In the movie The Candidate, the Robert Redford character mouths “Now what?” after he gets elected. Most entrepreneurs ask the same question after they get funded. The answer is, “Now you have to deliver.” And the next question is, “How do we deliver?” This is where the art of execution comes in, and in times like this, you either execute or you die—no pun intended.
1. Create something worth executing. You’re going to get tired of my obsession with great products and services, but pitching, demoing, bootstrapping, and executing are a lot easier if you’ve created something meaningful. It’s hard to stay motivated and excited about executing crap. It’s easy if you’re changing the world. So if you and your team are having a hard time executing, maybe you’re working on the wrong thing.
2. Set goals. The next step is to set goals. Not just any kind of goals, but goals that embody these qualities:
a. Measurable. If a goal isn’t measurable, it’s unlikely you’ll achieve it. For a startup, quantifiable goals are things like shipping deadlines, downloads, and sales volume. The old line “What gets measured gets done” is true. This also has ramifications for the number of goals, because you can’t (and shouldn’t) measure everything. Three to five goals measured on a weekly basis are plenty.
b. Achievable. Take your “conservative” forecasts for these goals and multiply them by 10 percent; then use that as your goal. For example, if you think you’ll easily sell a million units in the first year, set your goal at 100,000 units. There is nothing more demoralizing than setting a conservative goal and falling short; instead take 10 percent of your forecast, make this your goal, and blow it away. You might think that such a practice will lead to underachieving organizations, because they aren’t being challenged—yeah, well, check back with me after you don’t sell a million widgets.
c. Relevant. A good goal is relevant. If you’re a software company, it’s the number of downloads of your demo version. It’s not your ranking in Alexa, so telling the company to focus on getting into the top 50,000 sites in the world in terms of traffic is not nearly as relevant as 10,000 downloads per month.
d. Rathole resistant. A goal can be measurable, achievable, and relevant and still send you down a rathole. Let’s say you’ve created a content Web site. Your measurable, achievable, and relevant goal is to sign up 100,000 registered users in the first ninety days. So far, so good. But what if you focus on this body count without regard to the stickiness of the site? So now you’ve gotten 100,000 people to register, but they visit once and never return. That’s a rathole. Ensure that your goal encompasses all the factors that will make your organization viable.
3. Postpone, or at least de-emphasize, touchy-feely goals. Touchy-feely goals like “create a great work environment” are bull shiitake. They may make the founders feel good. They may even make the employees feel good. But companies that reach on measurable goals are happy. Those that don’t, aren’t. As soon as you start missing the measurable goals, all the touchy-feely stuff goes out the window.
4. Communicate the goals. Many executive teams set goals but don’t communicate them to the organization. For goals to be effective, they have to be communicated to everyone. Employees should wake up in the morning thinking about how they’re going to help achieve these goals.
5. Establish a single point of responsibility. If you ask your employees who is responsible for a goal, and no one can answer you in ten seconds, there’s not enough accountability. Good employees accept responsibility. Great employees seek responsibility. Lousy employees avoid responsibility.
6. Follow through on an issue until it is done or irrelevant. Many organizations set goals and even measure progress toward them. However, after a short time, some goals are no longer on the radar because people start focusing on the coolest and most interesting stuff . For example, fixing bugs in the current version of a software application is not as interesting as designing a new, breakthrough product—but your current customers think it is. Legend has it that Pat Riley, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, measured stats of his players and posted each player’s progress on his locker.
7. Reward the achievers. Rewarding the people who achieve their goals has two positive effects. First, the achievers become even more excited about doing their job. Second, the under- and nonachievers know that the company takes execution very seriously. The form of the reward can be money, stock options, time off —whatever works to serve notice to everyone that “this person delivered.”
8. Establish a culture of execution. Execution is not an event—a onetime push toward achieving goals. Rather, it is a way of life, and this way of life is set in the early days of the organization. The best way to establish this culture is for the founders, particularly the CEO, to set an example of meeting goals, responding to customers, and heeding and measuring employees. This obsession should include the CEO’s answering e-mails and responding to phone calls.
9. Heed your Morpheus. Morpheus is the character in The Matrix who gave Neo the choice between the blue pill and the red pill. He was, essentially, the adult supervision. Cold, brutal reality is the ally of execution, so find a Morpheus who distributes the red pills and enables employees to see things as they really are.
When the hype dies down, a company either executed or it didn’t. Put aside the brilliance of your idea, the qualifications of your world-class team, and the hype surrounding your launch. Either you ship a product and customers buy it, or not. That’s execution, and execution is why you get the big bucks and perks. Reprinted by permission from Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition. If you liked this chapter, there are ninety-three more where this came from in the book.