Don’t “Just do it” but “Just ship it”

Although Nike uses the slogan “Just do it”, I am becoming increasingly convinced that just doing it is not enough at all. In my own life I am increasingly trying to practice “Just ship it” as the main principle underlying everything I do. It is not easy, but I am on my way.

When people ask you what you do for living, what is the first answer that comes into your mind? I would say “I do research”. Someone else would say “I teach”, or “I sell houses”. It is all so easy to answer by describing what we normally “do” during a typical work day. I have come to believe that answering in this manner is a way of disclaiming responsibility and of alienating oneself. What if I could answer: “I help frail seniors spend the last years of their lives at their home with their families”? Or “I prepare kids for their grown-up lives” or “I find new homes for young couples”? The first set of answers is “activity-based” while the second set is “outcome-based”. They probably describe the same thing, but they illustrate vastly different attitudes. Describing my professional life as a collection of “activities” or “outcomes” can make all the difference:

  • Level of responsibility: “Well, I worked eight hours doing research. Now I can go home”. And I will come back tomorrow and do another eight hours. An activity-based life makes me responsible for spending eight hours every day in my office and nothing more. An outcome-based attitude makes me responsible for “finding a home for a young couple” or “helping a senior feel safe at home”.
  • Level of feedback: I need feedback on what I do. I need people to tell me what I do is useful or useless. By focusing on activities, the only feedback I get is “Oh you are so good at spending eight hours in the office doing research every day”. There is nothing else to give feedback on. Outcomes are made for getting feedback. It is impossible not to mean something about a clear outcome, delivered.
  • Level of waste: Outcome-based attitude eliminates waste. If you want to “help a senior feel safe at home” you don’t go six months analysing what safe means, and another six months analysing what senior or home mean. You focus on helping a senior feel safe at home. If you want to make an app you don’t read loads of books but start coding the app. This “jumping to conclusion” can be good or bad. But you don’t really know if you don’t get proper feedback. And without an outcome you will not get feedback.
  • Vanity accounting: I learned this phrase from the book “The lean startup” by Eric Ries. I understand it as “fooling myself to believe I did well, and providing data for it”. If you spend six months in your office “doing research” it is very probable that you have to do a lot of vanity accounting at the end. Defining a clear outcome does not leave space for fooling yourself.

Outcome-based attitude has other advantages, such as reducing risk and making your boss happy. It is also much easier to write journal and magazine article about “making a senior feel safe at home” than “spending eight hours a day in my office”.

But how does an activity-based person like me become outcome-based? It is not easy, and I am not there yet. For me, one major milestone was when I started abandoning perfectionism. Shitty drafts are good, life is a draft, everything is a draft. Ship your drafts early. They are much better than you think they are. And what is the alternative? No drafts at all? Another milestone for me was reading “the lean startup”. You should read that book, seriously. It is about iterations. Iterating does not mean going in cycles, it means having shitty drafts and shipping them often and getting feedback often.

One objection I hear from researchers is that being “pragmatic” is not compatible with doing good research. They tell me good research comes from looong sequences of activities, performed in peace and quiet. I don’t know if I am a good researcher, but I don’t agree with them. Research for me has to do with being systematic and empirical, and has nothing to do with long and peaceful activities. If you spend six months in peace and quiet, you are the only one to give feedback to yourself. Not good. Feedback from others than yourself is essential for multidisciplinary research, and is the backbone in collecting empirical data. Validated learning, as Eric Ries calls it, is the fundamental asset of good research. And you can get it by being outcome-focused and iterative.

So to summarize:

  • Define your outcome. Don’t be shy. Have a vision.
  • Define a release plan for your vision. Have frequent shitty drafts of your vision.
  • Focus on “Just ship it” and not “just do it”.