Will it make the boat go faster?  3 Thoughts on Execution to Drive Growth

Will it make the boat go faster?  3 Thoughts on Execution to Drive Growth

By Tao Tao, Co-Founder & COO. 

There are two ingredients to success: good planning & good execution. Here are some thoughts on execution.

Where did our time go?

This is a familiar picture in many growth organizations:

  • People’s calendars are full of meetings, trainings, team events, and all-hand updates. Business priorities and deadlines are frequently traded off against such events.

  • There are 15 people meetings where only 5 people contribute. There are regular updates with 50+ participants where an email might suffice.

  • People seem to be taking on more and more responsibilities. Everybody has 5 most important things and 10 KPIs to track.

All while business growth is decelerating and global competition is ramping up. None of these activities is wrong per se. They serve good purposes (learning, employee happiness, etc.). Some of them may even be strategic, e.g. a team event is important if a team has low trust or is new. Updating people in meetings feels inclusive. And there are many important areas and KPIs in our business. But taken as a whole, there is less focus on what really matters to the business and customers.

An initial thought is that it’s a problem the HR team needs to fix with rules on meetings & trainings. But you may have heard the saying “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. Upholding culture & the standards of excellence is a leadership responsibility, at any level. It’s the decision of an employee to spend 4 hours on excel training and the decision of her manager to accept it. It is a manager’s decision to invest a day in a team event and the decision of his manager to accept it. If leaders want to see change, they must lead from the front.

Learnings from China

We recently visited China. There were companies that grew to millions of customers in no time, and still growing 200% year-on-year. In my view, China has now surpassed Silicon Valley in innovation, speed, and ambition. Some macro factors help: a massive domestic market and rapid consumer adoption speed. But there were also key behaviors that all successful Chinese companies exhibited:

  • Ferocious learning by doing

  • Insane competitive drive to win

  • “996” (working 9 to 9, 6 days a week)

  • Bias towards action. Imperfect execution over no execution. Start and improve along the way.

China cannot copy Europe and we should not copy China. But we should also not dismiss how they do things by thinking “Sure, they work hard, we work smart”. Finding reasons why we don’t need to change anything is the easy way out. For most growth companies ambition and competition are global.

One company in China was different. When we visited their office, it was clear why they weren’t winning in China. There was great conceptual thinking but slow execution. The most striking thing was a beautifully-designed poster hanging in the kitchen. On it, employees were offering courses like “Breathing”, “TRX course”, “Be a florist” and so on. My first thought was “Are they focused on the right things in this hyper-competitive environment?”. My second thought was “Most companies in Europe are closer to this poster than to 200% year-on-year growth”.

I try to offer three principles for improving execution.

1. Focus activities on contribution

Ben Hunt-Davis was the captain of Great Britain’s male Rowing Eight team. In 1998, they had been consistently failing to win a medal or even make it into the final of major competitions. So the captain came up with a simple rule: for every activity that the team thought about doing, they would ask “Will it make the boat go faster?”. They were asking the same question with every action they took. When the team dreaded the 20km morning run, they would ask each other “Will it make the boat go faster?” When someone thought about going to the pub, others would ask “Will it make the boat go faster?” Their focus became purely about performance; the results, they hoped, would follow. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the team became the first British team to win Olympic gold since 1912.

In theory, our OKRs and KPIs tell us what’s most important. Yet we divert a lot of energy and time to things that don’t contribute to our most important goals. One solution is to come up with rules about which meetings or trainings should or should not take place. But there isn’t one rule that solves all situations. Some big meetings make sense and some trainings make sense.

The solution is to focus on activities that contribute to what is important. Peter Drucker calls it “focus on contribution”. Ask yourself: “What can I contribute that will significantly affect the performance and the results of the institution I serve?” Then engage in activities that maximize your contribution. What was important for Hunt-Davis’ team was to win gold. The expected contribution from every team member was to make the boat go faster. The activities included daily 20km runs and not going to the pub.

Leaders can do 4 things:

  • Clarify the goal: What is important? This can be an OKR or a KPI.

  • Make the goal attractive: Why is the goal attractive? Is there a larger or longer-term purpose behind it? Like winning gold at the Olympics.

  • Clarify the employee’s contribution: How can the employee contribute to the goal? For example by making the boat go faster.

  • Focus activities on contribution: In anything we do, will it make the boat go faster?

But what about activities like trainings that are beneficial for the long-term? The danger of “long-term” is that it can justify any short-term action (e.g. “I may need advanced excel skills in 2 years. So I should learn them now.”). Execution by definition lives in the short-term. The British rowing team had a long-term goal (win gold in 2 years), but they were executing against the goal day by day. Long-term thinking guides strategy. Strategy breaks down to quarterly and monthly goals. Execution against goals happens daily. Most growth companies don’t fail because of a lack of long-term thinking. They fail because of a lack of execution in the short-term.

Drucker writes: “The focus on contribution imposes an organizing principle. It imposes relevance on events.” If going to the pub does not make the boat go faster, I should not go to the pub. If an excel training does not help me better reach my goals this quarter, I should not take the training.

Key question to ask:

  • Will it make the boat go faster?

2. First things first

Mike Flint was Warren Buffet’s long-time personal pilot. Feeling that he was not progressing in life, he asked Warren Buffet how to set better goals. Mr. Buffet asked Flint to write down his top 25 goals in life. Then Buffet asked him to circle the top 5 goals, the things that he wanted more than anything else in the world. This second exercise was harder because almost everything on the list seemed important. Once he was done, Buffet told him “Congrats. You have now identified your 5 most important goals. Just keep in mind that the other 20 goals will prevent you from achieving your top 5 goals.”

Peter Thiel at PayPal used to insist that employees could only focus on one problem at a time. The reason is that people often focus on problems they can solve, and not on the most important problems.

Going after high impact priorities sounds simple in practice but why is that so hard in practice? Some reasons:

  1. Our time doesn’t belong to ourselves. People expect things from us and it could be as simple as a meeting invite. It is hard to say no to others.

  2. We like introducing but don’t like killing existing processes (meetings, events, team events, etc.).

  3. We have a backlog of to-dos from the past and the pressures always favor yesterday’s tasks.

  4. We prefer solving problems we know how to solve over solving hard problems.

One solution is courage. It takes courage to say no to people’s invites or a lunch invite. It takes courage to challenge & question whether something is “still worth doing”. It takes courage to favor the future over the past, opportunity over problem. It takes courage to start the day with the hardest task at hand.

Another solution is to increase urgency on what’s most important. With our recent brand relaunch in Q2, there was a clear, unmovable timeline. This singular focus helped push down everything else that may have seemed important. Seemingly impossible trade-offs were made on a daily basis, but the end result was a resounding success.

The benefit of doing first things first is that success compounds. If we continue to do the most important thing first, we will have more success over time. As leaders, we need to do & demand first things first.

Key questions to ask:

  • What is most important to get done (the thing that makes the boat go faster)? Can we do it faster?

  • To everything else: Is this still worth doing?

3. Build a winning team

The German national team did not win much glory this world cup season. There are leadership lessons we can learn from that:

When somebody does not fit the team anymore, be firm & swift, but also graceful & generous.

Players like Khedira lost their place years ago and should not have made the 2018 team. Thomas Müller (my favorite player of the last decade) was in terrible form and should not have played. This is very uncomfortable but often the only right thing to do.

Leaders must also show grace. It’s wrong to assign blame afterward as they did with Mesut Özil. Failure still is a leadership responsibility and lack of gratitude is ugly.

Reward high potentials & top performers with more responsibility for impact & personal growth.

Löw should have given more responsibility to players like Sane or Brandt. Young players grow with more responsibility, as Thomas Müller did 2 world cups ago.

Managers need to identify and reward potential with greater responsibility. It can be risky but there is no alternative. It is also the only way to grow people. Personal growth does not come from reading business books or taking ten trainings. It comes from encountering and mastering new challenges. Business books and trainings can support.

Build & coach on people’s strengths.

Die Mannschaft this year was a different team than 4 years ago. The right strategy (probably) would have been to build on the speed of players like Sane, Brandt, Werner, and even Reus.

Weaknesses are easier to identify than strengths. Thus managers often try to compensate for people’s weaknesses. Instead, we should build and coach on strengths. Compensate for weaknesses by assembling a team that complements each other. Focus learning & development to get the full benefit of someone’s strengths. Drucker writes “[the effective executive] knows that only strength produces results. Weakness only produces headaches — and the absence of weakness produces nothing."

Recruit, recruit, recruit. Raise the bar.

This is where the football analogy reaches its limits. A football team is limited to 11 people. Growing companies should have recruiting as a key priority always. It also makes points 1) and 2) easier to achieve.

But it’s not enough to recruit. It is a manager’s responsibility to recruit the best possible people into her team. As a company grows, so does its ability to attract better people. Thus managers must continuously raise the bar for new recruits.

To make it concrete, hiring managers can ask themselves the three Amazon bar raiser questions:

  • Will you admire this person?

  • Will this person raise the average effectiveness of the group they’re entering?

  • Along which dimensions might this person be a superstar?

Raising the bar is also fair. If managers expect personal growth from internal employees, the bar must also be raised for external applicants.

Key questions to ask:

  • Which of my people would I fight hard to keep if they told me they were leaving in 2 months?

  • Who am I rewarding with more responsibility?

  • Am I building on people’s strengths?

  • Am I recruiting fast enough while raising the bar?

In Closing

So where does this leave the fun? Depends on your definition of fun. Setting ambitious targets and reaching them is fun. Delighting customers is fun. Receiving trust and autonomy is fun. Learning by doing and growing with each new challenge is fun. Crushing your competition is fun. Receiving recognition is fun. Working towards a meaningful mission is fun. Spending the weekend with friends and family after a long week is fun. Going on experiences on vacation is fun. Celebrating success after a long struggle is fun. Having a Friday beer with colleagues you admire is fun.

Good execution is the foundation for all of that.

Summary

Focus activities on contribution:

  • Will it make the boat go faster?

First things first:

  • What is most important to get done? Can we do it faster?

  • To everything else: Is this still worth doing?

Build a winning team:

  • Which of my people would I fight hard to keep if they told me they were leaving in 2 months?

  • Who am I rewarding with more responsibility?

  • Am I building on people’s strengths?

  • Am I recruiting fast enough while raising the bar?

Footnotes

  1. We’ll cover good planning in another post

  2. Some inspiration for this post and recommended reading:

    1. The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker

    2. Netflix's Culture Deck

  3. Two good questions to ask for trainings:

    1. Is this training superior to learning-by-doing?

    2. Will this training improve my contribution in the short-term?

Managers can also provide guidance here. Long-term training, such as learning a new language, is best suited for one’s personal time.

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