Waiting for Certainty
Plus, the false comfort of distraction & "Does this help the rocket launch?"
There are endless reasons to wait to take action on that Thing living in the back of your mind. And I’m not talking about those 20 minute tasks that we all put off, either:
No, these are the real ones — the scary ones. Maybe it’s a big, hairy, scary job you’ve been putting off, perhaps it’s the prospect of chasing a dream long held close. I have a few of those Things rattling around my skull, too, and I’ve developed plenty of ways to avoid facing the real issue, like spending a day organizing my inbox or rearranging tasks on Asana.
Whether it’s saving a client job in danger of going off the rails, or gearing up to pursue a passion project like writing a book, I feel like if I get the tasks surrounding the project arranged just so I’ll finally have all the pieces in place to finally tackle whatever it is that actually needs doing. How many days I’ve spent overthinking simple emails to clients, or dreaming up the perfect title for chapters that haven’t even been outlined.
As Go People, Go Their Companies
It probably won’t shock you to learn that companies, even large ones (maybe even especially large ones) are made up of people who both individually and collectively want to reduce risk. Put another way, they too often find themselves waiting for certainty to arrive before setting off on their journeys.
Unfortunately, this leads to organizations that lose sight of the mission and purpose for which they were created. Signs of this change are different for every org, but likely include things like:
Focused on developing advanced metrics, while forgetting the fundamentals.
e.g. high concern about yearly revenue forecast, booking vs. backlog percentages, and 30-day revenue swings while ignoring immediate fundamentals like broken cash flow and negative unit economics.
Many layers of vague management and project leadership whose calendars are filled wall-to-wall with status meetings and planning sessions.
e.g. Launch Co. worked with a well-known rocket startup who spent all day optimizing a high-volume supply chain for an engine part which had only been prototyped a few times and which would change many dozens of times more before even a handful would be made.
Lots of talk, little action
e.g. Leaders who are interested in talking about their company’s bodacious vision, rather than steadily working toward it. Getting the message out is important, as is keeping people aligned with the dream, but after a while if what leaders are showcasing is only what they want to do, and never what they’ve done, then there’s no point.
This happens to companies large and small, across stages from startup, to exited firms, to private equity. I have had the same conversations in rooms with billion-dollar rocket company leadership, as well as huddled around a picnic table with pre-seed startups.
What happens is that everyone ends up focused on peripheral problems. Just like me organizing my inbox instead of reaching out to that client, entire organizations will ignore the real problems in favor of the easy ones. Because that’s easy, feels like a form of progress (inbox zero!), and fills the day until I can put the bad rectangle away and go home to look at the good rectangle.
Eventually, hard times strike and people learn the hard way that their cool, custom-coded KPI dashboard doesn’t have any answers, that the advanced plan put together over nine months is useless because a core assumption changed, or worse that the endless financial spreadsheets had a fat-fingered error which caused a miscalculation in runway that would have been noticed if simple things like bank statements were checked monthly against the model.
When the hard times hit, crazy things happen! Because the company has strayed so far from their core mission and purpose over the years, leadership often finds they cannot return. I know of a rocket company that found it was spending 50% over the budget they planned and decided to cut staff in their launch and test departments rather than reduce their $2 million a year office snack budget. That’s certifiably insane!
I’m making it a block quote again in case you’re skimming:
THEY CUT CRITICAL STAFF IN CHARGE OF LAUNCHING THE ROCKET INSTEAD OF THEIR $2 MILLION A YEAR IN-OFFICE SNACK BUDGET
Alright. I’ve composed myself. The point is, this sort of approach happens at all levels, even in the companies desperate to seem like the most innovative. None of us are immune! How can we fight back?
Well, step one is to recognize the behavior in yourself. I recognize it, sometimes daily, in myself. The next step is a little more challenging.
“Does this help launch the rocket?”
The thing about working in our world of designing space hardware, whether it’s a rocket, a launch pad, a space station, a satellite or anything in-between is that it’s just a heck of a challenge. Many critical decisions must be made on short notice, while possessing only partial information.
You’re going to find out in testing that you missed stuff, and then have to fix it. Thems the brakes; that’s the job. And it isn’t isolated to rocketry either. Lots of other industries make similar calls and navigate the same challenges all the time, whether it's health care or the demands of being a paperclip magnate.
Nothing gets done in a vacuum, either. The idea of the solo genius inventor is a myth. We must work together, across disciplines, companies, industries, and time zones. We all need one another and that’s great. That also means meetings; meetings about hard topics where people are going to want certainty on the path forward. These are the perfect conditions for useless peripheral problem solving to take place.
I recommend a few things. First, meetings aren’t the place where work gets done, they’re the place where the plan is agreed upon — and honestly even that is iffy in today’s hybrid, asynchronous work world. But if you must meet, then identify the issue, agree on a path, and then split up to do the work only regrouping to present findings. This limits the chances for group inertia to set in.
Second, everyone from interns to upper management should agree that certainty is an illusion. We need to understand and communicate that none of us know the answer, and that the best solution is simply the one that solves for the shortcomings you’re willing to live us.
Finally, my favorite ~*~ one weird trick ~*~ for stopping any discussion, meeting, summit, shareholder briefing, or even myself from falling off the critical path is to consider: “Does this help launch the rocket?” If it doesn’t, and isn’t at least related, then it doesn’t really matter.
Your rocket may not be a literal rocket; hey, sometimes ours aren’t either. But thinking about everything from metrics to decision points in those terms immediately puts the focus back on the mission.
The benefits of this, besides staving off potential ruinous distraction, include more free time, a clearer mind, a shorter task list, and being emotional resilience. Why use up your limited energy and emotional wells on things that don’t matter? Save it for what does.
If you wait for certainty, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Of course, that’s not an excuse to be go forth, move fast, and break things being sloppy, either. The means matter, after all. Instead, we just have to make best decision possible in the moment with the information on-hand, then be ready to iterate.
If you can overcome the tempting tendency toward the false-safety of squishy KPI’s, compound metrics, and endless discussion and instead continue the march toward your literal, or metaphorical, launch day, then you’re golden! All that’s left is to focus on hitting the ocean, which is another challenge altogether.
How does distraction create a false oasis for you in the desert of your journey? I would love to hear about it! Shoot me an email or leave a comment below.
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