Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Entrepreneurial Management – The Loose-Tight Loop

For the last 20 years, I have been leading teams both small (2 partners and a turtle) and large (over 850 employees). During that time I have had big successes (IPO on Nasdaq, sale to VMware) and crushing failures (remember the Y2K bubble?) Sitting on numerous boards also gave me a ring-side seat to observe different management styles.

Through this experience I have evolved a management style to drive rapid business transformation and growth. I call this style the “loose-tight loop (a mash-up of ideas from the Tom Peters book “In Search of Excellence” and OODA loops). 

In the very dynamic startup world, it is often hard to strike the right balance between “if I do it myself I know it will get done right” and letting chaos rule. Because the market is evolving at the same time as the company, assumptions about customers, competitors and technology change rapidly as well.

I see the job of the CEO as aligning the team on a set of audacious goals and orchestrating the achievement of those goals through three activities:
  • Tight on what to do – align the team on goals and priorities
  • Loose on how to do it – trust the team to reach those goals efficiently and creatively
  • Loop to learn – communicate regularly to learn what is working and not working (aka trust but verify)

Over time, I have adopted a number of agile process ideas to put the loose-tight loop into practice:
  • Daily standup – 15 min call to communicate actions and identify issues 
  • Weekly top 5s – on Monday, each exec lists their 5 priorities for that week , summarizes status for the top 5 priorities for last week and updates MBOs
  • Weekly check in – 1 hr one on one meeting to collaborate and coach
  • 6 week sprint – 2 hr meeting to go deep on 1-2 issues, review MBOs for last sprint and & set MBOs for next spring
  • Annual plan – 2 day planning session to rebuild business plan for next year

Management By Objectives (MBOs) are critical as they are the explicit link between team objectives and executive priorities. Linking MBOs too closely to compensation can reduce their value. MBOs should represent challenging tasks – 100% achievement is not expected and is likely a sign that the goals were too easy. These MBOs become calls to action for the team to support each other in accomplishing tough tasks.  

In the loose-tight loop, the CEOs job is to get everyone onto the same map and working together to reach the same destination. The executives’ job is to execute in alignment with the plan and ask for help if it turns out our assumptions are wrong.

In fact, the biggest risk execution risk is that execs are too slow in asking for help when they run into trouble.  More experienced execs have the confidence to ask for help when they need it. Less experienced execs try to bluff their way through the problem. This is dangerous to the whole team because often execution challenges mask underlying mistaken assumptions.

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