I credit the lesson in this post to the man who hired me at CoverMyMeds — our technical co-founder and eventual CEO — since I’m using his words verbatim. My offer letter as VP of Engineering included these exact words: “Your job is to make the right way the easy way.” What does that mean? It means operating the company in a way that optimizes for the employees doing the work, while still accomplishing necessary functions such as project planning, internal communications, hiring and onboarding, security, and compliance. It means creating an infrastructure and culture where taking the easy path to getting work done leads to the right results.
The key to making the right way the easy way is minimizing meta-work — work that detracts from employees doing the “real” work of the company, especially in product development. People are naturally drawn to work that aligns with their passions, and meta-work that takes them away from this work saps their energy and engagement. In this post, I’ll focus on how to recognize, minimize, and manage meta-work.
Spotting meta-work is straightforward: pay attention to where employees are spending their time and scrutinize anything that doesn’t contribute to the short or long-term work of the company or its culture. Or simply ask them, “where are you spending time that detracts from you getting your job done?” Sometimes people are so entrenched in their work that they have a hard time answering this question. Having them track their time for a week can help clear the fog and identify meta-work.
The first place to focus is on unnecessary meta-work, typically done to make things easier for managers, support bureaucracy, or appease people removed from the work of the team. Examples include writing progress reports, updating specs to match product development progress, or following an outdated process. Getting rid of unnecessary meta-work requires managers, especially those with a product focus, to understand and think critically about their employees’ work and the company’s tech stack. They need to stay involved, close to the team’s work, and directly inspect results regularly. They need to favor situational decision-making over more general, sweeping, rule-based decision-making. They also need to ensure that their employees understand the company’s business so that they can make the right decisions in the moment, with less structure and oversight.
HR and IT decision-makers must also understand and support their company’s business and the employees’ work. Their work to keep things in control — a necessary aspect of their functions — needs to be done thoughtfully, in the context of their company’s business and the employees’ work. And they must adapt to the constant changes in their business and markets.
One simple and powerful technique for fighting unnecessary meta-work is to ask “what problem are we solving?” This forces people to think critically and recognize when they are doing work, expending resources, or asking for something that doesn’t have true value. If there’s no good answer to the question, then there’s a good chance that the meta-work can simply be eliminated or at least scaled back.
There is also necessary meta-work, such as compliance, security, generating customer reports, training, and fundraising. In some cases, you can reduce necessary meta-work by investing in tooling and automation, and dedicating personnel to apply and manage it. For example, SOC 2 compliance services, automated security scans, or BI software. As your organization scales, it’s better to be a bit early than a bit late in dedicating people to necessary infrastructure tasks that benefit everyone else. For example, software deployment chains, automated testing, or onboarding. Find ways to unburden your teams, or even your company, from necessary meta-work, so that they can focus on the work that makes your beer taste better.
In situations where institutional customers or partners (such as banks, insurance companies, and healthcare facilities) require meta-work for you to adhere to their policies, it’s important to work together to strike a balance between complying with regulations and making sure the policies are reasonable for those doing the work. While these policies may at first seem inflexible, it’s often possible to negotiate for more flexibility. When communicating with these customers or partners, it’s essential to maintain a respectful tone and keep the value proposition and business goals of both companies at the forefront of the conversation. Additionally, try to identify a champion within their organization who will advocate for your company. This person is typically the one who stands to lose the most if the partnership fails.
Another kind of meta-work is overhead from working together and communicating as teams scale. There are thousands of articles out there on how to reduce the overhead from email, Slack / Teams, and meetings. I won’t attempt to cover that here but I did write a post in this series on getting meetings right.
In summary, making the right way the easy way means:
- Minimizing meta-work
- Managers, HR, and IT optimizing for employees who are doing the work of the company
- Investing in tooling, automation, and dedicated personnel to allow your employees to stay focused
- Intelligently and respectfully pushing back and finding reasonable solutions when institutional customers or partners impose onerous requirements
- Being vigilant about controlling communication and meeting bloat as teams scale
Making the right way the easy way requires more up-front and ongoing work by managers, but pays off in higher productivity, improved employee engagement, and ultimately more success for the company.