Feedback Cycles

For the longest time, I didn’t fully understand what people meant when they spoke about structure and job roles.

On one end of the spectrum, we have burger flipping. The ticket comes in, put the meat on the grill, wrap up the sandwich and hand it off.

Some people enjoy the clear-cut, robotic nature of burger flipping. You know what to expect, and you can get pretty good at it, quickly. Once you’re in the zone, you can chat with colleagues while you work. You’re engaged but don’t have to think too much to get the job done.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have nonprofit founding. Instead of a checklist, we have an infinite deluge of questions: whom will we serve? what problem do we solve? whom should I speak with? how do we fundraise? what needs to happen next week, next month, next year? how do I want to manage my today?

Some people feel stifled by burger flipping, yearning for creative challenge. They want to make the recipe, they want to be responsible for the customer’s full experience. They feel rewarded when everything comes together, when it’s their brainchild entering the world.

In order to succeed at the difficult creative stuff like founding a nonprofit, or writing or science or anything self-initiated at all, one must define success and work to achieve it.

This responsibility—the ability to respond to the unstructured world by creating useful and enduring structures—it’s stressful. Potentially overwhelmingly so. At some point, we don’t meet our own expectations, things look bleak, and we want to get rid of our responsibility. We hand it off, we quit.

80,000 Hours has a wonderful interview with Tara Mac Aulay. As a teenage burger-flipper, she decided to bring a stopwatch to work. She improved her work, then helped others improve theirs. Management took notice and sent her to other restaurants as a consultant who transformed failing operations into profitable ones.

Tara Mac Aulay was given a structured role, but she saw it as unstructured. She said, “I don’t think this structure works very well. It’s inefficient because people have too many degrees of freedom in the kitchen. Let me introduce additional structure by timing things that were previously untimed.”

The difference between the failed nonprofit founder and the successful stopwatch burger-flipper lies in the feedback cycles they’ve established. Each day, each week, are we putting in work to make something better? How do we know?

In most cases, the failed nonprofit founder didn’t confront impossible obstacles. They merely confronted many difficult ones. And, unfortunately, they didn’t keep looking to find a good stopwatch.

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