If you see a snake, kill it


If you see a snake, just kill it – don’t appoint a committee on snakes.

– Ross Perot

Throughout my career I’ve followed this simple rule

  • If you get an email, respond to it
  • If you get a task, do it
  • If you get a call, answer it
  • If you see a social mention, respond to it
  • etc

To many times people sit there looking at something, or scheduling a meeting, when they can just simply, and quickly, complete the task. When you have 10’s, 100’s or more people doing this, your entire organization grinds to a halt, while more efficient and nimble competitors begin to run circles around you.

We scaled an organization to 100 people with phenomenal productivity, all delivered cost effectively. We produced over 30 software products and fixed more bugs per month than the next 4 competitors combined. We did this by relentlessly eliminating waste, waiting, meetings and other forms of sand in our gears to allow us to work efficiently and productively, at scale. Part of what I did was evangelize some simple concepts of prioritization, personified by the quote above about killing a snake.

Shoot first, ask questions later

We were in a training exercise in the Army, some years back. I was the patrol leader and the mission was to move from Point A to Point B. We encountered an enemy patrol, and as I spotted them through the woods, I immediately raised my rifle and began shooting (blanks). The instructors whistled the excercise complete and gave me, as the exercise leader, the highest rating.

They explained that what I did was exactly what they want infantry leaders to do. When you see the enemy, in such situations, don’t think, wait, plan, analyze – just be aggressive and decisive … and attack. They said 9/10 of new leaders stand there looking around, wondering what to do. In most cases, the enemy has time to spot them and seizes the initiative

I didn’t stop, wait, set up a meeting on how to deal with the situation; I killed the snake. In life, it is often the same way, particularly for small tasks. When you encounter them, quickly and decisively deal with them so they don’t pile up. It seems simple but most people don’t do this and it drives me nuts

Lockwood rule

It shouldn’t take more time to discuss a task than to do it – Brian Lockwood

If it takes more time to discuss something than do it, it may indicate that a task of such short-duration, should just be completed, not discussed

Empower people

The people closest to the problem are the best ones to solve it. So empower your people to make decisions (and mistakes) so they can take action to complete tasks without having to discuss them, get approval etc. If you need 3 levels of approval to sharpen a pencil, then your organization is going to calcify. Again, this seems intuitive but many organizations are simply too hierarchical to allow people to work at any level of independence and velocity.

5 minute rule

I’ve never spend a lot of time detoxing my email inbox. It is amazing how clean you can keep it if you respond to many short and simple requests quickly.

Respond to everything in 5 minutes. Not 15 minutes or 30, not in a couple of hours, but now. I used to get emails from customers and have a response out sometimes sub-minute. The responses were amazing

Want to elicit a positive reaction from a potential customer? Respond to their email in less than a minute

In addition to great customer satisfaction, the 5 minute rule is really efficient. By responding to, and closing out a lot of emails, you simply have less to manage.

The biggest advantage is that when you respond to things immediately, you don’t forget them. 99% of the time, when people drop an email, the excuse is “I forgot to reply”. Then they forgot to prioritize it, flag it etc. Why not just respond to the damn email so you don’t have to worry about it?

Most of our emails were customer facing. If you are using email for an internal communication system, I’d encourage you to catch up with the times and implement an internal discussion forum like Slack that is more opt in and less intrusive. You can have email forwarding, but I strongly discouraged that

1 hour rule

Often you can’t create a thorough answer in 5 minutes, so we had the 1 hour rule that stipulated all requests, internal and external, should be addressed fully in 1 hour. You should still respond in 5 minutes, but you can set expectations that a more detailed email will be forthcoming in an hour or less. If you couldn’t resolve or respond in an hour, reply in 1 hour anyway to set expectations of when you would be able to.

Imagine if you had a task that had to flow through 5 people, or 10. Now consider that each person was allowed to sit on that task for a few hours, up to a day or two before replying. Now compare that to a task that flows through 5 people with the 1 hour rule. In the former, even the simplest, multi-stakeholder task would take weeks to complete. In the latter, it could often get done in a single day

Email abuse

These rules can fail under the assault of too many emails. That is why I spent the last 5 years of my time in my company fighting back against email.

First, I strongly discouraged anyone from sending me emails. If you sent me an email, you would be introduced to a level of pain that would discourage you from doing so again

Was I unapproachable? No, I was on our discussion forums 16 hours a day engaging in a variety of conversations, but I did not like getting emails. I don’t think emails are effective or helpful for internal communication

We reserved emails for customer facing interactions and really important things like certain memos, communicating about big problems etc.

Enter bureaucracy

I think the definition of bureaucracy is when additional rules and regulations starts to make your organization less efficient instead of more. If there are 50 rules related to how you interact with a customer that elongates your response time or even results in some correspondence not being responded to at all, then that is a sign that you perhaps once agile and responsive organization has begun to calcify. Any rule that prevents me from doing any of the things I mentioned at the top e.g. responding to an email immediately, is counter-productive in the context of customer experience and general productivity and should be revised or removed. Otherwise, you will have more rules and fewer customers.

Use case

I once sat down with an employee who seemed to have a hard time completing tasks. I asked her to show me a a list of all the things she was working on.

  • Respond to this
  • Forward this
  • Delete that
  • etc

In 5 minutes, we had totally reduced her backlog simply by triaging some tasks – completing the important ones and deleting some others, responding to some emails and forwarding some tasks to others so they could work on them. This person had become a big backlog in our organization, but we were able to quickly break through it just by decisively dealing with her tasks, vs sitting there looking at them all day


Your inbox is filled with snakes. Don’t sit there looking at them. Don’t waste everyone’s time setting up meetings to discuss them. Take the self-initiative to kill them and get on to your next tasks

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