Why is it important?

I think deciding how much emphasis to put on outcomes and how much to put on tasks is probably one of the most important leadership decisions to make when it comes to team building and performance in start-ups.

That’s a big claim but, given how much time goes into driving performance in teams, there isn’t much that’s more fundamental than what you choose the focus to be, and how you measure success.

What it Means

In larger companies it tends to come with the pay grade or the level of responsibility a person has in the organisation. I actually think this is wrong but it’s often the case – you give the managers accountability for a set of outcomes, they translate this into some sort of KPIs or OKR framework and it churns through into a set of tasks that need to be completed each day/week/month. Someone else then looks the KPIs to see if tasks match outcomes and so it goes on.

So personal accountability for most people in the company is for completing a set of tasks, for a sainted few it’s to achieve outcomes (hopefully linked well to the tasks) and then they all get together at the Christmas party and pretend they had the same objective all along.

They didn’t. 

We’re in start-up land and I’m never going to lose any points for taking a cheap shot at big companies! We’re not usually old enough to have established work practices; we’re high growth so the jobs to be done in the company are often shifting and the teams can grow and change focus significantly across a year or even a quarter.

So there’s little danger that we’ll be stuck in KPI management hell like the blue-chip guys – though there is sometimes pressure to start looking at what the KPIs are and start introducing more formal work practices when funding and scale become the focus.

So if that’s not a problem, why bother writing a blog saying it’s one of the most important leadership decisions for a start-up?

It’s because start-up teams tend to be smaller and more dynamic that everyone right the way across the company should always have a clear understanding of the outcome of their work on the wider goals of the company, so they can be part of how the company solves problems and iterates. Without this it really doesn’t matter how focused the management team is on their goals – everyone else will be completing the tasks given to them and expecting you to make sure those tasks are in line with the company goals. Probably fine if you have layer on layer of management – not so fine if you’re small, 12 months old and you’ve pivoted twice already.

So having an outcomes-driven team can keep everyone in the company alive to opportunities to refine the tasks to be better at hitting the outcomes – it even gives them a responsibility to do so.

It also means the team gets to agree the outcomes in the first place. You get perspectives from across the team about whether the outcomes are achievable with the current work practices or whether things need to change to get where you’re trying to go. Everyone is bound into getting ‘the job’ done, not just doing ‘their job’.

Finally, it breeds leadership and expertise in the company. People feel that they’re accountable for their contribution to the bottom line, to growth, to quality. That accountability can be the difference between success and failure, and means that everyone has the same set of goals and values. 

That accountability and the ability to engage the whole team in achieving the goal is why it’s so critical for start-ups – if we haven’t pivoted or discovered something wrong in the way we’re doing things by Tuesday morning it’s been a very good week. Start-ups are about failing well, about testing, about constant iteration and improvement in areas that are often new. Everyone on the company has to be vigilant in seeking out these improvements. Task-focused teams just aren’t going to be looking at what they’re doing and whether it’s the best way to get things done as outcomes-focused teams.

“Great then – let’s do that.” Well not quite, unfortunately!

I said at the start that there was a challenge, and that the challenge was getting the balance right between outcomes and task focus. There is.

Firstly, we’re still running a company not a college newspaper – not everyone’s decision is the right one, and things still need to get done. Ultimately, while everyone needs to have a focus on outcomes, the buck stops at the top in terms of delivering them at the company/strategic level. 

Also, start-ups need to deliver fast. This means getting things done rather than constantly asking if this is the best way to get something done. There’s a time for review and there’s a time for sitting down and doing the thing that gets the money in – whether or not you’re convinced it’s absolutely the best way.

Thirdly, start-ups are a lot about failing well. It’s hard – often really hard – so making the whole company accountable for every failure takes a special approach to leadership that allows for certain types of failure to be seen as a success. We’ve learned, we’ve improved, we’ve found another thing slowing us down. This constant self-reflection is hard enough for start-up CEOs – the team really need to know what a good day looks like, and sometimes that means achieving a set of tasks we understand rather than every goal moving around all the time as we learn more. You need positive unequivocal movement sometimes.

So tasks help us get things done quickly and simply. They’re how work gets delivered. They’re the other thing start-ups are supposed to be good at – delivery.

In Practice

In practice it’s a balance. We’re an agency, so this problem is more acute for us. We work with start-ups and try and help them solve their growth problems, but we also run campaigns.

Our clients want us to deliver results, but sometimes the result is that we create a campaign very well and learn that actually we need to try and sell something a different way. If we weren’t good at having a solid task focus at that time, we wouldn’t be confident in the data from the campaign.

That is to say that sometimes it’s the quality of how well we complete tasks that really gives us the information we need to get to the right outcome.

A start-up agency is a real crucible for understanding when to focus on tasks and when to focus on outcomes.

In practice there are a couple of solutions we’ve found that have helped us. Essentially, outcomes are about a culture and mindset of accountability, tasks are about work practices, and you can merge the two with review points and data.

We’re steadfastly an outcomes-focused culture. We care about whether we’re actually getting the right result or not, and it’s a grim Zoom call with the bosses if we find that we’ve been busying ourselves with a load of work without really looking at whether it’s getting the right result for the client. 

Because of that, we’ve had to bring in tools and work practices that help to give us a task focus when we need one. We’ve worked hard to create a simple environment to get work done effectively when we need to get things done, and some other processes (including data – the perennial topic of any conversation with us) to make sure we’re constantly checking back on whether that work is getting the outcome it should.

I’ve used my company as an example but I’m confident it’ll be the same for most if not all. Outcomes focus is a cultural thing – it’s about accountability and a start-up mindset. Getting the right work practices and tools can take that context and mindset and allow the right tasks to get done. 

The big difference in a start-up is the mindset of accountability, but once the decision has been made, the ability to get things done accurately is still what’s going to ensure people get small successes each day from their work, and that there’s plenty of work getting done.

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