Starting and finishing projects, fast and slow

One of my strengths is coming up with ideas, and one of my goals for this year is to get faster at executing the ideas. We’re two months in, and I’ve made a lot of progress so far. 

New ideas often create new ideas, though, and one of the challenges has been finishing projects once they’re past the initial stage of excitement, and bringing others along for the ride. 

Understanding the goal, and implications of the goal

Goal setting is a powerful way of making progress, and I like to use the end of the year to review where I’m at and set new goals for the coming year. That’s fairly standard and uncontroversial.

What I’m less good at is understanding the implications of the goal: doing one thing may lead to unintended side-effects. We understand this with KPIs, which is where paired metrics come from. You might, for example, pair revenue with profit margin to ensure you don’t optimise for one at the expense of the other.

With goal setting we need something similar. I’ve been optimising for moving faster with projects, but projects don’t live in isolation. Without understanding the implications of a goal, one can’t plan for the outcomes. It turns out me optimising for projects creates extra work for my team, something which may not be wanted when I’ve created the space for working on projects by handing over some of my client project work.

Understand the goal, but also the implications of the goal. Finishing projects quickly may be good in isolation, but if it’s having negative second-order effects down the line that’s less useful.

Setting projects up for success

At Ellipsis we talk a lot about setting projects up for success: how can we de-risk a project by getting or providing more information at the start so that it has the best change of working out?

It can be tempting, especially if you lean towards the “let’s do it out and figure it out on the way” end of the scale as I do, to just jump in and do exactly that. If you’re going to have a higher “hit rate” with successful projects, though, you need to spend some time – even a tiny amount of it – planning out the idea, likely risks, and benefits. Does the time frame and budget make sense? What are the likely risks and how can you mitigate them? What are the benefits and are they worth it given the costs? Can you get the benefits in other ways?

Spending even a tiny amount of time thinking about these things has stopped me pursuing projects which I think would be cool, but are ultimately of limited value. There’s a finite quantity of projects I can get done, so avoiding waste is valuable.

One of the ways this has played out is by getting more expert help. If I can pay an expert to save me time, increasingly I will. I’ve been trying to be more intentional about this recently: where are there opportunities to cut a big chunk of time out of a project by paying someone $100+/hour for a consultation? I do get anxious about spending — I recently spent $1,000 on a spreadsheet — but this is all in context. I’m in the “explore” and “exploit” stages for Ellipsis. We’re doing a lot that’s working, but there’s a lot of what we call “unexplored areas” to figure out. Starting and finishing projects to put the pieces together faster has huge, compounding value in the long term. 

Finishing projects

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

My heuristic previously has been that a project will get finished if I find it interesting, and if I don’t finish it it’s because it’s not interesting. 

That’s not the worst heuristic in the world, but the value of a project goes up significantly if it’s finished. The final 20% is almost always worth it, and it’s not like it even takes 80% of the time: it just accounts for 80% of the resistance feel on a project. 

Acknowledging when I’m stuck or seeing resistance on a project has been a big step for me. Once it’s acknowledged, I can start moving past it.

I use Roam for my knowledge management but have started using it for project management too. My “Projects” board is so full of “someday/maybe” projects that I don’t take the “on deck” list especially seriously. 

Changing that has been extremely helpful: I’m allowed a smaller number of projects on deck at one time, and I can’t move on new projects until the old ones are completed. As I’ve set up the project for success beforehand, I have clear completion criteria, so moving something to complete is much less ambiguous too. 

I’ve gone as far as scheduling regular time in my week for finishing projects. Previously this was time for starting projects, but the projects get started regardless. They don’t get finished regardless! 

Work in progress

Projects can be fun and a source of a lot of progress. Finishing them, fast and slow, is even better.