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Tools for Maintaining Focus

startup focus

Regardless of a company’s size and stage, maintaining focus is often a critical success factor.  This doesn’t suggest nimbleness and flexibility are bad.  Quite the opposite, as focus and flexibility can live in harmony with the right management system – one that spends enough time planning and visualizing the future while also looking for signals that indicate a shift or adjustment is needed.  I’ve previously written about how nimbleness and flexibility are a key unfair advantage all startups have against large companies.  But if flexibility isn’t balanced with focus, then chaos often follows.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in 1997, co-founder Steve Jobs reportedly said “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on.  But that’s not what it means at all.  It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.  You have to pick carefully.  I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.  Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

In this article I’ll describe a few tools I’ve used to help maintain focus.

Goals-Oriented Management System

A best-in-class management system has a cascading set of goals that start at the top (company-level) and expand to departments and then to individual employees.  During the startup phase of a company, the department-level goals are skipped because departments don’t exist.  But individual goals can, and should, be tied to the company-level goals each quarter.  The company-level goals might be set on an annual basis (with minor tweaks during the year, if required) while departmental goals and certainly individual goals will be set on a more frequent basis (probably quarterly).

My friend and former CEO from NetQoS, Joel Trammell, wrote an insightful article on the elements of a successful goals-based management system and personally believes so strongly in the methodology that he started a company called Khorus to build a software-based solution to facilitate it and to give the CEO a crystal ball look into the likelihood that goals will be achieved.

Whatever you do, please make sure that you “close the loop” on goal setting.  In other words, if you don’t actually measure progress against the goals that are set, they quickly become a worthless administrative exercise that employees will resent.

The “Not” List

Companies and their employees have endless lists of things they must do in order to accomplish their goals.  And it is true that having a list of high-priority things that must get done helps drive focus.  But the focus-assisting magic of the “Not” list is that it contains things the company will not do.

How many times have you been in a meeting where a debate ensued?  During the debate there were multiple ideas argued about and ultimately a decision was made (hopefully).  During that debate, there probably were some things that you decided, either directly or indirectly, you would not do.  Here’s an example: “Our product will NOT be designed for large enterprises or companies outside the US.”  This doesn’t mean enterprises or non-US companies won’t choose to use your product.  It simply says those aren’t your design targets and won’t influence your product roadmap.

Without putting things on a “Not” list, you’ll be surprised how easy it is for your employees to drift into unwanted territory with their actions and without knowing they are doing anything wrong – just like what Steve Jobs said at the conference.

Focus on the Right Things

Focus alone isn’t enough.  Imagine your company has perfect focus but pointed in the wrong direction.  You will very efficiently get to the wrong destination.  So how do you know what to focus on?  There are tons of books on management strategy but I have adopted an exercise described by Michael Lazerow in this LinkedIn article.  The question Michael encourages us to answer is “What are the 3 things you need to accomplish in next 6 mos to give the company the best chance of long-term success?”  I’ve underlined the elements of the question that are most important.  You can also use this tool when setting the company-level and department-level goals.

Related recommendation: As you come up with the 3 Things for the list, apply my So What test to make sure you’ve identified the actual “things” that matter.

Like I wrote at the beginning of this article.  Focus without flexibility results in rigidity like what exists in very large companies.  Flexibility without focus too often results in chaos and missed objectives.  Focus and flexibility properly combined in balance creates a magic weapon and potential unfair advantage against your competition.

The Death Clock

Three guys, including my friend and Capital Factory colleague, Jason Cohen, came up with the idea to generate a countdown clock showing when a startup will run out of money based on three simple factors:  monthly revenue, monthly expenses and cash in the bank.  Pretty simple, right?  Maybe overly simple and not 100% accurate, but visually seeing this using an animated countdown clock is amazingly effective.  Imagine waking up every morning and seeing how many weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds your startup has left to live.

I love the quote from Dr. Samuel Johnson on display underneath the clock.  It says “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”  Click here for the Startup Death Clock.

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