The Do Nothing Scenario

How to tell if you’re spending your time wisely

Photo by Kate Stone Matheson on Unsplash

One of the questions which can be the most illuminating during planning or reflection is “what would have happen if we did nothing?”. The answer to this question allows us to reason whether what we are going to do or did makes a difference and also determine whether we’re spending time well.

There are three aspects to this worth considering:

  1. Looking forward as part of planning. Asking this question allows you to understand the other factors in what you’re doing. Say, for example, your product is growing at 5% monthly active users. Why is that the case? Is it because of new users (acquisition) or better engagement or retention? If we can a reasonable baseline expectation we can reason about then we have a greater appreciation of the levers we have to develop our product.
  2. Looking backward as part of validating what we did. So, you’ve spent 6 months delivering a new feature. It looks great. People say they love it. But how would your core success metrics look if it wasn’t there. If the answer is the same then the chance is it’s window dressing. Are you really solving the problem you set out to?
  3. Understanding whether people are spending time well. You are given a task and work long hours to get it done. Then the result of that task is not used. Example might be the board meeting where your manager wants some slides. You work until 2am to get them done. The meeting doesn’t need them. A tiny piece of you dies.

The aspect I’m going to concentrate on is the third one here because the tech industry does not spend time well. There are two many urgent requests which don’t translate into value being delivered. Every person has an internal budget of how much effort they’re going to spend on things that don’t bring value. Once you’ve spent that budget then they’re either looking for a new job or no longer committed to the cause. Neither of which is a good outcome.

There will always be situations where we’re not prepared or need to change direction. These should be exceptional circumstances because, once they become, business as usual your organisation will be systematically culling the drive that people come shipped with. Once you’ve worked the weekend getting something ready only to see it ignored or junked your desire to go above and beyond takes a hit. If you’re in an environment where this happens to you all the time — you probably aren’t best pleased with life. What happens next is you stop caring about deadlines. After all, if it doesn’t matter why bust a gut getting it done on time. This then affects the people around you who also stop caring about deadlines and the slow poison spreads throughout your vicinity.

To give you an extreme example from the very beginning of my career. I had a new manager who I met with every two weeks. As well as giving me tasks which were genuinely uninteresting (for example — catalogue all the computer hardware in the team) he also wanted to “manage”. Every two weeks I’d tell him what I’d been doing and every two weeks he’d tell me to start again or do something different. After this had been going on for a few months I decided two things:

  1. It was time to get another job. And the next job wound up being a truly world changing experience for me.
  2. It was time to run a small social experiment. If the net effect of me being here was nothing then what would happen if I actually did nothing? This was made easier because my manager was based in another office.

In effect I became Wally from Dilbert. And for the next two months I got really good at Mario Kart (I won’t say which version) without every having to deliver anything. Now, the much older me looks back at the halfhearted effort I made to tell my manager what was happening and can think of many better ways to offer up the feedback. It also made me painfully aware of how I react to futility and wary of inflicting it on other people. Given I have never been averse to pulling 100 hour weeks in pursuit of some goal I was excited about — the fact I could be reduced to such a state of active indifference should be illustrative of just how this impacts people.

Any time you ask someone to do something that doesn’t bring value you’re harming your relationship with them. If it has to happen you need to make sure it’s infrequent because you’re best case scenario is the person will leave. But before they leave they have to potential to infect everyone around them with their apathy. And if they don’t decide to leave — you’ve got someone who you can’t count on who’ll suck up energy from all about.

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.