The Hard Part of Doing Less

How to Help Your Team Do More by Doing Less

Quick plug before we jump into the topic today. I recently became a member of the Forbes Technology Council. If you haven’t seen my first article, read it here (it’s all about whether AI is the silver bullet for productivity.)

In my last article, I talked about the “prioritization challenge” and how you can make sense of your priorities when everything feels important.

In this article, I want to unpack a specific aspect of this: the idea that to be great, you must do less. 💪

Doing less sounds simple. We all love to say we’re trying to do less, or that we’ll promise to do less after x, y or z is out the door. But the fact is, doing less is very hard. So hard that dozens of books and countless articles have been written on the topic.

The trouble is, we often assume doing less means we must reduce our actual amount of time spent on work. Sure, we’d all love to work a 4-hour workweek, but this simply isn’t possible for the majority of businesses. Instead, I think we should equate doing less with reducing the number of different things we’re working on. In other words, doing less is about less multitasking, less context switching, and more focused deep work.

Though doing less means you probably can’t go from a 50-hour workweek to a 30-hour workweek 😢... it does mean you can try to eliminate the noise, cut the distractions and focus on the work that will get you the farthest ahead. It means going from a broad set of things to a small set of things and focusing on patterns that are repeatable and scalable.

So, as a leader at a startup, how do you enable your team to do less? Here are some tips from the trenches:

1. Look at software development as a manufacturing process

This might not be a sexy way of viewing it, but it can be useful to draw parallels between software development and manufacturing.🏭 Both need to go through an assembly line of development, QA, and production. And both benefit from process optimization.

As with any assembly line, you will be producing, packaging, and distributing the product when it comes off the line.  It’s critically important to automate the end-to-end processes to keep the team efficient.  I’ve seen a lot of teams talk about the continuous development process, only to stress in the final stretches of getting features out the door.  Even as a young startup, don’t just automate the development process, automate the production lifecycle as well.

You will continuously and frequently build and release product features. The more you can introduce automated workflows and standard operating procedures, the more you can reduce the noise for your team and protect their time for value-added deep work.

2. Try to find patterns that are repeatable and scalable

Along similar lines, look for other areas of opportunities where you can introduce repeatable methods and approaches both in the short term and long term.  This includes repeatable methods for building new features and leveraging existing functionality for new capabilities in the product.

Even manufacturing companies have their “architecture” and build on common parts.  Avoid bespoke development.  It is expensive and leads to significant technical debt.

For instance, at Charli, we’ve recently decided to invest heavily into building our API. On one hand, it won’t have an immediate impact on user experience or delight. However, in the long run, it will result in some fantastic (and scalable) building blocks, as well as save our team tremendous time and cognitive effort.  Sometimes looking to the future can be just as powerful as finding solutions for today.

3. Ensure your senior leaders are providing consistent and persistent support

It’s a scary thought, but it’s critical to remember that you can burn your team out quickly by trying to get them to do too much. It’s been widely acknowledged that multitasking can make you less productive, increase chronic stress and depression, reduce your focus for complex tasks and impair your memory, and contribute to burnout.

All teams have capacity limits and you have to be in tune and aware of these limits.  Be persistent in getting the message across that you need your team to do less (aka less multitasking and more focused work) in order to be excellent. This requires consistent messaging and a strong vision from the leadership team.

4. Get comfy with the possibility of failure and fail fast

Being a startup means being on the bleeding edge of innovation. There are no patterns to follow; no textbooks to open. You must run, fall down, get hurt, bleed, and then pick yourself back up. In other words, bringing something novel to market requires failure, which is hard and scary. 😬

Similarly, if you’re going to encourage your team to do less, it means inherently taking risks. There’s a chance you’re going to get them to do less of the wrong thing. However, the sooner you get comfy with failure, the faster you’ll be able to get back on your feet when things go wrong. Just as you must do less to do more, sometimes you must fail in order to grow. In fact, this is what puts you on the path to being an expert.

One of the keys to doing less is to perform a rapid “lessons learned” exercise and apply those lessons right away--don’t wait.  This means as an entrepreneur, founder, and executive, you have to be intimately involved in the process every single day.

5. Partner and buy instead of build

There can be a tendency in engineering startups to build technology rather than leverage existing products in the market.  This is the typical “build vs buy” that comes up in a lot of discussions.  For a startup to be successful there needs to be more buying and partnering.  Even using open-source products is part of the buy decision.

Ensure that the entire team knows the real value proposition of the company and where the intellectual property resides.  Knowing the value proposition can make the build/buy decisions far easier.  This sounds like a no-brainer at the executive level, but everyone in the company will be making build/buy decisions--and you will rely on engineers to make these decisions on a regular basis.  Don’t get blindsided; communicate frequently with the team and make sure there is a common understanding.

6. Use the right tools to support this mindset shift

Of course, we’re huge fans of our app Charli, and we use it to organize, share and find our content faster. 🎉

There are lots of other tools too that your team can experiment with to help them do less. In fact, we wrote a whole blog post on this topic called 10 Productivity Systems to Try in 2021. The important thing to remember is that not everyone will get value from the same system. It helps to experiment a bit until each person finds one that works for them.

My next few newsletters will be on the topic of Artificial Intelligence, let me know if there are specific questions you have about Charli’s AI in the comments below 👇. I’ll try and address them in my next newsletter.


On burnout and multitasking 

On the software development process

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