Empowered Team

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Systematic Prioritisation: A Productivity Hack for Busy Founders

In this week’s Path Forward, we share a neat trick for founders looking to boost their productivity through systematic prioritisation. We also share a tool we use internally at FP, and is also used by our portfolio companies to keep on top of priorities when in the usual state of being “uncomfortably busy”.

Key takeaways

  • Get your diary out: Work out where you’re spending your time by looking at what you are actually doing week-to-week.

  • Categorise your time using a taxonomy that makes sense to you and your team. Why not ask them to do it too?

  • Analyse where you’re spending your time. Does it make sense based on the focus you set for yourself or your organisation?

  • Revisit your priorities, and devise a plan to realign your (and/or your team’s) focus. If you’re doing too much of the ‘chuff chuff’, delegate.

  • Don’t burn out. Remember to enjoy the journey.

Beware the Busy Founder

We’ve all heard the paradox of the “busy manager”, who claims to spend every waking hour focusing on strategy, cost-reduction or unlocking new revenue opportunities, yet spend most their time in meetings, making phone calls or extinguishing fires (AKA “active non-action”). Unsurprisingly, this can apply to founders, who are continuously battling to take themselves out of the critical path of running their business whilst pursuing more strategic or output-orientated goals.

The original HBR article expressed this delicate balance as a 2x2 matric, depicting Managers or CEOs as Chief "Energy" Officers, who are simultaneously required to remain laser-focused on driving the business forward. The study found that a mere 10% of managers are purposeful (i.e. both highly energetic and highly focused), who choose goals and take deliberate actions to achieve them.

A productivity hack for busy founders

In the busy life of a founder, prioritisation feels like a constant uphill battle, and yet it’s critical for founders and their teams to remain productive, staying focussed on outputs, whilst getting a lot of stuff done, fast. To that end, we share a step-by-step guide for a neat life hack, complete with a handy template for you to have a go yourself.

NB// To provide some context, I have used my own diary as a case study, which may or may not provide a rare insight into what an early stage investor spends most of their time doing.

1. Open your diary

Take a look back at your diary and browse through the meetings or events you’ve attended, as well as the various placeholders you’ve set over a particular time period. I took the last 15 working days as a fairly representative sample of the ongoing activities I’m involved with, but it’s likely to be different for each person.

That said, be sure to select an appropriate time period. For instance, there may be times throughout the year where you’re spending an unusual amount of time in board meetings, fundraising or attending conferences, in which case take a larger sample. Sometimes, it may be helpful to keep it to a limited time period as it may expose unnecessarily 'busy' periods where delegation could help to keep your business on track. This can be particularly important when founders are going out fundraising, which frequently shows in MoM business metrics).

2. Code up each of these events, activities or meetings

Going one level deeper, divide the days into blocks (I simply used AM/PM, and PM+ for evenings). Then, start to code up what it was you were doing that morning, afternoon or evening. How can you best characterise the nature of the work you carried out at that time?

These first order categories may be extremely varied but no doubt, you will start to see some trends or similarities week-to-week i.e. repeatable tasks or activities that take place regularly as a matter of course or events that crop up every now and then hence cannot necessarily be classified under “business as usual”.

Again, the coding you use is likely to be specific to your role, the stage of your busiess or the sector in which you operate.

3. Group activities into high-level categories

This step can be quite a subjective, so be sure to sense check the categories you decide on with the rest of the team, and try to settle on no more than 10 high-level categories.

To give you an idea of what these might be, I’ve given a quick breakdown of the categories I came up with and the related activities that regularly appeared in my diary under the previous step.

NB// You’ll notice many of the categories I have chosen would not look amiss in the daily activities of an enterprise salesperson (prospecting-propositioning-closing). This fits my own thesis that working as a VC investor i.e. sourcing and closing deals as well as managing portfolio companies is not 100 miles away from a Commercial Director closing complex enterprise sales and managing client success.

Category

Description of Activities

Prospecting

Analysing pitch decks, attending demo days, emailing founders (outbound)

Propositioning

Office Hours, 1st/2nd/3rd meetings with Founders

Closing (Live Deals)

Market research, Writing IC notes, Preparing Termsheets

Current portfolio

Board meetings, meeting with pre-seed founders

Internal meetings

1:1s, Deal team meeting and Partners meeting

Working on FP

Strategic “rock” work, quarterly planning day

Networking

Panel and speaking events, VC networking

Blogging

Content creation (Path Forward or FP Blog)

Personal Development           

Investor Sales Playbook, Newgate compliance training

4. Look for ballooning or shrinkage in any given category

Once you’ve categorised the activities you coded up in Steps 3 + 4, and if you are using the template provided, you should start to see a pie chart with a % breakdown of where you are spending most (or least) of your time.

Take a close look at which categories are receiving too much, or too little attention. Be sure this is not due to poor classification on your part i.e. bundling too much under a single category. This step can be particularly useful if you have carried out the exercise before and hence can track changes over time, or as a snapshot for you to take action either on areas that you should be prioritising or would ideally, like to spend more time.

NB// In my case, I concluded it was probably appropriate to be spending nearly a third of my time on prospecting being in the early stages of my career as a VC investor. However, I took some solid steps to spend more time on my personal development and researching or blogging on the latest market trends.

5. Get your priorities straight

Once you’ve followed all of these steps and you have a finished template, share it with your team, mentors, investors or peers to get their feedback. Don’t be shy about asking their opinion on where they would be spending their time, or from experience what they were doing at the same stage as you.

Most importantly, start linking this snapshot to your own business objectives, matching activities to outputs to make an informed decision on where your efforts woul dbe best placed given the strategic goals of your business.

Finally, encourage your team to do the same and allow it to provoke  discussion about whether further delegation, resourcing or realignment is required.

NB// When I reflected on my diary, I realised at times, many of the activities I was involved in were taking place over evenings and weekends. This is perfectly normal, however, it’s worth quantifying how often this happens and setting a threshold i.e. pledge to take positive steps when more than 50% of your “personal time” is being occupied by your business.

Further reading

 

Chris Corbishley

Investor

Chris previously founded growthsquared.io a data science consultancy on a mission to help e-commerce businesses apply advanced analytics to their data and/or operating model. Before that, he was Head of Analytics at Swoon Editions, a business championing the "zero stock, zero lead time” model in online furniture retail. Chris undertook a PhD in organisational economics at Imperial College London, focussing on how public and private organisations structure themselves to deliver affordable energy services to the poorest parts of India and East Africa.

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