Right now I have a list of over sixty changes I want to make to The Eureka Room. Some of them will take maybe an hour, some much longer. How do I choose? Here’s three different approaches I could take.
The “ROI” Approach
One common approach for prioritizing work items is to use ROI (return on investment). The one that gets you more bang for the buck is the one to prioritize.
In cases which have set numbers and predictable outcomes making decisions this way is straightforward. For example, I can buy one can of coke for $2 or I can buy a six pack for $8. I get more bang for the buck with the six-pack.
For the Eureka Room, I think investment can be relatively easy to guess. This is cost in life’s currencies: time, money, and happiness. It might cost me one hour, $25, and a mild bit of frustration to hang up some lights in the waiting room.
But the return is a little tougher to calculate. What’s the return?
My first thought when I think about this potential waiting room change is, “They’ll really like that and it’ll not take much to do.”
But they “they” is not clear. How many of they is there? If I move the room to a new location that doesn’t have a waiting room and won’t use the lights, then the only return I get is when it is in my house. How long will it be in my house?
In other words, there are at least two factors I need to consider:
- How much each person enjoys the new lights.
- How many people will enjoy the new lights over the lights’ entire existence.
But there’s also the additional question of opportunity cost. If I say yes to this, what am I saying “no” to? And what would have been the ROI on that thing I said “no” to?
Compounding this decision is that I don’t know if people will actually like the change. I’m assuming they will, but what if they don’t?
But the real problem I have with calculating ROI using life’s currencies is that mission doesn’t factor into the equation.
Suppose selling t-shirts had the highest ROI. Maybe the t-shirts I sell in the gift shop become very popular, almost a business in and of itself. I could eventually become a t-shirt shop and drop the whole eureka room programming. With an ROI lens, I’m just chasing returns of those three currencies and no longer focused on mission.
The “Maximize Mission” Approach
So how do I decide from these 60+ items which to do?
Instead of thinking of money, time, and happiness as the return, instead think of them as intermediate returns. You just need them so that you can re-invest them and get the real thing you’re after: fulfilling the mission.
Ok, so then we can look at the list of improvements I might make and see that some things, like more comfortable chairs, are not really high ROI. They are adequate but better chairs won’t deliver more of the promised mission of “charming absurdity”. T-shirts? That’d be nice and might contribute to the memories of the experience but they are not as powerful in delivering the mission as say, making the waiting room lights go weird and crazy.
How should I calculate delaying visible mission efforts for future larger payoffs?
Suppose the experience is good now and serves a good amount of people. But what if I knew if I closed it down for a year and worked hard on it, then at the end of the year I could serve 100x people and it would be 100x as good? What if I waited ten years? 100? Maybe I should wait?
I don’t think so.
Because seeing parts of the mission be accomplished fuels me to continue the mission. Not seeing impact slowly kills motivation and energy – even if I feel certain there will be a huge payoff later. I might never get there without the rewards of impact, no matter the size of future impact.
Additionally, I don’t have any guarantee that what I will end up with in a year will be any good. Sure I can test it along the way but even the best testing can’t replicate reality perfectly. More than a few gigantic efforts taken by huge well-funded teams in “stealth mode” have reveal complete flops. It’s better to put it in the real world, piece by piece.
The “Next Visitor” Approach
So what if I don’t take the long view? What if instead I choose to grow organically, almost “one visitor at a time”? The incremental and “scoreboarding” approaches work really well for me. What if instead of thinking about maximizing mission or ROI I ask:
How can I better fulfill the mission for the next visitor?
Or, if I’m looking at a list of possibilities, I can ask:
Of the actions I could take, which ones will serve the mission best to the next visitor?
This strategy gives me both the energy and feedback I need at the size I’m at. Almost nothing is transactional, set in stone, or systematized yet. It’s personal and I think need to work within that context to get me to the next level.
I don’t know if any of these is the “right” answer for everyone. They’re really just three different ways to approach the same question of “what next?”
For me, at a small size, every visitor really really counts. If I can help them enjoy my work then I get energy back to create more work. Right now, that’s the most important thing to get the mission going. Perhaps later I will be in more need to maximize revenue so I can invest that into bigger Eureka Room projects, but that’s not the thing to concentrate on now.