Minimum Viable Everything
What do task lists, meetings, synchronous work, and travel have in common? Less is better.
Minimalism is seeping into every aspect of work.
Minimum Viable Task List, or the Enough List
Josh Spector has been overwhelmed by his task list, and offers this advice:
The infinite nature of your To-Do list makes it as likely to remind you of what you failed to do as it is what you did.
No wonder you feel overwhelmed when you look at it.
An Enough List can help.
What is an Enough List?
While a To-Do list includes EVERYTHING you need to do, an Enough List includes only the BARE MINIMUM tasks you need to do on a particular day to feel it was productive.
Yes, it’s the daily minimum viable task list.
He lays out six points, most of which I agree with ( I’ll save my quibbles for the end):
Aim small — Have as few tasks as possible in the daily list, ‘the minimum number you need to declare the day a success’.
Prioritize — Consider the day’s priorities, not everything you need to do in the next few weeks. This will help manage your time, so long as you don’t avoid actually important tasks.
Work on the minimum viable task list tasks before others — You can do other things once you make today a success. If you were wrong about what should be on the daily list, amend it.
Be specific — Make the items in the MVTL specific and indicate the starting and ending state of task work. For example, ‘draft an outline of chapter 7’ is better than ‘work on the book’.
One item can be enough — and more than five is a recipe for disaster.
You can also work on tasks from other lists — Personally, I manage separate lists for ongoing projects — like the hypothetical ‘writing a book’ project, above, as well as a daily list. The ‘draft an outline of chapter 7’ task is likely drawn from (or copied from) that ‘writing a book’ project list. If in your efforts on your draft of chapter 7 leads to a draft of chapter 8, as well, fine. In my approach, I would add the ‘draft outline of chapter 8’ to the daily MVTL, and update the status in both places.
My Quibble With Spector’s Approach
Spector implies that tasks are binary: either open or closed. There is a great deal more subtlety needed in the status of tasks. For example, some tasks are created but no work has yet been done, versus an open, in-progress task. In particular, the ‘be specific’ advice argues for these sorts of subtleties.
[For those interested in the minutiae of my approach to task management, see The Taskora Convention at Workings.]
Minimum Viable Meetings
In Meetings. Why?, Caity Weaver pulls some great advice from a 1976 book about — in effect — minimal viable meetings:
Some of the worst meetings are born of the best intentions. In his superlative 1976 treatise on effective workplace communication, “How to Run a Meeting,” the British writer Antony Jay warns against such hazards as being reluctant to exclude someone from a discussion, and waiting for everyone to arrive before delving into business. (“There is only one way to ensure that a meeting starts on time, and that is to start it on time,” Mr. Jay wrote.)
In maniacal detail, Mr. Jay outlined what seems to the reader something like 500,000 possible permutations of gathering type, objectives, leadership tactics, discussion structures, seating arrangements, and so on, the architecture of the hypothetical meetings — whose every pathway leads, unavoidably, to productivity — increasingly resembling something out of a lithograph by Escher. Yet Mr. Jay is not, by default, pro-gathering. A meeting is only warranted, he wrote, if the consequences of not holding it are sufficiently grave.
To distill Jay’s thoughts, and mix some of my own with them, here are the principles of minimal viable meetings:
Have the fewest meetings necessary.
Each meeting should have the tightest possible focus.
Each meeting should take the shortest time possible.
Invite only attendees that are needed to accomplish the meeting's goals, and keep the group to less than six.
Kristin Arnold, who describes her vocation as “high stakes meeting facilitator” — her website counts Raytheon Technologies and General Mills as past clients — has heard years of complaints that meetings “are a waste of time,” and that many attendees “don’t know why they’re there.” If everyone resents bad meetings, why do bad meetings persist?
The obvious answer, per Ms. Arnold, is that many people do not know how to create a meeting that is not bad.
Just because you’ve been subjected to meetings, she said, “doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to run a meeting.”
So what do we really miss when we do not meet in person? The opportunity to physically gather in a small room with colleagues we hate.
In Dr. Rosenthal’s experience, meetings are not necessarily traps to lure the work force into complacency while enabling managers to appear busy. A meeting can be useful or even good if it meets these three criteria: “You know what you’re going to do in it,” she said. “You do the thing. And at the end, somebody reports out: ‘OK, we’re all going to do these things going forward.’”
If you have to have a meeting, do it like that. With as few people as possible.
Someone once pointed out that companies will not let an employee buy $50 of books without approval but allow anyone to call a meeting that costs thousands in people’s time. Minimum viable culture includes the principles of minimum viable meetings.
Minimum Viable Synchronous Work
In Breaking Free from a “9 to 5” Culture, Rebecca Zucker moves beyond the first-order premise of ‘flexible work’ where workers move their work hours to suit their personal needs. She repositions this in a relational context, where most workers are flexing their work hours, and as a result, might not overlap work hours with coworkers at all. This is the realm of asynchronous work and has to be supported by asynchronous means of communication. In other words: less Zoom, more email1.
As she styles it,
Employees are increasingly working asynchronously, completing tasks on their own schedules, which may be different from those of their colleagues. Asynchronous work is now essential to being part of a modern, digital economy, staying competitive in the war for talent, and building a globally distributed workforce.
Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor and author of the book Remote Work Revolution, told me, “Companies have to profoundly rethink what it means to be part of a modern work structure. This idea of 9-to-5 or face-time culture is actually not helpful for a digitally advanced economy.” She highlighted that underlying face-time culture is the need to monitor or see people in order to feel like work is advancing. However, this assumption that being productive requires seeing people do the work is not only limiting, but also fallacious, as technology and automation are increasingly used to get work done and are inherently not as observable. Asynchronous work, she says, is “a completely new mindset in line with a digital economy.”
Well, some of us have adopted minimum viable synchronous for a long time. But it doesn’t matter if it is completely new or not. What’s important is reorganizing our work after rooting out the practices based on the Neeley Fallacy.
Minimum Viable Business Travel
I’ve seen several pieces like ‘This Could Have Been a Zoom Meeting’: Companies Rethink Travel by Kevin Delaney, which report on the very slow return to business travel as Covid-19 has somewhat abated. (The Delta variant is throwing a monkey wrench into that, however.)
Delaney lays out the way of business travel going forward: little or no travel to meet with coworkers, but some travel to customers and prospects.
Companies could dramatically reduce whole categories of travel, such as in-person meetings with internal colleagues in other cities. A Wall Street Journal analysis last year, for example, estimated that intra-company meetings and training represented 20 percent of all business travel and predicted that 40 to 60 percent of that would go away permanently. The Journal concluded that 19 to 36 percent of business trips would disappear. Bill Gates predicted at DealBook’s conference last fall that business travel would still be more than 50 percent lower once things normalized.
In contrast with domestic leisure travel, which has largely recovered, business travel has been relatively slow in coming back. Just 9 percent of companies say they’ve resumed their pre-pandemic travel levels, according to a recent survey by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines both recently said that business travel remains about 60 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels, despite an increase in recent months. Rising coronavirus cases in recent weeks could delay the recovery of business travel further.
But old-timers, like Jamie Dimon, think that face-to-face is better for selling:
Early indications suggest that most businesses will be reluctant to dramatically trim the estimated two-thirds of business travel that involves sales calls and client visits, conferences and professional services like consulting. Executives remain wary of losing out to a rival who actually shows up in person, or seeing an important contract go away because of poor virtual communications. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, said in May that clients told him his bank lost business when “bankers from the other guys visited, and ours didn’t.”
I guess if the clients are old fogeys too...
This may be a generational change, where younger people are more likely to consider video calls as real as face-to-face. We’ll see. But minimum viable travel is going to be much, much less travel than pre-pandemic, even if non-zero.
Or other shared writing tools.