Getting Yourself Unstuck

Alright, I’m going to warn you up front… This is a pretty long email and it gets pretty detailed and at times rather esoteric.  I think it’s really worth reading for everyone, but I’ll be honest, it’s a bit dense in places.

You’ve been warned!

One of the most frustrating things, when you’re running your own business online as a side hustle project, is that there will be times where you just find yourself completely buried with things to do and seemingly making no progress.  As a Casual Marketer, when this happens you can find yourself totally overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next.

It can be pretty much crippling because everything looks like an insurmountable task and there are so many dependencies that you have no idea of what task to conquer next.

Being totally transparent, I’m struggling with this a bit at the moment myself.  I have so many things I want to do with Casual Marketer, but because of everything else going on, I’m struggling to get momentum and gain traction with any of these outstanding tasks and sub-projects.

So it happens to all of us periodically.

The challenge, of course, is how you dig yourself out of this hole.

I’m going to venture off here on a bit of a tangent, stick with me.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I have a background in software development and managing large IT projects.  One framework that gets used a lot in that industry is called the Agile Development Model.  The idea is that you break work down into smaller increments to increase the flow of work.

Without getting too granular, Agile allows you to increase your delivery cadence, discover problems sooner and identify bottlenecks quickly so you can resolve them to achieve optimum flow.

In recent years, Agile has been evolving to include some elements adapted from Lean Manufacturing which itself came from the Toyota Production System.  Lean has many common elements to Agile particularly around the idea of delivering work as fast as possible.  To achieve this, Lean focuses on eliminating waste in the process.

Finally, these ideas have been picked up by the new breed of “DevOps” IT people who are making cloud computing such a powerful tool for getting work done faster.  A guy by the name of Gene Kim has been at the vanguard of this with his “Three Ways” ideas espoused in his fictional book, “The Phoenix Project”.

One of the key elements of all of these frameworks and systems are about identifying your constraints and controlling the flow of work being held up by the constraint.  If your constraint is heavily utilised then things wait around for the constraint to become available before more work can be done.

Here’s an example:

If your constraint is utilised 50% of the time then its idle time is 50% – 50/50 produces a wait time of 1 unit of time.  This is a highly efficient state.

Conversely, if your constraint is busy 90% of the time, then it is idle 10% and so, therefore (90/10) you have a wait time of 9 units of time.  This is obviously very inefficient.

Hopefully, you’re seeing where this is going.

As a Casual Marketer, in all likelihood, you’re the constraint!  I know in my business, that’s totally true about me.  If I’m utilised 99% of the time, then the wait time is 99 units of time (99/1) before I have an idle cycle to start the next task in the queue.

For those of you still with me, I guarantee a bunch of you have said, “Right, this explains it and the answer is, outsource more to other people!”

If you’re thinking that, you’d be partially right.

Isolating the constraint and protecting it is a key component in reducing wait times and improving flow.  The problem you’ll find in your business is that you’re probably required for most things at some point.  It might not be the execution or creation, but at some point, you’ll probably need to review or approve the task, so you’ve not really solved the problem, you’ve just moved the touchpoint of the constraint.

This is where things can get frustrating – if you’re the bottleneck and you can’t get out of your own way, then how do you resolve the problem?

The key is something I said earlier, smaller packages of work.  If you can establish a process for something and break it down into its smallest units of work, what you will inevitably find is that many of these things can be completed successfully without the constraint being involved at all.  The more you protect and isolate the constraint, the faster things get done.

You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Ok, but this sounds like a lot of work to build out these processes and I’ll fall even further behind if I stop and do that.”

You’d be right, but that’s not what I’m going to suggest.

The first thing you need to do is to establish the tasks that MUST happen and the work you absolutely have to do.  Once you have those things identified, then you can start establishing how much time (utilisation of the constraint) is required to achieve these tasks.  Getting these tasks done is your absolute priority.

The second thing you should do is put everything else on hold.  If things don’t have to happen, then they are a distraction for your constraint.  For the time being, stop them.

The third thing you want to do is break down the processes of the things you have to do and see if you can break them up into smaller pieces that can be done discreetly by someone other than the constraint.  Establish your workflow, assign the tasks to resources and then measure how much effort it takes to complete the task.  You want to understand the effort requirements for each step so you can understand what the optimal delivery effort looks like and work towards that – this will identify further bottlenecks.

Finally, as you improve your processes and the flow of work for your mandatory tasks, then what should happen is your wait times should drop at the constraint which is what you want.  You want the constraint (probably you) to have more idle time.  Once this happens, you can start introducing back into the system some of the projects and tasks you put on hold – make sure you run them through step three BEFORE you start working on them.

This probably sounds really complicated but let me give you an example from my own situation with Casual Marketer.

These daily emails are the thing that MUST happen every day and every month I need to get the newsletter out.  For this example, I’m going to focus on the daily email process.

Right now, I’m the constraint – some of that is by choice, some of it by happenstance and some of it by stupidity and inefficiency.  The key thing we need to do is to isolate me and protect me as much as possible so that we can accelerate things.

With that in mind, I’ve put everything else I was doing around Casual Marketer on hold for the time being.  This will be short term, but the focus is on doing the daily emails and the monthly newsletters and making those processes easier and faster to achieve with less reliance on me.

Looking at the daily emails, they are getting done.  I have to write them so there’s no way to protect me from that.  I write them in ActiveCampaign directly, so that’s pretty efficient.  We’re then meant to post them on the blog and this is the area where we’re really far behind.

Breaking down this process, I’m setting up a kanban board in Trello which will identify the steps in the publication process.  Then each step will be assigned to a resource to complete.  Once the resource completes their work, they’ll move things along to the next step in the process for the next resource to work on – that’s called work handoff.

We’ll start off by me writing the post and then sending it.  From there, the post will be handed off to someone else to copy and past in draft form into our WordPress template.  At this point, someone will go get a picture for the post and put it into the draft.  Finally, someone will edit the post, make sure the call to action is correct and hit publish.

Right now, I’m doing pretty much all those steps aside from finding the picture – we’re overloading the constraint with work it doesn’t need to do.  We’ll fix that up and parallelize some of the efforts.  Some of this can probably even be automated like the whole kanban card creation step.

That’s going to be my task for the next week, I want to improve this process and start us reducing the backlog of posts to go on the blog.

As you can see, this is a pretty complex thing to get your head around.  I’ve been doing this stuff for years yet I still get it wrong and forget to do it at times.  Don’t beat yourself up over it, just remind yourself to focus.

If you really want to learn more about this process in a fun and entertaining way, then I recommend Gene Kim’s book, “The Phoenix Project“.  It’s a fictionalised account of how a company called Parts Unlimited were forced to implement this kind of program to save their business.  I bought it on Amazon picked up the Audible version pretty cheaply.  It’s got a fair bit of IT talk, but if you can look past that and try to learn the process, it will be really valuable I think.

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted in the coming weeks of how this is working out for me with Casual Marketer.

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