Learning to ship 1 big thing per cycle

The past 6 months have been brutal. We’ve worked really hard, but there’s little to show for it. We’ve added some cool features and integrations, made our email html output very robust, onboarded a large customer, and fixed an insane number of bugs.

But we didn’t ship any big new features.

And I think it’s because I haven’t been doing a good job at product management. I’ve been too in the weeds and quick to jump on exciting new projects.

Here’s an example:

In August, I committed to ramping up marketing in order to hit 10k/monthly site visitors by the end of the year. I made a big list of things to do, hired a bunch of writers and started putting out posts and guest posts. Things were looking up…

Then I committed a cardinal sin – Instead of continuing to focus on marketing until there was enough momentum for things to run like clockwork, I also decided to:

  1. Redesign my site
  2. Build v.2 of the plugin with React-based admin settings
  3. Remove our free plugin from wp.org and merge it with our pro plugin so that we can offer free trials and more seamless upgrading

IKR. Dumb.

Here were two things that made me realise I was overextending myself:

John Cutler’s post on example kanban boards

This taught me the importance of monitoring work in progress (WIP) and keeping WIP low.

In this post, John explains why having a high amount of WIP is generally a bad idea. Like it or not, humans are time-bound linear beings. So even if we have multiple projects going on at once, we can really only work on one thing at a time. So cutting down on WIP is key.

Adam Wathan talking about 6-week cycles on The Art of Product podcast.

Adam’s company, Tailwind Labs, uses Basecamp’s Shape Up methodology. There’s a lot to it, but in this case, he spoke specifically about the importance of breaking the year into 6 week cycles.

This is helpful because it becomes much easier to plan your work. For example:

6 week cycle + 2 week cool down = 8 week cycles or 2 month cycles.

Each year has 12 months. So there are only 6 x 2 month cycles.

Broadly speaking, this means you can really only do 6 big things a year.

Plan accordingly.

Fixing my shit

Here are some steps I’ve taken since then to fix my shit:

Started focusing on 1 thing per week

Before this, I’d flip flop daily between massive projects and it broke my brain. I know, I know… 🤦‍♀️

Now, I work on a single thing a week. Last week I worked on website redesign. This week it’s on content plans and product plans. Next week it’ll be plugin admin settings design.

I’d like to get to a point where I can work on a single thing every 6-week cycle, but I don’t think I can do that any time soon.

Broadly-speaking, I have 3 hats to wear for each cycle:

  1. Long term marketing – managing writers, blogging, guest posting, backlinking
  2. Conversion marketing – Video tutorials, site redesign/optimisation, podcast interviews and livestreams
  3. Product management and design

So for now, I have 3 focuses per cycle and I rotate through them weekly. This kinda works, but it’s not perfect and I’m keeping an eye on how this pans out.

Bought flash cards – A physical backlog

Flash cards showing all the big projects I want to work on

I wrote each big project I want to work on next year onto a new flash card. When possible, I added bullet points to scope the project out a bit more.

In comparison to a digital backlog, where it’s easy to thoughtlessly add all sorts of new ideas… There’s something about physical cards that make you really realise how much work there is.

It only took me 5 minutes to fill out 10 product flash cards for next year. Obviously, this is way more than the 6 cycles I have in 2022.

When you factor in the fact that new, more important projects will come up next year and some projects will require more than 1 cycle…

It becomes painfully clear that I can’t do every single damn thing I want and that I need to be really really careful about planning and scoping.

Next year

Now that I’m clearer about my 3 hats and 6 cycles a year, here’s what I’m going to do:

I’m going to plan for 3 cycles next year. This should be a good balance of flexibility and focus.

I’ll also plan for 2 big projects per hat.

Let’s see how it goes…