I spend a lot of time talking with women who are leading organizations, starting businesses, and growing companies. And no matter where we start in the conversation, we always seem to end up in the same place:
“There just aren’t enough hours in my day to do everything that’s needed to both grow my business and to deliver to my customers.”
“Me time? Are you serious? I am the last person in a very long line of demands on the 24 hours I have in a day”
“We are WAY past burn out here.”
Sound familiar? The demands we feel personally and professionally every day are so great, and so numerous, we can easily reach the point where it feels like we can never be enough, never deliver fully on all of our promises and commitments, personally and professionally. It will always feel like trying to fit a full-sized fitted sheet onto a queen sized bed: one corner is going to keep popping off no matter what we try to do to make sure everything and everyone is covered.
What if, instead of trying to deliver on it all, we choose each day (or week or month) to deliver on just one or two things that are most critical, right now?
The Lean Start Up, by Eric Reis - popularized the concept of the “Minimal Viable Product.” The original idea was that the MVP was a version of a product that allowed the product team to collect the maximum amount of learning about customers with the least amount of effort. It’s when we try to make a product or service all things to all people that we get scope creep and projects or products go off track, out of budget, or lack focus, and often fail. Similarly, each week my to do list grows by a significant factor, faster than I can complete those tasks. But in applying the MVP concept to the things I need to deliver I can whittle that list to five or six truly critical items that really must be attended to because of the opportunity cost or risk to not completing them.
The secret is in remembering that those five or six items do not have to be done perfectly, they must be done well enough to keep the work moving.
Case in point: the last four weeks have been an intense push to get work completed related to a major marketing campaign and website redesign. These deadlines have been all-consuming, and come with major financial and operational risks to me getting in the way of their completion. Rightly so, but other work can’t be on hold forever, so this week it all came crashing down just as I entered another critical phase of our site redesign.
On Sunday night, feeling a wave of panic as I looked at all the work that had piled up, I pulled out three things that simply must be done in the few hours I had to dedicate to other work this week. The executive I report to has been asking for a three year plan for the last few weeks, and instead of kicking the can down the road - again - and missing out on the opportunity to get him thinking about the kinds of resources we’re going to need to achieve my vision, I took 30 minutes to capture a high level outline on paper in time to share at our scheduled meeting time. Even though the result was not the detailed roadmap I wanted to deliver, this minimally viable plan yielded feedback I could iterate into the next, more robust version, of the plan I will need to deliver in a few weeks.
When the list of demands on our times is too great, we can experience paralysis and churn, not knowing where to dig in on work that we feel must be done perfectly or not at all. Instead, if we can approach our work with a focus on just a few of the most critical tasks for a given timeframe, we’ll be more effective in moving the needle than if we’re trying to focus on 12 or 20 or 50 things. But we must go the extra step to identifying what minimally viable looks like for that work.
Step back and ask yourself: what is really needed here, for me to reduce risk or ensure I don’t miss an opportunity? The answer should illuminate the priorities to apply to your scarcest resource - your time.
About the Author
Jen Swanson is the Director of Digital Marketing at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, and blogs at imbina.com on issues related to women and leadership, closing the gender gap and work/life integration. Follow her on Twitter at @jgswanson.
Photo credit: 40+251 Done-ish by bark, used under creative commons license.