The advantages of a small, nimble organization are hard to overstate. It’s no wonder then that startup productivity and efficiency are popular topics. Sadly, most podcasts, blog posts, and in-person talks say the same things over and again. We wanted to approach the subject from a different angle; to find actionable ideas that could be as valuable in year ten as they are on day one.
One important point to note before we begin: you need to decide the areas of efficiency and productivity that you’re targeting. As the idiom goes, there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time. When you try to fix every problem at once, you’re likely to find that no problems get fixed.
Here’s a better approach: Target a specific problem, decide an outcome that you’d be happy reaching for now, then agree that you can always come back to reach “perfect” later. With that cornerstone in place, let’s build the foundation.
Document (Almost) Everything
This is an ideal time to talk about “bus plans.” As in “if I got hit by a bus today, could someone else find out what I know?” They don’t have to fully replace you from day one. But no one person should be the single source for any piece of information. This process starts with documentation, and it can also help to increase your startup productivity.
How does documentation impact productivity? Think about when you hire someone new. How much time will you save when you can point them to a wiki full of information? How many meetings can you cut out by bringing someone up to speed with documentation of what you’ve done in the past, including the results? Not to mention the time wasted by walking around an office trying to figure out who knows one specific piece of information.
There’s an argument that excessive documentation can lead to information overload. That’s why we say to document almost everything. We have an entire blog post that talks about the pitfalls, while running through some best practices for internal documentation. Give it a read.
Develop Early Structure
We know that, for some startups, the word structure is going to make you want to run away screaming. But hang in there with us for a minute while we explain. Structure doesn’t have to be immovable. Having structure also doesn’t mean that you can’t have a “flat” organization. So if the structure can move, and doesn’t dictate hierarchy, why even bother?
Structure helps people to get things done. Structure says “you’re welcome to have a voice in this project, but you’re responsible for making sure that you complete this one.” In the early days of a startup, the philosophy of wearing many hats can be necessary, but it can also lead to confusion. It’s beyond demotivating when Monday morning standup rolls around and you have to be the one to report that you completed nothing because you were too busy doing everything.
One challenge that almost every person who joins a startup will face is avoiding this “culture of busy.” There is always something to be done, or a deadline looming, and praise gets thrown at those people who give up everything else in the name of production. But it’s possible to be productive without forsaking every other aspect of your life. Structure helps you to understand what’s critical rather than merely urgent. Collaboration helps you to get it done. Your startup productivity relies on you actually getting things done.
Collaborate via Task Management
There are so many problems that task management can solve, and yet teams leave so much potential on the table. Whether it’s around the water cooler, in a Slack channel, or over email, we all collaborate in places away from where tasks actually happen. Then later, when it’s time to go back and reference a conversation, we have to dig around and hope that we can remember where it happened. If you can get into the habit of collaborating inside of your task management software, you will save yourself so much heartache.
All too often, task management systems get treated like silos. The development team has their system, marketing has theirs, sales has another, and on it goes. While individual pieces might get handed off so that someone can fill a need, there is little room in this method for shared knowledge, communication, and efficiency. If everyone is working toward a common goal, then opening these doors to collaboration should not only allow for a better outcome, it can also give everyone a greater sense of ownership.
Start by only inviting the people who are involved with the project. A department’s head doesn’t have to have access to the project simply because the department is involved. It’s up to the individuals to report their work and to handle that level of communication.
You’ve opened doors, you’ve invited the right people. So now what?
It’s time to build new habits. Remember that bit about documentation? Every time that a conversation happens, no matter where it happens, it needs to end up inside of the task management platform. That chat in the break room, or quick email thread will need to become a note, with the appropriate people tagged.
Task management platforms also give you an opportunity to rethink your meetings. Before you schedule that next meeting, ask yourself if you could handle it inside of the task management platform. If there are only a couple of questions that need answered, or a date that needs moved, dragging people off task for a meeting is a needless interruption. Collaborate with them inside of the task management so that everyone has visibility on the solution and can get back to work.
The beauty of this method is in how it allows for focus, and focus can be a challenge for anyone. When you’re working through your tasks, don’t be afraid to single-task, even inside of task management. If you have an “icebox” or a “someday” column, use it! Keep one thing in your active section until it’s complete, and then move on to the next. It’s far too easy to get distracted by the day-to-day operations of an office (even when you’re working remotely). Don’t add to those distractions by loading up on six or eight different “in progress” items.
Embrace Changing Pain Points
Rather than running from change or avoiding pain, successful companies see these inflection points as an opportunity to improve processes. Sometimes that means changing an entire business model, other times it’s as simple as adopting a new tool. To get started, take an honest look at your organization and figure out how well it can handle change.
Every person in the organization should feel empowered to talk about problems. The newest person in the company might have a unique perspective that veteran team members would miss. Encourage everyone to use their voice. Whatever the largest pain point was three months ago is likely to have changed by now.
Team members should also feel empowered to offer solutions. We’ve seen some teams go as far as to say that you can’t bring up a problem without also offering a solution. While this isn’t the best approach, it’s worth noting that it’s not always enough to say “you’re welcome to give solutions.” Sometimes that needs to go further toward “I want you to suggest solutions.”
Learn & Love Your Development Approach
Agile? Kanban? Waterfall? Scrum? Deciding the right approach to development can be a challenging, deeply personal decision. As your team grows, you might find that one method starts to work better than another. Going back to our discussion on pain points, this is an opportunity to improve processes.
As a team, it’s important to make a firm decision and to stick to it. Otherwise, prepare for mass confusion. That said, the goal is productivity and you can optimize for it in a few steps:
- Clearly communicate the objectives for the day/week/sprint/etc.
- Maintain communication in the task management platform
- Try to spot roadblocks before they happen
As an individual, it’s often possible to complete your own tasks inside of the system that works best for you, while still integrating with whatever the team is using. For instance, if the team is using Kanban but you’re more comfortable with Agile methods, how you complete your own work is less important than whether it’s completed. As long as your methods aren’t disruptive or inefficient, chances are that your team will remain flexible with you.
We would love to know how you’ve embraced the challenges of startup life. What ways have you been more productive that don’t fall into the idioms that are passed around continuously? Sound off in the comments below, especially if you have a point that you think will spark discussion. We’d love to hear it.
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