Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

facebook twitter

We’ve all heard the saying “put your oxygen mask on first”. It can be applied to many different scenarios – airplane safety, personal wellbeing, parenting, …and business maintenance.

Each year, our business unit commits to objectives to focus on for the year. (By the way, if you haven’t learned about the OKR – objectives and key results – concept, I highly recommend checking out John Doerr’s ‘Measure What Matters’ book! It’s a great model to ensure the entire business unit is focusing on the right things to all head towards a common goal.) This last year, we realized we had really ignored our internal systems so much that they could soon become a blocker to our growth. Because our internal systems were becoming outdated, we would not be able to efficiently or effectively keep up with the volume increases we anticipated over the next couple of years. We knew we needed to do some upgrading, and I was given the opportunity to attack the problem with my squad.

The great thing was, we were given a problem to solve, not a pre-determined solution to implement. I was able to spend time discovering how our processes and systems were operating today and where we had room for improvement. Once the trouble spots were identified, my squad was able to select the right solution and begin building. We had the approvals and space to find root issues and solve them appropriately. By attacking these root issues, we eliminated many painful symptoms that now will not pop up in other areas of the business!

I wish I could say we knocked this out in a couple short months. But, the reality is, we had put off maintaining our systems for so long that we really spent the majority of the year on some major overhauls that would set us up for smaller maintenance iterations for years to come. That also means we had to pull some design and engineering resources from creating external value so they could focus on our internal operations for a substantial time. Yikes.

What we realized through this process was that we must be disciplined enough to focus on these business maintenance tasks throughout every year so we do not get to this spot again. What good is it if we make customer journeys lightning fast if we can’t support that rapid pace internally anyway? We must put our oxygen mask on first so we’re in a healthy position to serve our clients well.

As a bonus, these internal upgrades have been great for employee morale! While our team was seeing these elegant products getting released to our clients, we were asking them to continue working in our clunky, outdated systems. While our internal systems don’t need complete quality parity with what we’re launching in the market, they shouldn’t be so far off that the team feels ignored.

The silver lining in this is our leadership team is aligned on creating space for business maintenance throughout each year so we don’t slide back into an outdated state. While we’re committing to new rhythms that work well for us, you need to evaluate what will work for you! Perhaps you want to reserve one day a week, one week a month, or time at the beginning/end of each quarter when the team can swarm these items. Maybe you’d rather manage these items as they come in and keep the backlog under a certain threshold. Whatever you decide, make sure it gets built into your team rhythms and leadership understands the value so you can continue to protect that time. On the flip side, if you have a fire pop up that needs attention over non-critical business maintenance, you have reserved capacity to throw at that, too!

Aim for reserving about 20% of the Product team’s capacity for business maintenance items. Up to this point, we haven’t actually defined business maintenance, so I would encourage you to determine what all needs to be included in this bucket that could otherwise get ignored – tech debt, internal systems, requests by other teams, etc. All of these need attention to keep the wheels on, and it’ll be important for your full team to align on how to reserve space for them. The answer is not to have the team work overtime to fit these items in on top of everything else. You’ll burn them out, and then you’ll have a turnover problem.

In a world where engineers are typically overworked well beyond 40 hours per week, I’m so proud Ramsey Solutions empowers us to set our engineering squads up for success to maintain a healthy work/life balance while still making a big impact both internally and externally! I’m eager for this year ahead and look forward to pushing our new objectives forward while still maintaining the business well.