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Zero-waste culture: what does it mean in a company context?
We can achieve the same or better results by doing less. This is probably surprising to most people, but that’s exactly what a zero-waste culture accomplishes. You’ve probably heard the term in relation to products and packaging. What does it mean in a company-wide context?
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time7 min
Companies have a tendency to try and do everything and all at once. They want to maximize everything. But this is counterintuitive as it often leads to time and energy wasted, excessive churn, and little to no upside.
For me, it’s all about focusing on activities that generate a tangible return and reducing time spent on tasks that produce little or no results.
What exactly does it mean to have a zero-waste culture?
Zero-waste culture means everyone is working on the most important things every day. Instead of spreading effort across multiple tasks that might perform well, the goal is to focus on a couple of big-picture tasks that generate the biggest results.
This said, it can be hard to determine what you need to focus on, especially if everything feels equally important.
How to find the tasks that will produce the best results
Before you can start to focus on what will bring the most return, start by identifying the size of the opportunity. Ideally, you need some form of data to understand how big the opportunity is—it doesn’t have to be distilled down to every detail, it’s more about the magnitude of the opportunity. The size of the opportunity is assessed by looking at two things:
Reach: the number of customers who will be affected by or exposed to the opportunity
Impact: the expected impact on the variable you're trying to improve
By considering these two things, you’re able to build a hypothesis for improvements. Metrics such as conversion rate or retention rate—or whichever metric aligns with the area of the business where you see an opportunity—give you insights necessary to set and measure goals.
Apply the same formula if you’re launching a new product to the market. Look at your total addressable market, create a hypothesis as to what market share you think you can acquire (and how), and identify helpful/necessary metrics to measure progress.
It’s important to start with a realistic idea of the size of the opportunity. The bigger the opportunity, the more potential it has to have a meaningful impact on your business, customers, and team members.
Teams fall into the trap of voting on impact and opportunity size based on instinct or experience, but the data needs to decide. This is the most objective way to get feedback, and it reduces the chance of confirmation bias.
Marty Cagan discusses the two difficult truths about product that can apply not only to product management but also to many parts of the business. He says the vast majority of our ideas that we think will have a material impact on the business or our customers will actually end up having no material impact whatsoever—probably north of 50%.
Pragmatic teams measure and plan for 75% of their ideas being wrong. Even the 25% of ideas that do work might not work the first time.
We’re on a mission to grow every year. We also pride ourselves on fostering a healthy work-life balance and being conscious of the human cost of our ambition.
How can you grow 60% year-on-year, hit large revenue numbers, and keep that culture intact?
The answer is adopting a zero-waste approach. But it’s easier said than done. It requires you to have a lot of things in place—processes, mindset, and culture—to be able to accomplish this.
Here’s how we manage to get it (mostly) right.
4 foundational tasks of a zero-waste culture
1. Verify and front-load risks
Working on flops and failures is a necessary part of just about any job. But it doesn’t feel great, and it should be avoided if and when possible. You can easily spend three or four months building a feature that will be dead on arrival. This is why you need to consider the risks involved before you go all in.
We front-load the risks and find quick, easy ways to verify them through prototyping. The idea is that you don’t build the fully-fledged product until you’ve validated the risks and understand the value you’re going to get out of it.
Then when you’ve invested three, four, or five months into something, you can be much more certain that it’s going to pay off. And if it doesn’t, you know you put your best foot forward.
2. Deprioritize quick wins
The idea of quick wins benefitting you long-term is a fallacy. The aggregate sum of many quick wins is much smaller than the sum of one or two high-impact successes. Of course, there are anomalies, but this is usually the case.
In many ways, quick wins are a distraction from the real tasks you need to be working on to make an impact and dramatically move the needle.
If it’s a big opportunity and it’s worth it, then you should spend time working on it. Cracking a very hard problem versus trying to grab at smaller, quicker (and often more temporary and surface-level) wins will typically produce more positive results.
3. Implement regular touchpoints
There’s a natural entropy that happens in teams if you’re not actively managing your efficiency and your prioritization. It can have a negative impact on your processes and output over time.
It’s important to put touchpoints in place as you build out your day-to-day processes and your weekly cycles. You need to create the opportunity to come back and ensure you’re still on the right path and making progress toward your goal.
For example, every six weeks, Megan Murphy, our most recent VP of Product, and I held what we call 'what’s next' meetings.
In these, we discussed the initiatives that each product team would be working on for the next six weeks. We explored why it’s a big enough task to matter and why it’s the most important thing to work on now.
During these conversations, we tried to challenge assumptions and challenge the numbers presented by the team.
Being able to work to this cadence of accountability—where we’ve forced ourselves to stop and look at what we’re doing and question whether we’re working on the most important things—helps us refocus when we need to and avoid getting complacent.
4. Cut once and cut deep
Whenever we want to add something to our priorities, we need to take something out. It’s easy to forget to do. If we forget, it leads to a pile-up of work, which goes against the idea of zero waste. It also goes against keeping workloads manageable and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
I recommend having a regular conversation with all your direct reports (at least every four weeks) to open the lines of communication and understand their workload and stress levels.
If you find that you’re not getting much done, you need to cut some to-dos. I regularly look at the backlog of things I have to do and if there’s too much, I cut everything after the top three to five tasks.
Creating a zero-waste culture requires a lot of intentionality. It needs to have a positive effect not only on your goals but also on your team members’ well-being.
People may have an unmanageable list of things they need to do. The cognitive load of a never-ending, ever-expanding to-do list can hinder progress and productivity.
When you’re intentional and actively make the decision to work with intent, you free up time and headspace to focus on activities that are going to have a big impact.
Prioritization is the key to productivity and a healthy work-life balance
Zero-waste culture isn’t just about reducing the impact you have on the planet. It’s not just using the right materials. It’s about using everyone’s time effectively and collectively reaping the biggest rewards.
Prioritizing two or three big things at a time and regularly cutting items that aren’t a priority from to-do lists will increase productivity levels.
Ensure you’re working on the most important activities every single day, and you’ll be on your way to a healthier work-life balance.
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