“Our customers love our product and are hungry for more. We have a solid strategy. But we seem to be moving very slowly. Our team is great, but we can’t seem to execute.”
If this struck a chord, it is the good news. First, you’re not alone. Most leaders talked to ask for “execution” help. Second, execution can be improved through hard work and persistent, directed effort. However, execution is a discipline, and there are no silver bullets, despite what the internet will tell you. Improvement will take time and effort, but if you’re committed, changes will be inevitable.
The syndrome of Building A Racing Car
Racing cars is a fascinating sport: it requires skilled drivers, but the world’s best driver cannot win with a poorly designed car. Take Formula One racing as an example. Formula One, also called F1, is a series of races around the world, with the world’s best drivers in custom-built cars. F1 cars are built for extremely high cornering speeds: hitting peak forces of 6.5g, while maxing out speeds of 350km/h (215 mph).
F1 is highly regulated — accidents can be hazardous, sometimes claiming lives, such as the tragic death of Ayrton Senna at the Imola Grand Prix in Italy in 1994. The regulatory authority, F1A, changes rules often, sometimes minor changes, but the occasional major change that requires a substantial redesign of the car. Car design and development is such an essential part of F1 that there are two prizes: The Driver’s prize and the Constructor’s prize. Building F1 cars is as much an artistic endeavor, as it is a feat of ultimate engineering. It requires concerted hard work, year over year, improving cars, fixing existing problems, adjusting to rules changes, adapting to different drivers, stretching for varying road and weather conditions.
Just think of high performing teams as a custom-built race car. The car comes together as a whole — engine design matters, but there is more to it. Similarly, any process a team employs matters, but there is much more to execution than process. The internet discussions on execution often point to a change in process, from waterfall to scrum, or having daily stand-up meetings, or weekly retrospectives. These things matter, but like the car’s engine, do not capture the complete picture. The exact processes must be tuned for the team; there are broad rules of what everyone must do (all cars have 4 wheels, are under a certain weight, and have an engine), but within the general framework, there are a lot of choices to be made.
This is a seamless act of coordination and team effort in putting forward a highly efficient machine and a marvel of technological wizardry by which it is possible to reach the fastest decibel of motion by a machine in conjunction of expertise of a man, who is the driver and a team of engineers.
So, what Is ‘execution’ in the literal sense of the word?
The words “strategy” and “execution” are insufficiently understood by product development teams.
Vision is what the future looks like if you’re successful.
Strategies are possible paths that allow you to attain your vision. A strategic choice or decision is the act of choosing which way to follow.
Execution is walking that path.
Success depends on all three; which one matters more is highly dependent on the nature of the work, the company, the team, and a variety of other factors.
At a company level, the vision is typically to change the world in some meaningful way by making some problems go away. Google seeks to understand the world’s information and make it available. Facebook aims to connect the world.
Strategy is how you get there. Exceptional strategic thinking is hard to come by because it involves so many leaps of faith. Strategies are forward-looking and often hard to test on any meaningfully short timescale.
Amazon’s strategy is three-pronged: decrease prices, increase product selection and increase customer convenience. Amazon could have chosen a variety of other approaches — build bricks and mortar stores, or purely match buyers to sellers, or designing and selling only their own products, or making a white-label e-commerce site.
Notably, each of these strategies has a company built around it: Barnes and Noble, eBay, Everlane, and Shopify.
Execution is about the nitty-gritty. Designing experiences. Shipping hardware or code. Nimbly iterating to get through or around new roadblocks. Like other disciplines, excellent execution takes sustained effort over a long time. It is not a Thing to be achieved and checked off. The principles of Deliberate Practice apply here at the team level. Having a clear goal, focus and hard work, feedback, accountability, and deadlines — these are the pillars of a high achieving team.
Pillars of Execution (OSPAD)
1. One Clear Goal
2. Sustained Focus
3. Progress Indicators
I) One Clear Goal
To execute well, teams must know what they are executing toward. It all begins with a clear and concrete goal, one that everyone can understand and rally behind. One of the biggest challenges that organizations face is not the lack of goals, but having too many. When you have multiple goals, priorities get muddled. Given a choice, teams will follow the path of least resistance and focus on goals that are achievable over goals that are important. It is paramount, for a leader, at any level, to identify and set a small number of concrete goals for their organization, ideally one.
The second challenge is communication. Ask 5 people at different levels in the organization what their goals are. If you hear different goals depending on who you ask, or worse, “I’m not sure what our goals are,” you have a problem. After picking a goal, you must communicate it as clearly and as often as you can. The test comes at goal evaluation time, at the end of the quarter. If the team hits a secondary, unimportant goal, but misses the primary one, and they believe they did well and deserve commendation, then you have failed at clear goal setting and communication.
A note on measurability: we in tech are obsessed with measurement. “What we cannot measure, we cannot improve.” Sometimes things are just not measurable, or worse, the only thing you can measure is a misleading proxy of the actual thing. Don’t let the lack of easy measures stop you from setting goals. For example, shipping is a perfectly good goal — especially when a team is building a new product with no priors.
Your job as a leader is to do the following:
1. Pick a clear goal. This is the goal that you consider critical to the success of the team or organization. It is the goal that everyone should rally behind. If you have a dozen goals, prioritized into big and small goals, whittle the list down to one or two. This exercise is challenging, but worthwhile.
2. Talk about your goal as often as possible. If your priorities are clear to you, and perhaps your executive team, but not to every engineer, PM, designer, and analyst — you haven’t talked about them loudly or often enough.
II) Sustained Focus
YouTube in 2011 was primarily known as the site for cat videos that people forwarded and shared on Facebook. There was a blossoming creator ecosystem, but creators were incentivized to make small, bite-sized content. The reason was simple: YouTube algorithms valued views as the primary metric and overwhelmingly recommended short videos. The organization’s leadership made the decision to switch to watch-time as the primary metric. The central idea was that if people were watching content on YouTube, we didn’t care whether it was short or long, just that they were entertained (or informed) by the things that they watched. The analytics team came up with a chart that showed a growth curve to 1 billion hours of watch-time. We all thought that a billion hours was impossible, but the chart served as strong motivation to hit a clear goal.
Large bets take time to build. We, in Silicon Valley, are obsessed with instant feedback, numbers moving up and to the right instantly, trying to get to product-market fit as quickly as possible. If it doesn’t work in 3 months, it must be a terrible idea and should be abandoned because of opportunity cost. Many organizations are afflicted with organizational attention deficit disorder. We do lots of annual and quarterly roadmap planning, and the minute we see something shiny, internally or externally, we collectively go “Squirrel!” and chase after it.
Execution requires focus. Goals are the setup. Focused effort is the follow-through. As a leader, you should keep your team focused on the goals, for months to years, based on your conviction about your strategy.
III) Progress Indicators
A game without a scoreboard does not inspire players to do their best. The mere presence of a score is not enough, the score must be visibly present, so everyone sees it, every day.
Picking a good progress indicator is an art. These are operational metrics, not business metrics. As a result, the number you select to keep tabs on progress can be different from the overall goal chosen in section one.
Rules of thumb for operational metrics:
1. Indicators should be fast. The point of a visible indicator is to motivate the team. A rapidly moving number helps build momentum.
2. Use leading indicators instead of lagging ones. Better markers like activity-minutes, or calorie counts, or standing or walking time possess the dual properties of being on the leading edge and moving quickly.
3. Use indicators connected to the eventual goal. Measuring the wrong thing is akin to going fast around the wrong racetrack. Things will feel good, but nobody will make progress.
Examples of good indicators:
1. Kanban boards. They publicly and visibly capture the set of things that are in flight, and who is responsible for what. They get updated in real-time. Kanban boards are supported by most task management software; putting up a large TV with a display of your team’s kanban board is a great way to check off the Visible Indicators pillar.
2. Real-time dashboards. When working on projects to improve performance, improve efficiency, reduce bugs, the best are the dashboards that reflect the current state of the world (latency measurements, bug counts, etc.) One can get inspired by seeing steady progress toward the horizontal goal line.
3. To-do list. Low tech solutions are on occasion, even better than the high-tech ones. A whiteboard chart showing deals closed and progress toward the ARR goal can be more inspiring than a fancy screen with a soulless number.
In 2018, the Facebook app was slow, and bugs were out of control. Most of Facebook’s mobile users are on Android; device and OS fragmentation make Android development particularly painful and error prone. We knew we weren’t doing a good job serving our users but were stuck in the constant pull between new feature work and stability. Leadership eventually decided that enough was enough, and something had to be done. We had clear goals: fixing bugs and faster start-up. The progress indicators were natural (bug count and start-up latency). Leadership all the way through Mark was committed. Things still didn’t move.
The solution was a weekly meeting with all the engineering leaders and the head of the Facebook app. When some team wasn’t doing well, people would ask questions about why and what they could do to help. The social pressure made the team feel very accountable to deliver as per commitments.
As humans working cooperatively toward a higher goal, our word stands for something. The word “accountability” has frequent connotations of negative performance management, or of letting people go. I believe this is far too extreme; accountability is simply about a feeling of responsibility. Every parent knows they can’t control their young children but have a sense of responsibility for their actions.
There are two simple techniques for driving accountability:
1. Write detailed weekly status updates, publicly visible to the whole company. The leader must write these updates themself, rather than delegating them to an assistant. The process of writing forces the leader to read the constituent material and stay on top of execution issues in their team.
2. Weekly check-ins for the most critical projects. There is nothing that beats face to face (or video) interaction for driving accountability. These meetings are large and can get expensive fast, so preparation and a concerted effort toward efficiency pays dividends quickly. Balance is essential — a status update meeting for every project in the organization is an egregious waste of time and unnecessary.
Deadlines are an effective deterrent for a few reasons:
1. They create pressure to get things done. Creative work is not steady; it happens in bursts. Fixed periods provide a way to channel that bursts energy in a coordinated way.
2. Deadlines serve as a focusing function. When people have a deadline to get something done, other priorities get downgraded.
3. They provide opportunities to change directions. We all make incorrect decisions at times, bite off more than we can chew, or underestimate the complexity of a project. Changing decisions midway kills productivity and focus. However, changing direction at a particular deadline is a reasonable way of re-evaluating decisions and correcting course.
Deadlines go hand in hand with the curse of estimation. No sufficiently complex software project I have been on has been estimated correctly at the start. Are estimates even worth the work? I don’t believe in long term estimates — these are mostly garbage and serve to create artificial pressure by committing teams to death marches that are months long. Short term estimates — in the order of 2–6 weeks — are reasonably accurate and should be done. Call it a sprint, call it a milestone, call it whatever you want. Software engineering teams should be able to predict, with a small margin of error, what they can accomplish in 2–6 weeks and then reliably deliver on this estimate.
This post is not meant to be read once, understood, and put on the side. I hope you scanned it once, and return to it, when you have specific problems that these techniques can help with.
Remember, execution is hard. It takes a long time to build execution muscle. If you’re a leader be patient and keep improving with your teams. If you’re an individual contributor, and you see some key pillar missing, ask your leadership to fill in the gap.
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