Little Things

“I have seen far too many people who upon recognizing today’s gap try very hard to determine what decision has to be made to close it. But today’s gap represents a failure of planning some time in the past.”
- Andy Grove

When you run a company, big things stay on your mind. Will we make the quarter? Did we hire the right engineers? Will the release be on time? Do we have a quality problem? Do we have enough money in the bank?

The Catch 22 is that if you attempt to act on those “big things,” you will usually do big damage. In order to move big things in a positive direction, it’s generally best to focus on little things.

If you are worried about the quarter, you might think that it’s a good idea to call your head of sales twice a day to get the status. By doing so, you might think you are creating the appropriate sense of urgency. In reality, you are just distracting her from closing the quarter twice a day. In fact, by radically overemphasizing the quarter, you will likely cause your sales leader to begin focusing on the cover up — the byzantine set of excuses that she will deploy in the case that she actually misses her number.

These excuses will then cause a new set of problems. She might say, "Why did we miss the quarter? We really did not get the right support from the product organization." So now you go over to the head of products to harass her. She’s responds: “What? If the VP of Sales wasn’t getting enough support, then why didn’t she say something to me?” Do you see what you did there? Not only did you fail to make progress on the sales issue, but you created a new political issue which will contribute to you missing the next quarter.

While it’s correct to worry about the big issues, you must resist the urge to act on them directly. Before acting, you should first translate the big thing into a related set of little things. For example, if you are worried about making the quarter, then you should go on a few sales calls and see if you are selling your product in the most effective way possible. Are your sales people properly trained? Do they run a process that puts your product in the very best light and sets appropriate traps for your competitors? Are you selling at the right level in the organization? Is your product truly competitive? As you get the answers to these questions, you will develop more constructive little things to take action on. These little things might not help you make this quarter, but they will certainly help you make next quarter.

Similarly, if you are deeply worried about engineering throughput, lamenting that your engineers don’t work as hard as other companies that you’ve heard about will achieve very little other than making your engineers think they are the “B” team. On the other hand, spending time going through their day and really understanding what’s slowing them down in the code base, where their build environment is working against them and how the communication overhead between groups slows them down might help a great deal.

This is true for almost anything in your company. You should set high-level goals, but those goals will or will not be achieved by the organization that you assigned them to. If you want to help them reach their goals, do so by focusing on the little things.

My old boss Jim Barksdale used to say that all of the knowledge was with the individual contributors and the customers. As CEO, you need to hire the right people and set a clear direction. Once you do that, you should fly low and fast rather than high and slow. Focus on the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.

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