Poor Low-Level SaaS Execution Comes from High-Level Symptoms
By Katie Burns
Feb 26 2019
The last couple of weeks have illustrated how challenging it can be for fast-moving companies to fulfill the right SaaS execution priorities. We have a couple of growth-stage clients struggling with it as well as a couple of earlier stage ones. Pretty much everyone says all the right things about prioritization for the business and opportunity costs. But when it comes down to actually executing against their words, actions tell a different story.
Small Priorities Add Up
Just because this is understandable doesn’t make it okay. Small, poorly prioritized decisions roll up to create bigger problems pretty quickly. And it’s those relatively small ones that get made far too often and with little consideration. That’s because it’s easier to see the impact of big decisions than it is to see the sum impact of many small decisions. So we often end up with sub-par low-level priorities that undermine the bigger picture.
The question is, how do keep we our priorities aligned from low to high without micromanaging or losing ourselves in the weeds?
One of the things that struck me this week, in particular, was how easy it is to lose track of what’s really important. Take any low-level task. Assuming the priority was set correctly, you can’t get sidetracked on adjacent issues. You have to stay focused on executing against the priority. That doesn’t mean that adjacent needs aren’t valid. It simply means they get backlogged as potential future priorities until the current priority has been successfully completed. Often the adjacent distractions detract from the SaaS execution priority and undermine its outcome.
HOW FINDING NEMO IS LIKE A SAAS COMPANY
My kids are 16 and 20 now, but back when Finding Nemo was high on our family’s agenda, Ellen DeGeneres’ famous, amnesia-inspired line of “Boat? I saw a boat.” became our inside joke for losing focus. There are so many things to attend to in a growing tech company that losing focus is incredibly easy. That’s also why things might not get done. One of my biggest pet peeves is initiatives that languish in an incomplete state. “In progress” too long translates into wasted investment. Until an initiative is launched, it’s worthless. So the minute people lose focus and chase the passing boat, their executional priority is neglected, momentum slows, and completion of the task at hand is postponed.
So what are the organizational symptoms that lead to the disease of poor SaaS execution?
1. LACK OF PERCEIVED AND CLEAR ACCOUNTABILITY
One of the best ways to stay on task is to be on task in the first place. Many people don’t really understand what their task is and how it relates to the betterment of the organization. In my experience, most employees crave this understanding and don’t feel like they have it. This is a common failing of fast-moving companies. And most of the time, the management team thinks everyone knows what they’re accountable for; why they come to work in the morning; how that translates into their success; and how that translates into the organization’s success. When this is clear, staying on task is much easier. When it’s not, it’s easy to wander off track, because the track is ill-defined.
Ask your team in one-on-one’s what they understand they are accountable for and how that relates to their success and the success of the company.If they don’t know, fix it.
2. LACK OF TEAM TRANSPARENCY
I’ve sat in many meetings where teammates pull other teammates back on priority. It’s a powerful management moment when they crowdsource the right outcomes. But that kind of self correction can only happen when perceived and clear accountability extends beyond ones self to everyone on the team. Sally needs to know what she’s accountable to do, but so does everyone else. When everyone understands what everyone else is expected to contribute, they can also see how those contributions drive team success. And if you hire for passion, that understanding will translate into a culture of continuous improvement (against the right SaaS execution priorities).
Accountability to teammates helps make performance consequences obvious.Personal SaaS execution priorities shouldn’t be a closely-held secret.
3. NOT ENOUGH GRANULARITY IN HOW
SaaS leaders like to think their young teams translate what needs to be accomplished into how they’re going to accomplish it. Umm, most of them don’t do that without guidance. Reducing churn is a big, huge example of what needs to be accomplished. How that’s going to happen likely includes a hefty list of initiatives. But that’s often where the guidance stops. The problem is that many people will be very inefficient at translating their monthly or quarterly initiatives into day-to-day execution.
Be sure your team can articulate how they’re going to accomplish their goals down to the day-to-day level.Force them to think your SaaS execution priorities all the way through.
4. LACKING PERSPECTIVE, CONTEXT & OVERSIGHT
Last week I wrote about my low-impact version of agile SaaS management. Today, I want to track a piece of that back to day-to-day execution and priority keeping. The most valuable role of a leader in a daily standup is to continually tie back the day-to-day to the higher-level SaaS execution priorities of the company (and to listen for cues that something is not aligned). This means that each person’s accountability can be reinforced every single day. When you combine engaged management oversight with team transparency, it becomes pretty hard to see anyone veering too far off course in the span of 24 hours. And you shouldn’t have to micromanage anything.
Use agile standups to provide perspective, context, and oversight.Passionate people crave context and reinforcement that leadership can provide.
Knowing What to Focus On and How to Accomplish It
In-the-trenches day-to-day focus comes down to high-level organizational design. Low-level failings are the result of poor leadership, lacking process, and disengaged oversight. The great news for growing tech companies is that priority keeping can be greatly improved through organizational change. And it’s not all that hard. Overlaying a management framework of accountability, transparency, granularity, and oversight can produce a culture that stays focused on the right things and executes methodicallyagainst a high standard. Once you get to that place, you can take fewer steps back and more steps forward on the road to continuous improvement.