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  • Writer's pictureJeff Day

Code Red: The Business Pulse, Ailments, and Antidotes for Progressive Business Leaders

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

As a long-time runner, I’m keenly aware of what a change in elevation both means and implies. What always amazes me is how imperceptible a gradual change may be along the way. I know I’m climbing based upon subtle changes in my physiology. I know I’m descending with increased comfort, speed, and energy. Running teaches me both what to look for and how to look for it.

Every business, every organization, and every team have a pulse. Whatever your environment, progress against your charter gives a pulse. As a former CEO and volunteer leader, as well as one who meets with different tech businesses and volunteer organizations every day, I frequently am asked about pulse approaches. I have found that the practice of pulsing works and is relevant across the board. It is a leadership competency steeped in the organization’s culture.

As it relates to taking a pulse, I find that invariably inquiries are consistent and have central themes. What should I measure? How frequently should I measure it? And what is the right amount of data to evaluate? Many times, the answer will vary from business to business based upon nuances and industries. My suggestions, however, come from knowing the ailments and their antidotes.

Ailment 1: Timing…too frequent, too infrequent

Just like climbing a hill provides instant physiological feedback, a business pulse is intended to be taken and felt real-time. Some teams get buried in the day to day and take their eye of road on critical measures for months at a time. Case in point, trying to solve your quarter sales challenge in the last 2 weeks of the quarter. In other situations, we measure like we are watching the grass grow. Knowing your cashflow, for example, day to day is likely a critical metric. But other metrics on an hourly or daily basis could be overkill.

Antidote: Balance daily, weekly, quarterly metrics

You always need to be paying attention. The foundation of pulsing starts in knowing what to look for based upon the response the metric creates. When it comes to the balance, I have a general rule I follow called 3:5:10.

  • Daily – 3 metrics. Pick the ones that if they changed substantially would signal an immediate crisis. As a CEO, I liked to see the status of critical support cases still open. Connected to customer satisfaction, it’s status could drive an immediate, daily action. Daily metrics don’t necessarily require meetings although they certainly could. I’m a big fan of the morning daily huddle.

  • Weekly – 5 metrics. These are metrics that change enough in 7 days to spark action. At Cisco, one of these metrics was the, “weekly commit.” The culture drove accountability and visibility of the sales team to a weekly rigor. These check ins are almost always meetings and should be engaged with a scoreboard mentality. The key here is metrics that change weekly.

  • Quarterly – 10 metrics. Here we can back up and look broadly around at emergent trends. Here’s where a body of data helps because you now have time as an evaluation axis. 10 factors help you pin point and refine.

It is 50% art and 50% science. Don’t ever lose sight of the focus of the metric in all of it – what emotion and action does a look at this create for me and my team?

Ailment 2: Metric Management Mania

Tragically, I’ve seen some of the most talented people get sucked into the black hole of management by spreadsheet and data. Effectively, you have handcuffed your most successful and strategic team members to their desks churning data and reports. The business suffers because they suffer. It is simply too much evaluation at the wrong intervals. If left unattended, this will destroy your culture and business. Worse yet, your best people will leave you. The goal of metrics is to evoke action, yet in the metric management mania you stifle, or even stop, action.

Antidote: Team Work, Team Work, Team Work

Engage your team in the selection of the most important metrics to monitor. Anytime you bring your team together with discussions around the, “most important,” items to discuss you put yourself much closer to where boots are on the ground. It keeps you, as a leader, engaged and it provides a wonderful opportunity for your people to engage more closely in the strategic process. Perhaps the most important aspect will be the engagement and participation you drive with your teams. Achieving alignment on critical aspects of the business will foster both action and urgency to get things done.

Ailment 3: Irrelevant Metrics

Many leaders fall into the ailment and trap of measuring too much data. At first look of what to measure, everything becomes important. We think data that, “would,” be useful turns out to be a metric we’ve never tracked before. While sometimes it may yield powerful insight, it may also lack salient relevance. Beware of, “would be,” metrics that feel right without a solid understanding of what reaction you are trying to evoke.

Antidote: Drive Emotional Reactions

Your measure serves the purpose of driving a reaction that leads to action. Pick measures that evoke a material and strong emotional response. Literally, ask yourself on that metric, “…what does know this data point do for me when I hear it?” If it doesn’t spark a response or remains unchanged week to week because the movement doesn’t trigger emotion, there’s a strong possibility it is irrelevant. Emotional reactions trigger emotional responses! You’ll know that data point is important because you FEEL it.

Ailment 4: Too Many Metrics

There is a movement afoot to view 360 degrees of your business through a wide range of robust analytics tools. Domo, Tableau, and many others provide an incredible ability to view business in great depth, anytime and anywhere. While this insight can change the game, the lack of metric context can become numbing. Swimming in a sea of metrics doesn’t change the fact that it is still the sea. You cannot sort the ocean. Without careful planning on the metric you won’t know what’s underneath or around you.

Antidote: Filter, Refine, and Pick 5-7 Critical Metrics

This is a discipline move. Look at the data sets you are currently evaluating. Do they fit on 1 page, neatly? Does it read like a newspaper? Does a quick glance give you the emotional reactions that drive to action? There will always be lots of great data sets, and there is a time and place for evaluating them. But when it comes to a quick pulse, less is more.

Ailment 5: Lack of Accountability and Follow Up

Lack of accountability and follow up happen as the net effect of getting the metric equation wrong. It hits where it hurts most, how the business progresses day to day. When people struggle to take ownership of both the actions and the outcomes, that disconnect plays out in speed and deliverable quality. You’ll know this is your challenge by recognizing the symptoms. Blame shifting, no urgency, and regular recurrence of the same issues again and again will consistently plague you. Other symptoms to look for include a rise in hallway gossip, back biting, and complaining. When your teams have the time to dedicate to these negative behaviors getting to the root causes is paramount.

Antidote: Build Accountability Cultures and Follow Up Procedure for Reinforcement

The fastest way to get ahead here is to be extremely clear on expectations and deliverables. Here are a few tips to start with if you are not already doing them:

  • Take Team Notes. Have the entire team share a document where the notes and actions are taken. Designate a scribe if you need to. Put everyone on the same sheet of music in terms of what happened and who have actions.

  • Sort Actions by Short and Long Term. Actions that can be done in 7 days or less and big items in 90 days. If all your actions are long term beyond 90 days, it will be very difficult for you to know if you are making progress.

  • Consistency. You can’t keep changing expectations around accountability. Tracking daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly won’t matter if you don’t establish and reinforce the fact that you will be checking back and looking for updates or closure.

  • Speed. Don’t make checking a laborious process. On a pending action the updates are quick and to the point. When actions aren’t getting done, decide well in advance what the corresponding call out, correction, or punishments will be. Do NOT do this on the fly as it will kill culture and team trust.

Keeping the business pulse isn’t an option if you plan to stay in business long! And while one size will not fit all, how you approach the task reflects much on your culture and style. What may be clearer are the challenge symptoms which should command your attention and focus. Doctors diagnose before they prescribe by asking a series of though provoking questions. I would urge leaders and teams to do the same! Get business health savvy! Take the pulse, chart the course, and start getting stuff done!

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