Perfect Handstands and Hard Projects

Shareholder letters are an opportunity for a CEO to explain their company’s place in the universe, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. Twice a year, I drop everything and read shareholder letters from two of my favorite CEOs – Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos. They’re not just great CEOs (they’re excellent). They’re also world class independent thinkers, leaders, and capital allocators. Plus their letters have personality and candor, something sorely missing in today’s bland, antiseptic corporate world.

I inevitably find gems of wisdom in each of their letters. In Bezos’s letter this year, this passage caught my eye.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it over the weekend.

“Perfect Handstands

A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well”.

The other day, someone working for a client asked me, “when will this project be done?”. To give some context, this project has failed 3 other times (its the messiest dataset and infrastructure I’ve ever seen), and I’m the fourth person to take a stab at it. I replied, “Honestly, I don’t know. There are a lot of unknowns. You need to stop asking this type of question. I think you’ve failed in the past precisely because you’re looking for shortcuts, yet avoid the hard work to do this correctly. The real question is what do we need to do to succeed? Your data and infrastructure have so many unknowns that we first need to understand what we’re dealing with before we discuss timelines. But obviously, we will move as fast as humanly possible.” Though possibly unpopular, it’s the most honest answer I can give the client. This client’s long term success will ultimately be measured by whether they are able to do a 180 with their data. Bad timelines and bullshit scope will only make matters worse They need to put in the seriously hard work to invest in their data transformation. To move fast, sometimes you need to start out slow.

Anything worth pursuing – and doing well – is going to be hard. Probably extremely hard. It will require more time and effort than you think. Anyone who has worked in tech or data knows that projects will take longer than originally planned; usually much longer. Most of the problems with missed expectations surrounds unrealistic scoping, impatience, and cutting corners.

The solution? Communication, candor, willingness to fail, and investment in the long term are all necessary to win. Especially when you’re competing against companies like Amazon who are genetically wired to perform with high standards, with an eye on the long term. Gone are the days of easy wins. It’s all about putting in the work – 6 months of handstand practice instead of 2 weeks – day in and day out. Hard work pays off.

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