Struggling to find focus

How deadlines give us the illusion of focus

When I started this newsletter a whopping 6 weeks ago, I had set myself a goal to release one article every two weeks. I figured with all the learnings I've accumulated over my career on both successful and unsuccessful product teams, it would be an easy enough task. After all, I'm not writing epic novels, but quick reads. This week though, on the day of my arbitrary deadline, I find myself struggling for focus. We're only talking about the third article here and I'm already grasping at straws. What might my audience value? What do I want to write about? I have many (many) unfinished articles, but I'm not sticking the landing. I'm always chasing the start of a new idea. It struck me that it was because I don't have focus.

At an aspirational level, I know what value I hope to provide you with this newsletter — to help you drive positive change in your product organizations. That's a great mission, but it doesn't answer where I need to focus today, next week, or even next month. I have to drill deeper.

I've focused more on my deadline than the value I'm trying to create for you, the reader. I should have started there. What's the value? What are the objectives I'm trying to reach? While the goal of a delivery date can help to keep me honest, it hasn't at all encouraged me to truly focus.

And it's in this lack of focus that I've created for myself, by focusing on a date to hit, rather than the overall objective of the newsletter and the steps to get there, that I find myself realizing this is what we do with our product teams all the time.

This is what passes as goals in most product organizations: We expect to release feature X by date Y. We're great at setting deadlines without understanding the real value of the work we're doing. We start with dates instead of asking fundamental questions: Why does this feature need to exist in the first place? What is the value we are trying to create?

The value and how we deliver it efficiently and effectively should be what dominates our conversations. Instead, we usually find a scramble to finish for the sake of finishing. We provide timelines and estimates, and revised timelines and estimates, and revised timelines and estimates, and... you get the picture. Our checkins wind up being about whether we are shipping on time, not whether or not we are creating something worth creating. We waste a lot of time talking about time. More on that another day, I promise.

So what can we do about it — you with your product, me with my writing? I'm a huge advocate of visualizing your strategy. And before we jump onto the roadmap train... your roadmap is typically just a manifestation of deadlines and ideas. That's not what I'm talking about here. What I mean by visualizing your strategy is mapping out your objectives, the value you want to create for your customers and drilling down from there — to get to the plan of addressing those needs. All of sudden you start to unearth the learning you need to do and the focus you'll need to do it well.

So the newsletter? Well, I pulled this article out of the fire and found a lesson in it. I'm going to map out my objectives and focus my writing around subjects. I'd love your feedback on what you want to hear about and that will better inform my plan.