Hyperfocus on Non-Essentials

When tasked with managing a complex and potentially overwhelming project, a common behaviour of inexperienced managers/developers is to focus on things that are easy to achieve (“low-hanging fruits”), fun to produce (“cherry-picking”) or within the comfort zone.

This means that in the extreme, the developer exclusively focusses on things that are of no interest for the business client but can simulate progress and results.

This behaviour is an application of the “path of least resistance” and I know exactly what it feels like. Here’s the story why:

When I was fourteen years old, my programming career was already 6 years in the making. Of course, I only wrote code for myself, teaching myself new concepts and new errors alike. My only scale of success was “does it run?” and “is it still fun for me?”. My only programming language was BASIC, first the dialect GW-BASIC (still with line numbers!), then the more advanced QBasic (with named jump markers instead of line numbers).

I grew up in small cities and was basically alone with my hobby. But a friend had a parent that owned an optometrist shop that was interested in using computers for their day-to-day operations. I was asked to write a program to handle the shop’s inventory and sales. The task was interesting, but I had no idea how any shop, let alone this particular one, handles their business. I agreed to build a prototype and work from there.

I knew that this project was bigger and more ambitious than any hobby project of my own before, but it was programming after all – how hard could it be?

My plan was to do two things in parallel: Buy and read a book about real software development with BASIC and try to sketch out the application as as “coded paper prototype”.

The book turned out to be the confessions of a frustrated software developer that basically assured the reader on every page that BASIC was not dead and appended dozens of pages with code listings to every chapter. There was probably a lot of wisdom in this book, too, but it missed me by miles.

The sketch of the application began with a menu of all the things I thought would be necessary, like “inventory” or “sales process”. I also included an “Extras” menu and one thing in the menu should be a decent screen saver. Back in those days, the CRT monitors suffered from burn-in if the same image was shown for a long time and I figured that this application would run all day every day, so it seemed logical and important to have a screen saver that is automatically turned on after some period of inactivity.

Which presented itself as a really hard problem, because BASIC was essentially single-threaded (or at least it was to my knowledge back then) and I had to invent some construct that can perhaps be described as “obscure co-routines”. That was some fun programming!

After I solved the automatic activation of the screensaver functionality, I discovered that I could easily make the actual screensaver that gets shown a parameter. So I programmed not one, but several cool and innovative ASCII art screensavers that you could choose from in the extras menu. One screen saver was inspired by the snake game, another one was “colored blocks” that would appear and disappear to form a captivating mood picture.

That was the state of the application when my friend’s parent asked for a demo. I had:

  • No additional knowledge about application design
  • A menu of things I invested no second thought in
  • Several very cool screensavers that activated themselves automatically. Isn’t that great?

You can probably guess how that demo went. None of the things I had developed mattered in the slightest for the optometrist shop. My passion for my creation didn’t translate to the business very well.

I had worked intensively on this project. I hyperfocused on totally non-essential stuff and stayed mostly in my comfort zone, even if I felt as if I had made great progress.

It is easy to fall into this trap. It is easy to mistake one’s own feelings of progress and success with the external (real) ones. It feels very good to work frantically on things that matter to oneself. It becomes a tragedy if the things only matter to oneself and nobody else.

So what can we do to avoid this trap? If you have an idea, write a comment about it! I hope to hear lots of different takes on this problem.

Here is my solution: “Risk first”. With this project strategy, the first task in a project is to solve the hardest part, to cut the biggest knot or to chart the most relevant area. It means that after the first milestone is a success, the project will gradually become easier. It’s the precursor to “fail fast”, which is a “risk first” project that didn’t meet its first milestone.

It is almost guaranteed that the first milestone in a “risk first” project will not be in your comfort zone, is no low-hanging fruit that you can pick without effort and while it might be fun to work on, it’s probably something your customer has a real interest in.

By starting a project “risk first”, I postpone my tendency to focus on non-essentials towards the end of the project. And with concepts like “business value”, I can see very clearly when my work becomes irrelevant for the customer. That’s when I stop my professional work and my hobby begins.

One thought on “Hyperfocus on Non-Essentials”

  1. LOL My friend’s parent was a software developer who wanted to outsource some work. Our task was to write a converter which takes a document in the PRESCRIBE printer language (invented for Kyocera devices) and converts it to something compatible for the Epson FX. So we took a lot of time to emulate fancy graphics stuff with simple ESC/P commands. It was so much fun! Of course, our code was totally meaningless to the customer. Had we spoken to him more often (and directly) we would have known that all the documents are in the EBCDIC format. In our own little world nothing besides ASCII existed. So we couldn’t even run a demo with his data 😀

    Long story short: agile software development has some merits 😉

    Technology and problem solving is what catched us all initially whereas communication remains the boring or even annoying part for many people. An agile framework creates incentives to communicate more frequently but it’s up to you to actually do it.

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