04/260 Wheels that spin

And the lessons you learn from them

This week has been a weird week of wheel-spinning and problem-finding-solving. In this episode of The Next Five, I show you how we can get the basics wrong, even five years into business.

Short weeks are frustrating for founders like me. When you take every Wednesday off in Creative Leave - and honour it during a short week - it feels a little bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Add a dash of systems irritation (which I’ll get to in this post), and a spoonful of pro bono work that turns into a bucketful (which isn’t covered here - leave a comment if you want to hear about that), and you may as well have taken the week off. This is a pretty good explanation of my week.

When I sat down yesterday (Saturday) to actually do some work, I got side-tracked by two things:

  1. A tangle of financial issues (our bank had put a stop on our bank account without telling us, and PayPal still hadn’t resolved a massive problem)

  2. An unforgiving irritation about our workflow and systems.

I’ll explain the systems irritation to you

I am keen to move Brutal Pixie into a docs-like-code production methodology. We already write everything in Markdown, because we can create almost any output without using multiple programs, or reformatting anything. But it’s introduced double-handling, and docs-like-code will bring us some major efficiencies.

Moving to docs-like-code enables us to set up every project as a project in Bitbucket, and then to create every content type in that project as a repository (repo). Bitbucket is free for small teams like ours. It lets us keep project documentation in a wiki inside the repo, and lets us track project management issues/tasks or problems (bugs) in its own issues list (also inside the repo). This, plus the storage and git versioning, makes Bitbucket + Typora much more powerful for our production workflow. Everything is in the one place, from project files to project-specific documentation, thus reducing the impact on our Drive storage. It’s safer, too, and production can happen while offline, so not having internet in a location is no longer a deal-breaker.

The cool thing? Bitbucket allows us to have project kanbans inside the repo too, if we connect into Trello.

The only problem is that we are using Jira, which is more richly featured in dashboards, reporting, security and visibility than Trello.

The problems are minor, right? But irritating

They are:

  • Trello is free, but for the level of security we’ll pay three times the price of Jira (Trello is per user, Jira is one fee for up to 10 people)

  • Jira and Bitbucket are both native Atlassian products, but only Trello boards are available inside Bitbucket

  • Trello doesn’t have the complete, birds’-eye view of projects using custom boards, or the reporting capability of Jira

  • We can stitch Jira + Confluence together seamlessly; Jira + Bitbucket is only at single-issues level; Trello + Confluence costs extra unless you want to keep copying and pasting URLs from one to the other.

Sigh. They really are minor points. They feel bigger than they are.

On balance, while I love Jira, the exercise is to reduce double-handling and complexity. All the arrows are pointing in the direction of Trello. We can go back to Jira when we have the size and complexity to warrant both Jira and a dedicated resource to manage it.

Scale down to scale up. That’s a thing, right? If it wasn’t before, it is now.

Scaling down is forcing me to focus on my own attitude

I felt like I was bashing my head against a wall yesterday, so I sat down and wrote my way through it in my Working Journal. The question was, why are things stopping me from working? The answer was: Things aren’t, you are.

The realisations you can achieve through effective journalling are much harsher than what you’d get in a performance review. In my case, there have been some seriously broken things: Project scheduling, my own scheduling, my own attitude.

It’s pretty humbling. I had to talk to someone about it. So, I went to talk to my husband, who was playing The Walking Dead on the PS4 at the time.

My husband professes not to understand much of what I talk about. He can’t really explain what Brutal Pixie does, he has no idea of the territory, and if I talk about the tools we use, I may as well be speaking in Finnish. He is a team leader in a steel roofing factory, and his idea of happiness is working a simple job in a good culture, one where he can finish at 3.30 pm and leave work at work.

He is the perfect Yang to my Yin.

And so I sat down and confessed to him that my attitude needs work. That I have had a subconscious expectation of mirroring other people’s regular hours, but that it just doesn’t fly. That I need to be stricter on myself about my own work schedule, how I spend my time, and who I meet with, and where, and why. That the project scheduling is broken.

He said to me: ‘You have to do what you have to do, and at some point in the future you will achieve the hours you want to. And at least you’re learning, right? You work out what works and what doesn’t work, and then put into practice what you learn, and you keep going.’

‘Sure,’ I moped. ‘But you’d think I’d have this figured out by five years.’

‘No, not really,’ he paused the game and looked at me. ‘It’s just different. You have to do things differently. It’s not like you can keep doing the same things.’

At this point, my factory-working husband is sounding like Seth Godin. He doesn’t even know who Seth Godin is.

‘Besides,’ he went on. ‘I’d rather see you doubt yourself than be over-confident.’

I frowned. ‘Why?’

‘Well, if you were over-confident, you’d just barrel on and fail, because you wouldn’t notice that what you’re doing isn’t right.’ He paused to allow that to sink in. ‘You have to keep doubting yourself. Even when your business it right at the top, and is a giant corporation, you have to keep doubting yourself, otherwise you’ll never improve anything.’

I nodded. He was right.

A great partner gives you a reality check. And just because he has never run a business, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what makes a great customer-focused business tick. Side-note: It’s such a shame nobody where he works has had a conversation like this with him; he would help them to totally transform the place.

The last time he gave me a reality check was when I had moaned about someone not paying me. He turned around and snapped, ‘Deal with it. Or get a job. If you don’t want to get a job, don’t complain.’

And you know what? It was the single best thing he could have said.

My point here is that talking to your partner about these things is critical. If you don’t, they will never understand why you are stressed out, or why you ‘work too much’, or why you’re up at 4 am to write workflow maps.

The other point is that sometimes when you’re surrounded by peers, you will never get the blunt advice you need to snap yourself out of either your self-importance or your self-pity. You need someone who can just bring you back to Real Life. For me, that person is the one I married.

And so, the journey continues

There are two really critical things on my desk right now. One is the project scheduling. One is work delivery. The most important thing of the two is the scheduling, because it drives the delivery.

This is all Business 101, I realise. I am writing about it here to prove to you that we don’t all start - or continue! - with great systems, or pre-existing knowledge. We don’t always take our own medicine, either. I mentor young people, people ask me for advice all the time, I train this out, but I am still working on it myself, in my own backyard.

And for all of you thinking, well just get someone to do it for you, you’re missing three key things: 1) cashflow, 2) insider knowledge, 3) time.

We can get swept up by the amazing ideas of outsourcing difficult or time-consuming work to others - particularly when so many internet gurus bang on about it. But in some cases, it simply doesn’t apply; this is one of those cases.

Sometimes, you just have to buckle down and do the work yourself.