How to prioritize working on your business: A Q&A with Coach Andrew Blickstein

Scaling businesses need a system. Without a formalized process to manage your goals, your people and your progress on a continuous and consistent basis, things are going to get out of hand. At Align, we talk to business coaches and people in executive leadership positions at companies of all sizes and in all industries, and this is a constant theme we hear.

The concept is obvious and something team leaders know they need, but it’s often put on the back burner. Why is that? If you know there are proven methodologies that will help you move forward, why wouldn’t you prioritize that? Well in our experience, and probably for most scaling businesses, it’s much easier said than done. It’s difficult to devote time to working on your business when you’re so busy working in it.

We talked to Executive Coach Andrew Blickstein to help breakdown implementing a system: why it matters, what to know and how to make measurement a priority.

Why does having a system matter?

There are so many strategies, methodologies and frameworks out there, but I’m a firm believer that any system is better than no system. Most of them have overlap. It’s like religion – the Western ones are all based on Abraham, there is definitely overlap, but there are differences with the core beliefs.

My preference with my clients is the Scaling Up methodology. It’s easy to create repeatable processes and show progress. You can see what’s working and what’s not in a short amount of time. One of the items on the Scaling Up checklist is that every employee knows by the end of the week if they had a good week quantifiably. People feel good about it because they can see that the system works. They’ll leave work feeling accomplished that they hit their KPIs for the week.

On the other hand, people are impatient and they want to get things working perfectly immediately. But that’s not realistic. Over time they get better, and things become clearer. In the middle of a planning session recently I knew something wasn’t working, so I said ‘let’s stop and do it this way.’ It went better. I didn’t know it would work better, but sometimes it’s enough that you know that the other route didn’t work.

This is a simplified anecdote about how we pivoted in a planning meeting, but the same concept applies to managing your overarching goals. Set out to do something and evaluate the outcome. Did it work? If yes, then repeat. If not? Time to pivot and try something different. That’s the value of a system. It allows you to think that way.

When you work with new clients, do they ask about specific management frameworks like OKRs?

Definitely. Sometimes my clients walk in asking about OKRs because they’ve heard about it or someone referred it to them. More so within the tech ecosystem where companies are building SaaS or consumer-facing apps. Companies like these look up to Google and take note of their use of OKRs. I don’t see it as much with manufacturing types.

How do you introduce a system of continuous measurement with clients? What advice do you give clients to get started?

Not setting a measurable is such a common mistake people make in planning. People are eager to set the outcome, but don’t talk about how they are going to measure it or get to that outcome. The end goal of planning isn’t ‘what is the outcome,’ it’s what’s the outcome going to be and what’s the roadmap or measurable to get there.

This is where KPIs come in. I always have my clients use a simple formula for setting KPIs – use a number, a noun and a verb. Even still people will end up leaving the number out. They’ll say ‘my priority is writing the employment manual.’ They’ve got the noun and verb so they know what they need to do, but without a number to measure it that priority is just hanging in the ether.

The next step is making it time bound like ‘write the employment manual by Q3,’ but there is still a missing piece for accountability and tracking. When I think of KPIs I think of them as repeatable activities you do over and over. You need to put measurements in place to track those repeatable activities that illustrate how you will get there, which becomes ‘five chapters by this exact date.’

In weekly meetings where team members give status updates on their priorities, the status is green week over week. But by week 13, something goes in the red and you don’t really know why. The measurable – whether it’s an OKR or KPI – helps avoid that. You have a specific metric to report against. You can definitively say ‘I wrote one chapter last week’ and know how that affects the overall outcome. It’s not just anecdotal.

Do you have any advice for how scale ups can choose which system is right for them?

It’s important to note that whatever system someone chooses – Scaling Up, OKRs, KPIs, etc. – there is overlap and there is grayness. Everyone is looking for this black and white explanation but there’s a lot of overlap. People come in frantically asking ‘what’s the best way, tell me the best way!’ Well there’s gray. I would love to tell someone that if their issues meet ‘x’ criteria then it’s a priority and if it’s something else then it’s an OKR. But that doesn’t exist. It’s all gray.

The true reality is that any system will benefit your company. You need a system, and any system is better than no system. Your team will figure out what works and what doesn’t based on a little trial and error. There’s no cookie cutter solution. But there are solutions that are proven to work and there are resources to help you do so. The thing about these systems is they were created as a result of someone else having the same problems. Most of the challenges scale ups are looking to solve are not unique. Adopting a system is a logical first step to getting your team set up to put their best foot forward.

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