Action Research: Organizing Cycles

In the previous post we learned how to define the direction of changes, clearly outlining their boundaries. And, if we answered all the questions deeply and honestly, we have already got some ideas for the first steps.

Each step within the project is a “cycle”, it transfers us from one state to another, gradually improving us and the world. And, given the dependence of the speed of evolution on the frequency of cycles, we should try to make these steps as short as possible. Ideally, one working day.

The principle is simple: if we stop and analyze the results of our work only once a month, we will take into account the real response from the market, our real efficiency, optimize our work and correct the direction of movement 30 times slower than with daily cycles. If you are familiar with compound interest calculation formula, you may imagine how huge the difference may become in the long run.

And, given that each cycle may radically change our vision of the project and all subsequent steps, it makes no sense to engage in long-term planning, prescribing a sequence of cycles for several days or even weeks in advance. It may happen (and it’s a good sign, when it does) that this plan will fall apart immediately after the very first step. That’s what real evolution is about: not speeding up towards a pre-defined fixed target, but adjusting targets according to the feedback from the actual world.

If we developed a plan for several days ahead, then confidently execute it, the most important question is: Are we really analyzing the response from the actual world, or are we just ignoring the reality? The most common problem among startups.

Here one could find an excuse: “Well, what can I show to clients if I don’t have a product yet?” I won’t even argue with this argument, since the demo is just one method of getting feedback from the market, and not even the most effective one. Even occasional chit-chat with your prospective customers during the development cycle will bring you really valuable ideas and insights that may radically change the direction of development.

So, we must focus on the current cycle only, not trying to predict the future. We must fully focus on the project. Our daily goal is to find the next best step, develop a workable plan, execute it, then analyze the results which will give us ideas for the next step. Only if we follow this daily routine, we will achieve the highest speed of evolution.

This entire process of diagnostics, planning and analysis takes less than an hour, but it saves days and weeks by cutting off unnecessary and meaningless work. When we think a little deeper about the choice of the next step, about the specifics of its implementation within 6-8 working hours, there is no longer the temptation to fly high. With this approach, it always forces us to choose the simplest and fastest steps and approaches that give us the fastest feedback from the market.

Even if we did not finish everything planned during the day, we still complete the cycle which gives us the opportunity to analyze our diagnosis and plan, our execution, and its results. Here even the worst initial plan will be naturally and rather quickly adjusted towards adequacy, feasibility and efficiency.

Even if we procrastinated all day long and did not start execution at all, the cycle ends anyway, because it has just generated us valuable piece of information: “We failed in the plan’s execution, so either the plan is bad or we need to change something in our work processes.” Then we just look for something that really works for us personally and do a lot of experiments until we find something that sticks.

The most important stage here is not even diagnosis or planning, but the analysis stage at the end of the previous day, since it is the point that will show us reality, not dreams. It will provide solid real-world facts and ideas for diagnostics and planning the next stage. Each subsequent cycle gets born naturally from the results of the previous one, like links in one chain.

Yes, the very first cycle arises from results of the analysis of the reasons and requirements for the change we need, so we will rely solely on theory, our opinions and delusions. But the second and all further cycles will completely rely on the feedback from the market.

It is worth planning cycles based on the maximum potential feedback from the market, so that there is something to start from in the analysis. The more feedback we get, the faster we evolve.

Now let’s break down the stages of each cycle:

Diagnosis

Here we briefly describe the context of the project from top to bottom, focusing on the results of the analysis of the previous step. We need to understand where we are at the moment and what we need to do as the next step to speed up the change we need.

The output should be a clear understanding of the best next step in the current situation. A step that we could complete in one working day.

Here we will must strictly prioritize all our ideas, giving preference to those that could give the fastest response from the actual world, so that each subsequent step becomes even closer to reality.

I usually write 2-4 paragraphs because over time, the context of the project more or less stabilizes and there is no need to write the same introductory paragraphs repeatedly. But, when the project is just starting, there may be more text, because you have to think a little deeper than just the current task.

At the very beginning, such diagnostics may lead to a change in the project’s direction or even to its premature termination. Don’t worry, since it’s just the cause and effect of rapid evolution.

Is it true?

When the diagnosis seems to be ready, we have to stress test it, which means: “Asking uncomfortable questions, trying to prove yourself wrong.” We do not answer these questions in the text, because otherwise we will fall into the trap of rationalization, but we continue to answer them in our head, continuing to “bombard” the diagnosis with more and more questions. So, we write questions only, not answers to them.

It’s much better if we don’t do this work alone but look for third-party advice and expertise, especially at the beginning. Go to your favorite social network, ask something like: “Am I wrong?” then ask people to be totally honest with you. You need not get their support, all you need is the hard truth!

Only when we are 100% sure that the diagnosis no longer raises questions we can move on to the next stage. If we realized that the diagnosis is wrong, we can rewrite it repeatedly until we come to something that looks good enough to continue. Such work, in fact, saves much more time than it requires – I prove it to myself almost every day.

At the end, we can write a conclusion like: “Yes, this is true, since I have not found new arguments and I do not see any better options.”

Plan

Here we answer a simple question: “What exactly do we need to do during the working day?” I usually compile a simple to-do list, checking up the boxes as I complete them.

If during the process of execution you get an idea to change the plan, don’t rush to rewrite it, but better develop an updated plan, leaving the original one for the subsequent analysis of your mistakes in planning. Your evolution comes both from real-world actions and from learning how to develop better and better diagnosis and plans, that’s important.

Is it true?

Here we again ask ourselves a bunch of uncomfortable questions, trying to crash the plan, the essence and sequence of steps. The primary goal at this stage is to simplify the plan so we can complete it within the limited time frame.

At the end, we can say something like: “Yes, the plan seems valid and I can execute it in a single workday.”

But here is an important idea that will make your plans much more effective: before you rush to execution, order steps by how painful they are to you, not by how logical or important the sequence looks. I will explain the idea later, but now you can follow my advice or not. If you follow, you will experience really fast evolution, I can guarantee that!

Action

I usually start this section by specifying the date when I finished planning, not execution. This way it would be easier to detect stuck projects. When you come back and see that the project has not been moving for a couple of weeks, it forces you to make hard decisions 🙂

As I execute the plan, I write the most important insights that emerged during the execution process, even if those not related to the current cycle or even the project. If some important information comes from the market that will make this step or even the entire project completely irrelevant, then we need to understand the reasons we are terminating it.

Our notes will be especially valuable in the process of future analysis over longer periods. Then what’s not visible from inside the tornado will become sharply noticeable: our procrastination, our running in circles, our lousy ideas and plans. If you are lazy to write important insights, then you will have a hard time guessing the genuine reasons for such a sharp change in the direction. Do not rely on your memory, write everything!

At the end of the working day, regardless of the results of the execution, the cycle ends and we move on to the analysis, which is better to do right away, while the project is still fresh in memory.

But, as for the diagnosis and planning of the next cycle, it is better to do it with a fresh mind the next morning in order to have time to “digest” all the information we received yesterday.

Next Chapter: Analysis

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