Emma: I’m curious how much people are cutting corners right now. Everyone’s doing it, right?
Andy: I mean, if you’re not, you’re also probably still wearing actual pants with buttons and a fly while sheltering in place.
Emma: I’ve been exclusively in elastic waistbands since mid-March, and the stuff I’m reading and seeing and hearing about recommends that we all do the same: Go easy on ourselves. Be gentle. Do less. We said it on The Bent a few weeks ago: You’re allowed not to do your Best Work.
Andy: But other than sweatpants, it still feels very wrong to reveal precisely which corners we’re cutting. Should everyone know?
Emma: Sure! With The Bent, we’re not creating weekly sticker sheets and we’ve released ourselves from our Tuesdays at 9:15a publishing deadline. We’ve also extended the timelines for some of our goals from April until…who knows when.
This is easy to talk about, though, because Andy and I are our own bosses, and the consequences of relaxing the standards of a free weekly newsletter are, frankly, not that big of a deal right now. (That said, it doesn’t have to be a free newsletter if you become a member!)
Andy: It’s a different feeling when the consequences loom larger. I’m not managing anyone right now, and I’ve never been someone’s boss during a global pandemic. But I have been a manager of teams who felt psychologically adrift, like when we were worried we’d be in the next round of layoffs, or were totally overwhelmed, like when we were already understaffed and another quarter of the team came down with the flu. Those were also times that something had to give, and it still felt wrong to make that call out loud.
Emma: Of course it did! You’d be admitting the all-terrain machine you built couldn’t keep going through a mudslide. I think that’s why it’s really normal to let the foot come off the gas without acknowledging it. Unsanctioned corner cutting: we’re all doing it, just don’t talk about it!
Andy: Some unspoken corner cutting on an off week here, a bad day there, is one thing. Not discussing a ton of cut corners over a prolonged period of time — like right now — means a few things will go wrong. First, you’re lying and everyone is in on it: you, your team, your boss.
Emma: That lie often is packaged in confusing double-speak: at one moment, we’re hearing an inspirational rallying cry — We got this! Now’s the time to shine! — and the next we’re being told to remember there are more important things in the world than Tuesday’s presentation.
Andy: Next, a lot of different corners are going to be cut, in different shapes and at different times. I think of it like yelling, “There’s a fire! Get out of the house!” Some people will run out immediately without shoes or pants; some will arrive minutes later fully dressed with cell phones and passports and photo albums. Of course they’ll all do it differently — they’re relying on their own panicked judgement. You need to be explicit: “I want you out of the house in 30 seconds with your shoes on.” And if you know that ahead of time, you can have people keep their shoes by the door. Maybe install a fireman’s pole.
Emma: In the work, if you can dictate where to ease up, how much, and what the final product will look like, it helps you maintain at least some control. Your team’s work will be more consistent. If you eventually need to go back through and update those less-good spots, you’ll know exactly which levers to pull.
Andy: There were plenty of times at Groupon when we’d fall behind schedule on deal writing. Instead of working all hours around the clock writing three paragraphs per deal, and then floating those drafts through a two-stage editing process, we switched to “Shorties” — one paragraph with only one edit pass. As a team, we didn’t like doing it. We grumbled about the loss of integrity. But we also knew exactly what we were sacrificing and our managers could plan the end of the corner cutting: when we regained our lead time, Shorties were over.
Emma: Getting literal also reduces the amount of decision-making your over-taxed team is being asked to do right now. It’s very nice to tell your single-parent report who’s working remotely while also providing homeschooling and childcare to two toddlers that they can ease up as much as they need to on their deliverables. It’s actually a relief to tell them: we’re pushing out deadlines for this sprint by two weeks, reducing weekly team meetings to once per month, and expecting team members to be online six hours a day instead of eight. You can tweak that baseline to meet individual needs from there.
Andy: You may worry that this relaxed standard may be hard for people to let go of once the world is “back to normal.” It’s true. Some of these cut corners may just become the new corners.
Emma: Now with rounded edges!
Andy: That was certainly a scenario at Groupon. We eventually did only one round of edits on just about everything — long or short.
Emma: Lots of things are changing, and are going to continue to change. Orient yourself around the goals your team and your company have, do what works now, and when the new normal arrives, do what works then.
Andy: Just don’t keep it a secret! You can start by telling us what corners you’re cutting and which ones you think your company should start cutting. We’ll post the best ones in a future newsletter so we can all learn.
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