Be honest. Is your business stuck in an endless cycle of unfinished projects? Is energy being wasted by people going off in multiple directions with no clear focus? Feeling like you’re getting nowhere? You’re not alone. Most of the clients I work with are in the same position. They feel a bit like Sisyphus, forever rolling his boulder up that hill in Hades. They’re putting in loads of effort but not moving any further forwards.
This is exhausting and depressing. If it’s happening in your company, it’s likely your staff are cynical and disengaged too. Often, when I visit businesses for the first time, staff tell me there’s no communication and roll their eyes over initiatives that are started and never finished. And the leadership team complains that ‘people don’t have any urgency’ or ‘there’s no alignment’. Over time, the level of staff output drops to 60% and anyone who tries too hard is frowned upon. Miserable!
It’s no coincidence that alignment around a quarterly theme is high on the list of Rockefeller habits. In fact, it’s second only to the health of the executive team (something I’ve written about in two previous blogs here and here). It’s essential to gaining any forward traction in business. But how exactly do you put this into practice?
‘Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well’. True words. Re-launching your company is going to take considerable time and effort. I’ve been coaching one of my clients over the past six months on exactly this. We’ve worked through their overall strategy and they now have a good picture of their purpose, values and BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). Using Shannon Susko’s ‘3HAG’ approach to execution, I’ve helped them with a plan for the next 3 years with all their differentiators organised tidily into work-streams. The aim is to re-launch in January but they aren’t cascading this down to the rest of the company yet. They want to get all their ducks in a row first.
I can’t stress how important this is. Don’t go off half-cocked. You certainly don’t want this to be another one of those projects that fail or never gets finished. Having done the big-picture strategic stuff, sit down with your executive team and work out the three to five corporate objectives for the next year. Then work out the one critical number or metric that needs to shift to take the company towards these objectives over the next quarter. Examples from companies where I’ve worked have included on-hold times for customer support, opportunity creation for sales or the amount of time engineers record in the ticketing system. Then work out your three to five priorities over the next 90 days that will help to move your critical number and rank them.
Your quarterly theme could be tactical. It could be about kicking activity off. Or making progress on something. Or even about recovery. I’ve seen organisations where revenue recovery was the priority and the number they measured wasn’t opportunity creation or even signed contracts. To make it crystal clear they were on a burning platform, they said, ‘Today, if we do nothing, our time to death is January.’ The implication was, if they were to do nothing, the organisation would go bust after the next quarter. They made their 3 to 5 priorities revolve around bad debt collection, supplier negotiation and revenue recognition. Their aim was to drive revenue to buy themselves another 90 days to live. And they used language like ‘time to death’ and ‘survival’ to galvanise effort.
Rhythms are critical to success here. To keep everyone on track, working towards your critical number, you need to make sure that teams are meeting in a daily, weekly and monthly rhythm. Use an All Hands meeting to kick off the quarter, sharing your critical number and the 3 to 5 priorities. Discuss milestones and tell everyone how you’re going to keep score.
In the past, we’ve used Blue Peter-style totalisers or daily emails with spreadsheets showing progress on the critical number. Introduce daily stand-ups if you haven’t already, where managers check-in with their teams and discuss how every employee is going to contribute to the theme. There needs to be a conversation around workloads, ensuring that all effort is being focused in the right place.
Quite often there’s a clash when employees ask, ‘But what about this. And this. And this?’ They need to be told that these things simply won’t get done, even if they seem important, as they won’t contribute to the overall theme. It may be that last quarter something else was critical but now your new theme has taken its place - you’re shelving the other activity until a future date. This is all about focused, deliberate effort.
Make sure your executive team has weekly check-ins with managers. View the 90 days as a 13-week sprint and work out where you want to be at the end of each week. Communicate this to all the team, set the goals and keep driving towards them. Overcome any cynicism that this is just another fad by prioritising rhythm. Like compound interest, little and often is the way to make progress.
How many times have I been into organisations and heard that staff don’t know what’s going on? Too many! To have any chance of hitting your critical number, you have to make communication a priority.
All Hands meetings are not just an opportunity to tell people about your theme and objectives. You also need to listen. A good Q&A will allow you to dig into whether staff have truly ‘got it’ and understand what they need to do. Dole out as much social currency as you can. If one of your teams has supported another by making them breakfast, call them out for it. Encourage everyone to come together.
People like to feel they’re part of something. It’s about making sure that people leave work on a Friday happy that they’ve completed meaningful work with other focused people. And knowing that, by doing so, they’ve had an impact on the cadence and trajectory of the business and brought the horizon forwards.
Most people will probably buy into your new approach at the beginning – like a gym membership that’s well used to start off with. However, the key is to maintain this – to keep them coming back to the gym, week in, week out. If lethargy creeps in, you want the laggards to feel peer pressure. Show them that more than 70% of the organisation is on board and moving forward. They need to feel like they’re the odd ones out. Let a herd instinct kick-in and make sure you are constantly praising those who are pulling forwards. The others will soon catch up.
Above all, ram home the importance of focusing on your critical number. As an old boss of mine used to say, ‘People can fill their day with busy work, but it’s not necessarily real work’.
When you launch your theme for the quarter, announce how you’re going to celebrate when everyone achieves the goal. In the one page strategic plan advocated by Verne Harnish, he talks about targets being red, amber, green and super-green.
Your main goal is to get to green and plan for a good celebration. You might still have some form of reward if you get to amber, but it’s less elaborate. Super-green is reserved for when you reach your upside goal – ie. you over-achieve. Perhaps you can plan an upside celebration that’s even better than the one you’ve planned for green? One I remember well was when the leadership team cooked a BBQ for everyone in the staff car park. Such a good night! Or maybe you could get outside caterers in for a full-on party? Whatever it is, make sure it’s something that will get everyone excited and motivated to pull together to achieve it.
Don’t get your leadership team to organise the celebration if you can help it. They should just set the budget. Work out the people who love organising events and let them run with it. Once you’re partway through the quarter, you’ll have a good idea of how things are trending. You might be on course to hit green but everyone needs a push to turn this into super-green. So, announce a new incentive to try and galvanise that final bit of effort.
Above all, don’t raise expectations that aren’t fulfilled. This is worse than doing nothing as it will feed cynicism amongst your staff. Stick to the rules and don’t change them partway through. If there’s anything that hasn’t worked, do a retrospective at the end of the quarter and discuss what went well and what could have been better. Is there anything you would change in the way you moved the rock and set the celebration? Did people think the incentive was worth the effort? Gather these thoughts and use them to improve in the next quarter.
Everyone makes mistakes occasionally, and it’s important to admit if things haven’t gone quite to plan. By introducing a quarterly theme and rhythms that might not have existed before, you’re trying a new approach. You won’t always get it right first time. And yet most leadership teams fear that their competence will be questioned and so rarely show any vulnerability. This is a mistake.
I recently had a conversation with a CEO at one of my round tables. They’d put a theme in place and achieved their goal around recording consulting project hours but didn’t know what to do next. Whilst they had hit their number, they weren’t happy with the quality. He asked me what they should do.
I said they needed to celebrate the success that they’d had – this was really important. They’d told people the rules and the organisation had driven towards these rules. At any point during the quarter, they could have tweaked the dial, changed the rules or re-calibrated. It’s important to have this flexibility. After all, you’re taking an OKR (Objectives and Key Results) perspective when you decide the critical number and these are typically non-binary unless they’re financial metrics. When you’re at the beginning of the quarter, how you get there is only 70% certain. If you achieve your goal early, recalibrate or set a different goal. Or if you can see it’s impossible to get there, calibrate it down. There’s nothing more demotivating than knowing you’re on an impossible mission. Change it. And tell everyone why you’ve done this. This is all about making progress.
Back to that CEO. After they’d had their celebration, I suggested re-running a similar goal during the next quarter but changing the 3 to 5 priorities to focus more on quality. And I suggested they communicated to staff that the first goal hadn’t been quite right. It should have been a mix of quantity and quality.
It’s useful to learn from this. In his book, ‘Measure What Matters’, John Doerr explains that when you set OKRs, you must always include quality with quantity. These things have to work in some tension, otherwise, one might be sacrificed for the other. It’s not enough to simply make more sales. You want sales at the right margin.
Quarterly themes are a great way to move your business forward, one step at a time. But to succeed, it’s vital that everyone understands and is committed to playing their part. Through regular rhythms and clear, transparent communication, you’ll get all staff on board and, through praise and celebration, increase their productivity and happiness. Ultimately, you want all your staff to feel their work is fun and meaningful – only then will you unlock extra levels of productivity in each and every employee.
Dominic has spent 14 years working in sales, marketing and business management within the IT sector. He has held executive positions at Peer 1 Hosting, IT Lab and Rackspace. At Peer 1 he built the UK business to £30m run rate in 5 years. He won many awards for creating a great place to work. At Rackspace Dominic built the UK company from four to 150 staff, and increased annual revenues from £595,000 to £25 million in just four years. Under his management, Rackspace was recognised as one of the most outstanding workplaces in Europe, and won several service awards for its Fanatical Support TM. Dominic has a BSc in Agricultural and Food Marketing from Newcastle and a MBA from Sheffield Business School. Dominic is also a regular public speaker on creating great places to work and achieving continuous client satisfaction and an assessor on the Sunday Times Customer Experience Awards.