Action and Idea Lists for Lean Startups

Startups are easily overwhelmed with ideas. They have a ton of their own, and they hear a lot of advice from others. How do you actually take all of the ideas and prioritize, focus, execute, and grow?

Here is a simple system inspired by Agile software development that can help you do that. It’s a spin on the traditional Todo lists that helps you keep it simple and actually execute.

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1. Iteration

The key to getting things done is to set goals and divide time into chunks to hit each goal. If you don’t have goals then you are just doing stuff, but not clearly making progress. Lets call a chunk of time to hit a set of goals an Iteration. The duration of any given Iteration can vary – it can be 1 day, or 2 weeks, but not much longer than that. At Techstars, for example, we measure time in weeks, since we are trying to accomplish a lot in just 13 weeks. Every week has its own set of goals, so every week is its own Iteration. The tasks you do during the Iteration go onto the Action List.

2. Action List

The first rule is that the Action List can only have 10 items (or less!) at any given time. The #1 Todo is what you are working on now. Todos 2, 3, and 4 are pretty solid – unless there is a drastic change in your world, they will make it to the #1 spot soon and you will work on them. Todos 5-10 are a little less solid; you might not actually get to them, or you may tweak, or even delete some of them. But as of now you do intend to execute them during this Iteration.

That’s really it in terms of Action List setup. You work through it one todo at a time. Intensely focus on each task and crush it. Make sure you do it as thoroughly and as completely as possible. Every time you check off an item, take a quick moment to celebrate. Every small win is the opportunity to smile and relieve stress.

3. Idea List

This is what every single person, from CEO to an engineer to a social media manager, gets wrong. They get excited about a new idea, drop what they are working on, and start working on the new thing. This is the worst possible way to get things done. The task at hand is left unfinished. Most likely you will have to go back to it, but you will by then lose the context and the flow. Most likely you will keep adding new tasks, and you will find yourself context switching all the time. As a result, no tasks will be done well. You are going to create half-baked things and nothing will really work.

Remember, you are not necessarily smarter right now than you were 10 minutes ago or a day ago or a week ago. If you made a decision in the past to schedule the task, respect yourself and finish it. Of course there are sometimes exceptional cases when you can cancel the task at hand, but it should be very rare. In any case, the new task shouldn’t replace what you are working on now.

It doesn’t even make sense to stick new ideas into the Action List yet. That list has already been prioritized, and it’s not yet clear where the new idea would fit. For that purpose you will have another list, called the Idea List. The new tasks ALWAYS go to the bottom of the Idea List. ALWAYS.

The Idea List can also only have at most 10 items. Why? Because you don’t need to add every single idea you have or you hear to any list at all. In fact, quite the opposite – the default should be to NOT add. Every idea first needs to prove itself to you. Like things in the real world, the ideas need to compete for your attention and win before they make it to the Idea List. You need to hear an idea over and over from your customers, co-workers, advisors, and yourself. Once it becomes obvious, then the idea will get a spot on the Idea list.

4. Prioritize: Append, Trim, and Delete

Regardless of the length of your Iteration – 1 day or 2 weeks or anything in between – in the end of the Iteration, you will re-prioritize. To do that, first append all items from the Idea List to the bottom of the Action List. It does not matter if the Action List is empty or the Idea List is full.

You then re-prioritize everything based on your current understanding of the world and trim the Action List to again be 10 items only. After that, place the 4 runner-up ideas on the Idea List and discard the rest. Don’t be afraid of this step. The ideas will come back if they are great ideas.

Give this a try and let me know how it works out for you. Using another system? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

2 comments

  1. Alex, you nailed it.
    I was saying something similar to another team I’m mentoring, today actually. This is also very much part of the Pivotal Tracker philosophy, dividing the work into Current, Backlog, and Icebox. Every new item enters in the Icebox.

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