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If you asked me what the most important core principal at CoSchedule was, I would probably tell you that it’s our ability to stay focused.
This means staying 100% focused on what matters most to our company, customers, and product—no matter what.
Of course, this is a learned skill and definitely, easier said than done. When you work in a company with a lot of creative people, there are always a ton of ideas popping up. There is also the temptation to continually chase down those new ideas and make them a reality. After all, we’re a startup, right?
But, chasing down our whims would take us out of focus, and that would be a bad thing for everyone.
Around our office, you’ll hear the phrase “that’s a thing we could do” at least several times per day. It indicates when we’ve come across an idea that we could work on, but instinctively know we shouldn’t because it would be out of focus.
As a company, we have a roadmap for our product and distinct metrics that we’re working to improve. If we chased down every idea, there’s a chance we could lose our focus and miss our clearly outlined goals.
But, this isn’t the only thing we do to stay focused. As a leader, I have worked to instill our team with the necessary tools for battling “scope creep” and staying focused.
Author John Maxwell says that good leaders ask great questions, and that advice has become very powerful for me. I’ve come to adopt a few key questions that cut through the crud and help our team stay focused like a laser beam.
Here are my top five questions for keeping our team (and myself) focused 100% of the time:
This is the essential question that frames everything we do at CoSchedule. With every blog post, new feature, or web page, we continually ask ourselves what’s in it for the reader, visitor, or customer.
We’re kind of obsessed with it.
The beauty of this simple question is that it constantly drives us toward focusing on providing more value. It’s simple—the more value you provide your readers or customers with, the more likely they will be to reward you with their attention and business.
I would say that it’s the single most important question for our modern economy. If you aren’t focused on providing value, you aren’t focused on anything at all.
Learn to ask this question at the beginning of any new project to keep your work focused and on point. You might be surprised at how much clarity it brings.
Does everything you ship meet your team’s one true standard of performance? This question allows your team to constantly review their own work and evaluate how it compares to the quality level your entire team has committed to.
Even as a tiny startup, our goal has been to provide a best-in-class experience for everyone that comes in contact with our team. We expect ourselves to perform as well, or better, than the top five companies in our class. No matter how limited our resources are.
For our content marketing team, this means that they literally focus on writing the absolute best blog post on a given topic every time. This doesn’t mean the best blog post they are capable of; it means the best blog post on the entire internet. It means that they have to push themselves further every time.
They do a ton of research, they read “competing” posts, and then assemble a post that goes at least one step further than others on the web. They even go back and rework posts that are later determined to have fallen short.
This is, of course, only possible because the team has clearly defined their standard of performance. To use this question effectively, this is also something that you will need to do. Keep things simple, and ask the question often and you should be fine.
As a team, you should define a clear “standard of performance” and constantly ask yourself if you’re meeting it.
While it may feel a bit contradictory to my recent statements about quality, we also frequently ask ourselves how we can get things out the door faster and sooner. This question is related to the concept of the minimum viable product made popular in the book Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
Many people associate this concept with sloppy or unfinished work, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Rather, our team uses it as a way of splitting large projects into smaller and more manageable chunks.
It’s all about shaping a project to ensure that we approach it with clear goals in mind.
An example of this comes in a recent redesign we started for this very blog. Rather than building it all at once, we opted to make some of the backend and functional changes first using our current design. That gave us an opportunity to test them out and work through the kinks before the big launch.
This prevented us from taking on more than we could handle and allowed us to focus on creating something that we could ship in a week—thus taking advantage of some of those changes right away, rather than waiting until we completed an entire redesign.
Oftentimes, this question is also phrased in terms of “what can we ship this week,” meaning what small part of the project can be accomplished without waiting on everything else to be done? This attitude allows us to continually focus on moving things forward, rather than getting ourselves bogged down in ultra-huge projects.
The idea here is focusing on small frequent wins, rather than the more traditional pattern of infrequent but huge wins. Large projects frequently bog us down, and usually lead to low satisfaction among team members.
By asking yourself “What can I ship right now?” you will keep yourself laser-focused on continuous improvements that constantly add up over time. This means that everything you do is constantly improving, and that is a very good thing.
Some of my favorite startup advice comes from PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. He simplifies it all by instructing startups to “always seek to build a monopoly.”
In a monopoly, the business owns its market. It can set its own prices, avoid the struggle of competition, and maximize its place in the industry.
What Peter is talking about here is building something that is unique enough to avoid competition, or has grown so aggressively that it simply leapfrogs the competition entirely.
One way that we apply this idea at CoSchedule is to constantly evaluate the impact of the projects we take on. We look at it as 10% versus 10x improvement.
It’s a lot like asking if the things you’re doing right now will actually pay off enough to make them worth it. If you consider every hour of your day an opportunity, what is the opportunity cost of working on the 10% when you could be doing the 10x instead?
It’s a really great question for staying focused.
Rather than focusing on small goals and ideas at CoSchedule, we constantly shuffle our priority list by its potential impact on our company, and our ability to ultimately create a monopoly in our market.
You can’t build a monopoly by grinding out 10% improvements all day. You need to stay focused on the 10x growth opportunities, and constantly ask yourself if what you’re doing right now has the potential to result in 10x growth. If it doesn’t, it’s time to find something else to work on.
As a leader, it’s my job to make sure that everyone who works at CoSchedule has everything they need to be successful. This may sound simplistic, but it’s actually very powerful.
One of the things that drive me crazy is to see team members who have not been empowered to do their job. This is not their fault; it’s mine!
It may be due to a lack of time or clarity but can often arise from a lack of permission to act as well. Either way, it’s an inefficiency that needs to be dealt with.
The problem with someone not having what they need is that they can never achieve clear focus without it.
If there are too many things on their plate, how will they ever do anything well?
If they don’t have the knowledge required to complete a task, how will it ever get done?
Sometimes, this can also be about “permission.” If someone doesn’t have the freedom or permission to do what they need to do, how will they ever be able to focus on it correctly?
My job as a leader is to eliminate roadblocks, and this question helps me find out if there are any. It also helps my team reflect on their own needs and expectations.
Another way we do this is to simply ask three distinct questions:
If you want to stay focused, constantly ask yourself these questions to re-evaluate your own needs or the needs of those around you. If you know where you stand, you will always be focused.
These are the five questions I ask our team the most often, but it is far from a complete list. Questions are powerful tools for self-reflection and leadership
What questions are you asking of your team to bring laser beam-like focus? Share them in the comments or via social media. We’d love to hear!
P.S. This post is part of a new series about CoSchedule’s workplace, culture, and productivity. Join our official email list and never miss a post!
May 5, 2016
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