When you work in a startup, you are guaranteed to make a decision that will disappoint someone today. Every day is a series of stack-ranked decisions. You decide (in near real time) whether Item A is more important than Item B, and make the best decision you can at the time. Many of those decisions are right. Some of them turn out to be wrong. It’s really hard to know before you make the decision which ones are going to be the wrong ones.
If you start with the premise that you will need to let items drop (there are too many tasks to do, not enough time, inability to delegate, not enough resources), it’s easier to focus on the inverse problem. Which one task do you need to get done today to move things forward the most? You might move two or three or ten things in a day, but what’s the one task when you look back will be the one you say “yes, I needed to do that or bad things would happen?”
Great – easy advice, you say – now how do you do this in practice? There are many ways to sort your list in the order that will give you the top stack rank. You might start with effort. What are the highest effort tasks? Give everything a 1 (easy), 2 (more than easy) and 3 (sounds big). And now think about the value of those things: 1 (small), 2 (bigger), and 3 (definitely high). If you’re spending time on easy small things they are not going to be the ones that create value. In the effort scenario, you need to be working on the smallest big thing that creates value.
But you need to allocate Time as well. Tasks that need to be done in a week are probably not more important than those that need to get done in two days, or tomorrow. In a perfect world you would have addressed the “tomorrow” tasks days ago but … sometimes life doesn’t work that way. You need to be aware enough of the deadlines for items (especially those that are contingent on the work of other people). Time (especially when there are near term tasks that are bigger and more than easy) can disappear quickly. One way to handle this is to under-schedule your expected tasks so that you have reserved capacity for just-in-time triage.
And there is importance. Is this a task for a customer? Is it a task that moves a critical product feature forward? Is it a commitment that was made and is potentially late if you don’t take action? Perhaps the most difficult choice to make is managing the conflict between two tasks of competing importance. The solution? Pick your best. Make Your Choice. Keep moving. The speed of making decisions and moving the task forward is almost as important as picking the right one. Until you make a mistake. That’s the time to stop and figure out what you should do the next time you make a decision.
There is no right answer. But there is a mostly good answer most of the time. Know enough about the decisions you need to make to get it right a lot. When you don’t know, ask leaders in the organization which direction they prefer. And keep learning.