Some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in business were when I forgot to time-box everything. The more I work with other entrepreneurs the more convinced I become of how important it is.
And I do mean time-box everything:
- Time-Box Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)
- Time-Box Experiments
- Time-Box Product Development
- Time-Box Contracts
- Time-Box Pretty Much Everything Else
Let’s unpack these:
1. Time-Box Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)
It’s not a goal if it’s not time-boxed.
I had coffee with a CEO the other day who was trying to figure out when and how to pivot his business.
It’s a difficult decision because he has a bunch of stuff on the horizon that could be great. But if he’s doing his job then he’ll always have big opportunities coming up!
How long should he continue his current path?
Step 1 is to time-box the decision of whether to continue or pivot.
It’s human nature to let things go “just a little bit longer” to see if they improve.
It’s important to focus, which means weeding out the stuff that’s not core. He’s currently doing both b2c and b2b sales. That’s too broad, so step 2 is to gather some data on which customer type is likely to be the most profitable. This data-gathering phase also needs to be time-boxed.
Step 3 is to focus on the chosen path, and to do time-boxed experiments to move the needle. Which brings us to…
2. Time-Box Experiments
The goal is to identify where we need to change in order to improve our businesses. Where can we find the most leverage? We want to deliver the biggest results—and a key part of the equation is time.
Speeding up the decision-making process can be a huge competitive advantage for any company.
It’s human nature to let things go “just a little bit longer” to see if they improve. We avoid this trap by first deciding on three things: a deadline, what we expect to accomplish, and how we’ll measure it.
Then we run the experiment and see what happens.
Here’s Satya Nadella in June 2015 laying out a growth mindset for Microsoft:
“We need to be always learning and insatiably curious. We need to be willing to lean in to uncertainty, take risks and move quickly when we make mistakes, recognizing failure happens along the way to mastery.”
The stock has risen almost 50% in the following 18 months. Notice the emphasis on moving quickly.
Once we hit our time-box we analyze the results and then double-down on what’s working. Remember that we often learn more from failed experiments than successful ones.
3. Time-Box Product Development
I’m a big fan of the agile sprint, and not just for software development.
Is it done yet?
One CEO I spoke with was trying to figure out how to get more visibility into the product development process, which is run by his technical co-founder. It turns out that they do open-ended projects, so things just take as long as they’re going to take.
This leaves the CEO endlessly asking, “Is it done yet?”
A sprint is usually two or three weeks to build new features and deliver a working version of the product. Over time you get a sense of the team’s velocity (how much they can accomplish in a single sprint). Large tasks may be split across several sprints.
Because each sprint delivers a new, working version you can quickly see the impact for your customers. You can react rapidly and adjust as needed.
Companies use this same approach for non-software products. And for services. And for marketing campaigns. And for other non-product initiatives.
4. Time-Box Contracts
I need to point out that I’m not a lawyer, and that you should always consult one for all of your contract negotiations.
Warren Buffett points out that Coca Cola made the worst deal ever when they granted bottling rights in perpetuity.
Check it out starting at 1:10 in this video:
“In 1899, for a dollar, [Coca Cola] made a deal with three guys from Chattanooga. It was the dumbest deal ever made. They gave in perpetuity the rights in almost the entire United States to these guys.” —Warren Buffett
Forever is too long a time.
I’ve made this same mistake.
I was working for a company that was having cash flow issues, and the owner requested that a few of the key personnel—including me—defer 5% of our salaries. This was part of a larger conversation about us receiving equity ownership as well.
We signed a contract, a few months went by, and then I quit. My mistake was that I didn’t include a time limit on getting paid back the deferred salary. Now it’s years later and I still don’t have my money. We’ve been in a painful holding pattern because they claim there’s no date by which they’re required to repay me. Ouch.
5. Time-Box Pretty Much Everything Else
I also try to time-box phone calls and meeting. If we decide in advance that we have 30 minutes then we all do our best to stick to that. If we leave it open-ended we’re in trouble.
One thing that’s worked well for me is hiring employees on a 90-day introductory period. We agree up front on what we expect to accomplish, and then we revisit the relationship after 90 days. Usually things go smoothly and we seamlessly transition into full-time employment.
Every once in a while they don’t, and then I’m very glad that we time-boxed it in advance.
I’m always looking for new ways to use time to my advantage, and to bring both objectivity and speed to my decision-making process.
Did I Mention Time-Box Everything?
Time-boxing everything gives you the discipline you need to succeed. It forces you to have difficult conversations early, while also giving you more time to focus on what’s working.
Where have you used time-boxing to your advantage?