When I was studying towards my pilot license 15 years ago, I was struggling to control the plane while rolling on the runway during landing. The runway felt so narrow and I didn’t have a control wheel like in a car, just 2 paddles. Pressing one paddle, felt like turning the wheel of a car abruptly in one direction.  My basic instinct was to stay on the center of the runway at all cost. This is what the best pilot would do I thought. Like all new students, I was dangerously zig-zagging the narrow runway until the plane stopped.
landing a plane

It took me a while to understand what my instructor was saying. He said something fairly simple, though it didn’t make sense at the beginning:

“Don’t focus on the runway, just look on the zebra located at the end of the runway. As long as you’re headed to the center of the zebra, you’ll be fine”

It worked like a charm.

I stopped looking at the touch point, just looked about a mile ahead to the white marking on the end of the runway and steered the plane gently in that direction. Once I committed to it, all the immediate zig-zags were gone. I stopped making quick fixes even though I was a bit off the center of the runway. On the flip side, I did find myself not exactly where I wanted to be on the runway and that was quite frustrating.

I think startups are not that different than planes.

Like every early-stage company, we’re spending time debating features priorities and roadmap. Where should we focus more and what can wait for the next release. We all know that startups are like roller coasters,  requirements change, opportunities arise and the startup’s “pilot” wants to optimize every second to be on the center of his runway. For me, it was counter-intuitive at first to let the teamwork on a task which is not priority #1. I know startups should be agile and fast-changing but it has a downside.  I saw very often how these ‘small changes’ in priorities can get engineering teams to lose focus and pay a significant context switch penalty. Sometimes it’s worth it. Most time it’s not.  as long as you’re still aiming the plane to the end-of-the-runway zebra.

photo credit: Frans Zwart via photopin cc