Strip Your Startup Down to the Bare Essentials
Monday, July 14, 2014
Want to be productive?
Figure out what is really essential.
What if your company could be even leaner? In his new book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, leadership guru Greg McKeown explains how to reduce a business process, leadership technique, and even your daily routines down to their basic elements. As so with parsing a legal document, you pull out the good parts and leave the fluff in a pile for someone else to clean up, freeing your day (and your mind) for higher pursuits.
Recently, I caught up with the author to see if he could contextualize his research for those who are starting companies and need to be more productive.
In general, what can an entrepreneur do to be an essentialist that is not as true for people in larger companies? One thing I wondered about is being really fussy about timesheets, tasks, project management--maybe those are not as essential?
Entrepreneurs don't have the same burden of bureaucracy, so they can make better decisions, faster. As companies scale, they almost inevitably add layer upon layer of rules for doing things. Most of it came into being for good reasons, but almost none of it comes with an expiration date. So the organization becomes full of cultural scar tissue: unspoken and unnoticed barriers to bold behavior and clear decisions. An entrepreneur can focus 10x faster than a larger company.
When entrepreneurs start companies, what are some things they do that are not as important? What drags them down the most?
The biggest challenge for an entrepreneur at first is that everything that needs to be done needs to be done by them. As a result, it's easy to avoid the hardest work in favor of all of the other things that "have to be done." In this way they can be busy all day but not really feel productive. They suffer with the stress of sensing they are avoiding the thing that will really move the needle. There is a better way.
One entrepreneur I interviewed for the book built his company from $200,000 into $400 million. The more I looked for the key to his success the more I came back to a single practice he pursued with extraordinary discipline: He did the worst first. He figured out every night what the hardest thing was he needed to do the next day and he did it first. It's an idea most of us have heard before. But to see it applied so consistently shows the cumulative effect of this habit. Entrepreneurs are often portrayed as being wild and all over the place. It doesn't do justice to the day-in-day-out discipline it really requires.
What are three or four practical tips to spur innovation without spinning out of control as being too creative with ideas? One example I thought of is the constant meetings to brainstorm--is that really as valuable as it seems?
When people talk about innovation, they tend to see images of people having wild brainstorm sessions with Post-It notes everywhere. But this exploration is only half the story. The other half of the story is elimination. You need to do both to really bring forth breakthroughs. Here's how:
Flare and Focus. Encourage people to play with ideas. But set the expectation that you will go through a lot of ideas before selecting one you will go big on. Make this your new mantra: It's either a clear yes or it's a clear no.
Run a Reverse Pilot. Typically when we talk about running a pilot, we mean adding something. But in a reverse pilot you eliminate something and see the result. One person who did this eliminated a huge weekly report and found that nobody missed it at all.
Take one day a quarter to unfocus. On this day, you just read a book you don't usually have time to pick up. Have everyone on your team do the same and report back what they learned in a three-minute report.
Founders of companies are often headstrong and bullish, and many employees perceive them as a little rude. If they start saying "no" too often to extra tasks during the day, it can backfire. What should they do about that?
There is a big difference between an essentialist culture where everyone asks, "What is essential?" and wants to eliminate what is nonessential and a founder saying no all the time. The objective of an essentialist leader is to embed a way of thinking into the DNA of the organization. It means celebrating simplicity and striving for it constantly. It means making the case--again and again and again--for doing a few things really well instead of many things averagely well.
Is saying "yes" sometimes a good way to build morale even if it is not essential?
Every yes is a no and every no is a yes. So being an essentialist is not about saying no per se. Rather, it means making different tradeoffs than people typically make. Instead of signing up for "a bit of everything," which is the default position in our Nonessentialist era, essentialists sign up for "a few great things." It is a tradeoff that creates enormous excitement and can energize a whole team if it's done right.
Who are some entrepreneurs you know who have this essentialist idea down pretty well? What do they do that works?
High-profile essentialist entrepreneurs include:
Jeff Weiner: the CEO of LinkedIn. His mantra is "Fewer things done better." In a recent conversation with one of his direct reports, he helped fire him up by saying, "Instead of doing these five different things, let's choose one so that you can lead the first product to create X revenue in our company's history." He turned what could have felt demoralizing into an opportunity for a breakthrough contribution.
Jack Dorsey: the CEO of Square. He thinks of himself as the chief editor of the company. He listens to hundreds of inputs from engineers, managers, and customers and then winnows it down to the one or two things they can really go and do. One of his essentialist mantras is, "Make every detail perfect. Just limit the number of details."
Steve Jobs. He needs no introduction. He remains the world's most famous essentialist entrepreneur. He showed the power of simplicity for making an impact. But he went way beyond applying it to product design. His real genius, from my point of view, was how he applied essentialist thinking to building a business. When he was asked what he thought his greatest innovation was he didn't say the Mac, iPod, or iPhone. He said, "Apple."