October 16, 2014

Traffic jams.

They’re hilarious, really. Humans tucked neatly single-file in their giant aluminum boxes, waiting patiently for three lights to alternate colors long enough to transcend into the heaven that is the next block closer to their destination.

Ever hop in a cab or a bus and get stuck in a traffic jam? How many times have you decided fuck it, I’m just going to get out and walk — even if the walk is going to take you longer than the wait in traffic? And yet you do it anyway… because you’re going places, dammit. You’re important. Your hair looks fantastic today. You’re not the type to tepidly stand still in one place.

Inertia is a powerful concept. When you’re moving, you’re moving. When you’re stuck, well, you’re stuck. It requires more energy to get the ball rolling.

Shipping is contagious

Startups have inertia. If all your coworkers are building great things, you feel a compulsion to push forward so you can be proud about shipping your piece of the puzzle, too. This is why when things are good at a company, they tend to be great. Sure, you’re facing some problems, but it feels like you’re all in this river together and you’re flying downstream at a pace that can’t ever stop.

When things are bad at a company, it feels horrific. You’re swimming against the current instead of with it. Even trivial stumbling blocks can loom as insurmountable obstacles when you don’t have that flow going.

It’s because of inertia: it’s hard to get that ball rolling again if you’re stopped.

Inertia is gravitational

A huge part of this is pace. There’s a lot to be said about moving fast and breaking nothing, specifically around testing hypotheses and evaluating the market, but the most important part of the philosophy is that you’re continually making visible progress.

As usual, if it’s worth saying, @rands has probably already said it:

I think of boredom as a clock. Every second that someone on my team is bored, a second passes on this clock. After some aggregated amount of seconds that varies for every person, they look at the time, throw up their arms, and quit.

— Michael Lopp, Bored People Quit

Good people gravitate towards this progress. It keeps the gig interesting, since everything’s constantly evolving and you can see the effects of that. There’s certainly a company in which your people find that inertia… whether it ends up being your company or not is the real question.

Swinging for the fences

As much as constant incremental improvement is important, so is taking the big risks. To borrow a baseball analogy: walks will best improve your team’s chances of winning, but homers will keep the fans coming back for more. You need a balance of both.

People just don’t get excited about the small stuff. I mean, they’re good, but they don’t rally your base. It doesn’t feel like you’re adding inertia… it just feels like you’re maintaining.

Good people don’t stay for maintenance.

Taking on new risk keeps things fresh. It lets your people experiment with new approaches, and with different and complex problems. You can even fail, and that’s great: you can learn from that failure and try again. Taking on big risk is just a way to prime the pump to get the current flowing again.

Bored people quit, unremarkable companies maintain, and good companies keep their inertia.