Agility in Uncertainty: 3 Startup Principles That Keep Me Sane
Disclaimer: This article is in the past tense, but I was actually writing about this experience as it was happening. As you’ll soon find out—I was strung out, slightly drunk, and distracted with difficulties. As a result, my first cut at this was not my best. I’ve gone back and cleaned up the really lousy parts but I decided to keep most of it in order to still capture my chaotic swirl I was in.
decisions on sh*t
My dog, Cooper, has some pretty critical decisions to make. One question he needs to answer happens right after I feed him in the morning—where is he going to poop?
After he and his drowsy-eyed parent have a few yawns and stretches, he begins his comprehensive decision making process. The courtyard, where this takes place, has endless possibilities. With every sniff, he evaluates what the overall pooping experience would be like.
We will refer to this as his Poop Placement Process, or PPP. The length of time it takes to finish this process varies, but the decision rarely does. With sudden urgency, I’ll be dragged across the courtyard to his favorite spot.
This reaction can cause a ripple effect in both of our lives. As I attempt to stay upright and in control as he yanks on the leash, the likelihood of stepping in another dogs poop is becomes increasingly high. Once we’ve reached ‘the spot’, I’m forced to make small talk with my neighbor smoking his morning cigarette. As Cooper finishes his PPP, he attempts to make eye contact with my neighbor, as I attempt to avoid it.
His morning PPP environment, with very little changes. Hence, why his poop ends up in the same spot every morning.
Similar to my dog, we experience an even more controlled environment during our PPP. However, we are tasked with making difficult decisions in a rapidly changing environment.
The decisions that we make cause unpredictable consequences that we can’t always prepare for.
Decisions in sh*t
As I picked up Cooper’s poop and talked about the weather with my neighbor, I was distracted by my bigger responsibilities. Similar to my dogs sudden urgency in the morning, I realized that shit was on the way.
During that year, I had established a comfortable and predictable life style. I had gotten married, settled into a cozy apartment, and refined a steady ‘work-life’ balance. I was even able to start this blog, which had been a dream of mine.
Then my environment turned into a shit storm.
The startup I was working in experienced unexpected leadership attrition, and I was asked to take the place as Head of Operations. I was left with managing a company on the brink of rapid expansion.
As soon as this happened, my wife was approved for her Adjustment of Status(AoS) case and received her Green Card. This was great news, but coincidentally happened one week before a family wedding in India that we both desperately wanted to attend. But due to the black box nature of the Green Card process, we weren’t anticipating the ability to attend.
My new environment required me to make a difficult decision that would result in unknown consequences. If we went to India, would the company that I was responsible for be at jeopardy? If we didn’t go to India, would my wife(and family) feel resentment towards my borderline workaholic personality? All of a sudden, my life was in chaos.
Prepared But Not Ready
I’ve always prided myself on the ability to adapt to new environments. Whether it be working as a whitewater raft guide or starting a career in data analytics— I’ve always found a way to quickly pick up knowledge that allowed me to make confident decisions.
Looking at my journey through life, it’s easy to see that I seek and embrace changing environments. The fascination with adaptation trickles down to every part of my life. As my wife will tell you(with rolling eyes)— I have an obsession with rearranging rooms. I rationalize this obsession with my desire to experience a new environment. When the couch is over there, it makes me feel like we are in a completely different apartment.
I understand that this is obsession is annoying to the people in my life, but it has allowed me to thrive in the startup culture. Constant iteration and adaptation is a critical measure of how successful a company is—particularly in Agile software development. In this competitive environment, companies that are able(and willing) to adapt are typically the ones able to survive long enough for the game to be worth playing.
Yet even with this personal trait at my disposal, I found myself crippled with the complexity the situation. I was strung out and had to make a decision quickly. As I attempted to curb my anxiety with a glass of wine, I sat down evaluate my next move.
Scrum to the Rescue
After multiple failed attempts to come up with a clear answer, I suddenly realized the value in incorporating a few startup strategies in order to deal with my personal dilemma.
That’s when I turned to Scrum. Originally created for software development, Scrum(or often referred to as Agile) methodology has become the foundation for all startups looking to make rapid and effective decisions in a volatile market.
The methodology accepts that external forces are uncontrollable and that one must adapt rather than attempt to control the environment. Since we cannot control these forces, there is no way of predicting how they will change the environment.
Scrum attempts to solve this problem by implementing a system that encourages companies to be malleable in their decisions and plans for the future. It allows companies to shift direction quickly if past priorities are no longer relevant or pertinent to the situation.
In contrast, the traditional Waterfall method focuses on building elaborate step-by-step plans in order to achieve an objective. This way of working does not cater towards changes. There’s plenty of evidence that highlight the inefficiency in this method. It can cause projects to be delayed when the situation changes. Even if a project is completed, it is often irrelevant or undesirable in the new environment.
Seeing how effective Scrum was in my company, I decided to apply a few principles to my life.
Evaluate the Current State
As I attempted to calm my rattled psyche(the wine wasn’t helping), I couldn’t help but feel like my life was spinning(the wine wasn’t helping).
The first principle I needed was a current state evaluation. I refocused my attention on where my life was and how I got there.
At the age of 26, I was not expecting to have so much responsibility in a company’s future. It’s something that I dreamed about, but never truly anticipated the opportunity.
Similarly, I was not expecting to travel back to India anytime soon. The Green Card process can take years to complete but my wife was approved within 7 months.
By stepping back and evaluating my new environment, I realized that these developments were positive things. The only problem was that they were at odds with each other.
I now needed to understand how to respond to the situation. (and also a second glass of wine)
2. Scrap the Plan
A plan is only valuable if the environment you planned for is constant. Even with change in mind, it’s highly unlikely that the predictions will turn out to be true. A map can be incredibly useful, but if the terrain has changed by the time you start hiking, then you’re probably going up the wrong hill.
I’ve spent hours preparing product road maps for our team and for clients. Even though this helps us identify what direction we need to head, our team understands that the road map is not something to stick by.
I had planned to return to India with my wife. She was unable to return during the approval process and we were both eager to return as soon as we could. That plan was made while I had a stable work-life balance with limited responsibility. With that now changed, it meant that my plan was no longer useful.
With Scrum in mind, I let go of my determination to follow through on our previous plan. Without being committed to what we had planned for, I could now look at my options with an unbiased perspective.
I felt an immediate release of built up tension. It was finally time to address what I needed to do next.
3. Constantly Reorder Priorities
"We all perceive ourselves as responding to a situation, while we see others as motivated by their character." - Jeff Sutherland Co-creator of Scrum
In a perfect world, our priorities never have to change. We would be able to sit down and list down our priorities in a neat and organized list. In reality, our priorities are in constant flux.
First, we aren’t wired in a way to be consistent on our priority list. This week you may want to get in shape, but the next week you want to stuff your face with the brownies your wife just made. Second, changing circumstances can cause priorities to change or even be replaced(i.e. - wanting to travel the world but then having a child).
It was a priority for me to return back to my wife’s home. Her family’s wedding now made acting on the priority time sensitive. We both wanted to return so that I could connect with more family members, and this was a perfect opportunity to do so.
Instinctively, I felt compelled to immediately act on this priority. As I finished my second glass of wine, I began looking for flights to India.
As I was entering my card details, I was hit with a sudden realization. There was a priority even higher than going to India.
I sat back in my chair as I understood what was really important to me. It wasn’t my job or the company’s success, but rather the life that I have built because of it.
I enjoy our courtyard as much as our dog loves pooping in it. I love the life that I’ve built for my family thus far and I want to protect that more than anything. Without a reliable way to earn income, many things would have to be sacrificed. The company would probably be fine if I had gone to India, but I was not willing to add more risk to the situation.
I decided then to buy my wife’s ticket back to India while I stayed back to focus on my work.
Yes— I felt guilty about not going with her. But I also am glad that I stayed back. I made the right decision. bought Sam a plane ticket back to India while I stayed put and focused on my work.
I’ve come to accept that these types of decisions aren’t going anywhere. I’ll continue to face dilemmas that have no clear answer. Applying the Scrum methodology will not allow me to make all the right decisions—I’ll make plenty of wrong ones.
What I have learned is how to apply a system that allows me to evaluate my actions. With a reliable system in place, I’m now able to be confident and calculated in my decision during a shit storm.
I’ll continue to improve in my decision making by reflecting on the current situation, letting go of previous plans, and prioritizing what’s most important in the moment.
Whether it’s through Scrum or Sniff(one of Cooper’s main PPP principles), I encourage you to embrace a system that allows you to manage the chaos. Good luck!