Client Operational Success: Objective, Cadence, Validation
I recently got bogged down on another one of my team’s calls that I swore I never would be sucked into. Yet there I was, deep into an issue, solving a problem that someone else could learn from.
And it went something like this:
Me (M): Client is asking for a refund, he says no one has reached out in months and they signed up back in June (over 6 months ago). What are the case notes?
Account Manager (AM): I’m not sure what the details are. I’d have to check my notes.
M: Yes, check your notes.
AM … silence …
M: (frustrated) My expectation is that the client hasn’t been served during the last six months, so they’re probably right that they weren’t serviced for months. What happened?
AM: Well, it looks like they signed up in June [proceeds to walk me through every item in our CRM confirming that they haven’t been served since having activity 7 months ago]
M: (dying inside at the details) Okay, looks like we dropped the ball, we need to have a standardized process to respond to these kinds of concerns. I thought we did previously. How do we make sure we get ahead of this for our other 200+ retainer clients? Can we reach out to anyone we haven’t serviced in 3 months?
M: Also, can you draft up a template response to this request instead of sending him a cancellation of service survey that tries to save the account?
Illusion of Problem Solved
In the moment, providing the suggestion feels cathartic. Like penciling in my best educated guess at the end of a timed exam simply to show more work, I kept explaining why we needed to avoid these issues in the future. It feels good putting forth my idea and solving a problem so “easily.”
But I’m also frustrated. I feel that I am left doing the heavy lifting and that the team will not catch up. However, I’m somehow soothed by the affirmation of “yes” from the subordinate and feel better again.
In truth, I know I was being complied with, and that the same issue would yet again return with the expectation that ‘Miguel will solve this.’ And man, how used to welcome these ‘got-a-minute calls’ and problems.
This loop made me think back to times I was coached effectively in my career and times when professors would be patient with my persistence and ask me a question that through thinking and struggling on my own, changed my outlook.
‘But they weren’t running a business’ I say to myself. ‘How could I possibly use a socratic approach to decisions that need to be made in real time?’
Solving other people’s problems is problematic for a few reasons. For one, it creates the expectation that all problems should be brought to the owner. And two, it neglects people within the organization from a valuable lesson. There are limits like with all things, for example, legal issues. However, there are times when fires should be dealt with by the team’s firefighters. They need the experience. But the challenge remains: how do I get others to operate as I do, or even better. I have a model in my head of good client service, one that for the most part has been absorbed through osmosis by my other technical managers and directors, but as we’ve grown to have non-technical account managers, we haven’t grown our vision or approach.
Instead of thinking about how the team learns and what kind of experiences everyone needs, I’ve zeroed in on what he/she needs to do NOW. And that’s the short sighted part.
It’s the illusion of a problem solved, but no one is there to hear it (or learn it).
Framework is Freedom
This conundrum of solving everyone’s problems is most persistent in small teams, especially with founders grow that team. Letting go of control isn’t just an ego-driven problem, sometimes its routed in a selflessness that truly believes that you should sacrifice more and solve these problems(which okay, some might argue is low-key ego).
But as my buddy, who happens to be a COO at a company twice our size, reminded me, you have to help your people develop their problem solving skills. Sure, that means autonomy, but it also means creating parameters that allow different people to work different ways.
In testing a series of iterations, I’ve learned that having a framework is incredibly effective in front-loading problem solving and sneaking in parameters into their own approach, which feels much better than barking down orders. One might conclude that people — especially the effective ones —largely prefer to apply their own skills, creativity, and energy in an environment with relatively low restrictions (say Minecraft) rather than follow strict guidelines. Does anyone remember the Xbox Kinect fitness video games where you follow each workout to a tee? Exactly.
An effective framework at work allows for a level of freedom that encourages unique problem solving that leverages each operator’s unique skills, while also paying homage to the larger operating objectives and intention of das kapital, ie, the goals of a value-creating enterprise. While not every business can allow Minecraft-style freedom, elements of freedom can still be established, and that’s the beauty of building a framework in your business: you can decide how broad or narrow the lines are within each stage or component (further discussed below).
Structured correctly, the right framework can create an organic search for operational excellence in organizations. If recent history is any guide, we’ve learned how unrestricted experimentation and honest evaluation drive more value and innovation than do ever-improving requirements from headquarters or “centers of excellence” as defined by industry bellwethers.
Three Stages of Client Operational Success: Goal-Cadence-Validation
Our framework moves between three components or stages: (1) goal, (2) cadence or process, and (3) validation. The intention of our specific framework is to employ a continuous cycle of (1) defining our most valuable hypotheses (goals), trying effectively (cadence), and pivoting as the truth reveals itself (through validation).
In addition, breaking the framework into three distinct areas allows manager and subordinate alike to agree on a minimal operating standards that meet various objectives:
- manager has the ability to define objective, and give subordinate the freedom over a fixed timeline to “figure it out”
- subordinate can receive ample problem solving space and the absence of micromanagement
- manager has the ability to encourage the subordinate to work through problems and plan in advance and empower subordinate to define their own practice with a fixed time by which the manager will “evaluate” performance
- both can agree on a process by which the task or activity is checked upon on a semi-regular basis, encouraging an iterative approach and feedback loop,
- manager and subordinate are required to agree on a definition of success that if met, gives more freedom to the subordinate in terms of cadence and practice, and if not, allows the manager to change the goal and practice.
This is beneficial from both sides.
From a management standpoint, subordinates must understand in simple terms what is expected of them, when it is expected, and what result they must demonstrate (how they prove the did it). These are all accomplished in the goal-cadence-validation framework.
From a subordinate perspective, having this framework allows the freedom to maximize or minimize work according to your unique personality, motivations, and work preference. For example, an overachiever is going to want to know their goal in order to aim above it. A shirker will want to understand the minimum threshold that must be met. A goal will set that bar and based on work and life preferences, one can negotiate with their manager on when they are required to do certain activities. Interestingly, both are going to want to minimize unnecessary work, but may not know how. By defining and agreeing with management on cadence, an effective sales person can minimize administrative work, and an introvert analyst can maximize time in the cube (or at home). Finally, subordinates are going to want to understand how they will be reviewed. In this framework, validation is not simply whether a subordinate was rated a 4/5 or a 3.5/5. It is addressing the specific question which established practices or cadences helped most in meeting the defined objective(s), which is a different question altogether.
Goal-Cadence-Validation In Practice
Using the goal-cadence-validation framework allows for there to be distinct discovery and conversation around each “stage” of the framework. It is up to managers to decide how top-down or collaborative they are in defining or testing each, but the process must be discussed prior to implementation.
At minimum what is required is: (i) an outline of objectives or milestones at the group and individual level, (ii) an agreed cadence of when practices will be performed and collaborated on, and finally (iii) a process or practice of validating the efficacy of those practices against the original objective. While in my view part of step (iii), a friend of mine pointed out that technically, a step (iv) is required to redesign (i) and (ii) in order to improve objectives and best practices. These are further described in the final section below.
An example approach is provided below:
i. Goal —Well-defined objectives keep the focus on creating the right result instead of creating the illusion of the right activity. This allows teams to have autonomy, so long as they have the right goal. Examples include profit margin, sales, churn, lead times, number of customers, or completion rate %. The risk always exists that you work hard toward your goal, the wrong way, and toward the wrong goal. However, that is where stages ii and iii are valuable.
ii. Cadence — Agreed cadence and practices serve as the times to meet, measure, and manage the objectives set by the company. They can include weekly review of KPI’s and 1:1 meetings with key reports who drive those metrics.
iii.Validation — As Peter Drucker noted, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently something that should not have been done at all.” And that is the higher standard that we want to meet with validation. It is easy to establish a binary test, you either DO or you DO NOT(to quote another wiser influence of mine). Harder yet, is evaluating whether you have set the right goals, and to understand which practices established in cadence above creating negative externalities on other objectives you may not have previously focused on. For example, hitting your sales goal but experiencing 50% turnover in the company due to morale. Or hitting a sales goal at the expense of profits (in a non VC-backed start-up context). Or building software that doesn’t have a market, etc. etc. The validation step should be taken on with a combination of metrics, a review of the cadences, an exploration of the negative or positive externalities of those practices, and finally, with other believable people, co-workers, and/or advisors.
It is a framework that transforms Zuck’s “move fast and break things” to … ‘break things and evaluate.’
The Reinforcing Nature of Goal-Cadence-Validation
Done correctly, these components are reinforcing. Establishing a practice of validating success (or learning from failure) at defined intervals, will help teams elevate their standards, ie, create better objectives.
Better objectives properly communicated to the individual level, help managers and subordinates define optimal cadences and functions themselves (i.e., playbooks) that consistently produce a result while maximizing managers/subordinates’ needs. Manipulating your job to be happy and efficient is a good thing, so long as you’re moving toward the right goal. In our case, the answer is profitability and client satisfaction. If you’re able to keep clients happy and remain profitable, I don’t care if I catch you taking an afternoon off to go to a baseball game or if you start work at 11am.
And having a playbook optimized toward improved objectives allows management to more effectively leverage technology and talent to evaluate and improve company performance (e.g., through 360 reviews, strategic advisory boards, and tech-driven OKR and KPI dashboards). And as management can better evaluate and learn, it can again set better objectives, repeating the cycle.