Keep Doing Things That Don’t Scale

Be careful what you wish for, I guess. I’m doing a little planning for my week on Sunday when I get a text from Aaron, my A1 meet-up partner, who says “tomorrow’s topic is this: what happens when setting OKRs produces a multitude of mission critical projects that are perfectly aligned with our company level objectives and the top 20 feel like everything is a ‘Must Do’?

He couldn’t have plucked the words out of my head and onto a text message more perfectly. I love OKRs more than most people, but damn do those goals create a lot of work. And some of it isn’t the stuff that feels delightful, surprising, or much fun to work on.

Aaron and I work at really different sizes and scale from each other. His is an established company with thousands of customers. Mine is, well, still called a “project” and has 22 customers. Either way — our ambitious goal-setting of Q4 have given way to an absolute sea of projects. Of the many strategies we discussed for prioritizing, (MoSCoW was a new one for me — Must, Should, Could, Won’t), we both came away saying: “Yeah, but if I just prioritize the absolute most logical projects, we won’t be working on things the stuff that creates new features for users or that’s motivating for the teams. That’s not much fun!”

One could argue that “fun” isn’t the goal. But one could also argue that finding creative and new ways to delight customers and motivate teams is just about the most important thing when you’re in the foxhole, building a business together with a team.

I happened to be listening to Paul Graham on the way to coffee, to a piece I often come back to, called “Do Things That Don’t Scale.” (By the way, the audio of this article on Audm is an absolute delight.) Graham’s message is pretty simple:

“the advantage of being small is you can provide a level of service that no big company can.”

So when you’re small and testing out your product, signing up new customers, and getting your business off the ground, do the stuff that doesn’t scale. Go visit your customers and see how they’re using your product. Recruit them to sign up personally. Find ways to delight them. Why spend the time doing this? Because:

“your first users should feel like signing up with you was one of the best choices they ever made.”

That resonated with today’s A1 conversation. Because even as an established company, even with thousands of customers, even with 64 projects in the hopper — there are opportunities to test new ideas for delighting customers. To step out of Asana, and into the lives of our customers for a bit.

Maybe the answer is to always leave space in your work for unscalable projects and efforts. You take 18 of the projects that feel like the “right thing to do” by your OKRs, and then pick two that will be an absolute joy for the team to work on, or that will engage your customers in a lovely new way. Remind yourself that you’re not a huge company (yet) and do something that doesn’t scale, just to convince yourself that you can.

And as Graham reminds us, the effort to delight customers and create extraordinary early experiences is never wasted, and incidentally scales much better than you would have expected, “partly because you can usually find ways to make anything scale more than you would have predicted. And partly because delighting customers will by then have permeated your culture.”

I finished my coffee and wrote a handwritten thank you note to a customer. Because it will delight her. And it made me pause and consider how she’s spending her day. And that makes me better at my job, no matter what Asana says.

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karenborchert

karenborchert

Founder and CEO of Alpaca. Goals Nerd, Spreadsheet Enthusiast, and Runner.