When you’re building a company, the rules you set as to how work (and people) evolve can massively influence your chances of success.
Having a company cadence is something that everyone agrees is important, but it’s the first to be ignored when something critical happens. In the startup world, this happens pretty much every week, so it requires a big dose of determination from the founders to not let it derail over time.
One of our mentors at Techstars, Zach Nies, aptly reminded us that startups are great at making motion but terrible at making progress.
Progress means that the company has a common goal, has a plan on how to get there, and keeps checking if we’re moving towards the goal to readjust if needed. Making motion is being “busy” without a common goal.
At Attentive, we try to be very deliberate around our internal cadence, which starts with OKRs.
Step one if defining what you want to achieve as a team. In other words, how will the organization look like when you achieve it?
This is your Objective.
The Key Results are the 3-5 specific metrics that will tell you if you achieved or not. The question to answer here is “How will we know if we’re making progress towards the objective?”
For each of those metrics, we normalize them to fit all in a 0-1 scale, where 0 is you literally achieved nothing of that metric to 1, where you delivered more that what was requested. These key metrics should be interdependent: if one focuses on volume, make sure you have one that covers quality, etc.
After you’re happy with the OKR you defined, communicate it – sorry – overcommunicate it, print it, keep referring to it. Specially if your new team members have never used OKR’s, you have to be incredibly repetitive. The main reason I see OKRs failing is people forgetting they existed in the first place.
If your team is aligned behind a quarterly OKR, you will save so much time when discussing what should be prioritized.
If someone on your team has a great idea, ask them: which key result will you improve with that idea?
“The art of management,” Andy Grove wrote, “lies in the capacity to select from the many activities of seemingly comparable significance the one or two or three that provide leverage well beyond the others and concentrate on them.”
There’s a lot of great material around OKRs from Google, Techstars, John Doer’s book Measure What Matters and many more – make sure you make it simple for people to remember, instead of going for a overcomplex version right from the start.
Every quarter, we have a company offsite where we discuss the progress we’ve made versus our OKRs, and also announce the new ones for next quarter. Apart from that, every team shares their highs and lows, what we should improve on our cadence and culture.
Making sure that everyone participates and every voice is heard is absolute key for the success of this day.
Oh, and don’t forget to celebrate the wins,
even when specially when times are hard.
As you use the retreat to get the pulse of the whole company, it’s worth having a 1:1 check-in with everyone on the week after and answer a couple of questions:
- What were you main highlights of the quarter?
- What are your areas of development for next quarter?
- What would you improve on Attentive’s communication, tools, cadence?
This should take maximum one hour, and we try to keep it as high level as possible, without going into much tactical stuff. It’s useful distance yourself as much as possible from the day to day: think about being a metereologist, talking about how the weather has changed over the quarter, without any judgement of performance.
After this session, everyone has a firm plan on what they want to improve to continue growing, in a way that is aligned with the company’s OKRs.
This is a quick 30 min check-in (doesn’t have to be with the whole company, if you have a management layer already) to see how we are performing vs. the OKR. Ideally, you only try to make sure you’re allocating your resources towards the objectives and not losing focus.
In the extreme case that your OKR is completely off, it might be worth revisiting with everyone.
Every week, managers have a 30 min chat with each team member. In this session, the lead is the team member, not the manager, which means they can use the time as they please: to discuss a new project, to talk about any professional frustration, or simply to share a work update.
It’s the role of the manager to try, with a purely Socratic approach, to get the team members to go a level deeper on the why’s of their decisions, instead of being simply a forum of information exchange (Slack or email are better places for that).
Weekly All Hands
Every monday, we have about 45 mins all together to give a quick round up of what every team is up to, and discuss any blocking matters. It’s also a good forum for team-wide announcements.
The only thing to keep in mind with the All Hands is not letting it be a discussion forum – it’s a waste of resources locking the whole team in discussions that might be solved in a smaller group.
Oh, remember how I mentioned in the begining that you have to overcommunicate OKRs? This is a great place to refer to them week after week.
Weekly CEO email
After the All Hands, the CEO sends a weekly email update with the highlights of the week for a) the people that couldn’t be in the All Hands and b) to keep a simple log of the team’s progress, week by week.
Each functional area meets (physically or virtually) for about 10-15 mins to share what they’ve worked on yesterday, what they have planned for today and also anything blocking that they could need help with. Just as with the All Hands, it’s a not a discussion forum, and if any discussion is needed, we can just finish the daily meeting and let whoever’s needed in the room to continue without locking the others.
Maybe this sounds like a lot of bureaucracy – but if you add everything up, it’s actually less that 2.5h a week for each team member. We have a couple more functional internal meetings (like a weekly sales sync, for example) and keep testing different formats for that.
This is a very very low investment for the exponential improvement in focus and alignment that you’ll get as a company. Furthermore, each team member will clearly understand their role and impact and have a growth plan.
Our cadence is by no means perfect and we don’t follow it 100% all of the time, but I believe it’s an unsung hero of our work, that will become a strong competitive advantage for years to come.