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Tidying up your product process, Marie Kondo style

Amine Bellakrid
Amine Bellakrid
Tidying up your product process, Marie Kondo style
February 27, 2019
min read

Marie Kondo is undoubtedly having a moment and if you’re skeptical or tired of seeing “Marie Kondo for X” references, I get it. You’re not alone.

However, I’ve found that for Waldo, as a startup team, the benefits of eliminating distractions (clutter) and getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t “bring us joy” (get us closer to our vision) are undeniable.

If you really pay attention to Kondo’s advice in the Netflix show Tidying Up or in her book, Spark Joy, her aim isn’t to encourage you to get rid of stuff that doesn’t serve a purpose or hold immense sentimental value (she is selling $89 boxes after all). Rather, she’s trying to get you – the viewer or reader – to ask yourself why you’re keeping something—with every single thing.

The ideal end result is a life where you’re only doing the things you want to do surrounded only by things that bring you happiness.

We’ve all seen plenty of “Marie Kondo for software” tweets since her Netflix show came out and even a few tools that help you rid of internet clutter—all those articles and tools you’ve hoarded for a “rainy day” or “when you need it”.

I love the concept of simplifying our lives to focus on what matters most and wanted to take it a step further. That’s why we applied it to our product process and how we make decisions every day. Here’s how we’re trying to apply the Marie Kondo method to our product pipeline at Waldo.

First, a little bit of context

Being in beta, we just onboarded dozens of new customers. We’re working out kinks in real-time. It’s go-time for us. The team is heads down smashing bugs while also trying to reach our goals and move the product through the pipeline. In this recent article about our product process and how we ship weekly updates, you’ll find that we move fast while respecting that our team members have lives outside of work.

However, in the early stage we’re in, it’s a little too easy to lose focus. We’ve had to challenge ourselves to stay on course and only work on what’s most important for us and our current and future customers. Here’s what that has looked like.

Knowing our vision, knowing what sparks joy

I like to think of our vision as the thing that brings us joy. We allow it to dictate what macro and micro goals we set and therefore, the decisions our team makes every day. Our goals help us inch forward—our vision is what we’re inching towards.

Your end-goal as an organization might be to reverse climate change or end homelessness. Or to streamline a particular part of the product process for engineers. Or to make people productive at work so they can spend more time with their loved ones. What you hope to accomplish with your company – your “why” is part one of your vision.

What people often forget is that your vision should also include how you’ll get there. That might be selling your company to a bigger organization with more resources to make your why a reality. Or to be profitable by year two in order to fund your initiatives.

The second half of your vision may change with time, especially as the market shifts. Your why should be at the core of all that you do, yes. However, you’ll want to consider if a decision is going to help you get closer to the how you are going to get there ( i.e. become profitable faster,  become a leader in your market, fuel your growth, etc.)

Decluttering our backlog

Tidying Up has helped us take an honest look at our backlog, especially during this hectic time. We went through each task in our backlog and asked these crucial questions:

  1. why did we put this here?
  2. is it going to help us make our vision a reality?
  3. how?

If the answer to question one is some version of “I don’t know”, it’s automatically eliminated. That’s what we call backlog clutter. Same for if the answer to question two is “no”. Get it out of here! Question three is a bit more complicated. This is where we assign an estimated time to complete each task and prioritize with our team.

Every Friday during our “lock review” meeting, we take all of the tasks that were “yeses” for questions one and two and put them in a decision matrix. We’re then left with a lightweight pipeline of only the most important tasks.

Backlogs can easily become idea shelves. A place where people put ideas that couldn’t be prioritized at the time due to limited resources. Rather than stockpiling them in your backlog where just glancing at them may cause anxiety, revisit and clear them out often.

Questioning everything

A shiny idea or a customer request can derail the speeding train that is your team in seconds. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes the train is heading towards danger. It doesn’t hurt to pause and consider a change in course. That said, it’s important to challenge whatever new thing pops up. With time, this consideration process will become much faster.

We apply the backlog decluttering method to new ideas and requests as well. If it’s not going to help us reach our vision, we don’t do it. Since applying this method, we won’t even put these items in our backlog. If it’s meant to be or if we want to revisit it later, we’ll do that in our next planning phase.

During our daily stand-ups, if we don’t know why a team member is working on something, we politely ask them why. We challenge each other. We ask how each task assigned is going to help us reach our vision. If it doesn’t spark joy—if it doesn’t help us create the best affordable mobile QA software around – we don’t do it.

Prioritizing today

Now that our backlog is a clean list of tasks that’ll help us see our vision through, we ask ourselves: “what can be done today that gets us closer to our vision?” We ID the tasks that’ll have the most impact for our current customers and push them to to-do.

This concept is “prioritizing 101” but as a small and lean team, it’s important for us to stay in that mindset for now. Otherwise, we’d spend all our time on monstrous projects rather than moving our product forward and making our current customers happy!

Wrapping it up

The concept of focusing on fewer things that have the greatest impact or value isn’t new. The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan is now six years old. However, with the internet has come more noise, more distractions, and a greater sense of false urgency.

Note to self: pausing, taking a deep breath, re-connecting and re-aligning with what’s most important to you and your team: what you’re truly set out to accomplish is key. From there, decisions will become easier and much quicker.

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