LEADING USING NUMBERS

WHY MICRO-MANAGING IS BAD
Most adults (or even most children) _really_ don’t like being told what to do. In order to feel motivated and engaged, we need to have *agency*. Iin other words, we need to be able to make  meaningful decisions about the work. This is doubly true for the smart and internally-motivated people that join most startups.

METRICS THAT MATTER, AND THAT CAN REALISTICALLY BE MOVED
On the other hand, you are a startup founder in a rush – to build the product, to gain market acceptance, to defeat the competition and scale when its time. How can you get the product doing what it needs to without micromanaging the team? How do you get each individual to rally behind the current challenge?

One approach I’ve used at SlideShare is to articulate the 1-3 metrics that each team is working towards. Your team should know that their job is to move that metric in the right direction, and they have wide discretion to do whatever it takes to achieve the objective.

Easier said than done, right? It’s actually damned hard to come up with 1-3 metrics that define success for your team. And to make it even harder, it has to be something that the team can actually impact, not something that feels like it is in the hands of fate.

For example, maybe as an internet business you live and die by traffic. But your team may have little control of the number of unique visitors that hit your website. If this is the case, then making this the metric is setting your team up for failure. They probably have much more control over what percentage of registered users complete their profiles or become long-time repeat visitors, for example.

WHAT, NOT HOW
If you can orient your team around shared goals that are captured by metrics, then SHUT UP! Don’t dictate the “how”: that’s micromanagement. Let the team figure out (independently or together) how they will achieve the objective. Give people space to make their own decisions, to exercise their own initiative. They’ll surprise and impress you!

These 1-3 metrics have to be more important to everybody than the thousands of other chores and tasks that compete for their attention. Everyone on the team should always know what metric the team is working on, and the current status of the metric (is it getting better? worse? why?).

The metrics need to be available to your team on a daily basis (an automatic daily email works well for this). As a leader, you should notice and comment every time the metrics go up and down. The email will be iterated on constantly as the numbers that drive whatever your goal was are discovered and instrumented. Eventually it may contain a lot of numbers, but they will be the numbers that the team thinks they need to do their job.

REALITY IS MESSY
Laser-like focus on a few metrics is the goal. But reality intrudes There’s always critical maintenance work to be done: bugs to be fixed, customer service issues to be handled, site downtime to be reduced. Your team is under this pressure, and feels a responsibility to respond to it. This is ESPECIALLY true in an early-stage startup, where it can feel like just keeping the ship from sinking requires all hands on deck and every-day course-correction.

One way to fix this is to have some members of the team who are on firefighting detail. Their job is to deal with all the random crap that reality throws at you. Anything that is a fire that needs to be dealt with RTFN. As long as everyone takes a turn firefighting, it means the rest of the team can focus 100% on the key metrics.

DELIVERING RESULTS IS HARD (BUT WORTH IT)
Moving numbers is hard! It’s way easier to ship new features than to have a measurable impact on user behavior or revenue. By focussing the team on an important metric, you are making them work harder. The fact that you are focussed on a SHARED goal helps here. No one individual is signing up to move mountains. You’re all trying to do it together, and you will succeed or fail as a team. People want to actually have an impact on the world: it’s your job as a leader to provide an environment where this is possible.

When you set shared goals like this, you’ve turned working at your startup into something like a shared quest or an adventure. And you’ve provided a platform where your team can (together) have an impact on the outside world, and impact that 1)Is important, and 2)that they can actually see. I think that’s pretty cool!