“Urgency is poisonous”

Here’s one for a rainy Monday morning. 37signals’ experimental 4-day working week is going very well.

When I first compared this enlightened approach to people-management with the drive-them-harder style of Jason Calacanis, it triggered a massive debate, and I wrote a follow-up comparing the Calacanis approach to an evil cult. Last week 37signals reckoned that urgency is poisonous.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that urgency is overrated. In fact, I’ve come to believe urgency is poisonous. Urgency may get things done a few days sooner, but what does it cost in morale? Few things burn morale like urgency. Urgency is acidic.

Emergency is the only urgency. Almost anything else can wait a few days. It’s OK. There are exceptions (a trade show, a conference), but those are rare.

When a few days extra turns into a few weeks extra then there’s a problem, but what really has to be done by Friday that can’t wait for Monday or Tuesday? If your deliveries are that critical to the hour or day, maybe you’re setting up false priorities and dangerous expectations.

If you’re a just-in-time provider of industry parts then precise deadlines and deliveries may be required, but in the software industry urgency is self-imposed and morale-busting. If stress is a weed, urgency is the seed. Don’t plant it if you can help it.

I can’t agree more. A client phoned once, all a’fluster about an “emergency”. Before I could think, I blurted out the question, “Why? Whose life is in peril?”

Of course no-one was in danger. This client was operating in crisis mode, as usual: that anti-pattern also known as “firefighting mode”: “Dealing with things only when they become a crisis, with the result that everything becomes a crisis.” I’ve written about that before here and with my colleague Zern Liew.

OK, here’s the plan…

I’ve written about the strategic planning day we did for my business, and I showed you the view from the hotel and the whiteboard. But I haven’t said anything about the outcome. So here goes… my first attempt at a coherent summary.

Starting today I’ll focus more of my time on “media stuff” rather than “IT stuff”. I’ll include Internet-related media in the mix, but I’ll phase out the time I spend farting around with other people’s computers. I’m interested in computers and the Internet as tools to achieve my own goals, not fixing other people’s tools. I hope to get all the hands-on IT stuff off my plate by the end of September.

This “media stuff” includes quite a few projects, some of which have been slowly incubating for years. There’s 3 book concepts (one of which would also make a good TV series), a set of 6 short films, a piece of music and a couple of things which will take the form of blogs. These will start being developed under the (probable) name Skank Media — more of that one day very soon.

I must admit, I’ve been longing to return to my media roots for ages. It feels good to see a coherent plan emerging to achieve just that.

So what happens to the existing business?

I still want to work with small businesses and their information systems — but by helping them make better use of emerging Internet technologies. And doing that within a planned framework — not just responding to failures or ad hoc requests. We may still provide IT support services, or that might be outsourced, but it certainly won’t be me worrying about misbehaving printers or crawling under desks fixing cables.

My friend and colleague Zern Liew developed a 3-point to-do list which is a delightful example of simplicity:

  1. Don’t take on any new clients of the wrong sort. Knowing that you can say “Sorry, I don’t do that any more” is immensely empowering.
  2. Work out how to transition the existing clients. That’s what I’m working on today, and I hope to have contacted every existing Prussia.Net client by the end of business tomorrow.
  3. Start the new business. Well, there’s a lot under that one point. And there’s actually two businesses to think about: Skank Media and whatever Prussia.Net evolves into. But it puts the focus onto the future, not the past.

I feel really good about this. My target mix for the rest of this month is 20 hours per week billable time on IT and Internet work for existing clients, 10 hours on redeveloping Prussia.Net and 10 hours on Skank Media. Plus the usual extra 10 or 15 or 20 hours on making everything else work. I’ll report back on Friday evening.

Scaring the shit out of clients

It was Oscar Wilde or G B Shaw or — oh, somebody interesting — who, when accused of shocking people, replied to the effect that people should be shocked a good deal more often. Or offended. Anyway, I can’t find the right quote so here’s a different one.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

That’s Wilde.

Yesterday we ruffled a client’s feathers. We were invited to tender for a web development project. Our response was, in essence, “Yeah we’re interested — but not if you’re going to do it that way. We don’t think that’ll work because [reasons]. We strongly recommend doing it [some other way]. Before we go any further, is it cool for us to tender that way, knowing that’s not what you asked for? Oh, and here’s the keys to our intranet, so you can see the dialog which led to this conclusion.”


Someone’s worldview was gunned down ruthlessly! Politely, but we did use phrases like “high-risk death march”.

Now I should say that one of us worked with this client for almost a decade and the other has worked with them on two projects in the last year. So our comments were based on some knowledge of the organisation and its needs as well as our own professional opinions. Nevertheless, what we said was shocking.

I’ve always wondered why clear, direct communication is so rare in business.
People seem almost afraid to say what they mean. “Don’t upset the client!” So a recommendation like “Process A is dangerous and you should change that immediately or risk almost certain failure” becomes a mealy-mouthed “Is everyone happy with the assumptions relating to Process A?”

All urgency is drained away. The project continues flying serenely towards the looming mountain.

But don’t upset the client.

If your recommendation is for major change, when do you broach the subject?
Sign up to the “wrong” concept of the project and then try to change it? Leave it until people have spent more time going down the wrong path, and the deadline is closer? No, something so important should be communicated as soon as possible.

Organisations aren’t used to people speaking quite so directly. When it happens, it’s like a splash of iced water into the face. And sometimes, that splash into alertness is precisely what’s needed.

Broken formatting

I’m exhausted. I’ve just finished dealing with some major systems crises, and at the end of it I’m left with broken formatting on this website. Some of the text looks funny. Oh well it can wait… I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.