November 14, 2004
Flossing and startups
I went to the dentist recently.
I'm always slightly embarrased at the dentist. It's as if I'm 11 years old all over again where I know I did something wrong and I'm just waiting to be caught.
I sat in the chair and after a few minutes of chit-chat the hygentist began her ritualistic socratic questioning.
"How often do you floss Joe?"
Of course, I don't floss. That's the problem. She knows I don't floss but she asks anyway. And, my trick of flossing the day before I come into the dentist's office never seems to fool anyone.
"Uh, not very often."
"That's ok" she said. "Just floss the teeth you want to keep."
Well if you put it that way...
Don't ask me why, but that line, "just floss the teeth you want to keep", got me thinking about goal-setting inside companies.
Goal-setting is everywhere. Everyone knows it's the right thing to do. I've got to focus. I've got to have goals and objectives. I've got to communicate these goals and objectives to those around me. We've got to get on that proverbial "same page" and goals are the way.
Problem is, most goals are never met. Goal setting quickly becomes overhead. It takes time with no rewards. People stop believing that goals are anything more than management requirements that have little effect on day to day behavior.
It may seem obvious, but in my opinion, the root of the problem is that people make two big mistakes around goals:
* they set soft goals that cannot be measured.
* if they measure, they measure without reference to competition.
"Just floss the teeth you want to keep."
"Just measure the goals you want to meet."
I see it all the time. "Improve customer support" or "Gain market share."
I always wonder, how do we know if we've done what we've set out to do.
The cure is to never set a goal you can't measure. Sounds draconian and simplistic, but it's the best cure to "squishiness" around. Cultures in companies are really nothing more than a shared set of behvaiors and if you let "squishy" behavior in early through soft goal setting, it's really hard to stamp out later.
An ancillary mistake people make is that they set absolute goals as opposed to goals relative to competition.
At Excite, we made this mistake in the IM space. The whole category was exploding and Excite's IM product (called Excite PAL for those historians out there) was getting a lot of downloads. Of course, it was being outpaced by ICQ and Yahoo Messenger, but we were measuring it's progress relative to internal targets. We probably knew it wasn't right, but we were letting our excitement over our internal growth cloud our judgement.
We didn't feel dumb, we were just acting dumb.
You know what happened?
We explosively grew our way to irrelvence in the IM market.
So, floss your teeth, set measurable goals, measure relative to competition, and be kind to your hygenist. There's no telling what wisdom she can provide.