Pushing the rock and sweeping as you go
As we grow our impact in organizations we serve, generally we will give up the luxury of focusing on one thing for extended periods. Before I was confronted with this discovery, my conversations would go something like this:
"Should I work on tactical project X or strategic opportunity Y?" "Yes." "Wait, what? Which one?"
Competition and the pace of change push businesses to address both the immediate needs as well as preparing for the future. In tech, I generally don’t see separate teams organized to tackle each. They’d end up being too siloed, leading to waste or misalignment. Instead, I’ve observed employees being challenged to adopt a more holistic view of the business. And how their work aligns with a broader team/org and company vision.
Want to be involved in more visible projects, increase your impact, or get promoted? You’ll need to become increasingly comfortable managing the tension between the immediate/tactical and longer-range/strategic.
I suspect most of us gravitate towards one end of the tactical/strategic spectrum, making this especially tricky to put into practice. If nothing else, you’ll improve just by taking a step back every now and then to consider where you’re investing your time. Having a picture/metaphor has helped me. Folks who have worked with me before have almost certainly heard me say,
You have to push the rock and sweep as you go
Pushing the rock
Imagine pushing a boulder up a hill. It’s bigger than you and headwinds challenge your progress. Success doesn’t come easily nor quickly. And it takes whole teams to push together. Making progress also requires you all to push the same rock in the same direction. Due to the nature of most larger initiatives, they’ll go backwards if you stop investing. They roll back down the hill so at the very least you have to maintain a certain level of effort just to avoid regressing.
Examples vary depending on your level within an organization. But generally, “pushing the rock” refers to work that requires at least 5x the effort, calendar time, or people.
Sweeping as you go
There are always messages to return, meetings to attend, problems to resolve, and what can feel like the grind-y work you do. It’s tempting to demean this work or think that perhaps when you get promoted far enough you can focus purely on the fancy and most visible work.
The biases in modern countries can lead some to think that literal floor sweeping is less important than other work. It’s critical we work to recognize these biases and avoid letting them influence us subconsciously. We can embrace the criticality of work regardless of its visibility or prestige. If you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor just a bit more, when we don’t “sweep” as we push the rock up the hill, we run the risk of making the journey even harder. We move less effectively as we are distracted or trip on the impediments at our feet. Trash, debris, and goo get in our way whether they be distractions, unecessary meetings, wasteful processes, or overcommitments.
As you move forward together with others, picture yourself with one hand on the rock. Leaning into it with your shoulder. At the same time…you’re bent down with a small hand broom sweeping the path at your feet. Junk you encounter isn’t avoided as, “someone else’s job.” In the software world:
- Look for distractions. Are software reliability issues, bugs, or support requests bogging a team down? That’s a sign that more sweeping is needed. In many ways, my post on the (hierarchy of software needs)[/2018/11/26/hierarchy-of-software-needs/] was addressing both the problem and the solution to this kind of situation.
- Consider your perspective. Take a look at how far into the future you’re thinking and planning. If all your time is spent working on the software tickets for the current sprint and you’re not thinking about the overall project trajectory, you’ll likely benefit from a bit more time spent pushing the rock.
In practical terms, some techniques have helped me more than others to put this into practice:
- Timebox. Limit the time in meetings or hours in a week given to the area that comes more easily to you or your team.
- Alternate. While I suggest that we have to do both, that doesn’t mean literally at the same time. Spending periods (days, hours, or weeks) focused in one area can provide the necessary focus to make progress. But put a clear boundary so you don’t get lost. As an extreme example, observers have suggested that Apple’s major OS releases often have an annual “fix” and then “innovate” cadence, focusing on one and then the other.
- Dedicate time. Set aside a certain number of hours each week for the area you struggle to invest in. Or add a standing agenda item to a team meeting or review. Perhaps 4 hours on a Friday morning to think strategically or squash bugs is all you need. This is one of my favorite approaches as it makes our meeting agenda reflect our priorities…we’re sweeping and pushing the rock.
- Ruthlessly Prioritize. Think really hard about which efforts you’re investing in actually result in meaningful outcomes for the business. Be cautious of work that feels good to do, but doesn’t deliver broader value. And get input from others. Many times, I’ve found that asking partners and leaders provides perspective and context I didn’t have that helped me choose more wisely.
Good luck! This is a life-long journey and I’m still working to refine my effectiveness both in executing this well and mentoring others to do the same.
Published February 03, 2022