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Build a Culture of Discipline in your Startup

You created a start-up. Sweet. Go ahead – enjoy a little flexibility in how you dress, talk, and think. Wear the jeans & t-shirt. You’ve earned it. Just be careful that when you throw out the archaic conventions of the corporate world, you don’t also fall into a classic entrepreneurs trap and throw out discipline with the suit & tie.

As a strategy consultant (you know….one of the Bobs) and start-up founder, I’ve seen different approaches for running a business. The strategy consultant in me lives process, critical thinking, and delivering insights based on analytics. My consulting life was laser-focused on solving client’s problems over a period of 3-4 months. I had a methodology, a clear approach, and was very happy to create beautiful PowerPoint slides that keenly showed both that “as-is” and the “to-be” states throughout the journey.

The start-up guy in me knows to dream big, create products, and learn as fast as humanly possible to meet the needs of our customers. As a co-founder, I’m less structured than I was as a management consultant. Work doesn’t come in neat 3.5-month packages, and I don’t always have a young analyst willing to create more appendix slides than I can count. But, I’ve kept the discipline & commitment to serve the needs of others. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a lot of start-up organizations and people who lack this discipline.

You don’t want to be the start-up that withers on the vine, so go ahead and ditch structure, but keep the discipline. Discipline is proven based on observed behavior, not stated goals. Discipline measures “want-to” and communicates your commitment to urgency and tenacity. Structure is about process and alignment, or the “how-to”. While structure is needed in large organizations, it’s not nearly as critical in start-up organizations. What’s important for both types of organizations, but particularly start-ups, is discipline. Casual, fun, and fluid will kill your business without discipline. You want success? You need discipline.

What are some of the ways you can get disciplined?

It Starts Here.

Meetings have a start time.

Being on time is all about respecting the time of the person you’re meeting with. If someone is worthy of your time, they are worthy of your respect. Show it by being on time.

If you’re late to meetings you’re telling your team that deadlines are optional. Actions speak louder than words, so command respect by planning your day such that you can get to meetings on time. If you want your team to meet deadlines, don’t miss the timeline you’ve agreed to for a meeting. Leaders can’t say one thing & do another. It doesn’t work — just like parents who swear a lot can’t expect their kids to have a clean mouth simply by telling them not to swear. We all know that life can get in the way of starting on time occasionally, but make sure it’s a true exception if you’re going to be late. Don’t become comfortable with “just 5 minutes late.” High-powered teams meet deadlines.

One thing that won’t cure the lateness disease: people paying money for being late. A dollar for every minute late actually makes the problem worse by communicating that a few dollars can undo the damage caused by being late. That’s fool’s gold — respect for others has no price tag. The real gold is mutual respect & we all know how to sing it.

Don’t play the game of telephone.

Make decisions & document them. I’ve seen the scenario too many to times to count where 4 different people have 4 different interpretations of a decision that’s been made across multiple discussions. It’s not practical to have everyone together in every meeting, so successful teams document decisions, often as part of a “DAR” – Decision Action Record. DARs often have a lovely permanent home in your file-sharing tool of choice (for me, it’s Google Drive). The time required to document a decision is a small price to pay when compared to having an organization with multiple versions of the truth. Get everyone on the same page by creating a disciplined with one source of the truth.

Schedule unscheduled time.

Unscheduled schedules? Huh? When you’re leading a start-up your time is the most precious commodity you have. You’re constantly pulled in a million different directions, but you can’t let “think-time” slip through the cracks. Schedule at least 4 hours every week to work on your business, not in your business. Disappear. Go to a different environment, get a cup of coffee & think about things differently. Turn off your email & rise above the day-to-day so you don’t miss out on a better way. Forcing yourself to come up for air will do exactly that.

Prepare for meetings.

By taking 5 minutes to prepare for a meeting, you’ll get 5x results. That’s the good news. The better news? You’ll also shorten the average meeting duration by 13 minutes. Today, before I meet with anyone on my team, I write down the top 3 things to discuss. It’s taken me a number of years to learn this & I used to believe that I was “efficient” by running from meeting to meeting and saving myself from isolated work and instead concentrating on talking through things face to face. Sound familiar?

We all fall victim to thinking we can just get together & figure things out. Too often, this means no agenda, no background research, extended chitchat, extended talk about generalities rather than specifics, and reinforced notions about general principles rather than applying principles. This is dangerous. When there’s a neat agenda & appropriate preparation…meetings work. Don’t accept discussing general topics and chitchat unless you’re comfortable wasting time. Without preparation, you’ll simply fill the time scheduled without accomplishing anything. I’ve seen it too many times. When you let the time dictate the meeting rather than the meeting dictating the time, minutes simply disappear. 30 minutes for 30-minute meetings, 60 minutes for 60 minute-meetings, and — you guessed it — 90 minutes disappear for 90-minute meetings.

A better approach is to attack your meeting with the highest priority items, use less time, and get part of your day back. Take this additional time and use it to prepare. You’ll get your 5x results, encourage others on your team to also prepare (guilt is a powerful motivator), and create a culture of discipline. That’s what I call progress. Now you’re ready to cut the duration of your meetings. Give it a shot right now….go to your calendar and change three meetings from 60 minutes to 45 minutes and create both an agenda and a list of high-priority items. Make it happen.

Go Public with Goals.

In football, the offensive coordinator calls a single play to be executed by all eleven players on the field. The immediate goal isn’t to score a touchdown, but to obtain a first down and make progress towards that touchdown. Every player has a different role, but the team is executing one play and in motion to get the first down. The plays will change, but the goal does not. “Move the sticks” and confidence across the entire team grows.

As an entrepreneur, you need to be comfortable changing strategy, roles, brands, personnel, and sometimes even your underpants — just don’t ever get caught running around without a play. Worse yet, don’t have half your team running one play and the other half running another. What play is your team running a play today?

Successful start-ups have a strong game plan. They focus on first downs and come together to execute plays. Think of your organization as a football team & call out your plays in the form of 30-day goals, ensuring that every member on the team understands their role & how they can contribute to the team’s 30-day goal. Go after the goal, move the sticks, & call another play. Create a track-record of working together & achieving goals. Be disciplined enough to create goals every 30 days & share progress against the goals as a team.

Ready for action?

Here’s how you can quit reading & start doing:

  1. Track your next 10 meetings to see how often you start meetings on time. Don’t like what you see? Track your progress

  2. Write down your personal and team 30 day goals & share them with your team

  3. Shorten 3 meetings on your calendar from 60 minutes to 45 minutes. Don’t go to bed tonight until you feel as though you’ve adequately prepared for tomorrow’s meetings

  4. If you won’t do these three things right now stop and think about the implications when you multiply the impact by one year & the size of your team. Remember, the difference between success & failure is often measured in inches, not miles.

  5. Share your comments & let us know how it’s working


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