Creating a clear framework for making decisions is what separates companies that manage to scale well from companies that don’t. The stronger your framework becomes, however, the higher the risk of losing your employees’ trust becomes if you start losing focus. When employees make decisions based on their understanding of their company’s “north star,” they need to trust your vision. If you deviate from that vision, their trust will wane. The first to suffer from trust issues will be your focus gatekeepers, those in charge of making tough, unpopular decisions.
Software companies’ focus comes from hard decisions, not external constraints
The importance of focus in tech startups is not a new idea. It’s easy to forget, however, how difficult it is to remain focused, especially when building software.
Software products have an amazing advantage over physical products, because of their ability to make most of the adjustments together with their users. Software companies can also pivot or expand their offering to new territories much more easily.
The problem with this “magical” ability is that focus is kept artificially by gatekeepers who understand the long-term goals and are in charge of making the hard decisions.
Take a soft-drink manufacturer as an example, which has physical constraints that help it maintain focus. If all its manufacturing and distribution are aimed at sugary water, it can’t suddenly decide overnight to expand its market to freshly squeezed orange juice, without an orchard from which to purchase the fruit, refrigerated shipping and many more crucial elements to the business. But even if it does decide to expand into the freshly squeezed OJ market, it can calculate the operational costs and build a plan that will justify such a move.
Software companies, in contrast, are at risk of confusing the ease with which a talented group of developers is able to create more products and features with the difficulty involved in successfully selling and growing them over time.
The feeling of having a magical R&D “machine” that can build anything in the world makes companies forget that building is only one step in successfully turning a few pieces of code into a viable business. Building more things can add complexity to your product, and will impact your training, marketing, sales, documentation, QA, and more. All these are additional costs for adding features and/or products that are in the same area of your product. Adding additional capabilities outside your company’s focus might have deeper damaging effects on your brand, positioning, differentiators, pricing and others.
Once you build a healthy decision-making process, you must make sure not to lose focus.
Maintaining focus on long-term goals is difficult. Employees whose role is to keep the company focused are often portrayed negatively for saying “no” to many initiatives. They can be accused by salespeople of hurting their commission, or accused by R&D of holding them back on building things that are “easy” to produce.
Gatekeeping for a company’s vision is not an easy job, which makes it critical for the leadership to back up those fulfilling that role. It takes only a handful of instances for you to deviate from their framework and overrule their decisions to make them give up and start kicking the can down the road, so to speak. Once they lose trust in the decision-making framework, and start to avoid making the necessary hard decisions, it’s merely a matter of time before you lose them as employees.