Startups need to develop at a quick pace. They often exists in semi-chaotic environments where things can change overnight and multiple separate areas need to be quickly considered and decided upon daily. What's the best way to manage your startup in a way that it is most likely to produce results? I have found something called Agile Management to be very useful.
Google already finds over 53,000 entries for "Agile Management" and there seems to be reasonably good documentation and writings about the idea floating around the interewb. I'll try to summarize what Agile Management means for me:
It is primarily ideas-strategy-action-people -oriented ongoing process that is very flexible and can quickly turn attention towards the areas the startup needs to focus on.
Some startups run their management cycles by 24 hours; there is a meeting every 24 hours, and separate objectives for the next 24 hours, this week, this month, this quarter (very rarely "this year"). All of them "rolling" which means that at least the near-future objectives can frequently change and go towards the direction where results are needed.
Traditional management models often fail at startups due to being too stiff, slow paced and "fixed in their ways". If there is a management meeting once every 2 weeks or once a month, that not quite enough to be agile and react to situations in a nearly satisfactory level that's required of startups. While Agile Management allows for fast paced reaction and change in priorities, it also allows for very active & successful followup on longer term goals and objectives.
(These dudes have it figured out, whiteboards + standing up is the way to go:)
CC Attribution: Sagolla@Flickr
Couple of good principles I have found useful in startup Agile Management:
1) Separate meetings for operations and strategy. Mixing the two will only get you confused and blurs the clarity of both. Have a separate meeting, separate agenda, a separate whiteboard, and have all of your people in a correct state of mind to think about either long term strategic things or short term operational priorities - but not both mixed together.
2) Do the opposite of "outside the box" = "inside the box". Thinking "inside the box" is actually a lot more useful than overdoing it and trying to be too freeform in your idea flow. Thinking "inside the box" means defining the box: time frame, budget, objective, way of working etc. People tend to be massively more productive when thinking and operating within certain parameters and assumptions. Without any limits people just tend to come up with a heap of unfocused stupid ideas and nothing really productive and concrete.
3) Always focus on decisions, not on discussions. Everybody in your team can talk and speak the same language, right? Then let them do the discussions between meetings and when ever they like during the work day. But when in meetings and when running the Agile Management process, the focus should be solely on getting decisions done.
4) Prioritize all of your work. One of the "secrets" of getting a lot of focused work done with Agile Management is placing priorities on everything you do decisions about and work on. This way you can actually measure tradeoffs and allocate resources based on some realism. A good measurement for priority is: value-at-stake, which means that some decision will have either positive or negative value at stake (examples: if we do this we get €€€, if we don't do this we loose 4 of our best people), and if it is large either way; that should be near the very top of your priorities anyways.
5) Make decisions stick and focus on followup. Agile Management is a fantastic process for followup; you can followup on everything important with a 24 hours cycle if you like. Once a decision has been made, followup up on it and actively review its progress. This avoids the classic startup mistake of knowing what should be done, but being incapable of executing it due to poor followup and focus.
What is a good way to keep track of every issue using a 24 hour time cycle? Post-it-notes on a wall-board is one of the best methods.
CC Attribution: Zarch_ManchesterUK@Flickr
Muxlim, RunToShop, and many other companies use this tool constantly. Having a shared space and everything visible on the wall there for everyone to see is far more efficient than any CRM/ERP/Project software or application you could possibly use. It is faster, easier and people will like using it more.
One way to "configure" it is to do a wide row for each person in the team, up to as many you like. And then do a column for different phases of the work: (a) Awaits decision, (b) Work not started yet, (c) Work in progress, (d) Waiting followup and review, (e) Work reviewed and done. You may want to add a column "Work on hold/hindered" in there as well, to see if something is not progressing. With a bid enough board you can also divide the work into categories, for example: Technical production, Legal and HR, Financing, PR and marketing, Launch operations, etc etc. Some also use color-coding for different categories of work, or separate colors for people, etc.
Creating a "post-it-board" like this will allow everybody to see the overall big picture of what's going on any time they like. Everyone sees when work is getting done, when somebody might need help, or when decisions are needed in order to get something done.
CC Attribution: Geodog@Flickr
What should a startup team spent their time on then?
Startups typically do not have to worry much about things like: Extensive reviews of operations, administrative issues, financial policy, litigation, community service and social responsibility, etc.
As a startup it makes perfect sense to outsource everything (as much as you can) to do with finances and administration stuff. Have a good (and agile) law firm there to help you from day one as well.
Bigger operational reviews you should do between meetings - not during them. What does a "standard" Agile Management meeting look like then? It is usually a team of people standing in front of the wall-board full of post-its.
i) The team goes through all the items that require decisions starting from the most high priority decision and progressing downwards towards the less important stuff.
ii) After that the them goes through what has been going on during the last 24 hours and updates the board on work that has started, completed or requires some group action. Everybody basically tells what they have done and are going to do - and how it affects the work of others..
iii) After this the team can do review and followup of the past important points and declare some work to be finally complete and done.
Repeat that every 24 hours and you will have a management machine that can quickly refocus its energy and effort into anything developing your startup might require. Startups don't have much use for wasted paper like written business plans on what do to for the next 12 months. If you have ever written such a paper, dig it up and see how much of it turned out to be true exactly as you wrote over a year ago - my guess is that it can't be a whole lot, or then you might be managing a firm that is going nowhere.
Agile Management and building your company and team to be reactive, quick on their feet and eager to jump on the really important work that really needs to get properly done = is the best business planning procedure you can ever do. Guiding your startup by a mechanism like this one does not necessarily guarantee success, but it will guarantee that all the important things get attention and if you fail, you will absolutely know why you failed and what was done in trying to avoid that.