It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not that time. The other one. The time where your startup gets together and starts planning for the upcoming year. Some of you have already finished this process, but with my fiscal year ending in January, I’m currently in the midst of it.
That’s why this article from Sarah Hodges on how to run better management team offsites caught my attention.
In particular, I loved this quote from former colleague and friend Thomas Erickson, the former CEO of Acquia.
Make sure that a focus on execution remains front and center. Have a regular “execution” meeting and less regular “strategy” meetings.
— Tom Erickson, CEO, Acquia & Co-Founding Pillar
I’ve often thought that as leaders, we focus too much on strategy and not enough on execution. Peter Drucker once said culture eats strategy for breakfast, and I agree. I think organizations with a culture of getting shit done win. I’ll take a relentless executor over a “strategic marketer” any day.
I know there is a larger debate around strategy vs. execution. At larger companies, planning, strategy, and execution are seperate disciplines. But my experience comes from working at startups who don’t have the luxury of dedicated teams augmented by management consultants, so finding the right balance is important. Focus too much on strategy, and you’ll end up with a lot of great looking PowerPoints but metrics that look more like 〰 or 📉.
Set the Corporate Strategy Annually
Having worked for Tom for ~3 years, I’ve experienced how he found the right balance between strategy and execution.
Once a year in November, Tom brought the entire extended leadership team together to run a three day activity called the Goal Deployment Process, or GDP as we called it. This process was used to identify the most important issues for Acquia to tackle in the upcoming year, prioritized by their potential impact. It was a team exercise where Tom laid out the three year objectives for the company, and we worked backwards into all the things that would need to happen for us to get there.
The outcome of the GDP was a list of ten or so strategic cross-functional initiatives for the upcoming year, with clear definition of ownership, metrics, and specific actions to take. Here’s a look at what one of them looked like:
The robust planning process drove alignment on the most important items to the company. The GDP actions were often tweaked and metrics were redefined, but very rarely did we decide to abandon any completely during the year. Many of the important milestones in Acquia’s growth came as a result of the GDP process.
Drive Daily Execution
But the most important part of the GDP process wasn’t the annual meeting, it was how it affected daily priorities across the company.
Each owner of the GDP was expected to drive their actions across the company. To make an impact, the GDP leader had to structure their day to make sure they were impacting each of the cross-functional actions they owned. Every month, the extended leadership team would get together to review the metrics. We used a spreadsheet with the plan and actual result, with color coding to highlight areas we were performing under expection.
It was simple and effective. Every month, GDP leaders had to provide an honest assessment of how well (or not) we were able to drive improvements. Too much red? You aren’t executing well. Too much green? You probably set your goals wrong. Note that with Tom, I learned (the hard way) that it was better to have more yellow and red than green.
Tom ran the weekly executive leadership meeting at Acquia the same way. Every Monday morning, he brought the exec team together to review a spreadsheet containing a running list of the most important actions across each department in the company. These were usually less cross functional than the GDP, but still important to the success of the company.
This list forced each executive to provide a weekly assessment of where they were at on important deliverables. This simple format wasn’t appropriate for managing the details of the actions, but it was an easy way for the exec team to track progress, and if something were blocked, it could be addressed directly in this meeting.
Anything that fell in the strategy bucket in the weekly meetings was noted, but not addressed as a part of this meeting. Tom kept the meeting all about execution.
You need a strategy for better execution
Here’s the thing: execution is hard and its a grind. But like anything, being great at execution is daily hard work. There were times that I hated the GDP process, and all of the time it took to drive actions and report on results. But looking back on it, I realize that it was one of the main reasons why Acquia grew as fast as it did under Tom’s leadership.
Chances are at your startup, you’ve already got a good enough strategy in place. You know your customers, and you’ve built business model. You’ve got product market fit and a go-to-market in place. But do you have a strategy for getting better at execution?
If you don’t, that should be a big topic for your 2018 planning process.