What Doesn't Need to Be Done

Finishing things requires simplification.

February 1, 2022 • 2 min read

Project management is, roughly, the art of ensuring a team gets what needs to be done, done.

Given that, a lot of the focus ends up being on those needs. Checklists, breakdowns, schedules, updates – all focused on the things that need to be done.

While that’s all very important, I’ve found there’s a second set of things that also matter, but tend to fly under the radar: the things that don’t need to be done.

Of course, we’re not in this to do the minimum. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

But if it’s worth doing, it’s also worth finishing. And to finish, you eventually need to buckle down, simplify, and stop doing the stuff that doesn’t need to be done.

Tasks that don’t need to be done can come in many forms. Sometimes it’s procrastination that feels like work. Sometimes it’s gold-plating – refining something too early, before it’s gotten into the world and you’ve gotten meaningful feedback.

Perhaps most insidious is work that does need to be done that’s become tangled up with work that doesn’t need to be done, at least not now:

  • We decided to do a small update to fix this one critical bug, but while we were in there we started taking some other changes, and now we have an urgent update that needs a bunch of QA.
  • We need to get the core 80% of these design changes into the first release, but we ended up just going ahead and doing all of the changes in one big PR, and now we’re running behind.
  • We need to iterate our approach around meetings to help us move more of our work to be async, but Allen’s started writing a giant treatise on a whole new way of working that will take weeks for everybody to absorb and give feedback on and god please Allen can you stop overthinking things for once.

The solution to this is hardly revolutionary: break up work into smaller chunks, timebox it, and make sure you’re making good 80/20 tradeoffs and simplifying things effectively. Check in on goals and priorities when you see a team member who seems to be going off on a large side quest. Stop Allen from writing giant docs unless the problem actually justifies a giant doc. Typical project management stuff.

Make sure you’re not bogged down by what doesn’t need to be done.

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