Use wasted time to waste your competition
Building a culture of applied laziness and enlightened failure
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I remember listening to the radio when Jesse Ventura, the pro wrestler turned politician, gave his victory speech upon being elected Governor of Minnesota. In true pro-wrestler style, he trashed his opponents:
Let them say, ‘A vote for Jesse is a wasted vote.’
I’ll say, ‘we wasted them with wasted votes.’
That was in 1998.
I’ve been waiting nigh on 22 years for an appropriate time to use that quote. Is this that time? I’m not sure, but I’ve run out of patience. So here we are.
Wasted time: an uncomfortable truth
If you work in any profession or industry where there is a reasonable degree of uncertainty, you and your organisation are going to waste a whole bunch of time. By this I mean there is going to be a lot of work done that does not make a direct contribution to improving product, business, or any other aspect of the organisation.
People are going to try something and find out it doesn’t work. Or they’re going to work on the wrong thing. Or they’re going to make mistakes and spend a whole bunch of time cleaning up the resulting mess. Or they’re going to spend time bantering on Slack. And so on.
While there is always going to be wasted time in this sense, there is a large variance between organisations in how much time is wasted and—just as importantly—how well it is wasted.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure
Time is never truly wasted if care is taken to learn from what happened.
If users didn’t like what you shipped, make sure you understand why and that what you learn influences and directs what you do next.
If there was an incident (say your software crashed in production), make sure that you don’t just clean up the mess but that you learn about what caused the issue so you can reduce the likelihood of it occurring again.
If there is a lack of organisational alignment and teams are not working on what is most important, learn about the flaws in process or communication that allowed this to occur.
It is claimed that an employee once went to IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson’s office after making a costly mistake, certain they were going to be fired. “Why would we do that?” he is reported to have said. “We just spent 10 million dollars educating you!”
Make the most of your education.
Waste time efficiently
By far the biggest source of time wastage is working on the wrong things, or else taking too long to fail.
T.J. Watson understood the value of his employee’s $10 million education. But could that same education have been had for $1 million? If so much in an organisation is about learning, it makes sense to be explicit about what you’re learning and how to achieve that learning in the fastest and most cost-effective way. If you focus yourself and your organisation on learning how to achieve business success, the business success itself will come almost as a side-effect of the learning process. Curiously, it will come at a much lower cost than if the focus had been on success directly. Why? Because by focusing on efficient learning, far less time and effort is wasted.
A big part of achieving this is to follow typical Lean and Agile principles. Note I said to follow the principles, not the processes. Way too many organisations follow processes such as Scrum without taking the time to understand (let alone enact) the underlying principles. This reduces the processes to meaningless bureaucracy.
There is also the category of personal time-wasting: procrastination and distraction. The key here is to accept that the human mind has a limited capacity for deep work and needs breaks. It is therefore important to make sure that those breaks are well utilised. Once you accept that it is human to procrastinate and be distracted, make sure that “wasted” time creates value. For this, I recommend maintaining lists or backlogs. Want to watch a YouTube video? Make sure you have an educational one bookmarked. Feel like resting your brain? Surely there are some leave requests you can approve or similarly low-cognitive-load work.
Like with drugs and sex, harm minimisation beats abstinence every time. You’re going to waste time. Waste it well.
Falling with style
In the original Toy Story, Buzz proved he could fly with some incredible aerobatics around Andy’s room thanks to a sort of accidental Rube Goldberg machine. While everybody else applauded, Woody the cowboy grumbled:
That wasn't flying! That was falling with style!
Always fall with style.
Time well wasted won’t look like failure. Instead, it will look like wild success.
Not bad eh? Business wisdom and Jesse Ventura and Toy Story. You just know there are some folks in your network who would enjoy this. And I would be very appreciative if you could share this article with them!
Another great post Yaniv. I've been trying to articulate the difference between 'being' Agile and 'Doing' agile - The doing Agile seems to end up in companies hitting the wall when it comes to delivering product that gets traction.
That's possibly acceptable in a place like Google (I'll take your lead here as you have experienced first hand the business) but in a start up/scale up it could put you out of business