Premature Optimization is a Timing Mistake


In the end, your success or failure is a combination of what you control (your decision making) and what you don't (timing). Most people aren't really great at decision making. But that's something you can get better at. So let's move to the harder dynamic that we can't control – and that's timing.

Everything in life is just a matter of timing. Right?

Sometimes We Just Can't Predict the Future

There are always situations where you look back and think, “If only I could go back, knowing what I know now.” Those are timing issues for sure. But we can't predict the future, so getting timing right is hard.

Here are two examples.

Example One: Palm Pilot after Apple Newton

Ever had an idea and worked really hard on it, and it didn't take off? But wait a few years and someone else comes along and makes millions on the same idea.

Think 1992 and Scully walks out on stage at a CES in Chicago with a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) called the Apple Newton. Did you own one? I didn't. But by 1996 Palm Computing came out with a PDA and I definitely owned one of those. (You can read more here.)

It was timing.

No one can predict when we'll be ready and conditions will be perfect.

Example Two: Blockbuster and Netflix

Ever felt like something was a distraction and not worth investing in, only to watch someone else go “all in” and make it make sense?

You might not know it but Blockbuster did get into video streaming – even before Netflix had introduced it. They worked with an external partner in 1999 to build it. But they never leaned all the way into the solution because their stores (and those late fees) were delivering too much money. So they thought of the streaming as a good but not great concept and considered it too much of a distraction. (You can read more here.)

It too came down to timing.

No one knows in advance when to invest in a new revenue stream because the other is about to be eliminated.

So these are the stories we tell ourselves about timing. We just can't know things. We can't predict things. So it's all just a matter of luck.

And don't get me wrong, luck plays a part in most people's success.

But what about the timing issues that we do control – the mistakes we make that are completely avoidable?

We're Not All Victims of Timing

I love stand up comics. I love watching them work. But even more than that, I love getting behind the scenes to watch how they produce their work.

Maybe you've seen this clip of how Jerry Seinfeld writes a joke.

Photo of Jerry Seinfeld and his notes as he explains timing and how he writes jokes.

As he explains his craft, I love how much focus there is on timing, tempo, and his line that he'd take syllables off words to make the pacing tight.

In other words, stand up comics don't think of timing as something they can't control. It's the opposite. They control every aspect of timing.

The same is true for song writers (which Jerry references) and rappers. If you have enough time (13 minutes), watch this 6 year old video from Vox (with more than 13 million views) on the deconstruction of rap, rhymes, and timing.

Image of Rakim rap lyrics with different colors for differently rhymed words across the timing of bars.

My point is simple – some creators (and some industries) have realized that they aren't victims of timing.

So what does that mean? Can we control timing enough to make it work for us?

The Timing Mistake We Often Make

When I was 27 I was getting ready to buy my first home. I lived in Northern California, had a good job, and was ready to stop renting.

Do you remember the first home you bought?

Mine was 1400 square feet. And it was more than I needed and far larger than my apartment. I was thrilled.

But imagine I had said to myself, wait a minute Chris, you're going to have two children, and will also need an office to work from home. Your future wife will want to play piano so you'll need an additional piano room.

Imagine if I had said that I needed 3500 square feet instead of 1400. Because I wanted to make sure that my current situation would work for my future expectation.

I bought that first home in 1997. Today we're close to wrapping up 2022. Can you imagine how silly it would be to want the home I chose in 1997 to give me everything I would need 25 years later?

Let's bring it closer to home for you if you have ever started a new company. Think about your first few months on that journey. Did you create a new business name and then start having someone (or yourself) work on a logo? Did you get hats or t-shirts made? What about stickers?

I know tons of people who jump right into the creative work of logos, designs, and even ordering branded clothing – all so they can feel legit. And I'm sure people can explain all of it rationally.

But these are symptoms of the same problem.

We have no idea if our business name is the right one or will last. We have no idea if the colors we chose were right or horribly wrong. Until we get the business running and fully understand who our competition is, there's a lot we don't know.

It's easy to confuse movement with progress.

We tell ourselves we want to get it right (whether we're buying a house or setting up a startup). So we start jumping forward. Thinking we're tackling the right stuff, and mostly being excited that we're moving. But movement and progress aren't the same.

One of the most common mistakes I see is a type of premature movement. Specifically, I'm talking about premature optimization. It is, in my opinion, the worst timing mistake most of us make.

It's the, “I plan to need 3500 square feet someday so I won't get started with 1400 right now,” approach to planning. Let me show you how and why this timing mistake is often made. Then we'll get into how to skip past it.

What is Premature Optimization?

Over the past twenty years I've worked with, coached, and advised hundreds of business owners (mostly in the technology space). Almost every one of them has fallen into the trap of premature optimization. It is, without question, the biggest and worst timing mistake I've seen made.

So what is it? Simply stated, it means doing something before you need to. Another way to say it is solving a problem that isn't yet a problem.

Here's another angle on the definition: it's the irrational motivation to eliminate a potential future problem by taking action today.

I don't mean it to sound harsh. So imagine I'm defining this for me, not for you. I can be stronger with myself. Especially once you realize that there are things within me that cause me to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, and if I don't learn this lesson, I'm bound to repeat it.

First, how many of us can predict the future? None. Right? So let's just agree that some future problems will never get solved because we could never see around those corners.

Already you can start seeing why I might consider premature optimization irrational. Because it won't even work in many situations.

I can hear you right now, “but some problems are predictable, Chris.” And you're right. So let's step there. Because I'm not disagreeing that you could predict some problems and try to solve them.

But now we have to look at opportunity cost. If we spend time predicting a situation that actually is likely to happen, and we spend the time working to resolve the issue before it arrives, all of that comes at the cost of whatever we didn't get to do because we were spending our time trying to solve a future problem.

Once you realize that the cost of doing something includes not only the cost of the effort but also the cost of what you missed out (how you could have applied the same effort for a different result), you start to see why solving potential future problems isn't the best use of your current context.

This doesn't even address the fact that our own experience is often a limiting factor in how well we can predict the future.

Here's what I know:

  1. A problem we understand is more attractive than one we don't.
  2. Action (or movement) can feel like progress, even if it's not.
  3. It's really easy to lie to ourselves about anything (everything).
  4. We rarely do the math on opportunity cost.
  5. Getting past premature optimization is a function of better questions.

Asking the Right Questions

In the technology world, we often ask if it's possible to do something. Here's a quick answer to settle that debate. The answer is always yes. Of course there's always a way to do something. Given enough time and money, you can do just about anything (that feels impossible without the time and money).

Asking “can we?” isn't the same as “should we?”

Just because you can build something doesn't mean you should. And just because you can make something that you might need in the future doesn't mean you should (or that you will even need it in the future).

We get excited about new product ideas because we can imagine that someone will like it and buy it.

Asking “will someone” instead of asking “how many someones” is a mistake.

Sizing a market is a lot of work and it's part art and part science. But we have to get good at doing the hard work so we can enjoy the benefits of that work.

Learning to size a market and break it down into its various micro-segments is not only critical to understanding demand, but it will help you define your path as you figure out how to attack a market.

Here is my final question I ask if someone is suggesting a path that sounds like premature optimization:

What happens if we don't do anything right now?

If the answer is serious and near-term, it's likely not premature optimization. We may not be able to delay.

But if the consequences of shifting timing back (6 months, a year, five years) aren't near term or aren't massively expensive (in a specifically articulated way), then I likely tap the brakes and just wait.

Also, remember that the corollary to this is “what does it cost if we do make that change?” because sometimes we step in and make changes only to discover we've made things worse.

Getting Timing Right

My friends and I watch NFL games at our cigar lounge. Maybe you've been watching the games too and noticed what we have. It feels like the number of pharmaceutical commercials have gone way up this year.

Every drug commercial has that part in it where they tell you the possible side affects and we crack up because some of the side effects (death) are worse than the symptoms they're trying to resolve (a rash on your arm).

But to get a drug to market, they have to go thru several stages of testing. One of the first tests makes sure that it won't kill animals. After that there are tests to see if it actually delivers a cure. From there they determine if it's significantly better at solving a problem than the current set of solutions.

Getting timing right isn't a function of timing at all.
It's a function of process and rigor.

If you go back to Jerry talking about crafting a joke, he's not just talking about being funny. He's talking about sequencing the laughs.

If you go back to the video on rap bars, they break down the process and rigor that these rap artists are using to craft their rhymes.

If you think about the work that pharmaceutical companies put in (and the money) to bring a product to market, they're not using hope as a strategy and they're not trying to guess (at anything).

Process and rigor.

My coaching clients hear this all the time. In fact I recently had to let one of them know that this article was coming out and it wasn't about them.

They know that putting process and rigor into the system will protect them from making decisions that feel good in their “gut.” They know that rather than choosing efforts that “feel” right, we need to be wise and strategic.

But you don't get there without process and rigor. And if you embrace this proactive approach, you end up making less mistakes, burning less cash, and more ready and prepared to handle the last minute issues that really require you to be reactive.

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