What exactly does “great execution” mean for startups? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
The difference between good and bad execution isn’t always obvious. It’s much subtler than most people think–a fine line that’s easy to cross if you aren’t careful. There’s no warning sign on the road to bad execution.
Take interviewing potential employees, for example. There are a couple different ways to go about it. On one hand, you can run it like a numbers game. You interview tons of people, check if they have the right credentials, try to recruit a few of them, and then play the numbers game and hope one of them accepts the position. I call it the Lottery Ticket method.
Or, you can really go after the candidates you want. You can go all-in on those candidates and pursue the few that really stand out. Maybe that’s not what a textbook or a recruiting expert would tell you to do, but that’s what brings in the best candidates.
You’re working hard in both of those examples. Nobody will tell you that either method is wrong. You aren’t making obvious mistakes, but you’re executing differently. You’re putting in the same hours with subtle differences.
These differences can make or break companies in the biotech field, as they often throw all their resources into one project. With so much on the line, execution is crucial. Here’s what I’ve learned about it:
Don’t Focus On The Big Mistakes–It’s the Little Ones That Matter
A lot of people focus their efforts on not making big mistakes. They feel that if they can just avoid the whoppers, they’ll succeed. Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway said in one shareholder letter, “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
I don’t know if that’s true. You can’t win by not losing.
But little issues do contribute to success or failure. That’s because the little things are less noticeable, but they compound over time. Getting something right leads to something greater down the road.
This could be gracefully handling an employee issue in a timely manner, creating a well-written document that simplifies a complex issue, mastering the fundamentals of a subject, or building personal relationships. These activities won’t get you on the cover of magazines, but they’re important small things that can compound into a much larger reputation.
I’ll give you an example. Our work is focused on patients, technically. We’re working to solve their problems and treat their diseases. But the patients we’re talking about treating en masse are still many years away. The treatment may not even work out. So, we’re thinking of patients in an abstract way.
That’s why I try to think about my employees as much as the patients. I think about their aspirations, their careers, their needs. Because if we aren’t taking care of our employees, we’re not going to be able to take care of our patients. A series of smaller failures in how we treat our employees can lead to a larger failure in patient care.
Do What Is Valuable, Not What Is Easy
When I first joined Morphic as the CEO, I had to execute some hard decisions. There was a program the company was running–and I could tell wasn’t going in the right direction. It had some value, but I knew that wasn’t enough.
So, I killed it.
That decision was tough, because I’d only been there a few months. I didn’t have a long history with the company, and I wasn’t sure how the board was going to respond. You have to remember, in biotech, killing a program like that means that you’re essentially starting from scratch. One program is everything. That’s a very difficult and sensitive decision to make.
I was giving the board some hints at first–because I wasn’t sure how they’d respond–but I kept getting the sense that this project wasn’t moving us in the right direction.
By the next board meeting, I was convinced. I told them, “Look, we need to kill this.”
It’s all about pain now, or pain later. You have to make the decision that will add value over time. It’s easy to keep things moving in the direction they’re going, because people see motion and momentum as positive forces. It’s difficult to stop everything and change gears. It doesn’t look as promising. But it’s the difference between success or failure farther down the road.
Build A Team Of Decision Makers
Good execution isn’t just on your shoulders, either. Mature executives find the right people and let them do what they’re good at. They give their employees the autonomy to perform well and make decisions without someone peering over their shoulder all the time.
If that’s obvious, why can’t more companies create that environment?
Before I joined Morphic, I did a tour of CEOs and asked them their challenges. Almost every CEO said they wished they could push decision making down–but they struggled to execute it.
I obsessed over this. But creating a team of decision makers is a cultural task. It’s something that you need to get right in the first 90 days or so. If you can do that, you’ll create a culture where employees feel empowered to make their own decisions, rather than coming to you with every problem.
If you don’t create that culture in the early stages, it can be difficult to do later on. You’ve already established a culture that doesn’t encourage independent decision making, and that’s not a scalable model. Again, a small difference in the way you operate will compound over time.
Success is about building up over time and understanding the fine lines. Choices that seem unimportant may be what separates good and bad execution in the end.
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