Will it make the boat go faster? - Three Thoughts on Execution to Drive Growth

Where did our time go?

This is a familiar picture in many growth organizations:

  • People’s calendars are full of meetings, trainings, team events, and all-hand updates. Business priorities and deadlines are frequently traded off against such events.
  • There are 15 people meetings where only 5 people contribute. There are regular updates with 50+ participants where an email might suffice.
  • People seem to be taking on more and more responsibilities. Everybody has 5 most important things and 10 KPIs to track.

Learnings from China

We recently visited China. There were companies that grew to millions of customers in no time, and still growing 200% year-on-year. In my view, China has now surpassed Silicon Valley in innovation speed and ambition. Some macro factors help: a massive domestic market and rapid consumer adoption speed. But there were also key behaviors that all successful Chinese companies exhibited:

  • Ferocious learning by doing
  • Insane competitive drive to win
  • “996” (working 9 to 9, 6 days a week)
  • Bias towards action. Imperfect execution over no execution. Start and improve along the way.

1. Focus activities on contribution

Ben Hunt-Davis was the captain of Great Britain’s male Rowing Eight team. In 1998, they had been consistently failing to win a medal or even make it into the final of major competitions. So the captain came up with a simple rule: to every activity that the team thought about doing, they would ask “Will it make the boat go faster?”. They were asking the same question with every action they took. When the team dreaded the 20km morning run, they would ask each other “Will it make the boat go faster?” When someone thought about going to the pub, others would ask “Will it make the boat go faster?” Their focus became purely about performance; the results they hoped would follow. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the team became the first British team to win Olympic gold since 1912.

  • Clarify the goal: What is important? This can be an OKR or a KPI.
  • Make the goal attractive: Why is the goal attractive? Is there a larger or longer-term purpose behind it? Like winning gold at the Olympics.
  • Clarify the employee’s contribution: How can the employee contribute to the goal? For example by making the boat go faster.
  • Focus activities on contribution: In anything we do, will it make the boat go faster?
  • Will it make the boat go faster?

2. First things first

Mike Flint was Warren Buffet’s long-time personal pilot. Feeling that he was not progressing in life, he asked Warren Buffet how to set better goals. Mr. Buffet asked Flint to write down his top 25 goals in life. Then Buffet asked him to circle the top 5 goals, the things that he wanted more than anything else in the world. This second exercise was harder because almost everything on the list seemed important. Once he was done, Buffet told him “Congrats. You have now identified your 5 most important goals. Just keep in mind that the other 20 goals will prevent you from achieving your top 5 goals.”

  1. Our time doesn’t belong to ourselves. People expect things from us and it could be as simple as a meeting invite. It is hard to say no to others.
  2. We like introducing but don’t like killing existing processes (meetings, events, team events, etc.).
  3. We have a backlog of to-dos from the past and the pressures always favor yesterday’s tasks.
  4. We prefer solving problems we know how to solve over solving hard problems.
  • What is most important to get done (the thing that makes the boat go faster)? Can we do it faster?
  • To everything else: Is this still worth doing?

3. Build a winning team

The German national team did not win much glory this world cup season. There are leadership lessons we can learn from that:

  • Will you admire this person?
  • Will this person raise the average effectiveness of the group they’re entering?
  • Along which dimensions might this person be a superstar?
  • Which of my people would I fight hard to keep if they told me they were leaving in 2 months?
  • Who am I rewarding with more responsibility?
  • Am I building on people’s strengths?
  • Am I recruiting fast enough while raising the bar?

In Closing

So where does this leave the fun? Depends on your definition of fun. Setting ambitious targets and reaching them is fun. Delighting customers is fun. Receiving trust and autonomy is fun. Learning by doing and growing with each new challenge is fun. Crushing your competition is fun. Receiving recognition is fun. Working towards a meaningful mission is fun. Spending the weekend with friends and family after a long week is fun. Going on experiences on vacation is fun. Celebrating success after a long struggle is fun. Having a Friday beer with colleagues you admire is fun.

Summary

Focus activities on contribution:

  • Will it make the boat go faster?
  • What is most important to get done? Can we do it faster?
  • To everything else: Is this still worth doing?
  • Which of my people would I fight hard to keep if they told me they were leaving in 2 months?
  • Who am I rewarding with more responsibility?
  • Am I building on people’s strengths?
  • Am I recruiting fast enough while raising the bar?

Footnotes

  1. We’ll cover good planning in another post
  • Is this training superior to learning-by-doing?
  • Will this training improve my contribution in the short-term?

More where this came from

This story is published in Noteworthy, where thousands come every day to learn about the people & ideas shaping the products we love.

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Tao Tao

Tao Tao

Co-Founder & COO GetYourGuide