Many leaders ask me: “I think have all the right people hired, but it seems like the rhythm isn’t really there to execute. What’s wrong?”
We have all been taught in every book and blog, that you have to hire the right people and somehow magic will happen. Yes, at the basic level that absolutely matters. But if you don’t then create the right environment for execution you won’t get them delivering the best of their skills. It’s about how you infuse the ability for a team (at a startup or otherwise) to find its rhythm of execution and become that truly “effective team” that everyone seeks.
I have come to believe there are 3 necessary conditions that a team leader ought to work on to get the team to this magical state where it just seems that the engine is working like a flywheel. Just keeps going with momentum — endless energy to execute, which is why I cheekily call it a “GoFlex Engine” (perhaps someone has a better name or illustration for it).
The 3 necessary conditions of this Golden Flywheel of Execution (“GoFlex Engine”):
- Establish the Why for the team
- Truly empower them to make decisions (autonomy)
- Work for outcomes, not outputs
Let’s look through each of these 3 necessary conditions in detail below.
Condition I: Establish the Why?
This sits at the top. Probably the most important, and also one that will really require the team lead to think clearly and become an effective communicator. So this one matters.
This first step is really about establishing the Purpose of this team (the unit). Why does it exist? Why are these people being brought together?
If the Why is done well, then (and only then) the team can move to the associated downstream questions such as: What’s Problem to solve? What the win look like? What are anti-goals? (And remember, over the course of many months & years, these might evolve as things get done — so be ready to keep updating and communicating out the new Why?). Remember, humans are really the only species that seem to be able to come together and cooperate in large numbers to achieve unimaginable goals. So people in the team (company) need to know why all this matters? This is the storytelling that helps bring everyone together to create this shared reality.
The Why will serve in other ways too — especially during the low periods when things aren’t going well — it will be the morale booster that we as humans need. Don’t lie to the team. (This a muscle the company needs to build. It doesn’t happen overnight, but is important to also be able to withstand hits— like your core — this creates resilience). Most importantly, getting this sorted has a strong correlation with being able to hire the right people who join the team for a cause, not just the activities.
Condition II: Decision making as a skill for teams
Some leaders operate under this misunderstanding that the way they add value to their teams, is by making decisions for them. This is often also coupled with a desire to create a central command structure where teams should bring them things do decide upon, and then go away and execute. This is wrong.
Yes, a big part of the role of a team leader (all the way up to a CEO) is to make decisions, but it is not to do so by depriving the team of the ability to decide on things themselves. That is the conceptual truth of empowered teams that many don’t really grasp. As a leader, you have to create the environment that these team members can make decisions and keep moving forward, and only when things get ambitious or complex do they escalate matters up to you to make a decision. You as the leader are the backstop for when decisions were not made by the team. It does mean that making decisions is a big part of your role as the team leader, but it does not mean that all decisions for the team are being made by you.
You should work with the team to instil a sense of safety that they are allowed to make decisions, perhaps by initially talking about simpler things (sprint code names, choices of productivity tools et al). This is also is a matter of creating the confidence in the team to make decisions (because many people don’t see the decision making as a skill, and indeed struggle even in their personal life when making decisions). Help them understand what are the principles to follow if there is ambiguity while making decisions. Discuss as a team the impact of emotions and impulsiveness in decision making. This will take a bit of work, but the rewards are immense.
As a CEO I would often joke that the only decisions that I should be making are the extremely tough & thorny ones. If I am starting to have to make decisions on some rather simple topics, that means somewhere there has been a failure as those decisions should have been made at those respective levels and didn’t need to be escalated to me (and therefore it is only the thorny decisions that have been rightly escalated to me – a harsh view of the role of a CEO, but a strong vindication of a team and individuals within it are making decisions).
Similarly, this is not suggesting that as a leader you should encourage the team to create a committee for every decision – that is poor leadership as you are just going to create artificial entropy for decision making. You have to encourage the idea that the person closest to the problem, is empowered to speak up and make decisions – and this can happen if they know Why the team is doing what it is doing (ie: good communications). Said another way, “decisions by committee” doesn’t work in just about any context.
Note: I will do a detailed follow up post about Decision Making within an organization or team separately. This is a wide topic, and often misunderstood by most leaders. There are also some really useful frameworks emerging that help add a bit of structure here such as Type1/2 decisions that Jeff Bezos talks about in his shareholder letters.More to follow on this.
As you empower the individuals within the teams to take decisions, you might also find they find ways of self-organizing that are most relevant for the stage of the company or indeed the crisis at hand. It’s a magical moment when you start noticing these things happen.
Condition III: Work for outcomes, not outputs
Productivity especially in an early stage company that is working to get to Product/Market Fit is never going to be measured by the amount of work done (“outputs”).
The reality is that at the early stages, it is only outcomes that move the needle. And team-members need to adapt their mindset towards this way of thinking: “In the time that we are given (example: runway), how are we going to get X outcome done?” (and definitely not that we have Y weeks, so that means we can write Z lines of code towards X).
There is this metaphor that I heard about “working like lions” — as opposed to grazing like a deer where large amounts of the day are spent eating food and digesting it to extract small bits of energy (the there is nothing wrong with that grazing mode, but it does not apply in the context of an early stage startup that is working hard to find it’s Product/Market Fit which is the only way it can survive).
Lions on the other hand spend a smaller amount of time to hunt down their prey, eat it, and benefit from the energy boost (and importantly, it is teamwork that helps a pride of lions to bring down the prey — there is no hero mode as a solitary lion is usually malnourished). In this metaphor, the outcome is getting the high-energy food. That is what they are focussed on and therefore also focus their efforts in a burst towards that outcome. Just running about for hours and chasing down deer is without getting it, is not a win. Yes they might have lots of outputs to show (“hours spent”), but they arent progressing in terms of their nutrition (“outcome” they seek to survive).
Note: There is a phrase which often creates the wrong reaction, but has become popular for leaders to say — “Sense of urgency” — this has become a misplaced idea because people again tend to conflate the idea of outputs over outcomes (it’s not about working faster like speeding up your videos to 1.5x, if that is the wrong set of activities to begin with!). It’s really about ensuring the people are self-aware they are working on the relevant problems that will move the needle — the outcomes. Energy and effort spent on the right things, creates the right outcomes (it is definitely not about doing a lot of things faster to create an illusion of progress — that’s once again a focus on output rather than outcomes). Within the environment of knowledge workers (which most of us are now), this is extremely important. And team leaders, especially Founders & CEOs need to create the environment for this.
These 3 necessary conditions, when correctly established in the team will allow this flywheel of execution to start gathering momentum — unstoppable momentum provided you have hired the right people as well.
Go Flex it!!
Build great things by pushing for outcomes, with a team that is empowered to make decisions because it knows why it exists.
Also see my post about Storytelling as a Superpower which has a high correlation to being able to hire the right people as a base condition before you think about how to activate this golden flywheel of execution.Link