The Problem Upgrade Chart

We measure our self-worth with problems going away. But what if they don't?

It’s hard working in a fast growing company. It often feels like everything is moving 10x faster than you are used to and it takes time to learn how to feel comfortable and productive.

Given this, it’s no surprise that one of the most common questions from leaders in those companies is how to manage the stress when there’s always too much to do?

First and foremost, it’s a mindset change. Reframe it as problems upgrading, but most don’t go away. It sounds easier to say than to do. Our human bias gets in the way.

From childhood we are trained to see work result in problems diminishing over time. You finish your assignment, and it’s done. You complete your course, you finish a sports match. Life is about finishing, checking items off your list. And when the list never gets smaller we see it as a lack of progress. Many feel this as failure and it’s baked into us.

The Agile development process is the worst for this as the coveted “burn down” chart is what you use to see if you’re doing a good job as a team. You equate progress with “less story points”.

You measure your self-worth with problems going away.

But in high growth companies, problems never go away. If every year you have 100 problems in your company. With the product, people, processes, every single year you will still have 100 problems left. Every year, 100 problems. And those that are fixed are replaced immediately.

If most problems never go away year by year, you have to measure progress differently. It will require building an entire new mental model for progress. Throw out burn down charts completely. This sounds simple, but it’s the number one reason why most people can’t handle hyper growth.

Say hello to the “problem upgrade chart”. Burn this into your mind. It will save you.

Yearly progress is when 5-15% of your problems are replaced by new ones. Remember, you will always have 100 problems.


Why will this save you? Because your entire self-worth is based on a bad mental model. If you can start seeing problem upgrading vs problem disappearing you will learn to see progress.

And progress is the fuel for our work.

The hard part is that you can’t log into Jira and see a problem upgrade chart. So you have to build some ways to see your company with this lens without a tool.

Write down a problem list at the start of the year, things that really piss you off.

Every year review that list and if you can cross out 10-15% of the items, you’re killing it! Pop open the champagne, have a progress dance, and be super happy!

Then start sharing this mindset with your colleagues.

You can also find out during the interview process if people have a burn down or problem upgrade mindset. As them what problems they had in previous companies or teams and how they measured progress as a team.

This isn’t about having rose coloured glasses. It’s possible to be too optimistic and gloss over all the broken things around you. That’s not what the problem upgrade mindset is about. It’s about not measuring the net number of problems, but the uniqueness of them.

There are a lot of people around you who are devout pessimists that will drag you down. It’s really hard to stay positive in a sea of burndown zealots. And it’s hard to change someone who is driven by burndowns.

But keep pushing. You’ve got this! It’s an absolute honour being in a growing company.

While this is an engineering leadership book, this first chapter is for everyone on your team and company. If you can’t see progress, it’s hard to make progress on anything.

The problem upgrade chart and mindset will make it fun in addition to being an honour. This has been my secret to not burning out over the years working in high growth teams and companies.