Bottom-up goal planning and alignment for high growth startups: By a former chief-of-staff

Aditya Baser

In your startup’s early days, goal planning is easy, since you have a clear vision of what you want to build. And you have personally validated that vision through close contact with your customers. But, as your start to scale and your startup grows larger, this starts to get difficult. Read this great piece by Ankit on the high level mental models needed to define your goals. In this article I build on my experience in multiple high growth startups to focus on the process of setting goals across a 50-100 member organisation.

The exercise is as important as the goals

The first question you might reasonably ask is why do I need to have an ‘exercise’? Because until recently all you did was buy some pizzas and have a spirited debate, why not just do that with your executive team? A quote I love that explains this best:

"Every person in your company is a vector. Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors." - Elon Musk

As a refresher, a vector has both a magnitude and a direction and if they aren’t pointing in the same direction they cancel each other out. Dharmesh Shah, who had this conversation with Elon Musk, goes into a lot more detail.

The reason you need to have an ‘exercise’ is because as your organisation grows larger you have a lot more ‘vectors’ from diverse backgrounds and with diverse experiences within your organisation. You as the CXO need to make sure they are aligned in the same direction.

A good planning exercise makes sure that you set the right goals and choose the right metrics to track them. And more importantly it also ensures that all your employees are 100% aligned on the ‘why’. This is important to drive participation and motivation.

Step 1: Challenge your bias

This seems rather obvious, but, what you are really doing here is challenging your biases. As a CXO you think you understand best what your customers need. And it is most likely true, what you are really looking for is information that challenges your biases that you gather through:

Market Research

Always be testing the market, not just once a year, it should be a perpetual process. It will greatly reduce the odds that your startup will fail. It doesn’t have to be in-depth or a great presentation. It just has to answer these two questions:
I think my startup is in market ‘X’. Is that true?
Is market ‘X’ where I create the maximum value?

Documentation

You should create a culture of documentation and make that documentation accessible to everyone in the startup. There is a treasure trove of information in your meeting minutes, customer interviews and NPS surveys. And it’s not enough that you are documenting your thoughts. This needs to be decentralised. Every salesperson should be noting down insights after a call, and every engineer post a deployment. This will help you answer these questions:

  • I have some assumptions for growth, what are outliers that validate/invalidate my assumptions?
  • Who in my organisation has the most information about or can challenge the assumptions I am making?

Take inputs from everyone (Yes, every single person)

This comes before the OKR (or KPI, KRA), it’s time consuming so you can’t always do it, but I would recommend doing this at least once a year till you grow to > 100 people. This is where you ask your teams to submit the answer to the question: “What do you think the organisation should focus on in the next year/quarter?”. You can do this over a simple Google Form and then open the results to the entire company. There are two things you find out here:

  • Is there something that I’m missing? - This is usually something that’s not urgent but in the long run may hurt like tech debt so I’d pay attention
  • What do our employees care about? - This is important so that you can address why you aren’t picking something. And it creates a backlog of ideas

Btw. It really helps to have a Chief of Staff who among other things manages this process and adds another objective layer between your biases and the organisation's priorities. At the end of this you should have a pretty well-formed answer to what you think your goals should be. Your hypotheses are tested against statistical and anecdotal evidence and you are pleased about the inclusive process. 

But, you still have one step left: convincing your executive team.

Step 2: Agreeing to a plan and get buy-ins 

Now, I don’t mean to say that your executive team is standing between you and hyper growth. They’re not. They’re the ones who day-to-day are going to be driving your strategy and they need to be convinced (to almost the point of no doubt) that the course we will take as a startup is the correct one. They need to buy in to this collaborative vision. 

There is plenty of content to actually run a strategy meeting, you can use a legion of tools and frameworks (below are templates from Miro) and I’d recommend getting a masterclass as a facilitator from somewhere like aj&smart.

Here are a few things I’ve learnt that help with the process outside of how the meeting is designed.

  1. Talk to everyone individually before the meeting: I can’t stress this enough, never go into a strategy meeting without knowing the opinion of everyone in the room. Nothing is more damaging than an executive feeling that they aren’t a part of the decision making process. Through your conversations you hear their concerns and either give them context that helps address them or acknowledge that you’ll work to resolve them.
  2. Send reading material ahead of time: Your executives are busy, send all the research gathered and the conclusions at least a week in advance. It gives you the time to have individual conversations and gives them the time to form opinions. I’m personally a huge fan of Amazon’s 6-pager memo.
  3. Don’t brainstorm: This is an editorial meeting, brainstorming should have happened earlier, you are here to sift through ideas. (read: Managers must be Insane to brainstorm in groups). Working remotely of late I’ve realised this is even more important to remember since it is easy to get lost brainstorming without actually deciding anything.
  4. 90% agreement rule: There’s theory that suggests we spend 90% of our time on the 10% of things we disagree on. So, get the 90% you agree on out of the way first. Every time you come across a disagreement let it be heard but discuss it at the end.
  5. Agree to disagree and commit: Again from Amazon, you won’t get agreement on everything but it will save a lot of time. From Jeff Bezos’s letter to shareholders: “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

Step 3: Pedal to the metal

Now you can start executing!

You don’t have to do this entire process every time, and your plans will definitely change midway, but it’s still worth it. By doing these three simple things:

  1. Anecdotal and statistical information is collected from across the organisation
  2. Employees feel ownership of the targets since they contributed to the plan
  3. Your executive team agrees and commits to their responsibilities

You should be able to increase productivity (Shorter daily standups and KPI reports), get everyone on the same page, and increase the overall morale of your startup. All your vectors are now aligned. Maybe the stars will soon too! Go go. 

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