Forcing Mechanisms

In May, I wrote a blog about about Setting the Record Straight. I received many comments about the post and clearly it touched on something that resonated with many people in the venture community. What most people don’t know is that I had been talking about starting a blog for more than a year. As I wrote about in the May post, it is one way to create my brand within MATH. However, more importantly, it allows entrepreneurs and other investors an insight into working with me. It also allows an opportunity for me to give back to the community-to offer a point-of-view that might not otherwise be out there.

Why then did I put it off for so long? Well, it wasn’t urgent. There was no compelling reason to do it right now. Sure, I set personal goals and deadlines for launching-but I let each one pass. I prioritized the needs of our portfolio companies and our firm overall above something that I know is critically important to attracting potential new investments. Until there was a reason, a forcing mechanism, that created urgency.

I see this same pattern in our portfolio companies every day - especially in those portfolio companies that have achieved product-market fit. They are out of the danger zone, they are heads down executing and dealing with daily operating challenges, the teams are growing exponentially and the executive team is struggling to scale. And, in the background there is a list of product shifts, organization changes, or strategic partnerships that is on the important-not urgent list. They know they need to address these strategic items but the urgency factor is not high. These are big step changes that will dramatically improve growth curve - they are obvious and sometimes even simple but almost never easy.

Inevitably the important-not urgent list is left undone long enough that some things become urgent and we deal with them in crisis. If we are being honest, many of us are adrenaline junkies and if it isn’t screaming in our face, we tend to put it on the back burner.

This is where a forcing mechanism can be extremely helpful.

When I was an operator, I used our quarterly Board meetings as a forcing mechanism. We would construct the conversation such that we would go through the business updates relatively quickly. Then we would have a strategy section where we would offer analysis including management recommendations and rationale. This would make sure we did the work before the board meeting but offer enough latitude for our Board to weigh in and make sure we did not miss anything. At the end we always gave the next steps - based on the decisions that were made-outlining the things that would be completed by the next board meeting.

To the board members, we looked thoughtful and organized. In reality, in almost every case we were scrambling. About three weeks ahead of a board meeting, I would realize we had not completed the last next steps list - we would rush to do them. Then, we would consider four or five big ideas as a team, pick one or two and put in heavy hours to get the analysis done in time. Then a sprint to align the executive team and finalize our recommendations. We would rush to get the Board materials out a few days in advance of the meeting. Then, we would spend the next few days making sure we were really in alignment. In some cases, we prepared supplemental material to be reviewed during the Board meeting - not because that was the plan - but because we had been so rushed we missed key things. We would present, discuss, debate and make decisions at the meeting. After the meeting, we would go back to doing our day jobs-for at least two months.

I was always so frustrated by this process. It felt like we weren’t moving things forward and we were always driving hard and putting out fires. It felt disorganized and chaotic. Every once in a while, I would step back and give myself permission to look at things in twelve month increments. That is when I could feel the momentum. That is when I could see the positive impact of having an engaged, opinionated Board that held the team accountable to what we said we were going to do. That is when I could see we were accomplishing great things. Sometimes, when your head is down, it just takes looking at progress in wider timeframes to really see it.

I do not recommend to anyone that they attempt to mimic our frenetic Board prepping - it smacks of late night cramming for college finals. But, I do think it is worth thinking about what can be your forcing mechanism. The key is to pick something on a regular cadence and to build in accountability. In the Board meeting scenario there were real consequences to not following up. Sometimes a great coach or advisor can do this for you. Sometimes your team can plan quarterly offsite/planning meetings.

Whatever your forcing mechanism turns out to be make sure the stakes are high enough to create an appropriate amount of urgency and follow through. What are your best forcing mechanisms?