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)

Manage your effort

OKRs are a super efficient way of setting short term objectives and define key initiatives to reach them. It is perhaps the most simple way of ensuring that your startup is at all times outcome-driven that you can get.

But there is one key element to setting your OKRs that you should keep in mind when setting them: The amount of effort that goes into the Key Results necessary to reach the objectives.

When you define your key results right, you instantly have a feel that they are ambitious yet achievable within the short term.

But sometimes you look at your key objectives and get the feeling that even if they are measurable they are still kind of fuzzy and essentially the tip of the iceberg with a lot of dependencies down under.

That’s where you should sound the alarm and ask whether it’s really a short term OKR goal or rather a more significant ongoing project that should be handled in a different way.

If you fail to do that, the risk is that you end up chasing a bunch of OKRs that are draining ressources from you above and beyond what’s reasonable in order to be efficient across the board. People will start feeling fatigued, get frustrated and basically abandon the OKRs – and perhaps even the method, if you’re really unlucky.

There is no reason to get to that point, so make sure that your OKRs are not only structured right but also takes an amount of effort that is ambitious but manageable in order to move your startup fast forward.

(Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash)

Cash value of communication

Often times I meet people who question the value of a focused, operational communications strategy. The argument is that there are plenty of other more important jobs to get done before looking coherently at communications.

Allow me as a former communications professional to take a step back and look at the kind of value, great communication can unlock for a startup. I will do so over a couple of posts here, and today I will be looking at one of the really easy ones to measure:

Sales.

Normally, when we think of sales, we think it of it as an effort to get our offer in front of the right people in order for them to make a decision on whether they want to buy our solution or not. The more we work diligently with sales, the better we will be at getting it in front of the right people, the more hot leads will be created, the better conversation rates will be and – ultimately – the more we will sell.

Ok.

So what role does communications play in that? Let’s look at it from a structured operational perspective:

Let’s assume you have your OKRs in place. You know what your objectives for the upcoming quarter(s) are, and you have identified the measurable key results that will support you in understanding what kind of progress you’re making towards reaching those goals.

If we look at sales, the objective could be to launch a new product successfully, and a key result could easily be to get 200 new hot leads and book 50 first sales meetings.

Ok. Where does communication come into play here?

Easy.

When you look at the job of getting 200 new leads, you need to figure out where to find them but – more importantly – WHAT to tell them in order to get them interested, so they become a hot new lead, you can work with.

In order to know what to tell them, you need to have a clearly crafted value proposition and a wording of it that resonates with the intended target audience, so you can optimize your conversion.

That’s all about communication and getting the actual words right.

Furthermore, in order to be on the radar of your future customers, when you try to convert them into hot leads, you need to have created awareness and a presence about your startup, your brand and, most importantly, your product(s). And you need to have done so in a way that is available and convincing in a way that sits well with your future customers.

That’s all about communication, too.

Finally, when you have the sales meetings, you need to ensure that the people you meet get hooked enough to buy. They need to be convinced by those final killer arguments for why your product is the solution to their problem, and doing so in a scalable way requires not only a solid structure but also – again – the most effective words.

Surprise, that’s communication too.

All in all a focus on great end effective communications is a powerful an extremely valuable driver for driving sales. It’s not just a marketing job – and yes, marketing is communications too. And communications is not only about PR and looking good on SoMe.

So do yourself a favor and prioritize your communications efforts in your startup. Doing it right can – almost – be translated to money in the bank.

(Photo by Tadeu Jnr 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)

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)

Trello and OKR

When trying to build a startup ground up, there are a ton of different tasks that need to get done. And keeping track of it all is essential.

But how do you do that efficiently?

For me I have resorted to using a combination of Trello and OKR.

We use OKR’s to define our objectives. We essentially view those as desired outcomes where it’s up to the people involved to do whatever is necessary or efficient to achieve said outcome.

It turns our that Trello is pretty good at keeping track of those objectives. And in a very simple way:

What we do is essentially to take our objective, create a new board and then name that board with the text of the objective.

By doing that we have a consolidated view of objectives, and we can dig into the individual objective, define key results and work on those in a kanban way, while we comment, assign tasks across team members and much more.

The key here is that if we want to get an update on where we’re currently at with the work towards a specific objective, we can just dig into that specific board.

Of course it still takes discipline to work within the confines of Trello and make sure that it gets used, and we’re still rehearsing on making sure that happens.

But so far our experiences are good. And I highly recommend it as an efficient method for keeping track of your progress against your OKRs.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)