Habits die hard
It is hard to focus in a fast-paced work environment: there can be live-site incidents out of the blue; bugs to fix and meetings to attend. I have always struggled with coping with incessant demands and distractions; the urge to drop whatever I am doing and hop on the next fire is hard to fight. Alas, context switching is hard and reduces efficiency.
Looking back, I realized that I needed to improve my time management skills and efficiency. For example, a lot of distractions can be eliminated by writing excellent documentation or teaching junior engineers.
Quality over Quantity
The prevailing belief of most junior engineers is that they can only grow by getting involved in as many things as possible. Exposure to multiple issues can help developers acquire great problem-solving skills however it comes at a cost. Over time, developers lose prioritization skills and seek the euphoric highs of being labelled the ‘hero’. Moreover, they don’t get to improve their judgement; after all not every issue is important.
One thing I have learnt though is that the higher you go, the more the quality of your ideas matter. The top-level leaders are not paid for the number of ideas they have, rather they have to deliver excellent results on great ideas.
Focus and Big Bets
Two incidents made me re-evaluate my approach to work and execution.
The first was an impromptu meeting I had with a high-up manager about service issues. Towards the end of that discussion, I sought his feedback on some newly planned initiatives. He stood up, walked into the opposite room and shared his thoughts. His words (paraphrased):
“I know you do a lot of things but how do they align with the forward-facing goals of the organization”.
Those words struck a chord – I immediately realized I had been trying to do too many things at once. This diluted the needed clarity and unsurprisingly I wasn’t focused enough to make big bets and concentrate on execution.
Shortly afterwards, I read Bill Gates’ review of Measure what matters; I devoured the book in a few days – it turned out to be my best business read of 2018. To give some context, it’s the only book I have listened to more than once in an extremely long time. The book touts the Objectives and Key results (OKR) approach and is applicable to both career and personal planning. It promotes strategic thinking and a focus on results.
These two events made me reflect deeply on my work patterns and output. I realized I was trying to do too much and involving myself in everything. And that behaviour was due to the ingrained belief that everything was important: quantity over quality. The downside of poking my nose everywhere was that I got spread out too thinly and made slow progress on critical fronts. Moreover, I couldn’t set or think about audacious goals since I was too distracted by the multiple small bushfires.
OKRs to the rescue
Eventually, I took two weeks off work to think deeply about my goals and come up with OKRs. On my return to work, the first thing I did was to scrub my calendar clean of all extraneous meetings. That freed-up time was immediately converted into time blocks for deep work on OKR-aligned efforts.
My first OKR attempt had 6 objectives with poorly-defined key results; my second attempt has only 1 objective with 3 clear goals. the irony though is that the single project has more challenging goals and a larger impact. The first one had a lot of things that were not so important and could be cut: blame my quantitative reasoning.
The toughest part of working this way is determining how important a task and evaluating progress. I need to objectively judge if a certain task A will contribute 5% towards the OKR goal or if task B is just worth 1% of progress. Weekdone is a great tool that enables me to measure progress towards my goals for the quarter.
KanbanFlow helps me in my estimation; I now spend even more time analyzing problems, choosing between solutions and estimating completion times. Once done, I solve the problem and then compare the actual execution time with my estimates. This provides a self-correcting feedback loop.
You don’t have to do everything; choose a few things that matter and execute them brilliantly.
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