16. Urgency
November 10, 2022 / 4 minute read

Once in a while I read something that clicks. It's like you've been driving. You can see the signs, but it's blurry, you miss details. When you put on glasses, everything rushes into focus. With the right lens, a situation make sense (there's probably a long German word for this). I felt this after reading an article from DHH. If you've read it, great. If you haven't: forget my writing, read DHH's article instead.

In the article, a point is made that a higher pace is being set at Twitter. The urgency is dialed up to 10, which asks for the pace to be dialed up with it. In order to increase pace, the team needs to adapt what they're shipping and how they're shipping it. If this sounds obvious, good. The hard part, in my opinion, is doing something about it; anyone can raise the urgency level, but when it comes to chopping process and re-programming the product culture, can they steer through the turbulence?

Reflecting on past experience, I've seen this mismatch between urgency, pace, and action. The cases I've seen have been unclear communication about how urgent something is, bickering about what must be done (as the boat takes on water), and even worse: all agreeing, but no action.

In tech, the world moves fast. Other teams are quick, new platforms and workflows become standard overnight. If you tip-toe along, you get eaten. Young tech companies play in dangerous spaces. New spaces. Spaces that are expensive and have hungry competitors staffed with smart engineers. If you're playing in such a space; you need to act with urgency. This means less red tape, less rubber-stamping, less get-back-to-you-next-week's. Focus on getting shit done.

These two modes of working are analogous to Ben Horowitz's article, Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO. The analogy I make is that you should look to have peace-time pace, with focus on harmony, safety, growth, reliability. You should also have war-time pace, with focus on execution; at the cost of the factors above. In war time, you don't worry about the nice to haves. You agree on the most important hill to climb, and you get climbing.

To help diagnose problems with pace, you'll need to roll your sleeves up. To start: given the complexity of the work you're doing, can you justify the time between idea and shipped? This is where being technical and experienced is vital; it's hard to debug without intuition. If you're here, but aren't sure, get your hands dirty. Work closely with a single team, watch their workflow, contribute with them. The places where time runs slowly will become clear. Diving deeper; is the team focused? Do they all agree on the most important thing? Do they have time to run experiments, or take risks? Are they fat and happy? Apathetic about their mission? All of these are signals that help triangulate where problems are hiding.

For startups, you need to move fast. In order to move fast, you cannot be weighed down by the armor of process. Make the outline of the house clear. If you have windows, insulation, and are discussing which colored cushions to have on your sofa: you've gone too far. Startups are building something new, you need to actively avoid being harpooned by overbearing and comprehensive process. The team should be clear on what needs to be done, and not need to take a set of choreographed steps to get there.

As a leader, one of your roles (whether ya like it or not) is to set and maintain the right level of urgency. In the past, I've not taken the risk needed to speed up the team. The result was predictable. Slow work, lost motivation, frustration bubbling. You're going to upset people by removing steps, you're going to make mistakes by skipping steps. In most cases; it's worth it.

People I've looked up to in the past have been very aware of the urgency of the situation, dialing the pressure up and down as needed. Constantly trimming the fat. They've kept the team at the right level of urgency, with barely enough process and steps to keep the lights on. They've not come with a single lightbulb moment of genius. It's been that they've listened for squeaks and squeals, and applied oil. Listen, oil, listen, oil. That's it.