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Heads-up, Heads-down

Ryan Frederick | December 3rd, 2020

Strategy vs Production.

When I run or cycle, I find myself with my head down focused on the asphalt or concrete in front of me. I look up periodically to make sure I’m not going to run into anything or anyone, but for the most part I stay heads-down. Conversely, when I am doing other activities even some that are very similar like mountain biking and hiking, I keep my head-up most of the time. So, I started to think about why some activities for us are heads-down and why are some heads-up and why I think it matters to know the difference.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Just keep your head down.” It is often said in the context of grinding out a lot of work. Just keep your head down is shorthand for keep working hard, keep producing, and keep quiet. It represents a kind of machine-like quality. Keep your head down so you don’t get distracted by things you see, other people, and what is going on around you. The phrase and the sentiment probably come from a time when most people did production-oriented work and the more they kept their head down, the more they produced. “Just keep your head down” also has a connotation that doing so will keep you out of trouble. Focusing on the task at hand with your head down doesn’t allow for your attention to be swayed by opportunities that take away productivity or worse yet, to get into some sort of trouble.

I think there are other aspects to heads-down too. Activities and tasks that don’t come as naturally to us that require more focus and attention are more likely to be performed heads-down rather than heads-up. I’m not a great runner or road cyclist. They are both effort activities for me and I think that correlates why they are heads-down activities. My mind and body seem to know that these are activities that come with some effort and focus above the norm for me. So my mind and body conspire to overcome it by eliminating distractions and reducing my gaze to what is directly in front of me. It is pretty amazing actually. It happens without me having to think about it or to do anything physically to facilitate it. I just naturally run and cycle with my head down most of the time as a way for my mind and body to bring the focus that is required.

Activities that are heads-up come easier for me or at least I have evolved to be more comfortable doing them. Heads-up activities don’t mean they aren’t as challenging as heads-down ones though, as mountain biking is actually more difficult and dangerous than road cycling is for the most part.  When mountain biking there is seemingly a root, rock, or stump everywhere that is trying to knock you off the trail and bike, yet these obstacles draw my attention for a moment long enough to be acknowledged and then my focus shifts to what is coming further up the trail. So, I think I have found a significant distinction between heads-up and heads-down activities, well at least for me. Heads-up activities have a more strategic and future focus then heads-down activities. This is interesting because in both biking scenarios (road cycling and mountain biking) I am moving and headed somewhere beyond where I am, yet mountain biking requires your focus to be on where you’re headed because of the potential obstacles attempting to derail your path and journey, while road cycling has much fewer obstacles to contend with. Therefore, when I am road cycling, I can be less concerned about what is ahead and can therefore operate in a more heads-down mode focused on just turning the pedals at a consistent pace.

As I began to notice the heads-down and heads-up difference in some of my activities I started to think about how that relates professional activities and work. And the more I thought about it, the more I think the same factors are at play. Professionally, I think we can label heads-up work as strategic, thought based work and heads-down work as production-oriented work. I think this understanding and distinction is important to perform the differing work well and to know why you react the way you do to different kinds of work.

Founders who get too caught up in too much heads-down or heads-up work reduce the chances of their product and company being successful. Founders, probably even more than anyone else, need to find the balance between heads-down and heads-up work as everything for a new product and company is a balance between the now and the future. Too much focus on either tips the scale too far to one side which inhibits a startups ability to gain short-term traction toward long-term viability.

The problem and product are two keys areas of focus for Founders and startup teams, but they can also be areas in which Founders and startup teams get so engrossed they lose sight of the big picture. Thousands of products are being created right now by people who are heads-down cranking on the product without giving much thought to larger, strategic factors that might make it a less then worthwhile investment of time and energy. Being heads-down in creating a new product and company is needed during critical build periods where a focused effort on something is required in a very short period of time, but then Founders and startup teams have to lift their heads up. In fact, Founders and startup teams during intense building periods need to be poking their heads up periodically to make sure the end they are working toward hasn’t changed significantly or gone away entirely.

I’ve witnessed startups that were so focused on building the product, that the Founders and team lost complete sight of what and why they were building it in first place. Heads-down is great as long as it is balanced with a periodic heads-up perspective. I liken this to a prairie dog. Prairie dogs scurry around in a seemingly random and completely unfocused way but stop frequently to stand up and see what is happening around them. My guess is the scurrying isn’t as random as it appears, and their periodic heads-up time is a check of the larger environment around them in between times of being heads-down.

There may not be a harder heads-down and heads-up challenge than the one a Founder faces. If you don’t grind hard enough and fast enough on the product nothing else probably matters. Yet, if you grind away on the product with your head down for too long you will not be aware of changes to the problem, customers, competitors, or the market. Every Founder has to find the delicate balance between heads-down work on the product, pitch decks, company roadmaps, sales presentations, contracts, and more to make sure they understand how the heads-down work fits into the overall company plan so as to not lose sight of the destination while taking the journey.