Something is always more important - the trolley problem

Something is always more important

In the high-stakes world of startups, where resources are limited and the pressure is sky-high, the ability to prioritize effectively is not just a skill—it’s a survival tactic.

Imagine, if you will, a scenario straight out of the classic trolley problem: a runaway trolley is barreling down the tracks, and you’re at the switch.

On one track stands a single individual, and on the other, a group. You have a split second to decide: which track does the trolley take?

This ethical dilemma is a stark metaphor for the kinds of decisions startup founders face daily, albeit with less life-or-death consequences (hopefully).

The priority conundrum in startups

In the startup universe, every decision can feel like a trolley problem.

Should you focus on product development or market research? Hire more engineers or salespeople?

Each choice sacrifices something else.

The key is not to aim for a perfect decision but to make a well-informed one that aligns with your core objectives.

Agile thinking to the rescue

Agile thinking, a concept borrowed from software development, emphasizes adaptability and responsiveness. It’s about making decisions quickly, learning from feedback, and iterating.

Here’s how to apply it to prioritization:

  • Break down tasks: Instead of seeing decisions as monumental, break them down into smaller, manageable tasks. This makes it easier to adjust priorities as new information comes in.
  • Embrace flexibility: The startup world is volatile. What’s important today might not be tomorrow. Agile thinking requires an openness to change direction based on new insights or market shifts.
  • Feedback loops: Regularly seek feedback from your team, customers, and stakeholders. This input can help you reassess priorities and avoid sticking to a flawed plan out of stubbornness. Also read The power of quick feedback loops in design and innovation

Applying the trolley problem

The trolley problem teaches us that sometimes, there are no good options, only less harmful ones.

In startup terms, this might mean choosing between delaying a product launch or releasing with known bugs.

Neither is ideal, but one will likely align better with your long-term vision (e.g., maintaining customer trust might outweigh the need for an immediate launch).

Prioritization techniques for startups

  1. The Eisenhower Matrix: Categorize tasks by urgency and importance. Focus on what’s urgent and important first, but don’t neglect the important but not urgent tasks—they’re often key to long-term success.
  2. The Pareto Principle (80/20 rule): Often, 20% of your efforts will yield 80% of the results. Identify and focus on those high-impact activities.
  3. Minimum Viable Product (MVP): Determine the least you need to launch. This helps prioritize product features based on what’s absolutely necessary. Also read The pitfall of low-effort MVPs in innovation

In a world where “something is always more important than something else,” understanding how to prioritize effectively is critical.

By thinking agilely and applying principles from the trolley problem, startup founders can navigate the complex web of decisions they face, ensuring that when the tracks diverge, they’re prepared to pull the lever in the direction that best serves their vision.

Remember, in the relentless rush of startup life, prioritizing doesn’t just mean doing things right—it means doing the right things.