Getting your goals right

January is typically the month where a lot of us set new and often ambitious goals for ourselves. And the coming weeks are typically the ones where we once again fail miserably in achieving them.

Maintaining and working hard towards a goal – especially a big hairy one – is really hard and takes an awful amount of discipline.

None of us are super disciplined 100 % of the time, and thus it makes sense to conclude that the more goals, you add to your list, the bigger the chances are that you won’t reach them. Maybe even none of them.

If we take that to be true, how come we seem to always add new goals to our lists at work? How come we have a tendency to add so many goals across one or more teams that sometimes it seems like we spend a lot more time managing and reporting on goals than we do on actually working towards achieving them?

Part of the reason for that is probably that we use the different frameworks for setting and managing goals in ways that are not really productive. We adapt frameworks built for other purposes and apply them across our teams as a ‘one size fits all’-thing that ultimately don’t fit anyone particular well. But causes a lot of frustration in the process.

So of course the good question is what to do about this and apply a way of working with goals that actually works by setting direction but not bogging you down in micro-management, lack of discipline and ultimate loss of motivation?

An initial step could very well be to just realize that goals are in the same way are not meant for everyone. That for instance it doesn’t make sense to apply an OKR approach through the entire organization, if some different way of setting and meeting goals work better in sales than it does in customer support or engineering.

With that in mind allow me to outline a suggested approach. From the bottom and upwards:

On the operational level it makes a ton of sense to look at the different disciplines as essentially part of an organism that has a firm rhythm. Almost like a heartbeat really.

When you look fx at sales there are established simple frameworks for setting goals and managing performance when it comes to everything from time from lead to closing to average deal size and more.

There is absolutely no reason to work with anything but the established standards there and in other areas of your business, where standards apply, as you want to ensure that the people in your team who is on point to deliver work towards types of goals that they know and recognize, and which ultimately frees up as much time as possible for their core tasks: Closing deals, managing support tickets, deploy new features etc.

It would probably be quite easy from a senior management point of view to apply different approaches and then cascade the metrics upwards towards a simple ’rhythm of the business’-scorecard, you can use to keep track of how the operation is ticking along, and which allows you to step in and do an intervention, of you can start to see anomalies in the rhythm. That would actually be quite effective.

Because the operational versus development aspect does play a key role in getting this right; you want to keep operational issues operational, and you want those operational issues that require an effort to optimize and fix going forward to feed into the development cycle and how you look at things for the longer term.

The development cycle is not only related to engineering and new features. It is also related to the overall development of your business. Put bluntly there is no reason you should bother your team members with issues of future strategic importance, if it takes away from their ability to focus on getting the job, they need to do today, done.

Thus the overall strategic objectives of your business should only be of primary concern to the senior management team or the founders. And this is where it makes sense to look at frameworks such as the OKR model.

The OKR model great for stating an objective and identify some key results that you need to achieve in order to meet that objective – like a guideline for reaching the goal with a few built-in sanity checks. But it should be restricted to big picture issues, as it’s terrible for micro-management.

Setting your OKR objectives also takes some skill in ensuring that you set just the right number. You should always have more than one, but you should probably not have more than 3 across the business. Because if you have more, you’re just adding on to your list, you loose track and motivation, and you likely won’t achieve the goals.

You should also not set goals that are too far out in the horizon. One of the big reasons people give up on their goals is because the time to experience success is way too long. You thus need to break up the objectives in smaller bite sizes and work to meet them one at a time.

A simple approach could be to define your objective for the next 12 months and then look at the key results needed to get there. Define those and break them down into smaller short-term objectives that can be the only ones, you put up on a board and work towards in fx a quarter.

That will help make your overall business goals smaller, ambitious but achievable and – crucially – point in the right strategic direction. When you then add the key results to achieve these minor short-term objectives, you should look to set and integrate the standard KPI’s from your various teams in order to ensure that everybody in your teams are working towards the same overall common goal – but without adding work streams, processes and reporting for them to the mix.

This is just a suggestion on how you could do it. The point is that while goals are important to have, it’s more important to have goals and a way or working with them that is actually operationally viable and don’t have a detrimental effect on efficiency, focus and ultimately morale.

(Photo by Rhett Lewis on Unsplash)

The deceitful stories

The jury came back on Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos infamy yesterday in the landmark case against her; guilty on four fraud accounts. What that will translate to in terms of sentencing remains to be seen, and it’s more than likely that Holmes will appeal.

Nevertheless: Guilty.

The really great question now is whether the Theranos case and Elizabeth Holmes was a lonely swallow or if something more like a structural problem is afoot?

While there can be little doubt that the Theranos case based on its scale and tactics used is a land mark one, I would argue that some of the fundamentals that drove Holmes to where she landed herself and the company, is in play in many more places that you would probably think.

I.e. we have a structural problem on our hands. And one that is probably enforced by the speed of development and the somewhat easy access to cheap capital.

So what do I mean by that?

Two things.

The first issue is the outsized influence of storytelling on valuations of startups and even bigger corporations. As an (semi) old communications professional I should probably take great comfort in the role a great story plays for the valuation of a company:

You really can fake it until you make it by using the right words. And boost your valuation and overall attractiveness to customers and investors in the process.

Brilliant.

Case in point?

Tesla.

Elon Musk is not in the business of manufacturing electric vehicles. He and Tesla is in the business of fighting climate change.

Notice the difference? It’s staggering. Not only to the total addressable market. But also to the valuation.

And due to the storytelling and investors believing in the story (and the founder myth associated with that particular founder and company) the valuation of the company when compared to the business fundamentals is about as far off the ground as the distance from Earth to Mars.

Tesla is perhaps just the biggest and most valuable example of using storytelling and words to grow your valuation, but most of the startups, I meet do it.

The stellar ones connect the story brilliantly to the problem they are trying to solve with the product, they’re building.

Most of them don’t have the product yet and are in the ‘believe me and take my words for it!’ category which is seldom that compelling.

The worst ones make so little sense, it’s painful to listen to and really just helps to enforce the point that inflated storytelling is something we need to be mindful of and skeptical about as investors (and customers for that matter).

It turns out, you really can have too much of a good thing.

The second – and potentially more serious – issue is a consequence and side effect of the first one:

The fabled customized KPIs.

Customized KPIs are typically what happens when a startup feels a need to come up with a new measurement that (1) takes into account all the things, you want to showcase, while (2) trying at the same time to hide those things that will have people asking questions about how your business is really doing.

The classic example is WeWork, who came up with “community adjusted EBITDA” as a public metric in their prospectus. An ingenious invention that would basically allow the ambitious co-working space giant to report earnings as pure profit without accounting for much of the cost.

Obviously a deeply flawed approach. Which they – quite rightly – got flamed for.

Customized KPIs are toxic because they are an unholy mix of two potent weapons; storytelling and data. While each can and most often serve good in their own right, the combination can be lethal. Especially as it is usually only brought to light, when a startup has a clear interest in getting a story out while camouflaging it as data.

In that way customized KPIs essentially becomes the most deceitful of all; it takes the most positive spin on a story, it can find, and it makes it look like solid data.

While too much storytelling in itself may raise an eyebrow, customized KPIs should make every serious investor stop in their tracks, look hard and think again about what is really going on inside the startup in question.

Because why have the need for the masquerade?

Sadly – and this is the real point – that doesn’t happen as much as it should.

Instead the endless hype based on the great storytelling and the impressing numbers coming from customized KPIs run the risk of misleading investors to think that they really are on to ‘the next big thing’, and that they better close the deal, before someone else does it and the opportunity is missed.

There simply isn’t allotted the right amount of time and pause to step back, think, ask questions and get to the right conclusion.

And that – ultimately – is exactly why despite all the talk about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes being a unique case that will never happen again, I am absolutely confident, we will do so again. And again.

The only questions are: What will it be next time? How much will it cost? And what will the fallout from it be?

(Photo by Diane Picchiottino on Unsplash)

Happy New Year

First of all: Happy New Year! I hope you bade 2021 a proper farewell and are ready to take on 2022 with everything it has to offer.

Change often accompanies a new year. And with this blog it’s the same thing. So let me in the shortest possible terms try to outline what my ambitions are for my writing here on this blog in the year ahead:

I will try to write more thoughtful posts. They will probably tend to be longer. And be published less frequently.

Writing is a matter of personal therapy for me. I use my writing to digest things, I find interesting and often also to ponder things.

But what I have found in the past is that my writing has tended to be more about bits and pieces I find interesting in the moment and less about pondering about something really important.

I want to change that.

Going forward I will be using this blog to ponder more and share less. The sharing I will do, I will be doing through my LinkedIn and (perhaps) my Twitter account.

This space will be more about the things I struggle with getting my head around and/or foundational things I find truly important and utterly believe in.

More unfiltered. Less cluttered.

That’s my ambition. Please feel free to hold me accountable for living up to it. Accountability also helps my thought process.

(Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash)

Customer check-in

One thing I find very fascinating is that for a lot of startups there seems to be an almost inverse relationship between the energy put into acquiring and onboarding customers versus the energy put into keeping them as happy customers for the long term.

Of course most startups do customer satisfaction surveys, NPS scores etc, but how often do you actually reach out to some of your customers to engage in a real conversation about how it’s going, how they use your product and what challenges they are experiencing?

Thought so.

The challenge tends to become more complex the more you’re driven by SaaS-metrics like MRR and ARR. Yes, it is vital that you understand these, but what difference will it make, if in essence you have very little understanding of what is going on behind the scenes, in the heads and minds of your customers?

One of many reasons that Amazon has become so extremely successful over the years is that they have always been extremely customer obsessed. They have always been looking towards understanding the customer, the journey and experience better and better in order to develop their many offerings.

And they have been remarkably successful to say the least.

You will most probably not be the next Amazon, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t steal a page our of their playbook and become totally customer obsessed.

Lesson one in that course is to start treating an existing customer and the relationship you have and want to expand with that one over time with the same amount of energy, you put into acquiring new customers.

(Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash)

Tracking progress

As a former business manager at Microsoft, I am almost bred up on KPI’s, metrics, tracking progress and so forth. Sometimes even to the extend where I have a hard time understanding, why it is a more alien concept to many. Including some startups.

The way I usually frame it is that you cannot play football, if you don’t have goal posts that help you decide, when you have scored the winning goal. Or any goal for that matter. If you don’t have goals, you’re just kicking around, and while that can be nice exercise too, it’s kind of hard to measure who’s winning and who’s losing.

So, if we accept that being able to set goals and track progress can be helpful, how do you go about it in a way that doesn’t kill you in bureaucracy.

This is where I actually back in the day got a great tip from my colleague at Berlingske Media, CFO Peter Nordgaard. He had a very simple way of looking at things and how to determine real performance that goes something like this:

You basically have 3 things you’re looking at in a traffic light perspective to set goals and track progress:

First you look a the market and the macro economic climate. What’s your assumptions related to overall growth in the economy YoY. Make that your target.

Then you look at the competition in the market. What’s your target market looking like? How much is it growing? Make that your first target? How much share are your most important competitors looking to grow? Make that your second target (and in effect your pre-dominant benchmark).

Finally, look at yourself. Given your assumptions about the economy, the market and the competition, how do you think you yourself is going to do? How much is you going to grow? What does that mean in terms of products shipped, sold, used or whatever your Northstar metric is?

Does your Northstar metric make sense in the light of all of the above (aka is it still valid as the most important single denominator in determining your progress)? If yes, good. Keep it. If no, come up with one that is.

Now you essentially have a Northstar metric and three sets of simple KPI’s you can track in order to determine your progress. And this is where it gets interesting:

If you end up short but the economy and the market has exceeded expectations, you will know that the buck stops with you. On the other hand: If you have done better than expected for the economy and the market, you have really put in a stellar performance.

While that in itself is super simple, it does another thing that is really great: It eliminates any doubt as to what should be the focus of your review and discussion about what to do going forward.

Because if it is your own performance that is sub-par, it will be evident, and you don’t have the need to come up with silly excuses. You can address the real problem. And move on from it.

So think about this super efficient approach the next time, you’re discussing KPI’s and ways to track your progress. We’re not too far off the start of a new year, so this might actually be as good a time as any.

(Photo by Tolga Ulkan on Unsplash)

Differentiation through humanity

In a world where more and more can be automated, run and optimized by algorithms, how do you develop true differention?

My bet?

Humans. And the human intellect.

As more and more gets automated and in essence standardized, human flavour, feel or whatever we choose to call it, will in essence be one of the most important if not the only true differentiator.

Your unique feel will be what separates you from everybody else you’re competing against.

That’s a good thing, I think. Not only will it allow us to focus more on how we deliver that value that is above and beyond what everybody else and their automated solutions can do. It will also provide us with a sense of purpose, fulfillment and joy, which I think is essential for us as a species to thrive.

So let this be a note to those who fear that machines are taking over:

Humans, being human and humanity as such will only gain in importance going forward.

(Photo by Erik Dungan on Unsplash)

Are you interesting?

There is a lot of talk about the effectiveness of content marketing for startups. And while I don’t doubt that it has some effect for some, I am firmly in the camp where I would advice anyone to up their game significantly, if they want to do content.

Because there is som much ‘blah’ put there that’s just not interesting at all.

Compare it to a party, where you meet someone you have never met before. You talk casually.

What’s the most interesting conversation?

The one where the guy across from you just babble on in banal terms without even making the slightest effort to understand whether you’re interested or even paying attention.

Or the one who actually engages in a conversation, brings new perspectives to something you care about or at the very least can relate to and leave you wiser and eager to know more?

Of course you would choose the latter one.

And that’s my point:

Content marketing is the first one. Thinly disguised as being ‘customer centric’ it is essentially about the sender and demonstrates a lack of understanding and/or real interest in who you are and what challenges you are facing. Basically, it doesn’t care.

The latter one is content where you from an angle of curiosity explore the field, you’re working in making sure that you bring fresh perspectives to your field and basically is worth the time and investment for others to follow and engage with.

That kind of content doesn’t need to be hard to produce. It just takes someone who knows what he or she is talking about and with a willingness to write about it from time to time and a openness towards getting it out there and potentially get some interesting feedback.

It’s an approach that doesn’t fit very well with outsourcing to an agency, because it takes knowledge, real insights and – crucially – the authenticity and presence that you can only bring to the table, when the one putting the content out there is deeply immersed into the field herself – day in, day out.

That’s what will make it interesting and worth following. And that is what could be a great and efficient building block for building and nurturing relationships.

If you can go that route, you have a number of potential advantages looking at you compared to your competitors, who stick with the old, ineffective content marketing playbook:

You can essentially become a real thought leader. You can get valuable feedback from customers and other constituents that can have an impact on your business. And ultimately you can drive new leads to the business that will both be worth significantly more over time from a commercial point of view but will also be way cheaper to connect with than other means of advertising.

Because all it takes is essentially your insights, willingness to share and openness towards connecting.

(Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

The ‘Worldview’ biz model

Yesterday we held local elections in Denmark. Always a super exciting day where people come out to vote on the issues that matter the most in their everyday lives.

While ideology seldom gets a lot of room in the local election campaigns, the ingredients are still there to pit people against eachother in order to force a result and ultimately the way things will be run locally going forward.

So it matters what your message is, how you word it, the level of nuance (or the lack of it), how you get it out, and how you build a loyal following enough to stick at least until the fateful vote is cast on election day.

It’s essentially about your local ‘Worldview’ and getting the electorate to buy into that. And that got me thinking (a bit off the rails but please bear with me as I think it’s quite important):

If you are into the media business and have ever harbored doubts about the advertising driven business model in an online context, beware of the new dangerous animal in town:

The ‘Worldview’ biz model.

This is the business model, where content creators with a particular worldview go solo or band together in small groups to deliver media content with a certain ‘worldview’ that users can subscribe to for a fee.

While there is every reason to applaud a business model based on subscription, the danger of the ‘worldview’ model is that it is only successful because it is inherently polarizing.

Just as ads supported business models have an interest in creating sensation and conflict to get the eyeballs needed to monetize on ads, creators of ‘worldview’ media content have an interest in painting everything black or white according to a certain belief system to get loyal subscribers to fork out their cash to access the content.

This, of course, means we’re likely to get more and more of it. We can call it a wealth of niches of special interests. But we shouldn’t neglect the fact that probably a good part of it is inherently dangerous to the commonwealth.

Want proof?

Look at some of the people with the biggest subscriber followings for paid newsletters. You will see a good few of them coming from people who have very clear ‘worldviews’, who are excelling in flaming the views of others in order to keep them loyal, hungry for more – so they will keep paying the subscription.

The phenomenon should definitely be taken seriously, and it should also be scrutinized. We shouldn’t gloss it over out of sheer admiration in the ability of some to build a sizable subscription following in a digital media world, where we have struggled for viable alternatives to the ads driven business model for years on end.

This is serious. And could potentially become quite ugly going forward.

(Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash)