Posted by: OurKudos | May 31, 2011

Keep your eyes on the ball and learn from the experts

One of the hardest things I’m finding during the startup process is keeping my eyes on the ball – that is, guiding the company consistently towards our launch goals while at the same time, continuing to follow what’s happening in the “real world”. Combining that with continual learning so that I don’t get stale and trying to get everything else done, well, it’s exhausting!

One thing I do is take regular bicycle rides where I listen to podcasts and audio books. It’s the only time I have to myself where I can actually listen to things that require thought! Right now I’m “reading” the amazing history of Google by Steven Levy called  “In the Plex” and I just finished Jane McGonigal’s “Reality is Broken” – a wonderful book that talks about how gameification can be used to better the world. If it weren’t for my bicycle rides, I would miss out on all this quality learning time, something no entrepreneur can afford to do!

Even so, it’s challenging to juggle so many balls because it’s not just my own work that I have to ensure is on track, it’s that of the entire organization.

Even though we’ve put together a great team (we really are lucky to have such passionate and talented people!) it’s still impossible for them to work without guidance. No matter how transparently we set our goals and share our ideas on how and where we want to take the company, nobody understand it with the intimacy that I do because we’re individuals. Put ten people in a room, tell them the same thing, and you’ll get ten interpretations and understandings of what was said. It’s maddening, but it’s also human nature, so we just have to understand that and do our best.

I’m a big believer in lists because they keep me honest. Once I note something to-do, it becomes tangible. Every time I look, it’s still there unless I’ve checked it off. That’s probably the single simplest and most effective way of keeping my eye on the ball. But it’s not enough. That helps ensure that we’re actually getting things done, but there’s always the question of whether what’s getting done is actually what we want to get done.

For example, I might ask someone to do a task. They add it to their list and do the task as they understand it. But yet, many managers get bitten in the ass because they never follow-up on the task. Days, weeks or (shudder) months can go by, while they think that everything is going according to plan but when it comes time to look at the results, they might miss the mark entirely. So I believe in a tight feedback loop. This is an engineering term meaning that you apply corrections quickly to ensure that you never get to far off track.

Imagine driving a car down the road. This requires numerous decisions every second. Correcting for obstacles, changes in wind and other conditions. This feedback loop is extremely tight. Now think about how many projects are run. You set a destination and put it on cruise control. Maybe once a week you check in to see how it’s going. How far can you get off course in a week? What if you shorten that to a day?

I try to encourage independent thinking combined with team cooperation. That is, I want people to make all the small corrections without asking, but where larger decisions are needed, I want several people involved, including either myself or my partner. While some may complain that we’re micro-managing, the decisions are too important at this stage for us to assume that we’re all on the same page. At the very least, I want people to come to us and say “we’re planning on doing this, is this what you want?”

In addition, I find that I’m much more comfortable making the big decisions with partial data, while others in the company should be (and are) more tentative. So if I ask somebody to do a project and they come to a major decision point, they’ll naturally want to research it and make sure they’re giving me quality counsel. Without a high level of interaction, these decisions can take valuable days or weeks. But in a discussion, we might be able to evaluate something for five minutes, then I can say “that’s a reasonable approach, let’s do it.” The decisions won’t necessarily always be right, but with a tight feedback loop, we’ll discover it quickly.  If we had spent a week analyzing the issue, we might still have made the same error but wouldn’t have the benefit of actually trying something. Overall, I find the “fast decision process” to be vastly more efficient as long as the feedback loop is tight and we can correct any errors quickly.

And so I keep trying my best to juggle all the balls, keep learning, and keep the feedback loops tight.


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