.

Not Being a Good Groundhog
I like the Groundhog metaphor when it comes to building anything from a website to a business: you can burrow away for months, but if you don’t pop your head out every once in a while and look around, you have no idea where you’ll really end up. Part of being too committed to early planning is a deluded sense of faith in where you end up. If you don’t take the time to stop and look around, it’s hard to correct course when you discover that your terrain has changed.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention
This I truly believe with all my heart. The human brain is a wonderous, mysterious and fascinating thing. And it is capable of immense creativity and adaptability when properly sparked. For many of us, though, those sparks usually have to come from outside sources. So no matter how much rigerous planning you may go through, it’s always a distinct possibility that it’s not until the team is feeling pressure that the creative juices really start flowing enough to come up with creative solutions.

The Gulf Between Assumed and Real Value
Again, one of the core tennants of the Agile Software development movement is the idea that, if you plan everything too far out, you are making assumptions about what is really going to be of the most value. Whereas, if you give people a little bit at a time, let them absorb it, give you feedback and then move on to the next piece, it’s very easy to see what has true value to your stakeholders and focus your efforts there, instead of on bright-and-shiny objects that sound cool, but which provide little in the way of real value.

Of course, there are conflict in things like this all the time. What has the “higher value”: spending billable time on a client request that you know they are never going to do anything with, or spending that same time on non-billable activities within your own business? Starving entrepreneurs struggle with conflicting needs like these all the time. Some times you need to do client busy work; other times you need to push back on the client and focus on your work. It all depends, and only you can make that call.

But when faced with the a task — any task — always try to ask yourself two questions:

  • Is there a quick-and-dirty version of this I can do, instead of the time-consuming one?
  • What are the consequences if I take the short-cut?

For some things, the price is too high (especially for things like taxes, legal documents, cooking chicken or buying your wife’s birthday present). But for some things, what you get out of the long version simply isn’t worth the investment. How do you decide which is which?

Alora Chistiakoff is an entrepreneur, blogger, content strategist and project manager who has been developing online business and technology for startups for more than a decade.  She co-owns The Indigo Heron Group, Inc., a content strategy firm in Austin, Texas.