Tag Archives: leadership

Startups: 3 execution activities that separate successes from “interesting ideas”

The sense of freedom in a startup environment (or “incubation laboratory”) is incredibly exciting. However, it is very easy to let this freedom lead you down the path of “what if”, distracting you from achieving success. You only have – at most – three years (many would argue two) to go from spending the “first opportunity dollar” to demonstrating commercial success. This leaves little room for distraction. Over many successes and failures, I found three things separated ventures that went on to commercial success from those that simply remained “interesting ideas.”

1. Hone your vision

Defining your vision can be a razor’s edge. Vision defines your reason for existence. However, it can become hostage to your day-to-day trials and tribulations, reflecting what you are doing (instead of depicting what you want to achieve).

Before you even start, hone your vision down to one sentence (a short one, not a 40-word one). Check with potential investors, employees and customers if this is compelling enough to fund, execute and buy. If you cannot do this, you will never be able to sell what you develop.

Once you get this one sentence, make it the core of everything you do. Use it to manage scope (execute what is needed to fulfil this—and nothing more). Use it to excite investors and potential hires. Use it to build your sales and marketing materials. Use it to keep focused.

2. Focus on disciplined execution every day

It is very easy to think that two (or even three) years gives you a long time to execute. It is not. You have so much to develop: the full details of your business model, a team, a brand, a product, brand awareness, direct sales and partner channels, an operations support structure, etc. You have to do all of this without a big enterprise budgets (unless you want to give your business away to investors).

The only way to get this done is to break it down into a manageable plan (i.e., more than 10 big steps but less than a 1000-step plan you will drown in). First, determine what you need to get done each year. Then, for the next two years, determine what you need to achieve each quarter. For the next two quarters, determine what you need each month. For the next two months, determine what you need to do each week. Repeat this monthly.

This will balance focus on the “big picture” with what you need to “get done now.” It will keep you from getting caught in “rat holes” and ensure you are not late starting longer-range items (such as building brand awareness and sales channels).

3. Be ready to respond to the unexpected

No plan has ever survived contact with the enemy.” That is why I favor the adaptive planning above. Things will happen you did not expect: some that easy to recover from (your internal mistakes) and others that are much harder (changes in the market; moves by competitors). If you are not able to respond and adapt you will not survive.

At the start pick the key people (i.e., 2-4 people) who will determine how you will recover from mistakes or adapt to external changes. Then diligently (i.e., weekly) take a hard at what you are doing to look for things that can “go wrong.” When you find them, acknowledge them and take decisive action to address them. If you do this regularly, you can nip problems early (when it is easiest). If you do not, you can only hope everything turns out as you planned.

By all means, these are not everything you need to build a successful start-up (or develop a successful product from an “incubation laboratory”). However, they are essential principles to manage navigation from an “interesting idea” to a commercial success.

Three essential skills for technology leadership

Effective technologists implement good technology; effective technology leaders enable others to do this. These are two very different roles. Technologists need three essential skills to become effective technology leaders…

Over the course of the past month, I have had to opportunity to reconnect with several mentors and colleagues from across my career. All of these professionals started their careers as technical experts (in their respective domains) before moving on to becoming celebrated industry speakers and organizational leaders. As we recounted our activities across the past few years we got into a discussion on what enabled us to move from individual contributors to technology leaders. We came up with three key essential skills for technology leadership:

Communication

Communication is the means by which you share and obtain knowledge and information. It enables you to elicit support from investors. It enables you to understand what you customers want. It is required to enable your staff to understand you strategy, goals and plans.

New leaders often forget that the key to communicating effectively is understanding the point of view of your audience. This begins by listening to what others want and need. One you have learned this, you can use this understanding to shape when and how you share information to satisfy the needs of your investors, customers and staff.

Learning to communicate effectively can be especially hard for new technology leaders because so much of their prior education and work experience is focused on the details of technology (rather than the perceptions of people). However, it is an essential skill that serves as a foundation for all other aspects of effective leadership.

Motivation

Architects and Technical Leads demonstrate expertise by telling others how to do something; technology leaders by motivating others to figure this out for themselves. Once you learn to motivate others, you magnify what you achieve from what you can personally think of and do yourself to the collective creativity and skill of your entire organization.

Technology leaders usually need to learn motivation at two different points in their careers. The first is when they begin leading line staff for the first time. The second is when they begin leading managers for the first time. At each of these times, the keys to success are: 1) getting your staff excited about your goals, 2) providing them the freedom to figure out how to achieve them and 3) creating the environment that enables their success.

Switching from a controller who does things yourself to a leader who motivates others to act on your behalf can be scary (essentially, it puts your career in the hands your teams). However, people who do not do this become micro-managers (instead of motivational leaders).

Estimation

I know what you are thinking: this skill seems a little low-level in comparison to more strategic ones like communication and motivation. However, it too, is a critical skill for effective technology leadership.

Estimation is the art of diving how much time and resources are required to achieve an objective. When you are able to estimate with great accuracy, you can repeatedly “do what you say, when you promise, with your planned cost.” This is absolutely essential for hitting launch dates and achieving profitability targets. (It also avoids undesirable outcomes ranging from getting beaten to market by your competitors to running out of investor funds.)

There are many, many estimation techniques of varying rigor. However, all of them share the following critical success factors: 1) break down large tasks into smaller ones for greater accuracy, 2) let the people will do the work build the estimate, and 3) use past outcomes as proxies for future ones.

Leaders who become good at estimation build enormous trust with customers and investors. They establish reputations for “always doing what they promised.” The rewards for this range from repeat work to expanded market share to increased capital investment.

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The best way to learn these skills is to find mentors. Look for learners inside and outside your organization and ask them to share their wisdom and experience. It can also be helpful to study the published lessons learned from others on these topics. I recommend the following books: