A few years ago, I remember talking to someone on the team and saying that we had to grow faster; the status quo wasn’t working. He mentioned that to another person on the team. When I ran into that second person on the bus, he was really stressed. I inadvertently created stress about a problem, but didn't communicate a solution. Everyone could feel it, even though I only talked to one person. In retrospect, I was setting us up for frantic effort; we were about to approach the problem in an unstructured, un-prioritized way. That’s no way to solve a problem.
I've seen companies with determined effort and companies with frantic effort. There’s a huge difference.
Frantic effort is when you have so much to do, you are not sure why you're doing it or why it’s better than other things you could potentially do. You haven't taken the time to prioritize. Instead of focusing, you jump from one thing to the next, like you're chasing a trail of shiny objects. It's a nervous energy that starts at the top of the company and works it's way down. People are confused about the right path, so their solution is to just work more and harder toward goals and for reasons that are hard to articulate. The team works hard without understanding, reflection or vision. It's scary to be part of a frantic company. It's also exhausting and demoralizing.
Determined effort is when you know what you're doing and why you're doing it. You know exactly what you are building and its trade-offs. Even the things that you're not sure of are calculated bets. Everything you do produces more data towards the vision of the company. If you notice something isn’t working and need to change paths, it’s a conscious change. Determined effort doesn’t mean you’re locked in - it just means you make decisions with purpose and not out of anxiety.
Ironically, determined effort and frantic effort can take the exact same amount of time and effort, but not produce the same results. Determined effort lasts longer, is more focused, is less prone to burnout.
How do I know when someone has been at a frantic company? You can see it in their eyes when you interview them. They have the glossy, unfocused look that we all associate with burn out. There's also a kind of discontent about how their effort has been used. That company used up all their willpower going in many directions that no one fully understood.