Everything’s breaking everywhere all at once

Something went wrong somewhere. You didn’t manifest this in a single one of your daily pages. You’re tired of fixing, and just want to build.

Jessica Zwaan
6 min readApr 25, 2024

Years ago you were intrinsically motivated to create; move fast and break things; have impact! You woke up and bounced towards the office ready for a big day of making things. Making progress. Finishing. “And I did make progress, I did finish things,” you think to yourself… you built that OKR system that Chaos Corp used for both Q2 and Q3 of 2016. And what about the report infrastructure that you’re almost certain they still used in the EMEA leadership team meetings? The CPO said it was a “Game Changer” back in the summer of 2018!

But over time, something feels like it’s changed…

Today, you’re sitting at your desk, bug-fixing broken Import Ranges on Goal Trackers and day dreaming about a future where people will finally read your comment on Cell A1:A200 (ALL CAPS, FLURO YELLOW) “ 👉PLEASE DO NOT EDIT THIS SHEET DIRECTLY 👈”. But they don’t, naturally, and those beloved colleagues of yours type new data into Cell B45 every week when they should know by now that it breaks the whole house of cards of reporting. 🙃

You catch yourself imagining the day you open a cafe. A nice, calm cafe on the beach somewhere in Central Queensland, Australia. Maybe near Keppel Island. You went there once years — decades! — before you ever knew what a VLookup was, and sitting on your saddle chair in your ergonomic home office, you pine for the simple life where you can bend over a coffee machine and bake Victoria Sponge for grateful customers. No one can break a cake once you’ve baked it, you decide. They just come and eat them, happily. I’ll never have to fix anything I’ve ever made again.

Me, more often than I’d like to admit.

But work doesn’t work like that, because work is just fixing.

Shakeshack is probably not the place we expected to take philosophical musings, but Danny Meyer has built an empire and shared some pretty powerful lessons that transcend hospitality, and we’re in end-times Capitalism so nothing surprises me anymore. In his book Setting the Table, Meyer shares a lesson he learned as he struggled to get his team to meet his standards:

Meyer complained to his mentor, Pat Cetta, about his struggle to convey a consistent message to staff about what he expected from them. They kept pushing his boundaries, circumventing his expectations, driving him to frustration.

Cetta pointed to a set table. “First,” he said, “I want you to take everything off that table except for the saltshaker. […] I just want you to leave the saltshaker by itself in the middle.” So, Meyer did as he asked, “Where is the saltshaker now?” “Right where you told me, in the center of the table.”

Cetta pushed the saltshaker a couple of inches off center. “Now put it back where you want it,” he said.

Meyer moved it back.

Cetta moved it again, this time further off centre,“Now where do you want it?”

Meyer (probably getting pretty miffed by this point let’s be honest) moved it back again. Cetta finally explained,

“Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off-center. That’s their job. It is the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: that’s what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like to you.”

If you’ll permit me to get a little more esoteric… the film Everything Everywhere All At Once suggests that what makes life meaningful is the recognition that because there is no inherent meaning, all things and moments are equally meaningful. The same is true in the work we do. Because there is no finished product to truly garner satisfaction from, we must find it in the fixing, the chaos, the change. If we don’t, if we — instead — long for the day where our spreadsheets are done and our tasks are fully automated (just one more workflow tool, I promise) you’ll finally be in the promised land. ✨Work Nirvana, baby.✨

Look, maybe your dream really is making cakes by the ocean (it sounds pretty good tbh), but no matter where you go, someone is going to be breaking what you build, testing your standards, changing your work. Whether it’s setting a table, breaking an Import Range, or asking “do we really need this in the agenda?” That’s work. You write a book, someone wants to review it, your publisher wants a new edition, the times change. It’s just what progress looks like, as tedious as it seems.

Learning the tools of your trade, whether it’s Data or Recruitment or Finance, requires a set of predetermined learning that is often fairly prescriptive at a point in time. Google Sheets, SQL, Boolean Searching.

Learning how to work is different. There is no consistent syllabus on“how to create together and work with others.” We know and accept that Getting It (TM) comes with experience, and often with frustration. No one ever sits you down at school or university and tells you plainly that, unfortunately, this SQL you spent 10 hours on will deprecate. The candidates you find will be posted to a job whose description inevitably changes. The team you build will start asking for something new, unpredicted, off course. Oh yes, sure — people will probably use the things you build, but in using them — they’ll break them. And, invariably, it’s your job to put things back as they were; sometimes brand new, sometimes better, sometimes just the same as before.

I did it, I finally finished everything ever

It’s an interesting lesson in Operations. We tend to be the kind of people who find intellectual stimulation in the grey area, but true satisfaction in completion (or the idea of it at least). We want to launch effective tools, complete the big migration, finally (finally!) nail those god-damned OKRs. But in being the kind of person who is drawn towards Operations, we are frustrated by the nature of the work when it bumps into reality.

I’ve mentored so many incredibly talented people who have explained their biggest frustrations come from their team not using their systems properly, disrupting the roll out, upending the sheet. We spend so much time focussed on how to influence people to embrace what we build that we forget sometimes (I think) that a full embrace results in an inevitable splinter.

I usually try to finish my blogs with some handy take away, something practical you can use day-to-day to change your work, but maybe today I’m just trying to help us (and myself!) change our minds. What can we do to see that when our teams use things, and use them well, and probably love them, that they’ll break them — and we’ll have an exciting list of new work to get stuck into.

Ok that’s all from me, folks. 👋

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I talk plenty more about this way of working, and how to use product management methodologies day-to-day, I’ve been told it’s a good read, but I’m never quite sure.

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Me and my cat, looking professional



Jessica Zwaan

G’day. 🐨 I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do.