Focus and Flow in Startups

Working in startupland is a game of focus and flow. To accomplish morning tasks, focus is what you need. That means slipping headphones on in your coworking space to block out the startup team in the next office playing loud Neil Diamond because they don’t know any better, then flipping through an app like Asana, and then crunching down the list that you’ve broken down by tags and due dates. We run on apps. Each member of our team works independently, often in different spaces, connected by Uberconference, Slack, and Dialpad. Sometimes we use the dreaded Google Hangouts platform or the much-better Zoom. I’ve deployed this method effectively with Red Cup over the past five years, but it comes from earlier on, from my production days.

In film and TV production, each part of the process is handled by a different person or group. Camera people film. Audio people record sound. Lighting people light the scene. Even before they arrive on that scene, location scouts have discovered it, booking producers have set up guests and interviews, and writers or writer/producers have written a script or outline. The director orchestrates, so the mythos goes, but sometimes the director only shows up at the end to deliver the deliverables. The real work has come from the team.

Task segmentation is powerful because tasks can be sliced into micro-tasks and assembled later. When working with overseas researchers, for example, fencing in the task is what works best. You give skilled people “just enough string to go around” so they can deliver the work product. I learned how to do this by experimenting with Jeff Bezos’ Mechanical Turk. This is a platform where you post a task, and dozens if not hundreds of workers worldwide take a crack at it. Tasks set up this way must be modular, smaller parts of a larger piece of work, and instructions for these tasks must fit in a single paragraph or even a sentence. “Find out if these URLs lead to working websites.” Or, “Use this email validator and tell me if this email is good.”

These methods work wonderfully for startups, but they do nothing to get you to the next level. The next level is shaped by holistic thinking, not by micro-tasks. It is a connected world where we get to color outside the lines and use the synergy of working as an informed team.

I have a press outreach manager working to connect with journalists, a media analyst developing business intelligence, a webinar producer, also writers, and researchers. The other day (yes, this is fairly recent) I realized that my task segmentation approach was efficient, but limiting. As a team, we were, as the expression goes, “working in silos.”
It gets more fractal than that. Red Cup, a distributed team, works with other distributed teams to deliver the deliverables. If you think about that for too long, you envision a complex process. The “right hand” never knows what the “left hand” is doing. It’s a never-ending tunnel of micro-tasks.

Well, that is something that needs fixing. If we are to deliver for clients on a higher level, it will take more than Slack to knit us together. It will take, dare I say, meetings. Or at least, group calls, or scrums as they are called now. Asynchronous communications are fun, but they take you only so far. Micro-tasks must connect to the larger vision, and everybody on the team has to know how the micro-tasks connect.

I was on video conference calls today with clients in Valencia, Burlington, and Sydney, (#humblebrag) and while it is weird to talk to people on a screen, and equally weird to try to avoid looking at myself and wonder if I needed a better background or a nicer shirt, it allowed us to color outside the lines, develop a dialogue, and synch up a larger vision, even if only for a moment.

So here’s my ask. Next time you’re lapping up lunch from a recyclable plastic takeout container, checking for messages on your phone or clicking off tasks in your task manager of choice, it might work to pause and think big picture, even if only for a moment, and wonder how to break down a few silos and synch up to a larger vision.