Want to Be a Better VP R&D? Then Lose This One False Metric.
It’s 7:45am and you’re at home with your caramel skim soy milk macchiato. The weather is right. You’re pumped after a 6-mile run and are ready to rock and roll.
As the VP of Research and Development, you are constantly leading high-risk and high-profile projects with harsh deadlines, and scarce resources with constantly changing priorities.
The pressure is ON.
You get in at 8am and the floor is empty. There isn’t a single developer pounding their keyboards. It drives you crazy.
You can’t blame yourself. It’s hard. It’s f* hard.
8.30am comes and goes and nothing. The first developer arrives at 9am, and the familiar beehive hum doesn’t begin until 10am. You feel like you’re losing control — that you are about to miss another deadline and no one cares but you.
You are wrong.
If you are like me, you are someone who likes to get shit done early in the morning, before back to back leadership meetings pull you from your team.
Take a big breath and consider what’s going on here.
- Why do you really care when everybody arrives?
- Since when did punching the clock become a standard R&D KPI?
I was once the guy who came in earlier than anyone else and was the last to leave. I left home and kept going until my laptop died. I truly believed that putting in those 12-hour days was how you succeeded, and I expected no less from my team. Naturally, that created tension, friction and unfulfilled expectations on both ends. These were bad managerial practices. I’m sure that in those days people hated me. I would too.
The story only improved when a huge corporation spread across multiple countries acquired the startup I worked for. A few months into the acquisition and I assumed full responsibility for four different locations, managing them remotely. While you may think this sounds like a huge career boost, I didn’t see it that way. I often felt totally lost and out of control. I immediately lost any perceived power over people when they came in, left or when they were getting their stories and tasks done. Once again, I felt alone in the battle.
The new leadership’s constant pressure didn’t help, either. When times became challenging, I heard sayings like the team is not putting in enough hours or staying late enough. That didn’t help, either.
I needed a change. I needed to challenge everything I thought I knew about managing people.
Over the years, I’ve learnt one cold truth — people care less about the hard work and long sleepless nights you put into meeting your deadlines, the inputs. The one thing that matters is RESULTS. The outputs. Don’t get me wrong; you still earn points for effort, but you only earn your leadership trust and respect with successful deliveries of the highest quality. Full stop.
Let me try and sort things out.
Forcing your team to stay long hours in the office is not the answer. For all you know they may be playing Diablo III from 5–8pm, or constantly checking their social network feeds.
Your focus should be on what they output and you should work to gradually shift your team, and finally your company’s state of mind, to be driven by results.
How do you do that?
As with any change, you start from the bottom and build your way up.
First step: introduce your team to the what’s in it for me point-of-view. What data points and processes (ex. team velocity, burn-downs/ups, peer code/design reviews, retrospectives) retain the high quality while also helping to move faster, get rid of waste and improve. That also ensures the team has more time to research and POC sexy technologies.
Second step: agree on the first set of KPIs that make both the team and yourself feel comfortable. Start small and expand with time. It’s fine to spend an entire quarter experimenting and fine-tuning. It will take time before people see the value in exploring this new and uncharted territory to be ready for the next evolution.
Don’t forget to include the Product team early in the process. After all, they are an integral part of the execution team and a crucial element in the success of this process.
Third step: clearly communicate your plan to the leadership team and make all KPIs and essential metrics publicly accessible to everyone. There’s a good chance that your leadership team will not dive into any of the internal systems and tools used in engineering. You have to discover on your own how to best present a clear picture of your organization. This can be a powerpoint presented during your KPIs monthly leadership meeting, or an engineering dashboard everyone can access. Both work.
Within these first few weeks, KPIs and metrics may seem bleak. That’s okay. You will receive a clearer picture of how things look — what is working and what isn’t. Where you need to spend more time with people, and where you can watch from a distance. Gradually, you’ll gain more control, become less anxious, and more driven by data and results.
This is when you stop barking at the wrong tree and let go.
You hired the best people in the industry. Some of them are smarter than you, and most of them are much more capable than you in their domain of expertise. Let them do what they came for. Stop looking at your watch. Stop messing with the wrong metrics.
Most CEOs I’ve known throughout my career have a strong background in Sales, Marketing or Operations. These domains come with a long history of clear quantitative and measurable metrics: MRR, ARR, NPS, LTS, churn/retention rates, win rate, and the list goes on and on. All of which are quantitative and can be tracked to the last person on the team affecting them.
Consider how the AE and BDR work is brutally dissected, analyzed and publicly accessible to almost every person in the company via SalesForce. Every new prospect, number of calls, sent emails, presentations and demos done, number of qualified prospects, pipeline, the works. Conversely, most R&D teams will not present any individual KPIs. In most cases, we can’t (and won’t) even compare one team to another.
Most executives live by these metrics, and so should you (if you want to stay in the game). When you fail to deliver on such terms and present clear and accurate KPIs to reflect on status, risks and timeline, you cause a huge amount of frustration for your CEO and your leadership. Don’t lean too heavily on the “Research” part in R&D as well as the hard work of your team. This cannot be used as an excuse for pushing dates and missing customers’ commitments.
When this happens, you leave your peers with no choice but to challenge you by the hours and efforts you put into work. When you punch in and out, how much of your team’s day is spent pounding the keyboards.
That tune will only change when you’ll show more transparency. More data points to support your results.
That’s not news to most R&D VPs out there; it’s just that the implementation is damn hard. Not to mention the cherry picking of the right KPIs and metrics to clearly reflect on a solid gradual trend of the R&D status, productivity and efficiency over time. Such visibility and transparency recurrently presented, explained, dissected and analyzed with the same Sales, Marketing and Ops surgical tools is the only way you can shift from talking about inputs to outputs. Results.
Lastly, and equally as important, by pushing for long and insane hours, early check-ins and work over weekends, you will be frustrating and demotivating your team, wearing them out, and simply put, showing them the door.
Numerous studies have shown that the more autonomy employees have at work, the more satisfied they are with their jobs and the less likely they are to transfer or leave their positions. You’ve already put in so much time, effort and money into recruiting, on-boarding and training your team. Now it’s time to move aside and let them do what they do best.
By doing that you will leave more time on your hands to deal with the stuff that matters.
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