Why do we work on things that don't matter?

Startup teams have entirely too much to do. And yet, I'd suggest (and others, apparently, agree) many of us spend a lot of time doing things that ultimately don't help the success of our company. Why is that?

I put this poll up a couple days ago asking what the single biggest unnecessary cost of time for your startup was (out of eight possibilities I suggested). Here are the results:

poll results

By the way, I was trying to distinguish between necessary productivity sinks and unnecessary ones. Yes, email is big time sink, as are HR issues, but you're not going to be better off if you just stop doing them.

As you can see, each of the answers I suggested had at least a few people choose it. So different companies waste time in different ways (at least according to the people who purportedly work in them and answered this poll). Each of these time sinks is worth paying attention to. But things like office distractions and too many internal meetings get a fair amount of attention.

Internet distractions, while obviously a major concern, is also a fairly obvious one—probably exacerbated by the fact many people answering this poll are involved in creating Internet distractions and, thus, subject to them. (I'm wondering, however, if the people answering this were speaking on behalf of themselves or their co-workers.)

More curious to me is the number one item on the list: Working on things that don't matter. We can all make endless lists of things that do matter, so why would we be working on things that don't? I mean, that's dumb, right? Is it really the case?

Well, first of all, let's make the distinction we did earlier between necessary things that don't matter and unnecessary ones. I believe there are both. Necessary things that don't matter come with the territory of startups and doing new things. The reality is that not everything you try is going to work. Feature X may be a dud, while feature Y drives your success. Whole product lines and strategies may be off. But often, there's no way to tell this ahead of time. In retrospect, a big project may have had no impact for you, but it may still have been a logical bet to make. Some degree of failed bets—i.e., things that didn't "matter" toward your success—are actually necessary.

But there are other projects where we should know better. These are the types of projects that aren't even necessarily flops. They're good ideas that have some positive impact. But they're just not nearly as important as other things. This comes from the fact that there are endless good ideas, but in the end, only a few are going to be the keys to making your business successful. If you accept that premise, you wanna make darn sure you're getting to those few key ideas and not spending all your time on just okay ones.

What are the sources of this good, but unnecessary, and ultimately costly, work?

Optimization of the Wrong Things
Your software engineers will tell that if you optimize a part of your system that isn't the bottleneck, you won't realize any gain from it. The Theory of Constraints is a management philosophy based on the same principle:
Theory of Constraints is based on the premise that the rate of revenue generation is limited by at least one constraining process (i.e. a bottleneck). Only by increasing throughput (flow) at the bottleneck process can overall throughput be increased.

In other words, think of your entire business as the system you're optimizing. If you're spending time developing a feature for power users, but your business will not actually be successful unless your rate of growth increases, you're optimizing the wrong thing (assuming the power-user feature isn't directly related to growth). If you're spending time getting more people to your front door, but no one's signing up once they get there, you're optimizing the wrong thing. If lots of people are signing up, but they're not sticking around, then working on your ad platform is probably time misspent.

Saying where, exactly, your bottleneck is can be tricky. In practice, we need to get more people to the front door and get more of them to sign up and get more of them to stick around and make more money from them. Saying which of these is the bottleneck at any given time is a little bit of a judgment call. But good data analysis and product management can answer the question reasonably.

It's not impossible, depending on the stage of your company, that you can make progress on more than one area at once, as long as you have separate teams executing on them. But we also trick ourselves and get seduced by a seeming quick win in areas that aren't necessarily that important, thinking we'll also get to the more important ones. When it comes to software, no wins are ever as quick as we think they're going to be. And, when it comes to everything, we're never going to get as much done as we think.

So it's important, especially early on, that the entire team knows what your biggest bottleneck is at any given time so they can be focused on that.

I was going to cover a second major cost of work that doesn't matter in this post, but I'll save it for another time. It's actually related to its own answer in the poll: Meetings with others that don't lead anywhere. But it's also a major source of work that doesn't matter: Premature business development.