New businesses are exciting places to work. But they also are very messy places to work. Fast growth is everybody’s dream. But without clear structures, priorities and processes, such growth causes significant confusion and is highly stressful for all involved. It is far too easy to become distracted losing focus like a kid in a candy store. Running around like headless chicken for too long even risks killing the fragile new enterprise.
Founders and key early-stage employees have rich experience and enjoy the most comprehensive understanding of the context. They tend to have a reasonable sense of “what really matters” next. But as the company grows, sharing this context becomes extremely challenging. Employees are brought on board without an in-depth understanding of their respective roles and how to provide most value. As the number of existing and new stakeholders increases it further becomes tougher and tougher to keep everybody updated and aligned in order for each stakeholder to provide the maximum value.
With many entrepreneurs showing a strong bias for action, being impatient and feeding off the energy of intense hustling environments, startups rarely suffer from lethargy. But is all this effort translating into results or is it just that – energy spent without value created. “Why?” is a crucial question that needs to be answerable for every task and initiative taken.
At the same time, setting high-level and abstract goals often lacks “real-world” impact because the follow-up question to any lofty statement must be “how?”. “How?” will this goal be achieved and what actions are expected from the other people involved.
This article proposes a 5-level framework to create an appropriate support structure for new ventures to, bluntly spoken, “execute better”. This means executing faster (through improved alignment), more efficiently (through reduced waste and clearer responsibility split), more predictably (through explicit goal-setting) and ultimately in a more sustainable manner (through creating strong structures building “organisational muscle”).
This framework is not primarily meant for companies at the idea stage who have not even properly started yet. Rather, it is for organisations with a basic product or service in place and some financial and human resources available. Such organisations, resulting from their initial success, often find themselves at the crossroads of having to “get to the next level”, yet without any clear model or structure in place. This often means at least 6–12 months of operating history but based on circumstance could even be significantly longer.
The 5 Levels
Level 1: The one-liner
Level 2: The organisational brain dump
Level 3: Identifying key strategic priorities
Level 4: Defining the required roles and goals
Level 5: Determining key priorities by goal and identifying the big bets
It is worth emphasising that despite its 5 levels, this framework is intended to be lightweight and versatile for fast introduction. For most companies, a first draft of 80–90% should be achievable within 1–2 weeks. In addition, after observing companies across multiple industries, cultures and management structures, it is reassuring that most actually tend to have 90% of the raw ingredients in place.
Level 1: The one-liner
This one-liner is the guiding principle of what the company does. It could be in the form of what conventionally would be referred to as a mission statement, e.g. “to feed the world” or a vision statement “a car-light society by 2030”. The key is to define a simple and memorable statement, known and internalised by all involved stakeholders. What is it in less than 10 easily understandable words that your company does. This can be an emergent theme and often the first 6-12 months are formative for reflecting on what “really matters” in what your company offers. This one-liner then serves as North star and core purpose for the organization. It focuses the entire organization on a cause and helps rally employees around a common shared purpose. For any given task or activity undertaken by the company, ultimately it must be possible to map back to this one-liner by asking “why” often enough to ensure all energy is focused on relevant work only.
Level 2: The organisational brain dump
The big picture is exciting and exhilarating. Yet strategy and planning discussions in growth-stage ventures are often painful for people concerned with execution due to the stark contrast between strategic opportunities available and the limited executional bandwidth. This gap is further worsened due to a lack of planning and in-depth thinking about what really is required in order to achieve certain goals. The plethora of ideas on what could be done needs to be parked somewhere so that the organisation can confidently spend its attention on the most immediate opportunities, knowing that “the big picture” and various major and minor ideas will not be forgotten.
Some form of mind map hereby seems particularly suitable to offer very basic clustering and organise this largely unstructured information. Conducting this as a team exercise further allows everybody to share their ideas, ensures they are heard – even if obviously not every idea will immediately be implemented – and can foster further excitement around the joint cause.
To keep the mind map reasonably accessible, a threefold split has proven useful, categorising various and ideas keywords into sections for product (i.e. the value proposition of the venture), market (i.e. everything marketing and distribution) and organization (i.e. everything related to building the actual organization like overall strategy, HR, finance etc.). As the organization matures, obviously, a different split may be more appropriate as long as there is some basic structure.
Level 3: Identifying key strategic priorities
Level 2 provides a broad yet unstructured overview of the strategic opportunities the organization has collected internally and externally. Level 3 is all about going deeper on these and making the tough choices needed to define the 3–5 (max) key themes to focus on over the next 1–2 months.
Typically, these key priorities cut across multiple roles and functions. They are the key bets placed by the company in order to make significant progress towards the goal described by the one-liner of level 1. Whilst they still tend to be too big for specific roles and people to work on, they give a good first-level answer to the question of “how” to realise the ambition defined in level 1. Being cross-functional, they clearly show which roles and people need to coordinate their work to ensure that the overall goals are realised as quickly as possible. Few things are more frustrating to a company than if a development team rushes to build a feature, just for the marketing team not to be aware and have any supporting launch materials (or vice versa).
1. Build sports car
2. Use that money to build an affordable car
3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
4. While doing the above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
(Tesla’s “Secret 10 year master plan” from 2006)
Level 4: Required roles and goals to execute
When looking to scale, companies commonly have basic operations and some staff in place. Structures often are heavily influenced by certain historic reasons, opportunistic hiring of people with different experiences and skill sets, various experiments and generally a lack of clear understanding of the ideal organisation structure required for achieving the company’s vision. This includes tasks being assigned based on individuals instead of roles, unclear interfaces and responsibilities between various people and a lack of overall alignment regarding the “how” to achieve the overall one-liner vision.
On level 4, the leadership team therefore looks at all the current resources, the key strategic priorities and defines a clear set of roles required to implement these initiatives. Each role hereby has a simple, 1-sentence goal describing the “why” — the purpose for why that role exists.
The assumption hereby is that hitting all these separate goals will, taken together, lead to the organization enjoying a significant boost towards the overall goal from level 1. Further, by breaking the roles down and defining clear goals per role, these goals can be assigned to individuals leaders. Such leaders are empowered through their new and clear mandate, hence, can fully focus on driving the organization towards their goal without requiring micro-management from the top level.
Jointly defining and reviewing these roles & goals is also a fantastic opportunity for the people working on the frontline to reflect back with the leadership team on what they have learnt about the business and market. It helps easily visualise what is keeping everybody busy. Further, it is extremely powerful in mapping whether the organisation really is allocating resources in line with their stated objectives. If the organisation is meant to obsess over customer satisfaction but there is no clear role with the stated goal of maximising customer satisfaction, quite obviously something is off.
(Sample roles and goals for Level 4)
Level 5: Identifying the big bets and key priorities by goal
Level 3 defines the overall 3–5 key company priorities describing the “how” to realise the one-liner purpose statement. Level 4 describes the roles and sets a clear goal for each role. The fifth and last level now puts the emphasis on the individual leading each role. Provided with a clear goal and understanding of the overall direction of the company, it is their responsibility to identify the 3–5 most urgent tasks required to deliver upon their goals.
Carefully looking at the goal will typically quickly lead to understanding at least a few major areas required to achieve that goal. As an example, if an HR lead is supposed to build a highly engaged workforce, asking “how” will lead to a range of ideas including for example looking at employee satisfaction and turnover rate. Understanding the facets of the role also then allows to determine what kind of metrics make most sense for each role and help the individual measure their progress.
(Listing of key tasks per role either mapped back to Level 3 priorities or as role-specific key tasks)
Getting started with this
After experimenting with this framework across multiple companies, the good news is that most of the required information and insights tend to be hidden across various notes, scribbles and thoughts in the heads of key stakeholders. Yet without a simple and clear structure, this knowledge remains inaccessible to the wider organization. As long as the founder is alone, that is not a problem. When scaling though, it becomes a major issue, especially with newcomers often not being exposed to the entire operations in depth anymore and lacking full context. Unlocking this knowledge therefore requires some quality face-time between key stakeholders and the willingness of the main company driver(s) to focus on such “internal” matters for a few days.
To get started, founders can just pick one of the levels and start jotting down thoughts. Level 1 is a simple sentence; Level 2 could be a mindmap; Level 3 could be a written document. Level 4 & 5 could be one or multiple spreadsheets with a column for each role and Level 3 strategic priorities cutting across roles. The key question to link upwards is always “why?” — why do a certain activity, why have a certain role? The question to drill a level deeper is “how?”. At the end of the exercise, clearly mapping tasks and goals throughout the entire organisation by any person should be a breeze using those two questions with the 5 levels documented.
Given this is about sharpening the organisational focus and thought-process, it is likely that these five levels are not entirely consistent at first and therefore require iterative sharpening. Treating this as a living and evolving thing therefore makes it much easier to get started, not worry too much about hitting 100% perfection yet very quickly reaping the significant benefits of a much more focused and better aligned organization.
Above introduction admittedly lacks a comprehensive case study. Whilst I have applied this framework multiple times now, obviously a lot of the results are not appropriate to be publicly shared. However, I am more than happy to review any attempts by readers of their own implementations as well as hopefully will find the time in the future to develop a hypothetical case study around this providing some sample documents. A very basic template for Levels 4+5 can be found here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/15vpEmA0QQUcYZeGGquROghcZWugTfiZSADkILK2LkMY/edit