I was sitting in Basecamp’s Chicago office a few months ago as a participant in their Basecamp Way of Working workshop when a participant asked a question about the appropriateness of moving a shipping date if it becomes apparent that it won’t be fully met.
The answerer (I’m sorry I don’t remember the gentleman’s name — not Jason but the other guy presenting with him) talked about how journalists often use an inverted pyramid approach to writing articles (meaning the most important information is at the top and the least important detail is at the bottom) so that if they need to chop an article down because of physical space constraints it would still make sense. Basecamp does a similar thing when thinking about the features to tackle during a given sprint of work; they do the most important stuff first so they can chop off smaller features if they bump up against a deadline (rather than moving the deadline until they finish every last feature or add every last bit of polish).
Interesting stuff… but I’m not a software developer (or a journalist). But then he said something that set my brain on fire — “Remember, the inverted pyramid is fractal.”
“The inverted pyramid is fractal. The inverted pyramid is fractal. The inverted pyramid is fractal.”
I sound like a serial killer or an unhinged mathematics professor.
Let’s dig into this a little bit.
In this context think about the inverted pyramid as encompassing everything you think you need to do in a given unit of time (a project, a day, a week, a lifetime, etc.). Some of these actions are more important than others and they live at the top of the pyramid (which is actually the base of the pyramid, but because we’re talking about an inverted pyramid it’s now the top — you get the idea). The less important tasks or activities get pushed down to the narrow part of the pyramid. When you start working on a project you start by filling up the base of the pyramid and work your way down to the point.
The idea is that you focus on doing the most important stuff first so that when you hit your deadline you can just chop off whatever you didn’t get to (instead of moving the deadline). By focusing on the most important stuff first you’re hopefully just chopping off some residual features and not the core competency of whatever you’ve just created.
Forcing yourself to prioritize the work ahead of time allows you to be ruthless about placing your time and attention on the most important stuff first. The ship date is looming. The world/client/customer/boss expects you to create something. You better knock out the important stuff before fiddling around with the minor features. It’s a much nicer feeling to use extra time and recourses at the end of a project polishing and tweaking rather than scrambling to fix something vital. Keeping the inverted pyramid in mind lets you honor deadlines, build a mindset and bias toward action, and a healthy skepticism (or utter disdain) for distractions.
Every inverted pyramid has another inverted pyramid within it. Each day is an inverted pyramid in your weekly inverted pyramid. Each week is an inverted pyramid in your month. And so on. The fractal nature of this means you’re always asking yourself at every stage of a project — from the largest and most conceptual to the smallest and most tactical — “what’s the most important thing to do here?” “What is critical and what can be pushed until later?” “What’s a need to have vs. what’s a nice to have?” You ask these questions at the beginning of a project, at the beginning of a day of work, at the beginning of a session of work, at the beginning of the next five minutes ad infinitum.
It forces you to become much more clear-eyed and ruthless about prioritizing the work you need to do to vs. the work you’d like to do or think maybe you’ll do.
All work is not created equal.
All work not shipped doesn’t count.
All resources are finite.
The Practicality of the Fractal Inverted Pyramid
Organizations that get the dual concept of the inverted pyramid and its fractal nature are places where deliberateness, prioritization, and a bias toward action are cultivated and respected. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for experimentation or that every single task must be endlessly scrutinized in order to be properly prioritized before it can be completed. Instead, it means that decisions cannot be debated endlessly, perfection is not allowed to be the enemy of the good, and there is a cultural acceptability to saying “no” to frivolous requests of each other’s time and attention.
The inverted pyramid lives in the organization, and in each team, and in each individual. With that mindset autonomy and trust can thrive, interlocking the different components of an organization into a network that simultaneously relies on and supports every other part of the network.
Individuals who understand the fractal inverted pyramid are very similar to organizations who understand it. In my own practice, I’ve become much more deliberate about figuring out where and when I will finish the most important work I need do in a given week or day. I’ve take a more active role in connecting with my colleagues to better inform what should be living at the top of my own inverted pyramid. I don’t build my daily schedule around the myriad of minor tasks and responsibilities that make up my life, but instead let them filter between the cracks of the most important work I do. I’m saying “no” a lot more. I’m actually doing a lot less but what I am doing is so much more important and effective.
The idea of the inverted pyramid may not resonate with you to the extent that it did for me (I think it broke something in my brain — it’s weird) but understanding the basic idea that you can’t do everything you want all the time (organizationally and individually) requires some extremely realistic and potentially painful come-to-Jesus moments about what is truly important and what just feels important.
Getting this right means less time being wasted on meaningless bullshit and more time spent changing the world for the better.
I think we’d all take another helping of that.
Thank you to Jason Fried and Basecamp for the inspiration.
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