How to Run a Lockdown


lockdown /ˈläkdoun/ n. Infrequent, timeboxed sprint during which an organization deprioritizes everything else to pivot focus toward a goal

Imagine yourself in these scenarios:

  • You’re a SaaS founder and another company in the industry just launched a formidable, competitive product. Your startup is under existential threat.

  • You’re the product manager for a hardware project that’s 18 months behind schedule. It risks getting delayed further because the team’s attention is split across other projects.

  • You’re the engineering director supporting an org that just experienced its fifth production outage this month. Customers are threatening to move elsewhere. Engineers are struggling to find time to reduce technical debt.

Stories like these are not common, but they exist. Moments of crisis are inevitable. When they hit, it’s imperative that people focus exclusively on the one thing that matters most. How do you make that happen?

The answer: declare a lockdown.

Hit a gong. Send an email. Schedule an all-hands meeting.

Where you declare a lockdown is less important than how you declare it. Specifically, observe the following rules:

  • Lockdowns should be infrequent – Lockdowns interrupt previously planned work. While the associated thrash is acceptable in rare circumstances, the overuse of lockdowns fatigues people over time.

  • Lockdowns should have clear exit criteria – State when the lockdown will end. This criteria can be either milestone-based (e.g. ship Project Foobar) or time-based (e.g. one month). When choosing the latter, state clearly what type of work people should focus on during that time.

After a lockdown begins, it’s important to emphasize:

  • People are not expected to work nights and weekends – Lockdowns are not about working longer hours. They’re about focus. Lockdowns give people license to say no to everything that doesn’t contribute toward the goal.

  • Where people can see progress against the goal – Publish this somewhere visible to everyone in the organization. Think dashboards, milestone trackers, countdown clocks.

When the exit criteria is met, celebrate! Recognize outstanding achievements. Make it special.

Then, it’s time to get back to work.

February 2022

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Ava Chan

Ava Chan

I'm a researcher at Utokyo :) and a big fan of Ava Max