There’s a big white piece of butcher’s paper affixed to our office wall and on it is written “goals for November”. The items on the list run down the page with a team member’s name next to each item. My name is up there at least five times but when I walk out of the office, I can’t remember what is on the list and I’m certain that by December at least half the items won’t have been done.
For start-up teams, speed and focus are imperative. There’s only a brief opportunity to build product and get traction ahead of competitors, usually with a small team and limited cash. At Zambesi our strategy is constantly evolving. To achieve our global mission with limited resources, we need a better framework to set strategy, allocate resources and manage progress.
I shared my operating rhythm dilemma with fellow entrepreneur Tim Power, who says he encountered the same challenge as co-founder and former chief executive of online learning company 3P Learning, best known for Mathletics.
“We used to set our strategy and goals quarterly and then meet on Monday mornings to talk through everyone’s progress,” he says. “We had a company that everyone loved and people we liked working with, but we started every week with these painful two-hour meetings. It seemed like a huge waste of what could be the most productive time of the week.”
Power says reading the book Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish changed the way he led his team.
In the book Harnish describes how Rockefeller championed a framework where teams only ever had five objectives. “Successful companies are those that are willing to reallocate capital to the right projects,” Power says.
“Using an operating framework that only allows you to work on a small number of goals forces you to be efficient with capital and focus your resources on activities that matter.”
Power says he tried several of the management practices outlined in the book then adapted them to fit his organisation. Getting the operating rhythm right at Mathletics enabled him to expand the company to a $320 million IPO with 350 staff.
“We developed a method that allowed us to get rid of meetings and freed the organisation to do work.”
In 2016 Power launched Inquisitive, a start-up that develops learning resources for primary teachers and schools. Now, like us, he’s back to running a lean team with global ambitions. I asked what simple advice he would give teams who need to be agile and make progress fast.
Set strategy every two months. “It’s important to reset goals at regular intervals that are short enough so you can course-correct and long enough so you can actually get things done. The world is moving too fast for quarterly goals and a month is too short so two months is perfect. At Inquisitive, we’re a small team and it works best if we only set three business goals. Our bimonthly strategy sessions take an hour because we’re discussing just three objectives. Then everyone sets individual goals that contribute towards getting these most important things done.”
Include personal and development goals. “In addition to the three business goals, we set a learning goal for the team and everyone sets one personal goal. We each specify how we plan to achieve the learning goals. Some people attend a workshop together, others will read a book or listen to podcasts.”
Run weekly meetings on a Friday. “We do quick progress updates each Friday afternoon. Team members only report when something significant happens or if there’s a roadblock. Everyone sets their objectives for the next week and we can usually wrap the meeting in 30 minutes. It’s great to have a clear map of the next week going into the weekend and to be able to hit the ground running on Monday morning.”
When I ran mobile ordering app Hey You, we set quarterly goals but each team developed their own. So with four or five teams there were just too many goals for team members to remember.
“Everyone thinks their organisation is too complex for just three or five goals at any one time,” Power says. “But we’ve found that this ruthless focus gave us a really powerful organising principle. People want to contribute good work, and teams enjoy doing a few things really well rather than a bunch of stuff averagely.”
At Zambesi, we’ve agreed to move to bimonthly strategy and goal planning from next month. It will be hard to trim our long butcher’s paper list of objectives to just three items. But I’m looking forward to establishing an operating rhythm and know we’re allocating our resources to the right projects. And I’m sure it will feel great to tick off everything on our list.