All-context controls

Way back when, a tweet from Tiago Forte stuck in my mind (alas, I can’t find it right now). It talked of “critical controls”. He definitely listed four:

  • TIME

He may have listed five and included…


I added a sixth…


Because of my forays into product management, some reading around project management, and a general desire to begin navigating this reality more effectively, I’ve been thinking about these “critical controls” more. First, what makes them “critical”? Second, how exactly do they fail? Third, how can knowledge of these controls be used?

Before I answer, some clarification: Time is self-explanatory, as is Actions. Knowledge can be implicit or explicit, individual or collective. Output I count as an increment of a body of work, as a verifiable piece of evidence, something “done”. Communication is varied: public or private, synchronous or asynchronous, one-to-one or one-to-many. Security is also varied: it can mean access to important assets or storage and backup of important information. Additionally, it cuts across the digital and physical realms.

First Q: what makes these six items critical?

I believe that it is that they cannot be permitted to fail. Regardless of your context, letting control of your time, actions, knowledge, output, communication or security slide ends badly. It doesn’t necessarily end life, but it certainly makes it harder.

Second Q: how do they fail?

Each of the six items can slide one of two ways, with one being more common than the other. Imagine a spectrum of control. Somewhere after its start point is “maintain”. Somewhere before its endpoint is “optimise”. Somewhere between these two points is “measure/manage”. Bad stuff happens when these controls fall below the “maintain” marker and go past “optimise” into the realm of over-optimisation.

Insisting on using an end-to-end encryption communication app like Signal is no use when none of your friends care about encryption and won’t download it. It’s possible to spend so much time engineering your digital garden’s infrastructure that you forgot to plant new things, prune the old and water what you already have. Refusing to manage the increasing spiral of responsibilities that comes with age and experience will harm not only yourself, but others around you too.

Third Q: how can knowledge of these controls be used?

The obvious way to use them is pragmatically. Implemented as part of a weekly review (or monthly, or annual review) these controls can greatly enhance our efficiency and effectiveness. It is this context in which they re-entered my mind recently. Every product and project management framework seems to be concerned with at least one of them, and having them in mind has lowered respective learning curves in several instances.

However, there’s a less obvious way to use them: as generators of questions. The questions could be abstract and generic (“Am I making the most of my time?” or “How is my perception of time as a concept determining my usage of it?”) but they can also be high-resolution and granular. Thinly-sliced, in Agile terms. “Why did it take me four hours to write a memo on Thursday afternoon?” for example.

And while we’re here, talking of questions, I think it’s worth mentioning that the four-point Agile Manifesto…

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
Working software over comprehensive documentation.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Responding to change over following a plan.”

…can serve as a generator of answers. Of course, there are others but that’s what’s top of my mind right now.