A True Sense of Urgency

Inspired by John Kotter in A Sense of Urgency (2008), read from the local library in March 2021. 4 stars on Goodreads.


What URGENCY is not:

  • Frantic wheel spinning
  • Constantly questioning
  • Complacency
  • Ambiguous
  • Only about data (mind)
  • Slow
  • Busy
  • Status quo
  • Anxious or angry

Versus what is TRULY URGENT:

  • Patient daily progress
  • Not anxious
  • Aimed at winning
  • Alert
  • Whole-hearted
  • Speedy
  • Clear my calendar
  • Alert, proactive, fast
  • Ready to move and win


Tactics to make a sense of urgency into a daily habit:

  1. Purge and delegate
  2. Move with speed
  3. Speak with passion
  4. Match words to deeds
  5. Let everyone see it

A true sense of urgency is about starting today; grab opportunities and avoid hazards, and shed low-priority activities to move faster and smarter, now.

John Kotter in A Sense of Urgency

Stuck? Go back to the reasons you started. Try a different angle. Keep moving, even with small wins, to generate momentum. Be opportunistic.

My take? True urgency means to stay alert, bring outside oxygen in, address both heads and hearts, and prioritize movement towards what matters most. Ready to move faster and smarter.

Dream in Years, Plan in Months, Ship in Days

This guideline pops up often inside Automattic via folks like Matt, or me, on internal memos when discussing how best to balance product planning, strategy, and execution. With a bias toward action, we aim to learn more quickly by launching directly to users and customers.

Source: I first saw this message in 2015 via a tweet by Luke Wroblewski.

Luke later shared a poster version on Twitter in 2016, which I purchased for my office Zoom background (buy on Startup Vitamins).

DJ Patil, US Chief Data Scientist during the Obama administration tweeted an expanded version in 2017:

Here’s the full text from DJ’s hand-written note on White House stationery.

Dream in years
Plan in months
Evaluate in weeks
Ship daily

Prototype for 1x
Build for 10x
Engineer for 100x

What’s required to cut the timeline in half?
What needs to be done to double the impact?

DJ Patil

I love this philosophy for product strategy and execution because it puts the right balance on each activity.

Dreams take time and effort to accomplish, and a clear product vision means looking ahead enough to inspire and motivate people to join the mission.

When we don’t know an accurate launch date at the beginning, monthly plans split the work into smaller projects and tasks that’ll bring improvements out to the public quicker. This means we learn faster, measure the immediate impact of a launch, and track usage as close as possible to real-time.

Speed matters in marketing, business, and product development. Sometimes we aren’t confident the current change is the right one, yet shipping before we’re fully confident leads to a smarter set of next changes — informed by the people using the product.

Ship daily, measure weekly, and plan in months to find out what works sooner than later.

🚀

Kathleen Eisenhardt on Simple Rules To Unblock and Make Faster Decisions

When analyzing my work with teams, projects, and my own contributions I often try to find the bottleneck in the system. What’s blocked? How could we move faster? What’s are the important decisions?

Kathleen Eisenhardt is a professor at Stanford University who dives deep into these questions, and more. Below are two examples that share insights from her work around complex systems, decision making, and how simple rules can make all the difference.


Kathleen Eisenhardt: What Are Simple Rules? — We’re more likely to remember and act on 2-5 simple rules.


Kathleen Eisenhardt: Effective People Think Simply — You can make decisions faster when the rules are simple.

Start from both ends — open versus closed, and structured/complex versus chaotic.

What are the likely scenarios?

  • Product development teams that are highly complex might launch the wrong product very efficiently.
  • Product development teams that are highly chaotic — and anything goes — have a great time launching nothing.

Questions to ask:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. What’s the bottleneck in the process? What keeps us from achieving our goals?
  3. What are the rules? For example, understand your own data while also bringing in outside experts.

You can make decisions faster when the rules are simple.

“Stopping” rules are the hardest to learn. People are good at starting! Bad at stopping.

One of the biggest mistakes business people make is staying in something too long. A stopping rule helps you get out of that.

Kathleen Eisenhardt

Involve people around you to determine the rules — they shouldn’t just be from the top.

I hope you learn as much as I did from Kathleen Eisenhardt’s work.

SOUL-mate Decision Framework

I love this “SOUL-mate decision-making framework” shared by Aman Bhutani, CEO of GoDaddy. How do you know if a current, or new, role fits well?

Something you want to do.
Opportunity to help people more than yourself.
YoU should bring something special and unique to the role.
Learning is key, there has to be something you’re learning in the role.

Hat tip: Matt.


The S is for Something you are hungry for (not just interested or passionate about – truly hungry for). This will make sure you wake up every morning ready to succeed in the new role.

The O reminds you that there should be opportunity for everyone and not just you. Successful people do a lot of things right, and luck plays its part, but they also ride waves.

The U means that YOU must bring something special to the table. There must be a reason you are a match – you should have a competitive advantage over others.

Finally, L is for learning. If you are not going to learn anything, don’t take it. Remember that this often comes from the people just as much as the role itself.

Aman Bhutani on Twitter

Quick Fix Days and Hack Weeks

At Automattic we’ve redefined our hack weeks to focus on product changes for customer kindness: fixing flows, removing dead ends, and paying down technical debt.

In The big secret of small improvements Tal Bereznitskey explains how to improve “quick fix days,” where software teams take time to make small improvements. Those small changes can together mean a big win for customers and the business.

At Automattic we’ve experimented with both 1-day bug scrubs in one team all the way up to a full “hack week” — so Tal’s principles strike a chord with me.

Framing the problem is halfway to solving it — I love how he suggests rewording the subject line of a software change to fix a bug as something actionable, not just a description of the problem.

6. Well defined. Only work on tasks that are defined properly. Prefer “Make content scrollable” over “Bug: can’t see content when scrolling”.

Create positive feedback loops — I remember during my days answering WordPress.com Themes bug reports and how rewarding it was to hear directly from the people I helped with a bug fix.

7. Thanks you. There’s nothing like hearing a customer say “Thank you!”. When a quick-fix was suggested by a customer, let the developer email him and tell him the good news.

This is the work: customer kindness — Our latest iteration at Automattic speaks to this customer focus as the goal of the maintenance work — it isn’t just polish or cleanup, this is the product work. We even have a fun acronym for it now! H.A.C.K. — Helping Acts of Customer Kindness.

Aaron Douglas: Being Mindful During Video Calls

Tips from my coworker and prodigious mobile app maker Aaron Douglas on being mindful during video calls. Great tips, not just for remote workers, either. “I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.”

The Dangling Pointer

Working remote means I’m on a lot of video calls. I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.

Look at the camera often

When you’re in person you look at people’s eyes to show them you’re listening. Doing that on a video call requires a bit of counter-intuitive body language by looking at the camera. You won’t be looking at the person but they’ll see you looking directly at them. It’s a subtle difference but I’ve found it highly effective.

Also try to place the video call window up the screen towards the camera. Also decrease the size of the window so the person’s eyes are naturally closer to the top of the window (closer to the camera). When you’re not looking at the camera while the person is speaking it’ll still look…

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Product Management: Active Questions

I’m a fan of Oblique Strategies for triggering a new perspective when I get stuck. To me this method brings active questions to trigger better thinking.

This practice comes up for me frequently in product management when working on both short and long views of a roadmap. As part of any decision making process, whether by myself for reflection, or in a team working on a product change, I might ask something like:

What is the end result for our customers?
Where are we going in the long term?

The purpose of active questions, like Oblique Strategies, is to trigger more questions until you get a better answer. A truer answer. An honest answer. To find the why is to find the signal that drives everything else forward.

Who is it for?
How will they understand it’s for them?
How will we know if it’s a success?
What do we expect to see change?
How are we measuring it?
What would be a surprise here; something that we don’t expect?
Have we considered doing the opposite?
Who has the most to gain?
What’s the context?

What questions do you ask to find the why?

(Video) Indistractable, Nir Eyal

Being indistractable is a super power. Nir Eyal started out his Mind the Product SF 2018 presentation by sharing that in the five years since his book Hooked came out he’s kept up with everything, gathered feedback, and learned even more about the neuroscience and behavior that drives our motivations and attention.

My main takeaway from his message is simple. You’ll know when you’re distracted by planning ahead. Using DND (do not disturb) mode to plan your time grants you freedom for what author Cal Newport calls “Deep Work” and Nir Eyal names “Traction.”

Working to your input each day rather than output to get important work done. Nir mentioned the “Forest” app to stay focused. In the few weeks after I attended Mind the Product my colleague Rachel McRoberts also mentioned this app to me. It’s a simple concept: each focus period grows a virtual green tree. If you interrupt the focus, the tree dies and you have to start over. Nir also uses the “Time Guard” app which allows you to set sensible limits to time spent on distractions.

I highly recommend watching this 28 minute video to hear and understand Nir’s latest work and pick up practical tips on decluttering and avoiding distraction.

Video courtesy of Mind the Product.

Clean Room, Clean Mind

Why do I avoid the backlog and overflowing todo list? Why do I shove one more tool into a drawer already full of bits and bobs? Why do I squeeze yet another outfit into an overflowing closet? Because confronting this mess is hard work. It means making tough choices. Most of the time, I’d rather not decide.

To make sense of my environment, my work, my life—I need to confront the mess. Once the clutter is gone I know I’m left with just the essentials. Once the dust is clear, I can get to work.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo explains that while the process of decluttering and cleaning your home is important to your physical wellbeing, the true outcome is happiness and clarity in your mind. The habit gives you the freedom to take responsibility for important decisions.

I learned so much from this book, from awareness and mindfulness to practical tips on folding and hanging clothes. The habit of tidiness is now a mindset for me rather than just a chore to be completed.

The process starts by discarding the inessential items. Tidying up defines what is valuable: learning what I can do without; learning which books, clothes, keepsakes, or kitchen tools give me the most joy.

In applying her principles, my books were the hardest. I had hundreds and many in the category of “I’ll read this someday.” I trimmed it down to 80-90 best of the best — including this one! Hah. Keeping sentimental, must-read again, and books I reference often. The rest I gave as gifts to a new home or donated.

Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking something.

A clean home is a perfect metaphor for a clear and organized mind. If my room and desk are clear and tidy I can face the reality of what’s in front of me. “It is by putting one’s own house in order that one’s mindset is changed. When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state.” Am I scared of what I’ll find?

Because you have continued to identify and dispense with things that you don’t need, you no longer abdicate responsibility for decision making to other people.

Decisions are now easier as I see more clearly the work in front of me. And I enjoy even more the treasures, clothes, and tools I chose to keep.

Distractions Are Allowed

Via the Headspace app’s “Productivity” lessons, I love this mindful approach to distractions. I’ve been learning that distractions can be good or bad. Like thoughts, they’ll always come and go.

It’s not the nature of the distraction but acknowledging its existence.

A skill I’d like to develop further is to be at ease with my current activity even if a distraction does arise. Calmly either allow it or not allow it. It’s that simple.

When I do this now—not consistently, yet—I’m naturally more productive. I stay longer in the flow.

distractions.jpeg