To Drive Operational Excellence, Ask These Three Questions

May 2, 2018

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on AlleyWatch here.

Every startup reaches the point where they have learned, they have hired, they have structured. They stop tinkering with their “MVP” and start trying to get customers. They are ready to get things done. At that point these companies have to get excellent at execution.

But achieving this rigorous execution requires a mindset shift. And a new way of thinking requires asking different questions. So here, three questions for executives to up their skills in leading operational excellence:

1. What did we decide?

It’s amazing how a group of people will be in the same meeting, participate in the same discussion, but have a very different take on what happened in that meeting.

To make sure everyone is in sync, leave 10 minutes at the end of the meeting and ask, “What did we decide?” You might even grab a marker and go to the whiteboard to capture what people say.

I was once in a Leadership Team meeting where I insisted we go around the room and ask each of the six executives “What did we decide?” Two of them thought that nothing had been decided – they were waiting for more information. The CEO thought he had been clear that a certain strategic direction had been agreed to and he wanted the other executives to communicate this to their functional teams. The rest of the leaders thought that decision was clear but that the CEO was going to communicate it to the entire company, not expect the executives to communicate to their teams.

These are smart people. Communication is nuanced and tricky. Do yourself a favor and make sure – by asking people – what decisions they think came out of this meeting.

2. Who will do what by when?

Getting aligned about what you decided is a necessary but not sufficient step in driving operational excellence. Once you sort out and agree on what got decided, you must look at next steps, an owner, and a deadline.

In the best meetings there is rich, heated debate which brings data, context, and different points of view together. Finally the team lands on a decision. Executives agree on the next vertical to pursue, for example, or that the company needs to update its terms and conditions. There can be such a feeling of victory in that moment that people forget about actually putting the decision into place.

That’s the cue for someone – the CEO or someone else – to ensure the decision has an owner and the owner has a next step and a deadline. This simple question clarifies who that is and when that is, or highlights that this is not yet clear. Decisions are great, but owners, action plans and timelines make them real.

3. What does done look like?

Now that the team knows what they’re doing, and key tasks have a mini action plan and an owner, it’s helpful to get the team oriented on completion. Different people have a very different take on what something looks like when it’s complete.

A Chief Product Officer I coached found this out with his product team. He was working hard, pinch-hitting for a missing Chief Marketing Officer and getting involved in customer service. Because he was so stretched he didn’t make sure his product leads were clear on their deliverables (hey, it happens!)

When the end of the quarter came he got a nasty surprise when half of his product leads submitted plans, which were far from done. They had not consulted with their business counterparts; they had not gone through a prioritization process; they had other major gaps. The product leads had simply had a different understanding of what they were supposed to produce, and the result was confusion and slipped deadlines. Do not let this happen to you! Make sure everyone is clear on what done looks like, and do a mid-point check in while you’re at it to make sure everyone is on track with high stakes projects.

Start asking these questions and insist on getting answers that make sense to you. That way you’ll be well-equipped to drive operational excellence.

Alisa Cohn

Executive Coach

Alisa Cohn is the author of "From Start-up to Grown-up," and an executive coach who works with startup executives to help them develop the leadership skills they need to scale their companies successfully. She has worked with companies from very early stage to Fortune 50. Her clients include Venmo, Foursquare, Facebook, Google, Cisco and Dell. <a href="">Click here to pre-order "From Start-up to Grown-up"</a>