Making the vision operational

You start out with a vision. You fight to develop your product. You ship. And you get so caught up by day-to-day operations and fixing things that you don’t have time to think about the vision or – more importantly – put initiatives in place for the longer term that will ensure you continue driving towards it.

Does it sound familiar? When I look around, I see it happening a lot.

And I can understand why that is. Having a product in market with real customers using it is just completely different from being in R&D mode. And getting the revenue in from customers who are happy users of your product, because you listen and service them well, just feel like the ultimate validation of what you set out to do – even if you’re only just establishing a beachhead.

Getting stuck can be so easy. One day after another passes, where you’re in operations mode trying to fix things, optimize and move a couple of steps forward in the process. But you are essentially stuck. Because you’re potentially neglecting the very initiatives that are going to enable you to push even further, grow to the next level and drive the value of the business up.

I would argue that if you are in this situation, it is more or less a miracle if you end up anywhere near realizing the vision, you set out with. Or more importantly: Capture the value you could have captured, if you had been able to run a tight ship, constantly moving forward and upwards.

Don’t count on miracles to happen. Instead invest the time in ensuring you both have a day-to-day operational side and a longer term strategic side working on the next important projects crucial to the growth of your business. In my opinion that’s the best insurance policy you can take out on your startup becoming truly successful.

Of course the obvious question is what it takes in order to maintain a balanced approach and ensure you succeed on a broad spectrum? Well, I have a few ideas and suggestions.

First of all make a conscious decision to set out a portion of your time as founder to only think about and work on projects that are longer term (+6 months) but crucial to the growth of your business. How much you should set aside varies and is up to you, but I would suggest at least one full day per week. That will get you started.

Next up, drill down on your vision and build your product and business roadmap based on that. Start out with the vision and define a strategy that will provide you with a blueprint for what needs to happen in order for the vision to be able to come true.

When you have the strategy, define which role your product(s) is going to play in order to make the strategy succeed. It will not be the only thing that matters, as execution and GTM plays also play pivotal roles in ensuring success. But the ongoing development of your product(s) and the leaps you can generate through making the right product bets are critical.

What does your product need to be in order to deliver on the strategy and ultimately the vision? What does that imply when it comes to the roadmap? When do you do what? In what order? What are the goals you will setup to monitor, whether your successful with your product or not? How will you remedy mistakes and get on the right patch again? Etc etc.

Make a complete drill-down on what your product strategy and roadmap needs to be in order to deliver on the vision. And make a conscious decision to stick to the plan in the sense that you prioritize ideas, feature requests etc that supports the roadmap, the overall strategy and the vision as much as you can.

When you get to the point where you have those things in place, you can start enjoying the overview that comes from having a plan and working towards executing it. You will find further enjoyment in the fact that even while you may from time to time toil with fixing bugs or some other operational matter, you’re still by and large working in the right overall distraction. Fixing things doesn’t become the end but just one of many means to an end.

And that’s a huge difference. Also to the ultimate success of your business.

(Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash)

Tactital vs strategic use of data

There is no doubt that data forms a really solid basis for making business critical decisions not only in large organizations but also in startups. That especially holds true when ressources are tight, and the ambitions are grand; you need to really ensure that what you’re spending your time and money on truly works towards keeping the momentum high.

In reality it might not always be so easy to work with data in the most impactful way. Because it’s not only about looking into the numbers and keeping track of incremental improvements. It’s more about knowing where you want to go with your startup, figuring out which metrics make sense in order to report on your progress and then setting yourself up with data sources that enables you to keep track and optimize the operation, so you end up meeting or exceeding whatever goal you might have.

Doing this the right way takes dedication and a fundamental feel for and understanding of the underlying business dynamics, your products or services and – not least – your customers and their needs and expectations. In other words, in order to be able to use data in the most efficient strategic way, there is a lot of prep work you need to do beforehand, which doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with data in itself.

And this is precisely where I often see warning signs when I look at especially early stage startups and the way they try to work with data in order to grow and scale their business. Many of these don’t have as much of a strategic view of how to enable their business to run on data as they have a more tactical view on using data.

So what is a tactical view on looking at data?

An example could be that you’re trying to grow engagement of your app. You want to get users to spend more time in the app and engage more by liking or sharing things. You could pretty easily define a couple of more or less standard metrics, and you could also quickly find a ton of tutorials online that will help you optimize for those more or less generic metrics (let’s just choose Daily Active Users or DAU as an example to make it concrete).

It would indeed be possible to apply well-recognized best practice ‘hacks’ towards optimizing for those metrics, and there would probably also be some improvements to show for it. But the trouble is that not only is this a very mechanical, one-size-fits-all approach towards working with data. It is also short term and has no real bearing on either the quality of the product or service, you’re offering, let alone the needs and aspirations of your customers.

Thus, in essence, by applying this generic tactical approach towards working with data in your startup operations, you end up optimizing for…what exactly?

This is precisely the reason why it’s so important that any effort working with data to improve the prospects of your startup and meet the goals, you have set up, needs to be strategic in nature. So what does that mean?

First of all it means having a general direction of travel, you want to take your startup on.

Second, it’s about validating with customers and market research that the direction is the right one and – if executed in the best way – will actually bring the wanted results to your startups prospects for success.

And third it’s about figuring out what that direction in tandem with the validation from the market and customers means in terms of defining custom metrics that both prove to be valid indicators of success and which are also possible for you keep track on.

Once you have those metrics in place to represent desired strategic outcomes for your startup, you can start doing the setup of your data and analytics to support keeping track of it all. The first time you go through that exercise it will probably feel like a lot of work, but just like plumbing for your home, if will not be something you need to do more than once. Once you have it settled, the systems are in place, and data is flowing like you want to, you’re set.

And then – and only then – are data set to work efficiently for you and your startup.

(Photo by Stephen Dawson on Unsplash)

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)

3 tips for setting OKRs

Today marks the beginning of the last quarter of the calendar year 2021. For many that’s an opportunity to assess previous objectives and set up new ones for the new quarter using the OKR method made famous by Google.

That’s all great. But what many find is that OKRs can actually be quite tricky to set up in a truly meaningful way. So let me offer 3 tips for how you can get more our of OKRs.

First of all, think of OKRs as essentially a Christmas tree that cascades down through your organization. You start by identifying one big hairy goal (=objective) for the entire company and 3-4 key results that supports the goal in the sense that you will know that when you achieve these results, you will most likely have achieved or at the very least moved a lot closer to achieving your objective.

Second, take those key results and turn them into new objectives further down the organization. And let them create their own key results that supports reaching those objectives. And so on and so on until finally everybody through the org will have objectives and key results against them that cascades back to the very top. That will ensure that everybody is working towards the same hairy goal.

Finally, when defining your objectives start with a problem. No matter where you sit in the organization, you will have a clear idea about which problems you need to tackle in order to achieve your overall objective. Take those problems and turn them into objectives.

Doing that will simply help to ensure that you’re working on something that not only drives the company in the right direction but also works to overcome some of the problems you need to solve.

And remember: Objectives are qualitative and by definition not measurable. Key results are quantitative and ALWAYS measurable.

(Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash)

Ask strategic questions

Not everybody is a brilliant strategist. And that’s ok. Yet every founder team need a strategy for how to develop and grow their startup, and what do you do, if the very thought of developing a strategy just gives you an uneasy feeling?

The simple answer is that you make it as easy as you can for yourself by ensuring that you have a simple platform from which you can get to work on your strategy.

There are many different platforms, you can use. With platforms, I essentially mean approaches. And there is one approach that is more powerful than most and which will easily help guide you through the process without too much pain:

Start by asking strategic questions.

What is a strategic question?

A strategic question is one that borrows from the “How Might We…”-methodology of the Google Design Sprint process (or maybe it was the other way around, doesn’t really matter) and allows you to frame your goal and aspirations for outcomes as a question.

A couple of examples:

How might we utilize our strength towards Segment A of customers to launch successfully with Segment B?

How might we grow retention in our customer base over 97% month over month?

Get it?

When you asks questions like that, you can start plotting suggested answers to them. You can word these like outcomes, i.e. “Launch 1:1 Customer Success offering for Premium Customers” and then look at which actions you will need to take in order to deliver on that.

When you have that sort of Christmas tree of objectives and actions – essentially an OKR structure – you’re well on your way to formulating a strategy: You will be crystal clear about what you will be doing, what the result is going to be and why you will be doing it.

The rest is – more or less – just a matter of getting it written up in a format that can be shared and discussed with your team and various stakeholders, before it becomes the new strategy to guide your venture towards even more more success.

But remember: It ALWAYS starts with being able to ask the right open-ended questions.

(Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash)

Yay, it’s (almost) Christmas!

The Christmas holidays are upon us. and with that 2020 is (finally) coming to an end. It may thus be a good time to reflect a little on what went by in the year that passed.

Forget Covid-19 for a second (I’ll get back to that a bit later); for me this was a year about learning and reaffirmation.

When it comes to learning there are a number of approaches you can choose to take; everything from ‘trial and error’ to consciously looking to broaden your horizon. And while I have been doing some of both, I think my main take away has been to just insist that everything, I have been working on, is essentially a learning experience too – and reflect as I go along.

My personal experience is that that approach has made a huge personal difference to me. For me the difference has been between trying to make sense of things in hindsight to actually have an efficient structure for capturing learnings as we move along – an open mindset so to say with a great dedication to ensure that no matter what happened, I would get wiser from it.

Seen from that perspective I have learned a ton and become even more ‘battle-hardened’. I have learned about other people, trains of thought and processes, and I have learned a lot about how I handle them myself, so I don’t loose myself in the process. It may sound rather flimsy, but I can’t overestimate the value it has for me.

Did I accomplish all the things I set out to do? No. But did I learn a lot about why many of those things were exactly as hard and ambitious, as I predicted – and thus had a good feel for – before I moved ahead with them? Hell, yes.

And this brings me to the reaffirmation part of what 2020 taught me;

I have long had a feeling that I have a tendency to involve myself deep into complex projects that are super hard to pull off. Sometimes for reasons of breaking with the norms, adversity from my surroundings or something like that. Otherwise just for the sheer complexity of it.

I know full well that it might not always be the best thing to pursue for me as an individual – that it challenges me deeply on personal levels, where it shouldn’t. But what 2020 has given me is the insight that not only is it what usually tends to happen. I am also completely at peace with it.

I know now that when I miss out on something it’s usually not because I did a poor job or didn’t try hard enough. It is because the things, I – and people around me – try to pull off are super hard. And things that are super hard to pull off has a tendency to award you several setbacks along the way.

The magic trick is to accept that things are hard, not give up and just keep pushing, pushing and pushing until you make it work.

So that’s what I have been trying to do (and probably also why this upcoming holiday is pretty welcome at this point :-))

Other than that Covid-19 (there it was) has also played in on my sense of 2020 as the year of reaffirmation.

While others have (understandably) been hugely struck by all the limitations and changes to their preferred way of life, I have gotten reaffirmation that those things many others crave, I can still function well without.

It’s not that I hate other people. I don’t. Absolutely don’t. I just have a deep sense of confidence in my own company that I have enjoyed getting reaffirmed, because I believe it makes me stronger and more robust in terms of dealing with challenges of all sorts.

Having been through all sorts of personal crisis over the years, I have a deep sense for how I deal and cope with them, and getting that reaffirmed this year has been a source of strength and optimism in a year that could so easily have been low on both.

It has reaffirmed my core belief that no matter the challenge, there is always an opportunity that things may turn out well – as long as you don’t give up.

And with that, let’s look forward to 2021.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Remember the rearview-mirror

It is so easy setting new goals that you can just as easily forget to follow up on the goals that came before them.

That is a real shame, because it is from actions past that you learn how to improve and getter better in the future. And with that also how you succeed in your new goals.

In essence one of your new goals should always be to follow up from your past activities and goals and use that as a way of informing what needs to be in the new goals, you set for yourself.

By doing that you will enable yourself to carry learnings from the past into future success. And you can’t get much more potent fuel for your ongoing success.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

The problem with OKR

I love OKR’s as a concept. And God knows I have been trying time and time again to make them and associated tracking apps and services work for me and my team.

But alas; I have failed every single time.

It is not that setting up OKRs is super hard; everybody can define and objective and a set of results to get to the objective. But sticking with it and having the discipline to work with it? That’s a whole different ball game.

For a startup context I think one of the reasons for this is that startup life is inherently messy; while you may have objectives, goals and other variations of KPIs (you should always have some of these) the journey towards them are never linear.

In practical terms what this means is that while you were addament you had it right, when you set your goals, they rarely survive when you fast forward to a future date. In fact, everything at this point in time might look substantially different.

I am fully aware that with OKR it is entirely possible to define your time periods, number of OKRs etc entirely as you wish. But if you’re changing them every other day what’s the point of having them to track against in the first place?

What I have found to work better is to have some pretty non-negotiable KPIs that are pretty specific but at the same time broad to enable all sorts of paths and journeys leading up to them.

1-2 on a six months basis is enough, I would argue. Especially at a super early stage, where having too many objectives will most likely only result in a lack of focus.

Agree on those and agree on providing a weekly or bi-weekly short status mail where you mention the points, the most important developments since last time, your confidence and actions until next update, and you’re set.

Forget everything else.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)