Focus on the opportunity, not the challenges

I was going to write about asking “Why not” instead of “Why” – which is advice I’m hearing often – but then I decided differently. While well-intentioned, I think that advice might drive the wrong behavior if it’s heard and understood the wrong way.

In many meetings, we tend to focus our time on why things won’t work, why they are hard, and why we cannot do them right now. We are guessing what might (!) hold us back or make things complicated.

Well, anything that is worth doing and any problem worth being solved tends to be hard and complicated. The easy stuff had already been done a long time ago.

Instead of looking at the challenges, we need to look at the opportunities: what do we gain, what can we enable if we solve this problem? Is it a worthwhile endeavor? How does this rank against the other things we could be doing with our time and energy?

Once decided, we need to stop thinking about why it’s hard and instead start focusing on how we CAN do it. For every problem, there is a solution. It might not be easy, it might not be quick, but there is a way to get it done. Dwelling in the challenges will only discourage us and waste both time and energy.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for ignoring challenges and problems to be solved. I’m instead saying that those problems need to be identified, acknowledged, written down, and then tracked to resolution. That is the productive approach to deal with challenges. Reiterating, discussing, and dwelling on them without concrete action is the unproductive approach. Once you identified a problem, you write it down, find a time and owner and move on.

Once we decided that something is important, we must only be concerned about how we can get it done and finding a realistic approach, plan, and timeframe. We must not waste our time discussing why it’s hard, and we cannot waste our resources looking for easier projects that we can tackle instead. The important stuff tends to be hard.

Back to the “Why not” advice that I poo-pooed earlier – It’s actually well-intended as it challenges us to instead of asking “why do we need to do this” rather get in the mindset of thinking, “yes, why in the hell would we not do this”. Always starting with the “Why” and assuming that there is value in a new project, initiative, or change is a good thing. Dwelling in reasons not to do something that is useful is wasted energy.

Just for the fun of it, here’s a list of a few things that were impossibly hard at some time: personal computers for everyone, finding stuff on the internet, a smartphone for everyone, streaming the movies you like to watch, getting an online order delivered the next day, electric cars, GPS for everyone, online banking,… – well you get the idea. All of those were solved by people who chose to focus on how to overcome hard problems instead of discussing why they are hard to solve.

Since we’re talking about starting with the “Why”, here’s a recommendation for one of my favorite business books:

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
Simon Sinek
ISBN-10: 9781591846444

Everything always starts with the “Why”. If you know your “Why”, you know your purpose and motivation. If you know the “Why”, it will be easy for you to enlist others for your cause.




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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Musings on data

We all love data, and we all make data-driven decisions. – Or at least that’s what we say when someone asks us because “data-driven” is the thing you need to be these days if you want to be cool.

You can spend a LOT of time getting, tracking, analyzing, and reviewing data – but do you actually get value out of that time investment? Maybe, maybe not. In order to get a good ROI on your data investments, you need to be smart and deliberate about what data you look at.

When deciding what metrics you want to track and report on, it’s helpful to think about four key principles:

  1. Data that’s not actionable is just noise – If you measure something, but you cannot act on it, or you have no intention to make an effort to act on it, you’re only wasting your and everyone’s time. It was one of the first lessons I learned at Microsoft: don’t collect and present data unless it helps your case to drive action. Everything else is just noise. Always ask yourself what possible actions might be informed by measuring a specific data set. If you cannot come up with at least a high-level answer, you shouldn’t spend time collecting the data.
  2. Data that doesn’t track against a goal is useless – Assuming you have actionable data, you also need to understand what the ideal state should look like. If you have a metric but no goal to it, you miss the reference point. If that data changes, you have no way of knowing or telling whether that change is good or concerning. Likewise, you will not know whether you are in trouble or you have reached everything you aspired for. You must have a goal or desired end state to contextualize what you’re measuring.
  3. Show what matters, not how much you have – Tell a story when you show data. Don’t show all you have; show what matters and explain why it does. I have seen and learned that at Amazon: some folks took pride in showing pages and pages of data – a sea of numbers – but they failed to convey a message and drive action with the audience. While the story behind the data might be clear to you, it won’t be for your recipients. Analyze the data, understand what’s going on, then tell a story and have everyone focused on the relevant data to that story. Don’t show a sea of numbers, don’t try to show off by how much data you have.
  4. Proxy data is better than no data – Often enough, we care about a certain metric, but we cannot directly or efficiently measure it. Instead of throwing your hand in the air and giving up, think about proxy data. If you cannot measure the specific metric you really care about, what is a proxy metric that correlates with it? What can you measure that gives you a good indication as to whether the metric you really care about might be tracking in the right direction? If you don’t have precise numbers, how can you create approximations that give you at least directional insight? Amazon is big about proxy metrics, as many things they do are too new to have lots of data available. Looking at proxy data is just as good for making business decisions and necessary course corrections.

Do use data and do make data-driven decisions. However, make them based on a sound understanding of what good data means in the given context.


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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Do you have a Worry list?

Hint: you should!  😊

We all have a lot on our minds – juggling different responsibilities, complex project dependencies, competing priorities. The risk of keeping so many things in our heads is that we will miss a bunch. We had a great idea, go to bed, and poof, it’s gone.

The solution to this is to get those ideas, questions, challenges out of your head and into what a former manager of mine called his “Worry list”. If you learned formal project management, you would call it an Issue tracker, but I like “Worry list” better.

The idea of a Worry list is to 1) get things out of your head to free up mental space, 2) collect all issues and questions in one place, so you don’t miss any, 3) have a way to systematically “burn down” the number of issues until you are ready to launch, and 4) see a glide path that lets you predict if you are on-track or off-track.

Add to your Worry list – This process is ongoing until the end of the project (and usually into the sustain phase afterward). If you discover a new issue, challenge, or question for a project, you add it to the list. No curation, no prioritization, no nothing – just capture the thought before it eludes you. Have one place and one tool where you do it and just drop things in right when they come to your mind. I like Microsoft To Dos, others use OneNote or paper, and if you want to go fancy, you can build an Excel issue tracker. The most important piece is that you keep your tool simple enough so that you will use it consistently. If you add too many bells and whistles, the maintenance effort will be too high, and you won’t follow through.

Burndown – This is the fun part. Instead of wondering what you need to take care of next, you look at your list and pick the most important or most urgent question or action. You solve it. You move on to the next. You can prioritize your list ahead of time or pick what is appropriate for the moment. This is “burning down” the list of issues (or bugs if you are in SW development).

Glide path – Looking at the glide path lets you determine if you are on-track or off-track. If a plane is within the prescribed glide path during landing, it will smoothly touch the runway. If it’s off the glide path, bad things could happen, and the pilot needs to take immediate action. The same is true for your worry list: if you solve 5 issues per day, have one week to go until launch, and 40 remaining items on your worry list, you know that you need to take action and change course. A glide path can be mathematical science (linear or polynomial regression) or just a rough temperature check (oops, still ten issues left for the week) – it’s up to your preference. In either case, it’s critical to know if you will be ready in time or not.

Punting – The hidden secret for shipping any product or project is to determine what not to tackle when you are running out of time. Some things must be done before launch, but others can wait until after. Solving issues is not the only way to burn down your Worry list – you can also decide to punt some issues for later. SW companies do that all the time and for good reasons – see this famous (and misleading) article on Windows 2000 https://www.zdnet.com/article/bugfest-win2000-has-63000-defects/. When launch day comes close and you run out of daylight, decide what really needs to get done and what is nice to have and can wait for another day.

Get your worry list started now! You will see that you will worry much less once you have it (you effectively delegate your worries out of your brain and into the list).


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Start the new year from a position of control

This week started with a flurry of meetings and requests for all of us. That’s just what you would expect for this time of the year: everyone comes back from vacation and rest with a wealth of new ideas, and a new year is always a natural point for clean-up and changes.

While this is all normal and good, it also bears a risk: humans have such a strong tendency to continue doing what they are doing. Inertia is a powerful force in the Universe. As we all started our first week by reacting to tactical requests and fixing small fires, it’s way too easy to get caught in the hustle of those day to day activities. Being busy is just so easy, and the associated instant gratifications are tempting, to be honest.

It’s easy to be busy, but it takes commitment and energy to be impactful.

Right now, as we are all refreshed and the new year is still to be defined by us, it’s even more important to have your story straight on what matters most.

Take a break from getting all tactical and request-driven, and give yourself the time to reflect on what matters most. Then ensure that you take those priorities into action. Block enough time and energy for those activities. Define checkpoints and review regularly if you are progressing at the right pace against those priorities. Adjust your plan, behavior, and days if you see a gap opening up between what matters and what you’re doing.

The important thing is NOT how busy you are. What’s important is the impact you have. For that, it’s much less important how much you do, but it’s crucial that you do the right things.

I happened to stumble upon an (older) article this morning that is very related and provides excellent ideas on how to stay focused on what matters most: https://hbr.org/2019/05/when-life-gets-busy-focus-on-a-few-key-habits. Happy reading!  😊

Focus on the alligator closest to the boat

“Focus on the alligator closest to the boat.”

We have a ton of things going on, and COVID added many more that were not planned, accounted, or resourced for. New things are coming in almost on a daily basis. This can be scary, even daunting at times, but all of it is important – what each of us does has a tremendous impact on the future of so many people!

Having that said, not everything needs to be done right now, and some things can wait just a few days. Being clear about that and giving yourself the freedom to focus on the one thing that’s most important right now is critical to keep your sanity in times of high pressure. Understand your project priorities, their true (not perceived) criticality, and when they need to be done. Then decide what you need to do right now.

A good mental model for this was given to me by a co-worker a few years ago. He was a manager in an Amazon warehouse. That’s about the craziest it can get: every day is high pressure, and completely unplanned. Equipment breaks, workers get sick, a new deal takes off unexpectedly, shipments come in late – you name it. They don’t even keep their calendar updated because days are unpredictable by default. Everything is ad-hoc and focused on what’s most important right now – well to be clear, there is a lot of strategic planning going on, but day to day operations is influenced by many unpredictable events.

I asked him how he can make progress and stay sane in such an environment, and he told me that it’s actually very easy: “You focus only on the alligator next to the boat.”

Find your alligator that’s next to the boat right now. Keep a mental map of where the others are as some might be approaching while others drift away. Then deal with the one next to the boat!


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Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk ISBN 9781077278929

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