Feb 1, 2024 - Business

Axios Finish Line: Perils of pretend work

Animated illustration of an 8-bit cartoon dreaming.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Slack, told me the most searing lesson he learned starting a unicorn business is the seeping insidiousness of growing staff so fast that it creates mounds of make-believe, make-work, Jim VandeHei writes.

  • He calls it "hyper-realistic, work-like activities."

Why it matters: Most leaders and managers always want more — more staff, more budget. But more staff and budget beget more work. This can quickly create work just to fill time — and not fulfill critical work needs.

I preach this same gospel to any startup founder or current leader:

  • Resist the temptation to assume you need more people. Instead, try to shrink your focus and remain as small as possible as long as possible so you can maximize your output.

Rarely do managers ask for fewer people or less money. The default human instinct is to assume your power and output expand exponentially with more bodies and dollars. Sometimes, that's true. Often, it's not.

  • Instead, you increase complexity, personnel headaches and the spread of "hyper-realistic, work-like activities." And decrease velocity and creativity.

This is particularly true if you run a venture-funded startup where you're pestered for faster growth. It's hard to keep the discipline of slow, smart hiring when others want fast action.

  • Some of my biggest regrets are getting too heavy too fast in some areas.

So how can all of us, whether in leadership or starting a new job, avoid the trap of creating or spreading make-work of little or no value?

1. What matters most! Be ruthless about making sure you're doing the most meaningful things in the most efficient ways. Most people simply do what they're told without asking questions. That's dumb. Start with a smart question: What can I do that will make the biggest difference today?

2. Stop doing "stuff." Workplaces are littered with stuff — the stuff people do out of personal or institutional habit. It's work stuff — but it's pretend work if it's not needed. Constantly ask yourself and others if there are things you can simply stop doing ... so you can start doing the essential things.

3. Stop being selfish. It's selfish not to think through the work you create by the work that you do. Imagine you are guilty as charged: You're doing a make-believe, make-work task. Think of all the time others are wasting responding to you, or meeting with you, or wasting time doing their own make-work now.

  • "At a big-enough organization, you have people who are contributing almost nothing — but using up like a factor of 10x other people's time," Butterfield said. "They're coming to work for 40 hours a week — and they're using up 400 hours of other people's time with stuff."

4. Be a minimalist maximalist. Looking at it as CEO, I want people to narrow their focus to the most important things to produce maximal results.

  • They should have a bias toward instant action and a this-can-be-done-with-what-we-have mentality. This produces magical results at work — and in our own lives.

This article appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

Go deeper