My Saw Man Argument (WOMP, WOMP)

December 12, 2017

One of the best parts of working at a relatively early stage — or at least growth stage — company is that there’s a general bias towards doing things quickly. This is great, because I’ve found that working with other people on just about anything tends to slow things down for a variety of reasons. More people means more opinions, more views to consolidate, and more fears about failure (both personal and organizational). In mature companies, this basically eliminates the ability to quickly try interesting things unless you set up some kind of specific environment to do so, which is why people like me tend to go crazy at mature companies, or just give up and read the internet too much. Fortunately for my career — and unfortunately for the message boards I used to spend time on in the mid-2000s — I haven’t worked at a mature company in about ten years. Instead, I’ve been working for businesses in the highly motivated “grow or die” stage, where standing still is the only thing you can really do wrong.

Of course, anyone can do lots of random things quickly — that doesn’t take skill, sound decision making, prioritization, or anything other than energy, really. And while doing that in an early stage environment gives you a lot of very satisfying dopamine hits, you also run the risk of generating — and living inside of — the illusion of progress. Yeah, you’re doing lots of stuff, but what’s really different than before? (Sorry, can’t take the time to answer that — have to do more stuff!!!) Marketing departments are often the worst at this kind of thing because they’re where a lot of companies turn for miracles, like unexpected press coverage, or some crazy stunt that suddenly changes undesirable business fundamentals. That dynamic is partially the fault of Marketing people who don’t like to be held accountable preferring to skip around from one crazy project to another, and partially the fault of everyone else for expecting white-elephant type events to overcome less exciting operational or strategic problems.

move fast and accomplish things

While I am abjectly terrible at construction and home improvement tasks, I do remember my Dad teaching me how to use a saw. When he first put a piece of wood into the vice in the basement and handed me his, I attacked the wood exactly as you’d expect a crazy seven-year old with borderline ADHD to. I wildly thrashed about, moving the saw as fast and as violently as possible in an attempt to cut it in half.

This is not a good way to cut wood. So my Dad taught me to slow down — just a little — and make decisive, high quality strokes with the saw. Keep it straight. Make sure the blade is really getting into the wood. Take five or six quality swings in a row to get a rhythm before you start trying to go any faster. Do that, and before long you’re positively flying through lumber at what seems like an unimaginable rate, you’re getting a better cut, and you’re not working nearly as hard.

At work, there’s a healthy cadence to the right kind of moving fast. It’s not chaos — I know the feeling of too many things going on at once, and that usually doesn’t work out very well. It’s also not a passive, stagnant feeling, where you’re waiting for a solution to unsolvable problems to fall out of the sky. Instead, the best environments have that perfect sawing rhythm, and when you’re really going, great progress seems almost inevitable. New process here, iteration here, letting something breathe over here, etc., etc., and so forth. Teams can feel when they are operating this way, and it feels good, as if even complex, existential challenges (while still difficult) are ultimately just waiting to hit the blade and be ground away.

effective speed is what really matters

Thinking this way requires a lot of things, but more than anything, it requires discipline. I’m not talking about the mastering-martial-arts kind of discipline, or even the learning-a-language kind. Just the kind you need to simultaneously realize what today’s limitations are while still understanding the extreme end of what’s possible, and then go out and achieve it. The idea that you can just get as psyched up as humanly possible, and then blast through your challenges like you’re running a Tough Mudder or something is, while in some ways laudable, usually mistaken. If you’re really trying to get somewhere quickly inside of a group, your effective speed — how fast you can actually get that group to make a lasting impact towards your goal — is a lot more important than how furiously you do various sub-activities, even if they seem like positives at an individual level.

You’re (probably) not going to solve the most important challenges with one great idea and ten bad ones all executed as quickly as possible, or a flurry of well-intentioned, disconnected exertion. You’re (probably) going to solve them by making well-executed, focused efforts, and yes… making those efforts a little quicker than everybody else. Because yeah, sometimes you just have to saw a little faster than the other guys.