How do we maintain focus and order when everything else is going to hell?
There are two skills we need as Founders trying to lead chaotic startups — the ability to solve problems and the ability to focus our attention. As it turns out, the ability to focus our attention tends to be the most important.
You see, chaos is pretty much standard fare at any startup. Yet, if we're not able to organize that chaos, no matter how capable we are, it will consume us. When everything is in chaos, we need to be the steady hand that guides us through the storm, even in cases where we're the only person in that storm!
Over time we start to realize that we can't "end chaos," but we can learn to control it in a way that allows us to systematically assess and address each problem on its own merits. It's a real skill that takes some practice, but it is a game changer for us as Founders.
Imagine you're playing tennis against Serena Williams, and she serves you a screaming fast serve to volley. If you concentrate, you might be able to return it. Now imagine her sister Venus shows up, and she serves at the same time. Now you've got two balls coming at you. There's a small chance you'll be able to return one of those, but a 0% chance you'll be able to return both. That's how problems work.
We can only handle one ball at a time. The moment we try to volley more than one, or all of them, we fail every time. Our first instinct, though, is to try to handle all of them in parallel, which overwhelms us instantly. Instead, we're far better off isolating each problem and concentrating exclusively on that until we can move it, or ideally complete it.
This isn't just for us as Founders but also for our team as well. Since we are typically the one that sets the priority for the organization, we're also the one that needs to de-prioritize stuff as well so that we can sharpen the focus of our team and by way of that, actually get stuff done.
We also don't want to confuse the quantity of problems with their respective quality. Simply put - not every problem has the same value. Our ability to rank problems in order of "most important" to "least important" and tackle them accordingly is the key to minimizing distractions.
What tends to happen is that we're working on one problem, and then another comes up, so we switch focus to that problem because it's "new." Take a look at any of your inboxes. Ever notice how the items at the top of the inbox get a disproportionate amount of attention just because they are "new"?
While new problems get introduced all of the time, it doesn't necessarily take away from the value of priority of older problems. Our job as leaders is to constantly "stack rank" all of our problems company-wide from "Critical" to "We'll get to it when we get to it" and constantly push ourselves and our teams to re-focus on the critical items first.
We also tend to underestimate the value of time as an antidote to many problems. Let's say we have an angry customer that's blowing up our social media with rants about how much we suck. Obviously, that feels like something we need to address immediately. But we must remember that after a day or two, maybe a week, many problems simply die off on their own.
There are two ways to think about that. The first is, "Is this new problem going to be forever persistent, or is it possible it will fade?" If there's a possibility it will fade, then giving it some time to fade is an important tactic. The second way to think about it is whether a problem from a few weeks ago is still the same problem today, which it often isn't.
Similar to Stack Ranking problems, we constantly want to assess how much value our current slate of problems still has relative to everything else we have going on. It's pretty amazing how often not addressing problems (and giving them time to burn off) is actually the right answer.
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Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.