Condition Red

05 Jul 2016

Sometimes the shit hits the fan.

That's the nature of startups - for all the talk about building something fun, escaping the rat race, planning well, and setting an example of work/life balance, sometimes you just have to fix things. Right now.

Hell, it can even be fun.

But there's nothing more permanent than a temporary fix, and staying in emergency mode for the long term is incredibly toxic. I'm serious when I say that the largest - in fact, perhaps only - existential threat to Fire Hazard is crew burnout.

I am determined, at the same time, to combine work with a high-quality lifestyle. I took a year off and, though it seems unbelievable now, my journal confirms that I used to wake up early from a full night's sleep, run three miles to yoga, run home, cook a healthy breakfast, do some project work, go climbing, meditate, cook dinner and get to bed on time. I can't even imagine doing that right now. Not even on my days off (if I had any).

But I think, perhaps foolishly, that there's a way to do most of that and still build a business. I'm determined to prove it. I've been trying for a while.

As always, inflexible systems fail. I used to have rules. When the shit hit the fan they'd shatter, but then - crucially - they wouldn't regenerate.

My next iteration is more flexible. I have a Big Visible Chart on the wall showing the current Alert Level.

In Green, a particular set of rules apply. I must stop working by 6pm (I can start whenever I want, so 11-hour days are still possible). My caffeine intake is limited. I need to cook well, run, and meditate every day. Most days I should do, or schedule, something fun.

Moving to Yellow involves moving the peg on the chart, and posting a picture of something yellow to the company Slack. At that point I can work to 10pm, I get a bit more caffeine, and I can eat what I want. I'm still meant to run and meditate, but there's no question of doing fun things.

Condition Red means notifying the company. At that point there's no time for funny pictures; a terse 'moving to red' on general is enough. The only rule that applies is this one: "get it done". Days in yellow and red are tracked with tally marks on the chart to avoid habituation. Invoking Red at all means paperwork; afterwards, we'll hold a retrospective to find out what went wrong that made it necessary, and how to stop it happening again.

There's one more rule: Condition Red is global. If one of us goes to Red, we all go to Red. This means that in a crisis, no one is ever alone. It also discourages 'being a hero' - working very late will hurt others, too.

I don't think we'll ever get to the promised land of Eternal Condition Green. Startups are exciting, and events startups doubly so. But I'm hoping that this system proves to be resilient.

Plus, if it continues to work, I'm going to buy some nifty lightbulbs.