The story of Mike Flint

Mike Flint was Warren Buffett’s personal airplane pilot for 10 years. (Flint has also flown four US Presidents, so I think we can safely say he is good at his job.) According to Flint, he was talking about his career priorities with Buffett when his boss asked the pilot to go through a 3-step exercise.

Here’s how it works…

STEP 1: Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. (Note: you could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline. For example, write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)

STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.

Note: If you’re following along at home, pause right now and do these first two steps before moving on to Step 3.

STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.

Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”

Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
James Clear here.

For me, this story articulates one of the challenges with the Agile approach to OSS. There are generally many, many little items being inserted into a backlog, possibly even many, many Epics being created. Sure, the highest priority activities will lend to rise in the list of priorities but is it the prioritisation of the minutae instead of the big wins?

Do we take the “avoid at all costs” approach to anything that isn’t in the top 5? There are always lots of little tweaks that can be done to our OSS that give us a sense of accomplishment when cleared from the backlog. They may even make the lives easier for some of the OSS operators. But are they contributing to the most important obstacles facing our organisations?

Can we learn from the Mike Flint story when setting OSS development priorities?

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