Time Management Toolbox

One of the things people talk to me about commonly is how to manage their time. Over the years, I have accumulated a bunch of pithy equations that characterize this skill, which I now present to you as the one and only time management toolbox.

Eq 1: “Time” \approx “Currency”

This is a common saying, but not applied as commonly as it ought to be. Consider the fact that spending your time is equivalent to spending your money…but worse — because you have a limited supply of it. The motives here aren’t simply selfish; just as you want to generate the most value from your time, so too does whoever signs your paycheck. Time is your greatest asset, so use it wisely. And remember, you can use it like currency: spend it to help someone and generate goodwill.

Eq 2: “Urgent” \neq “Important”

People sometimes have a tendency to confuse the urgent (tasks right in front of you) with the important, but it is important to distinguish between the two, as you can see in the table below. If you think about it, there are many tasks that are urgent (or appear to be) — but don’t fall into the trap of pursuing these tasks unless they are also important.

Urgent vs Important

Eq 3: “I don’t have time” \Rightarrow “This is not a priority”

In this talk, Laura Vanderkam points out that every minute you spend is your choice. Whenever you are tempted to say that you don’t have time to do something that you think is important, try saying instead that it is not a priority. All of a sudden, you realize that you are making a conscious choice to deprioritize something important, which also means you can choose differently by elevating its priority and dropping something else instead.

Eq 4: “Prioritize Task” \equiv “Deprioritize Everything Else”

One of the tricks I have found useful to employ is to ruthlessly deprioritize and discard any task with the slightest chance of being unimportant. Rather than asking whether something is or could be important, instead ask the opposite. Create a vacuum that you then have no choice but to fill up with your important tasks. I often surprise myself when I pick up an obviously important task and ask, “What’s the worst that could happen if I dropped this?” and the answer turns out to be, “Not much”. 🤷‍♂️

Eq 5: “My Time” > “Your Time”

Not everyone’s time is equal, and if you want to leverage your time effectively, consider your time to be more important than everyone else’s by default. In case this sounds selfish, remember that every other person with this skill is doing the same thing themselves! In any case, don’t be shy about demanding time from others, and don’t take it personally if you are refused. When you are mentoring someone, remember that an hour spent trying and failing is more valuable to the student than an hour you spend teaching them. Provide guidance, then get out of the way.

Eq 6: “Out of Sight” \simeq “Out of Mind”

Things that are right in front of us not only seem urgent, they also make us forget the things that aren’t in front of us. The antidote? Write down your important tasks and goals on post-it notes and stick them on your computer monitor. Or keep a list of things you consider important, that you are forced to look at every day, maybe several times each day.

Eq 7: “High Throughput” + “Low Latency”

If you focus exclusive quality time on a task, you can make a signficant dent in it. On the other hand, this may prevent you from shepherding other important tasks that would have benefited from quick action to move them along or course-correct. If you allow yourself to be driven solely by incoming tasks and events, you lose the ability to spend dedicated quality time on any particular task, and the overhead of context-switching becomes too much. Obviously, there is a happy balance between these two ends of the spectrum, but it is important to recognize that you need both kinds. Personally, I prefer to spend early mornings on longer tasks that require deep focus, and handle interrupts, follow-ups and meetings during the remainder of the day.

That’s all for today, folks! 🖖

Offsite Guide

What is an offsite?

An offsite is a team-building exercise designed to bring together the core members of a team into a single room over an extended period time (usually 2-3 days). Offsites are structured to offer participants a respite from daily tasks, distractions and context-switches, instead allowing them to spend focused time with the rest of the team. With the right set of activities and facilitation, offsite participants are able to gradually develop a full appreciation of diverse perspectives and align on the fundamental problem that they want to solve as a team.

Do I need to be thinking about arranging an offsite for my team?

If your team is in its formative stages, it may be facing a lot of ambiguity regarding its charter and boundaries. Getting together at this stage is very useful for understanding the team’s mission, sharing and digesting lessons learned from the past, establishing guiding principles for the team to operate against, and agreeing upon the goals to be achieved. Similarly, an offsite is useful when your team is embarking upon a major new initiative, or if it has recently expanded or turned-over significantly.

Who should participate in the offsite?

Anyone who contributes to the day-to-day decisions of the team or helps set direction for the team should participate in the offsite. It is often helpful to limit the group size to approximately 10, so everyone can actively participate in the session. All participants should be physically and mentally present for the entire duration of the offsite.

Is an offsite the same as a sprint planning session?

No, sprint planning and retrospective sessions are usually far more time-constrained and help define tactical goals for the team, whereas offsites tend to be more strategic in nature and help define the team’s charter. Offsites typically benefit from novelty (such as a change in location and pace) and tend to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Festina lente – make haste slowly – may be a good motto for an offsite.

What should my team be looking to gain from the offsite?

Typically, your team should be looking to achieve the following goals from an offsite: (a) get clarity on why the team exists, what its charter is, and who its customers are, (b) get a deep understanding of customers’ pain points and unmet needs, (c) align on what the most important problems are and agree on a strategy for solving them, (d) celebrate the team’s successes and acknowledge its failures, and finally (e) establish an environment where every individual is encouraged to speak freely and their voice is heard.

Planning an Offsite

Participation — Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the offsite is getting everyone into the room in the first place. Create a concrete agenda and communicate it to the team, so they see the value in it. Speak to each participant individually and make sure they have cleared out their calendar and get their commitment to be present, both physically and mentally, for the full duration of the offsite. Participants may want to “step out” to go to other meetings in the middle of the day – prevent this at all costs! Make sure everyone is able to attend in person for the full duration, even if it means traveling from another location for some participants.

Environment — Often underestimated in its influence, the environment around the team plays a role in the quality of the discussion and the receptiveness of the team to new ideas and challenges to status quo. Most importantly, the environment of the offsite should offer a change of scenery from day-to-day work – hotel conference rooms and resorts work well, or even a different office building with a distinct floor plan. Go for large spaces to broaden your horizons and think creatively (there is a reason artists prefer coffee shops and lofts). Open up the windows and bring in the light to keep the energy in the room positive and refreshing. Start early when the mind is fresh.

Agenda — Create an agenda for each day on the previous evening. Take into account the critical discussions and action items from the prior session if it is a multi-day offsite. At the start of each day, put down the agenda on the whiteboard or project it onto the screen for everyone to see. Ask each participant what they are looking to get out of the time spent and make sure it gets added to the list of topics to discuss. But everything said and done, the agenda merely serves as a guide and forcing function for discussion; it is not an end unto itself. Change the agenda – or discard it altogether – if you discover more important topics during the day.

Equipment — Make sure the conference room has the right tools (check on the day before to confirm). Make sure there is a projector and audio/video equipment that is functional. There is a lot of value in sharing a screen with the entire team showing the action items, priorities and notes. (On a side note, it is not unusual for everyone to agree on an action item but fail to agree on what the action item meant once it was written up precisely on the screen for everyone to read.) Don’t let your action items and decisions be lost or diluted because you failed to write it down clearly while it was being discussed.

Engagement — Write down and share a set of ground rules at the start of the offsite. Enforce a strict “no laptops” policy for anyone in the room – all individuals must close their laptops unless they are taking pertinent notes. There is arguably nothing more discouraging in such a session than to watch individuals physically in the same room but mentally elsewhere. Get everyone to sit at the table, and not on the sidelines, acting as observers. Identify activities that everyone can participate in and contribute. No one in the room should feel disengaged from the conversation. Normally, not everyone is eager to participate, so they must be assigned stuff to do. Some of the best discussions are had when the team breaks off as individuals, performs some activity (such as writing up some bullet points or paragraphs on customer pain points) and then comes back to share it with the group. This provides the right “melting pot” environment for ideas to come together and patterns to emerge. Most importantly, it also helps the quieter voices to be heard and disagreements to come out into the open.

Food — Nothing good can come of working on an empty stomach. Get lunch ordered ahead of time so the team can sit down and eat together, and perhaps continue the discussion in a more relaxed setting. Keep the energy level up – take a break or pick a different topic of discussion if the team is getting tired out.

Guiding Principles

1. Work backwards from the customer. Work backwards from the customer problem that you are trying to solve. Even when you are faced with operational issues and organizational challenges, frame the problem and its resolution in terms of the value it provides to real customers. Keeping your sights on the customer ensures that as a team you are externally focused rather than internally focused and always continue to generate value for your customers. By recognizing this value, the team is able to align on its charter and purpose of its existence.

2. Avoid groupthink. In the desire to be heard, it is easy to fall into the trap of expressing one’s opinion loudly and forcefully to the extent that it suppresses alternate opinions. In the interest of social cohesion, others may choose to simply agree with the idea or may fail to elaborate on dissenting views. For the team to make decisions that they can fully stand behind, it is important to encourage every individual to put forth their thoughts clearly (without reference to others’ opinions) and for others to actively listen to what they have to say.

3. Speak up. As an owner, every member of the team has a responsibility to speak up when they believe that they team is making a wrong decision or is heading towards a pitfall that they see coming. Rather than staying silent to avoid conflict, the individual must step forward to convey their own experience and understanding to the rest of the team. A decision may be arrived at where some members disagree and commit to the decision – but only after the point has been conveyed and understood by the others.

4. Measure progress. When it comes to setting goals for the team, the hard part is to make the goal measurable. With a measurable goal, anyone can objectively see how much progress has been made towards the goal. Until the measurement for the goal has been discussed and agreed upon, it cannot be considered a valid goal. Attempting to do otherwise results in goals that are not actionable, later resulting in confusion across the team and stakeholders.

5. Break constraints. Innovation and speed arise directly from a willingness to evaluate and break constraints. It is common for the team to see constraints as simply ‘the way things are’ instead of situations that can be intentionally altered. If you continue to operate within the existing framework of constraints, you are forced to move at the same slow speed as always; by consciously putting an effort into recognizing, evaluating and breaking such constraints, you unlock innovation and are able to move much faster towards your goals. Seemingly unsurmountable barriers vanish and you discover simpler and speedier ways to achieve what you originally assumed was impossible.

6. Create two-way doors. Decisions can be made much faster when you recognize that most decisions are two-way doors (that is, easily reversible). Teams sometimes spend a lot of time debating options endlessly and failing to reach consensus. Usually, though, there are more points of agreement than disagreement, and everyone has the same higher-level goal in mind. Once you recognize this, it is easy to see that most decisions are in fact two-way doors, and it is more important to make a decision, commit to it and move forward, rather than over-index on making the right decision all the time.

7. Take control of your own destiny. It is common to have dependencies on people and groups outside the team, both internal and external to the organization. In a situation where the team is blocked on dependencies, it is important that the team acts immediately to find innovative ways to unblock itself, or eliminate the dependency altogether. Only when the team ‘takes control of its own destiny’ is it able to accelerate towards its goals.

That’s all for today, folks! 🖖

Writing a Press Release

Amazon has a culture of working backwards. Working backwards means identifying the right goals (and explaining why they matter), and then executing towards them – in that sequence. If this sounds obvious to you, you might be surprised at how difficult it is to achieve in practice. Even experienced individuals are led astray by their biases, allowing the brilliance of the solution to dictate the articulation of the problem. A clunky solution to a critical problem is far superior to a good solution that solves an unimportant problem.

A ‘press release’ (abbreviated to PR-FAQ since it is typically accompanied by a set of ‘frequently asked questions’), is a launch announcement written from the viewpoint of a hypothetical future launch of a product. It is a thought-exercise to “look back” at the product and evaluate if it makes sense to pursue (or not). More concretely, it is a lucid explanation of the problem and why it matters to potential customers. As a customer-obsessed company, Amazon chooses to work backwards from what customers need, but there is more to this. Customer obsession matters because it focuses effort on building things that have sustained long-term value, as opposed to things that offer short-term economic benefit to the business. Customers are the ones who sustain the business, when they reap the benefits of the value that the product generates. They are also the ultimate judge of which problems are actually important to them.

If you have a great idea that solves a problem, big or small, here are some tips to help you craft a good PR-FAQ.

1. Wear the CEO’s hat and own every decision.

Write the PR-FAQ as if you were the owner and final decision-maker. A commonly observed pitfall is presenting one aspect of the data while ignoring other, equally important dimensions. If you had to make the final decision, you would want to be informed of reasons to pursue the idea as well as reasons not to. The quote by physicist Richard P Feynman is very apt in this context: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

2. Identify the customer and speak their language.

Before you start offering solutions, make sure you understand whose problem you are solving. Write the PR from this customer’s perspective, not from the point-of-view of the business.

3. Figure out exactly what customer value you are creating.

You should be able to crisply articulate what problem you are solving for the customer. Get very specific and make an attempt to quantify each benefit, breaking it down if you appear to have several. Aggresively eliminate weasel words. For each benefit, ask ‘So What?’ and see if the value can be expressed in a language that the customer would more closely identify with.

4. Discard problems that are not worth solving.

Not every problem is worth solving, especially if there are more important ones to address. Avoid devaluing the core message of the PR-FAQ by talking about incidental benefits that wouldn’t make a difference to your decision to launch. Increase the signal-to-noise ratio.

5. Write the FAQ, then write the PR narrative.

Writing down answers to specific questions as part of the FAQ is a great way to gain personal clarity on what the PR narrative ought to be. Your mileage may vary, but it is helpful to write down all possible and relevant questions, attempt to answer them succinctly, and only then write the PR narrative. Once the material is in good shape, you can easily prune questions that turned out to be of less import.

6. Start with why the problem needs to be solved.

Taking a page out of Simon Sinek’s book, the most important thing to explain is why solving the problem matters, rather than what you are going to launch or how you are planning to succeed. Avoid burying the lead. The answer to this question of ‘why’ consists of several parts, including the value to the customer, the investment needed on your part to resolve this unmet customer need, the underlying business model, an understanding of why you are uniquely positioned to solve the problem better than anyone else and finally, why you believe this is the right time to invest in solving it. Answer the parts relevant to the customer in the PR, and the rest in the FAQ.

7. Solve the hard problem, not the easy one.

Don’t shy away from creating a bold vision. Identify and solve the hard problem, if it makes sense to do so. Don’t solve an easier problem just because the harder one seems to require co-ordination with other teams or appears…hard. Avoid settling for the easier problem just because you lack the data — talk to customers and gather the data you need, or make an educated guess, to be refined later. A common technique is to quantify the problem with placeholders such as ‘X%’, indicating that some additional data is pending.

8. Explain the business model.

Although the PR is written from the customer’s perspective of the problem, it doesn’t make good business sense to blindly please the customer unless we can do so in a way that sustains the business and makes it thrive. A business model simply articulates how you are generating value, who pays for it, and how that enables you to accelerate the generation of additional value. Amazon’s growth flywheel with its virtuous cycle is a great example of a business model in action.

Amazon's Flywheel

A common pitfall to keep in mind is that there are many ideas that can exploit inefficiencies in the ecosystem and generate economic value, and yet not accelerate the flywheel. Value generated in this manner is short-lived, and may disappear as inefficiencies are eliminated. These ideas ought to be viewed with a degree of skepticism. An example of this is when you act as a middleman in an inefficient process and simplify the process for the participants. Keep in mind though that there are exceptions to this rule of thumb as well, as we don’t live in a perfect market and need to contend with external forces such as state regulations and oligopolies.

9. Reach the right conclusions given the data available.

Good ideas may be rejected because the time is not right for them, due to limitations in infrastructure, technology or the state of the ecosystem. Or, the risks of executing on the idea could be too large to undertake. Your goal in developing the PR-FAQ is to capture all relevant dimensions in the FAQ and help guide the business towards the right decision – which could very well be to not launch. The quality of the PR-FAQ is judged not on the outcome but on the quality of the decision. Be specific, factual, to-the-point and transparent about the risks and outcomes, to help everyone arrive at the right decision.

10. Aspire to be credible in your presentation.

PR narratives sometimes suffer from too little context, and sometimes too much. Provide too much context, and the reader may get bored and miss the point of the narrative. Provide too little context, and the narrative starts to sound too technical and complicated. An effective strategy here is to assume that the reader is a lay-person not particularly familiar with the domain, and then provide just enough context to understand the point you are trying to make with every sentence. Eliminate all jargon, except what the reader absolutely needs to learn about. Customer quotes may help drive home the point once it has been expressed; keep them brief and simple.

On April 15th, 2021, Jeff Bezos published his 2020 Letter to Shareholders. In his final letter — he is stepping down as CEO later this year — Mr. Bezos talks in depth about how Amazon has created value over the past decades. He offers this pearl of wisdom:

If you want to be successful in business (in life, actually), you have to create more than you consume. Your goal should be to create value for everyone you interact with. Any business that doesn’t create value for those it touches, even if it appears successful on the surface, isn’t long for this world. It’s on the way out.

That’s all for today, folks! 🖖