A Happy Day at Work … So What?

A happy day at work ... so what?I don’t consider myself to be a “tech” guy but, in general, I’m pretty much up-to-date on topics that are relevant to both my professional career and personal lifestyle. When it comes to work, my current role demands the maximization of data utilization and the application of workflows that aim to influence the bottom line. A couple of weeks ago we had a meeting about one of the projects I’m currently leading. After a couple of months of hard work, the project reached a milestone that required coming up with a very detailed and specific desired state.

In project management when someone hears the word “desired state” the first thing that comes to mind is “gap analysis“.  But what is a gap analysis? In simple terms, it’s a process that involves the comparison of actual performance with desired performance. Implementation of this process usually reveals areas of improvement and facilitates building a roadmap to close the gap between business requirements and current capabilities.

Gap Analysis

Even though the definition of gap analysis is fairly simple and straightforward, its application can be challenging in the absence of the desired outcome. Think about it, how does Apple, Amazon, Facebook and other giants in the tech industry keep coming up with new and innovative products and services that people enjoy bringing into many aspects of their lives? How can they envision, i.e. dream what the desired outcome needs to be when the business requirement is also to please a large population?. I know these companies have built a long track record that helps them build on their success but early on they had to be visionaries … they had no choice but to dream big.

By now you’re probably thinking where in the world are you going with this story and how is this related to your project at work. Well, let me carry on …

How Can Someone Dream Big?

Before the project got kicked off, as the lead, I was required to put together a project charter which included team participants, scope, objectives (business requirements) and timelines. Due to the nature of our project (innovation) the business requirements were high level. Why? because we were trying to build something completely new that had no benchmark or analogs that we could think of. This made the project exciting or I should say freaking scary because we knew we had no choice but to dream big. On top of that, there was a risk in terms of scope creeping, not meeting deadlines and lacking/running out of resources.I would like to believe that, on a very small scale, this is how folks at Facebook, Amazon, Apple felt early on … maybe they did, maybe not, I would bet you a burrito they were going through similar (maybe worst) emotions.

Going back to our meeting, it was clear (at least to me) that if we wanted to move forward we had no choice but to be explicit about what our product needed to do. We had a solid foundation with the prototype we put together; however, it was missing very much needed TLC. I didn’t know exactly where to begin but realized it would probably be even more challenging getting over procrastination and just getting started.

The timeline was pretty tight so the plan was simple … adjust our existing prototype to meet envisioned (tough one) business needs. Once the plan was in place we moved to execution. The first day, I think I spent over 10 hours in front of my monitor and probably accomplished 10% of what I had laid out to do. The only thing I can say in my defense is that dreaming and documenting at the same time was really hard.

As days passed I kept on dreaming and the process of putting things on paper actually got smoother compared to day one of this journey. From time to time, I would have to go back and adjust things because a new idea would pop up but that was perfectly fine. As frustrating as it was, I refused myself to be complacent on things I knew could be done better.

The next-gen prototype was completed in the following days and by the time I was done I could not believe my eyes. I think I stared at my screen in complete disbelief filled with joy and happiness … our dream or better said our desired state was now in front of us and we were ready to keep the project moving forward. I presented the results to my team and got some interesting reactions:

  • Holy shit … always a good one,
  • Wow, also a good one
  • You mother… in a good way,
  • Dude, I’m pumped,
  • Man, let’s start our own company … makes you think right?
  • But what about this?
  • What if we add this?
  • Have you thought of this?
  • What if instead?

The reason, I’m sharing these comments is not because I want to brag about my performance, or because they made me feel happier. Honestly, someone could have said something completely rude (thankfully nobody did 😀 ) and It would have been completely fine. Why? Well, I experienced satisfaction at its highest level and I was genuinely opened to constructive feedback because at least we had something we could keep improving upon.

Why did I have a Happy Day at Work?

Looking back, I never anticipated things were going to turn out the way they did. Yes, I was concerned with failure but honestly, I didn’t have time to worry about that. As I started putting the story together, I was skeptical about the likelihood of being able to translate a somewhat blurry dream into something real. Do you remember, the project charter I mentioned a few paragraphs back? Well, by the time I was done it not only met but exceed the business requirements both at a high and now a very specific level.

Accomplishing this milestone made it possible for our team to get us closer to the finish line. Yes, there’s still a lot of work ahead of us but if dreaming and making things come to life don’t get you excited I’m not sure what will.

What Made this Possible?

  • Understanding the “So What”: Before we got started we had to be honest with ourselves and document the merit of spending time and resources on this project. We had to be ready to address questions such as: Why do we need to do things differently? even if we develop this new product or implement a different workflow what does it do to the bottom line? will this new process be used? will it be easy to get buy-in? how different is it from our current solution? how will we handle management of change?
  • Defining the desired state (at least loosely): Our existing process was (and still is) so cumbersome we knew people would be happy with a more lean, consistent and sustainable solution. What that solution needed to look like, well, that’s a different answer. We had some clues but putting it all together in a nice package represented the challenge.
  • Planning: Not sure if you know this but planning is the most critical step in project management and is one a team usually spends the least amount of time on. I don’t know if it’s the excitement of getting into execution mode but this is the #1 reason projects fail. In our case, we put a lot of time and effort into planning. Like I said, we defined team participants, a lead (me), the scope (also out of scope), objectives (even though at a high level because we were also in exploration mode), milestones and timeline. This definitely helped set the stage for the first few months of work even though we knew there was a risk with one of the milestones we had identified, aka absence of specific business requirements.
  • Getting started: This was actually the toughest part but I simply had no choice. Time was of the essence and facing a pressing deadline and knowing the team was counting on me took procrastination completely out of the picture. That first day staring at my monitor made me question whether I would be capable of getting things done. What if I get nowhere?, what if I put all this time and effort and in the end, I get it completely wrong? what if I run out of time? what if I get stuck? what if I fail?. Like I said I had no time to worry about all this crap, I had to get shit done.
  • Walking an unclear path: Getting started was tough but building and following the path to an envisioned (honestly did not have a clue) destination proved to be even more challenging. Picture trying to walk down a path in the middle of the night carrying a mini flashlight that can only reach so far. On top of that, there’s wildlife you feel is getting closer to you, what do you do?. In our case, we devised a roadmap but the path was not entirely clear. Time was getting closer so we had no choice but to start walking. All I can say is that we were at least glad to be on a path instead of being in the middle of nowhere.
  • Not being afraid to fail: Having no time to think about failure really helped my situation. The fact I was shooting for an MVP (minimum viable product) instead of a 100% solution also helped keep an open mind about things I would probably miss but that could be discovered by other members of the team.
  • Time: It has the potential of pushing someone out of their comfort zone. In my case, It made me think about what was possible or not. It truly tested creativity and capabilities but It also made me forget about fears of screwing up.

Why Should Someone Care About My Happy Day At Work?

Honestly, nobody should … unless they want to :). I’ve worked many projects in my career but it had been a while since I was so happy at work. What made this experience so different?. Why was I so happy? How does this relate to my journey to FI?

… Looking back I think it was the journey and emotional rollercoaster of making dreams a reality.

As I think about the elements that contributed to the emotions I experienced, is easy to identify analogies and lessons learned that are applicable to personal finance. A couple of questions that come to mind are:

Have you performed your gap analysis for reaching FI? if so,

Are you currently living below your means while saving/investing the rest?

Are you paying yourself first and leveraging automation?

Are you aware of your asset allocation?

Have you started investing?

Answering these questions should reveal opportunities for improvement so you can close the gap between where you are today and where you expect to be years down the road.

Final Thoughts

Asking the “so what” question can be tricky. It requires careful touch not only in terms of your word selection but also on how you deliver the message. The intent is never to second guess anyone, piss someone off or to give the impression of superiority. It’s actually the opposite, the purpose is to incentivize discussion to make sure we all understand the value proposition before agreeing to move forward.

I’ve been part of meetings where the “so what” question is asked and responses vary, from individuals that do their due diligence, to others that simply don’t spend the time understanding the bottom line. If you think about PF, why are you saving? why are you delaying instant gratification? why should your spouse join you along the ride?. Maybe you don’t have a solid answer to all these questions but you should at least have a general idea of what you’re trying to achieve by reaching FI …. If you don’t then why bother?  The best analogy I could come up with (might be a lame one) is being in the middle of the ocean navigating rough waters without a compass. You will feel lost, lonely, frustrated, miserable and lacking purpose in life. 

Planning is also critical if you want to reach FI. It will help you identify areas for improvement and define goals (hopefully SMART goals) you can hold yourself accountable for. But what about getting started? This one has to be the most difficult step for everyone. In my case, it took me 6 years and as a result, I missed out on enjoying the benefits of compounding.

My path to FI is still not 100% clear but I’d rather walk and learn along the way than staying still. I know mistakes are inevitable but I have to keep trying. I would like to believe the more you make mistakes the higher your success rate will be. I’ve made financial mistakes that have brought valuable learnings that have given my flashlight way more reach.

Time is the only commodity that is truly finite in life. We are given a limited amount of time and we need to take advantage of it. Whether is allowing compounding to do its magic or enjoying experiences that bring happiness and joy to our lives please do not take time for granted.

Last but not least dreaming big and being able to bring that dream to life has got to be one of the best feelings in the world. Yes, it can and should be a painful process but the reward will be there. If you want to live a happy an full filling life don’t be afraid to dream big and then work on making that dream a reality.

Are you enjoying your journey to FI? are you dreaming big? … Until next time JJ.

4 comments

  1. That was interesting in part because it was so strange in comparison to my career of designing and optimizing chemical plants. The one thing you never mentioned was the project economics. As a chemical engineer my projects were to design process facilities that made the highest value products with the lowest energy and raw material costs. It was all about minimizing investment while maximizing rate of return and doing it completely safely without environmental consequences. I understand you don’t have safety or environmental concerns with your projects but aren’t economics still the main part of any project?

    1. Steveark, I can’t get into the details of my project but what I can say is that in my discipline economics rule so I agree 100% with you. I live and breath NPV, ROR, and Payout and our project is expected to exceed our economic hurdles. Sorry If I neglected (or perhaps assumed it would be a given) to mention the economic side of the story on this post. Then again that was not necessarily the intent. In any case, I do agree that every project needs to justify its expense and ultimately add value otherwise why bother.

      1. I figured as much. But I wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing something. You know us engineering types are kinda ocd. Great post!

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