Triple R: a new technique to accelerate your progress

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Published: January 2021

—includes a template you can use on any project

The following excerpt is from our in-house onboarding flow for new team members. We are publishing it as a series of articles, which we’re calling The Infinite Manager. The series describes the unconventional operating system that has enabled our small team to have such an impact on the web’s leading companies.
You can progress much faster if you increase the rate at which you explore avenues and abandon the dead ends. In this article, we describe a simple but incredibly powerful process we developed to do precisely that. We suspect it’s our most useful discovery to date. (We are slightly confused as to why it hasn’t been discovered before.)
Graphs showing the good and bad types of risk–time curve.
A project’s risk–time curve should look like a skateboard ramp—all of which we’ll explain below.

The RRR Process reframes projects in terms of risk and then identifies, scores, and prioritizes tasks that will give the highest risk-reduction rate (RRR)—a metric that, as we’ll show, is incredibly useful. The mere act of scoring tasks in terms of RRR reveals facepalm-level insights. The process takes just a few minutes for each project, yet it has accelerated progress rapidly in all areas of our business.

Please let us know what breakthroughs it reveals and how much time it saves you.

What you’ll get on this page

Why traditional project management often fails

Projects fall into two types:

  1. “Routine projects” are ones that are almost certain to succeed—perhaps because other people, or even you, have done the same thing before (like when a construction company builds its ten-thousandth house, or when McDonald’s opens up a new restaurant). Such projects tend to be procedural. Managing them is about handling logistics and juggling interrelated lists of tasks. They have little chance of failure, so this article doesn’t apply to them.
  2. Most projects are not certain to succeed. They either don’t finish, or they don’t produce the expected results. Often it’s because the team hasn’t done similar projects before (for example, when creating a new type of product, service, or company). Many of your company-improvement projects will be of this type, especially if you’re improving the company in ways that can’t simply be copied and pasted from elsewhere. The trick is to manage away all the risk, so you don’t waste time working on things that turn out to be failures. And failure is fractal: Even a project that eventually succeeds usually contains many hours wasted on dead ends. As you’ll see below, there’s a highly effective way to address risk, which traditional project management techniques overlook.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”—Thomas Edison

How the Wright Brothers tackled risk head-on

The book The Wright Way describes how the Wright Brothers minimized risk when they invented the world’s first motor-operated airplane.

The brothers used an approach the book calls Tackle The Tyrant—or Worst First. They were relatively confident they could get a plane into the air with enough power to keep it going. Of all the challenges they faced, they were least confident they could make the plane balanced and controlled so it wouldn’t crash. They, therefore, concluded that balance-and-control was their most likely obstacle, and they worked on it to the exclusion of everything else. Only once they had solved balance-and-control did they start working on the more-likely-to-work aspects of the project, like propulsion and power.

Tackle The Tyrant is all about doing the risky steps first, to get them out of the way. Because until you have completed the likely-to-fail tasks, any time spent on sure-to-succeed tasks might turn out to be wasted.

(Of course, for projects that are time-constrained rather than resource-constrained—like a pandemic vaccine—the right decision may be to work on tasks in parallel and accept the risk of waste.)

Introducing risk-reduction rate (RRR)

You might think that the best approach is therefore to prioritize your tasks, starting with the riskiest first. However, a one-hour task that reduces 30% of the risk is thousands of times more efficient than a one-month task that reduces 40% of the risk.

Therefore, you should prioritize tasks not in terms of the absolute amount of risk they’ll reduce but in terms of their risk-reduction rate (RRR) (the amount of risk they’ll reduce per hour or dollar you invest in doing them). Incidentally, we pronounce RRR “triple R” to save us from sounding like sea lions or laughing pirates.

By doing the highest RRR tasks first, you’ll be doing them in the order that will most rapidly reduce the project’s remaining risk, so the risk–time curve will look like a skateboard ramp instead of a cliff edge:

A graph of risk versus time for a project in which the risk decreases quickly at first and then slowly later.
Skateboard ramp: When you prioritize tasks in the order that they’ll most quickly reduce the project’s remaining risk, the project’s risk-time curve takes the form of a skateboard ramp. If the project is going to fail, you’ll find out early, so you don’t waste much time.
A graph risk versus time for a project in which the risk decreases slowly at first and then fast near the end.
Cliff edge: When the same tasks are prioritized with the safest first (which is a bad idea), they take the form of a cliff edge. Even when you’re near the end of the project, you still don’t know if it will succeed or whether all your effort will be wasted.

If a project is doomed to fail, the skateboard-ramp approach allows you to find out many times faster, so you can quickly move on to the next project (or avenue within a project). Over time, you’ll be able to cover much more ground with much less time wasted.

A knowledge of the above graphs should theoretically be enough to ensure you always front-load your riskiest tasks. But, unfortunately, psychological biases get in the way…

The “Wason task” reveals why people take the cliff-edge approach even when they know they shouldn’t

The following fun video explains Wason’s 2-4-6 Hypothesis Rule Discovery Task. Even if you already know about the Wason task, we recommend you watch the video now because it helps to internalize the message (to the point that we rewatch it whenever we feel our intuition slipping):

A still image from the video of Wason’s 2-4-6 Hypothesis Rule Discovery Task, showing three people talking.
Wason’s 2-4-6 Hypothesis Rule Discovery Task

Finished watching? (The following paragraph contains spoilers.)

The Wason task shows the power of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek information that supports one’s theories and beliefs. The people in the video try to prove their theories right, when they’d be better off trying to prove them wrong.

That’s the hard thing about projects. They require you to be optimistic, and you need to open-mindedly ideate ways to succeed. But, as confirmation bias shows, that same optimism can tempt you to focus on the parts of the project that are likely to work and to put off the parts that are likely to go wrong. It’s tempting to create the packaging for your new product (something that’s 100% certain to succeed) and procrastinate on the difficult problem of getting product–market fit.

Unfortunately, knowing about a psychological bias doesn’t stop you from being influenced by it. We have known about the Tackle The Tyrant approach for years, but that didn’t stop us from putting off the hard, risky activities and doing the likely-to-succeed tasks first. For example, we once spent over ten hours evaluating a software platform only to discover that we couldn’t use it because it didn’t support two-factor authentication (2FA)—something we could have checked in the first few minutes. The experience prompted us to create the following process, which acts as a forcing function to prioritize those tasks that most quickly reduce the risk.

The RRR ranking process: How to operationalize the skateboard-ramp approach

In the following example, we describe our process as applied to a hypothetical project to set up new software for a client. You are welcome to create a copy of this Google Sheet template when following the steps.

Step 1: List the reasons the project could fail

Imagine yourself at some point in the future reflecting on why the project failed or had major setbacks. List the most likely reasons in the form of failure statements, worded as if they had actually happened. For example,

Step 2: Write a risk-reduction task next to each failure statement

For each failure statement, write a risk-reduction task that will prove it false (or unavoidably true!) For example, for the failure statement “We didn’t use the software because it didn’t support two-factor authentication (2FA),” the risk-reduction task might be as simple as “Search the software’s website to see if it supports 2FA.”

Step 3: Score each row

Score each row using the following equation:

Risk Reduction Rate (RRR) = Dealbreakerness * Likelihood / Investment

where

Let’s return to the failure statement “We didn’t use the software because it didn’t support two-factor authentication (2FA).” We scored it as follows:

After carrying out the same scoring process for the other two failure statements, we ended up with the following table.

A screenshot of the Google Sheets template with the three examples in it
A screenshot of the Google Sheets template with the three examples in it.

Step 4: Try to identify tasks that would reduce the risk faster

By expressing the values explicitly, the process encourages you to challenge your assumptions and look for ways to reduce the risk. It’s hard to write “50 hours” next to a task without feeling compelled to consider whether there’s an alternative task that would overcome the risk in a tenth of the time (5 hours) or a hundredth of the time (30 minutes). Such tasks often exist, and they are usually easy to uncover.

Our next article will describe some of our favorite techniques for coming up with good risk-reduction tasks. (A/B testing is one of them: Before making a long-term policy decision about something, you try it for a week or so to see if it works.) If you’re on our email list, we’ll let you know as soon as the article is ready.

Step 5: Use the ranked list as your to-do list, and start with the highest RRR tasks

By doing the highest RRR tasks first, your project’s risk–investment curve will look like a skateboard ramp and not a cliff edge. Once the risky tasks are out of the way, you can proceed with the others (which may be so low-risk you didn’t even need to score them).

You can apply the RRR Process to subprojects and tasks

You can apply the RRR Process to projects of any size, from the largest ventures (like creating a company) to the smallest (like processing an individual job application).

Let’s consider the latter example.

You can accelerate your company’s hiring process by front-loading those activities that most rapidly (for you and the applicant) identify if a position will suit a particular applicant. For example, if the position absolutely requires the applicant to have a certain qualification (or skill or experience), and 80% of applicants don’t have it, then “Do you have [qualification/skill/experience]?” should be the first question on the application form. Then, if the applicant doesn’t have the qualification/skill/experience, you can make it clear to them immediately that it’s essential, to save them from wasting their time completing fifty more questions. By prioritizing your hiring questions using the RRR Process, you save everyone’s time.

Conclusion

The following three quotes are from Jeff Bezos:

“To invent, you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.”

“Our success at Amazon is a function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day.”

“If you double the number of experiments you do per year, you’re going to double your inventiveness.”

The RRR Process has rapidly increased the rate of innovation in all areas of our business, by front-loading the risk and minimizing the time we spend on dead-end projects.

Try it, and please let us know about the breakthroughs you get.

Appendix A: How to carry out the RRR Process in your task manager of choice

Rather than using the Google Sheets template, perhaps you’d prefer to manage your risk-reduction tasks in your usual project management or to-do list software. We use, and love, Google Docs.

Just paste the following text as a new to-do:

Priority (= Dealbreakerness * Likelihood / Investment): Failure statement: [insert statement]. Risk-reduction task: [insert task].

…and then populate the details and carry out the calculation manually. For example,

Finally, move each row up and down until the tasks with the largest RRR values are at the top:

Appendix B: A few more details about the graphs

You might find the following points interesting or helpful. On the graph of risk versus time invested,

A graph with the skateboard-ramp profile, the same as the one shown above, but with background colors to make it clearer when the risk is high (in red) or low (in green).
It can help to picture the graph in terms of bands of risk, and remember that you want to spend as little time as possible working in the high risk band.

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