Written by Shane Neubauer
How do we do work that is meaningful, and lives up to our beliefs? How do we, as founders in a startup, make sure that our day-to-day work contributes meaningfully to our vision?
It's so easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle, the perpetual context switching and competing priorities. It's so easy to accidentally disconnect from what really matters.
Let me share how we make sure that what we do each day is meaningful, at Beyond.
We use the simple concept of objectives to guide our work, and to create focus. Objectives are one ingredient of the popular OKRs framework, but we've boiled it down to a small, actionable, and highly agile form, which supports us at our early stage.
Everything we do must be in pursuit of an objective. The objective is the guiding force of the work, to align everyone around a common destination. The purpose of the objective is not to set a target, but to create focus. To highlight and communicate what is important for us right now.
If we are vikings on a viking ship, then our objective is our destination. If we are to reach it, we need all the rowers to row in the same direction, with the same rhythm. Without this focus, we'll all just flap around in the water and get nowhere.
Focus creates harmony, and harmony supports productivity.
Objectives are the bridge between the high level stuff like vision and mission, and the low level stuff, like our daily work.
While setting the objectives we are doing long-term thinking. Where do we need to go? What will that enable us to do? What will change when we get there?
While using the objectives we are doing short-term work, planning, executing, and delivering immediate value.
Setting objectives needs to be an inclusive exercise. At no point should anyone set one in isolation. Not even an executive. This is because setting an objective is a process — not a decision. Objectives need to be questioned and refined.
To start the process, you should try to answer the question: What is most important for us right now?
This may require a bit of discussion to align, but hopefully you don't have fundamental differences. If you do, figure it out amongst yourselves until you have one decided.
After coming up with a rough answer to that question, the process begins. Following a similar path to the Five Whys, we begin questioning it, and through the process, refining it too.
"The most important thing for us right now is to get more people to fill out the survey"
Why? What will that do for us?
"It will help us to understand the profile of users that we're attracting, to see if we're getting the right people"
Why? What will that do for us?
"It will help us to refine our outreach, so that we can target the highest value users"
Why? What will that do for us?
"Having high value users will help to increase engagement in the product"
Bingo! We have an objective: Increase engagement in the product.
How do you know when to stop? Contrary to what the name suggests, you don't have to do it exactly five times. It may be three, it may be seven.
You can always drill deeper, but at some point it stops making sense, so you'll need to use your judgement a little bit. It doesn't hurt to go too far, and then backtrack. If you reach something like "make money" or "be happy", you've gone too far!
When you're finished, you should have a high level outcome, without being prescriptive about how to get there or which actions to take.
Next, we need to ask a new question: does this objective support our mission? Does it bring us closer to realising our vision?
If it doesn't, or if we don't know, then that means we're not ready to set it as an objective yet. More work to do.
This is a moment that we nurture the connection with our vision and mission, so don't take it lightly.
Why is it important to question and refine the objective? Because the objective should never be prescriptive. It should never describe how to get to the destination. Only the destination itself.
There may be many ways to achieve it, some of which you may never personally think of. But someone else might. Or you might figure it out together along the way.
You hire smart people, so you should create an environment where they get to use their brain, and come up with their own ideas. Creating good objectives supports a culture where people get to innovate.
We all know that diversity in teams is great for business, because it introduces diverse ideas and perspectives. So it's imperitive then that you also create a culture and an environment that supports those ideas. Well crafted objectives is one way to do that.
How often should we set objectives? As often as you need. Larger organisations commonly do this on a quarterly or half-yearly cadence, but that's way too long for most early-stage startups. You may choose to do it weekly, fortnightly, monthly or ad-hoc. Those are all fine, as long as it makes sense for you and supports your productivity. Never accept something as gospel and follow it — figure out what works for you, and do it.
At Beyond, we do it on an ad-hoc basis right now. After setting an objective, we hypothesise about how to solve it, and run on a build-measure-learn cycle until we meet the objective, or until our priorities have changed.
How many objectives should you set at a time? Ideally, just one. Try to stick to one at a time for as long as possible. Eventually it may make sense to introduce another one. Keep in mind that the more you have, the less focus you have. Creating focus is the entire point. Focus creates harmony.
Using objectives needs to be a mindset that the team adopts. Everything you do needs to support your current objective, so the question "how does this take us one step closer to our objective?" should become a prominent part of your company's lingua franca.
Whenever a new idea is introduced, or a solution is designed, ask the question.
Ask the question of existing projects and tasks. Ask the question of meetings and conversations.
If something doesn't support your objective, then make the hard call and stop it. Pause it if you need. Things that don't help you, are actively hurting you, by consuming your time.
In the words of the great Ira Glass, "it’s time to kill. And it’s time to enjoy the killing. Because by killing, you will make something else even better live."
This is of course referring to planned work — there will inevitably be things you need to do to keep the lights on, which should continue. Don't stop paying staff or fixing outages.
Objectives should form the starting point of team processes. Starting from the objective, the team should begin the process of figuring out how do we get there, using our unique skills and tools?
For a product engineering team, this may be building features.
For a marketing team, this may be a new campaign.
For a People Ops team, this may mean opening new types of roles to bring in different skills.
Each team is different, with unique tools, but the common thing that aligns them is the objective. This focus is what creates harmony in your organisation. Having teams with different directions and priorities inherently means they cannot support each other without a compromise.
Beyond is still small, so we don't struggle with team conflicts yet, but by ingraining this into our DNA from the beginning, we know that we're set up for success as we grow in the next months.
We organise ourselves around one objective at a time, which helps us be productive because we're all focused on the same outcome at the same time. Even if we're working on different tasks or projects.
So, the concrete steps that you can take away are:
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