The chisel stage and the sandpaper stage

Once upon a time I was speaking to a software developer who was explaining why he wasn’t taking the kind of care in his work that he would have liked to take. “We’re at the chisel stage, right now, not the sandpaper stage”, he said. And I understood exactly what he meant.

He was actually referring to the company we were sitting in. It was an embryonic startup, and the primary need above all else was to get a product out to market and understand how it was accepted. Even if there were rough edges we would still learn the most valuable lessons around product/market fit, and time spent smoothing off those edges would have been time lost on those lessons.

But he could have been talking about any number of projects I’ve worked on. There is often (not always) an early stage where you just need to prove some basic ideas—that you can deploy it, that it’s what users need, that the technology basically works—and finer-grained work is just not that valuable.

Of course, some companies are mostly at the sandpaper stage. Their purpose is clear, their business model is pretty stable, their customers are reasonably well understood, and the next initiative is going to be launched into a relatively well-known environment. When it comes to the bell curve of success, there is a relatively narrow range of likely outcomes.

I liked the chisel-and-sandpaper analogy. I think it is a good way to think about—and potentially talk about—where we should be spending our effort and what we want to achieve.

Photo by Canada in Afghanistan / Canada en Afghanistan