How To Coach Your Startup To Choose Better Metrics

There's no cookie-cutter way to choose metrics that will work for all startups. In fact, what the history shows us is that everybody who's tried to come up with a better metrics framework has made progress but has ultimately failed to produce a perfect solution for all startups.

With that in mind, your startup almost certainly needs some coaching on how to ensure it's measuring what's most important todayIn this article, we'll walk you through how you can coach your teams and Higher Ups to elevate their metrics game—just in time for your startup's 2021 planning.

What does an analyst bring to the table?

You don't need to be a metrics expert to dramatically improve how your startup uses metrics. Here are a few strategies that can make a big difference.

1. Help people seek a balance of metrics that focuses their work

As the history of modern metrics demonstrates, one of the most critical facets of effectively using metrics is finding the right balance between not enough information and too much information.

It's completely understandable why some people have the urge to track everything. In startups, you’re in a never-ending battle to figure out how to survive the next crisis and keep afloat. With that much chaos, it's no wonder that some people reach for a tool that makes them feel reassured they've got it all under control. But as we've seen, this is a recipe for disaster.

To find the right balance, your startup doesn't have to embrace a metrics framework such as OKRs or Lean Analytics. All it has to do is to consciously strive to find the right balance that makes most sense at this particular stage and given the unique challenges the company is facing today.

So one of the most important roles you can play is to help folks take a step back from the daily grind and ask:

  • Are we getting enough of the right information to keep our eye on the prize? 
  • Are we spending too much time and attention tracking information that's not critical? 
  • Are we tracking so much information that we’re losing focus?

Also, you don't have to be using Lean Analytics's one metric that matters (OMTM) strategy to acknowledge the fact that you may need to iterate your metrics as your startup grows.

For example, it's worth asking whether the team as a whole, specific departments, and/or the Top Brass should create check-in points or triggers where they do a quick and dirty evaluation of the ROI of some of their current metrics. Even if you ultimately decide to keep your current metrics, building in those milestones can help keep you on track.

2. Make sure key metrics actually measure success 

As we've seen above, the place where companies most get in trouble with metrics is having a disconnect between what they are measuring and what really matters—especially when circumstances are rapidly changing. So if you can help your startup regularly ask whether their key metrics are measuring what matters most right now, you can increase the odds it will thrive.

Sometimes the problem isn't figuring out what's most important to measure, it's being able to help people let go of vanity metrics.

The key to this often-delicate task is to empathetically ask enough questions to get at what's driving their focus on vanity metrics, then offering alternatives that get at that deep-seated need in a more productive way. It's okay if you can't make it happen on the first try. Just give them some space, then come back at some point in the future and see if they are finally ready to let go.

3. Once your metrics work, focus on clarity

As you make progress on #1 and #2, it's time to start cleaning up the metrics that are being used effectively. That means asking pointed questions about how they’re currently being tracked, such as:

  • Is the metric actionable? How is the team going to use the metric to drive decisions? If the answer is, "we aren't sure, but it would be nice to know," they should probably drop the metric
  • How will you measure the metric? For example, if you are going to track active users, who counts as an active user, and are there edge cases that need to be analyzed?
  • Are there any political disagreements behind the metric that need to be surfaced? For example, is there a disagreement between two teams about how something should be measured that will have an impact on their compensation? Most of the time you're better off explicitly raising the issue, but in some cases you may need to take a gentler approach or leave it alone (for now, at least). Make sure you get guidance from your boss before wading too far into those waters.
  • Will the metric encourage dysfunctional behavior? It's easy to focus so much on what a team is trying to measure that the team doesn't consider the impact measuring it will have. For example, if you use metrics to push developers to hit almost impossible goals, they’re likely to create a mountain of hidden technical debt that will burn your startup down the line. That's why the OKR framework includes aspirational goals alongside must-do tasks: so teams can shoot for the moon without setting themselves up for failure.

4. Develop infrastructure to support your startup's metrics 

One of the most often overlooked pieces of the metrics puzzle is the infrastructure that supports them.

For example, metrics are only as good as the data they rely on. That's usually not a problem for, say, out-of-the-box Hubspot analytics. But if one of your SaaS products doesn't log the data you need for certain metrics, there's not much you can do until your developers have time to add it in.

Similarly, even if the data needed for a new metric exists, it doesn't do you a lot of good unless you've got time to import and transform it into a form where you can feed it into your BI tool. That's why you need a data platform that makes it easy for teams to iterate what they are measuring by making it easy to import or transform new data.

How to start the metrics conversation—and keep it going

Helping your startup get smarter about how it handles metrics isn’t a one-time thing. At the very least it’s an ongoing process that has to be revisited every time teams are tasked with planning their next round of KPIs or OKRs. But if you do it right, you could help to bring about an important cultural shift in the way your colleagues approach measurement. Here’s how to do it:

Prioritize your attention and iterate

Given everything else you need to do, make sure the time you spend coaching teams on developing better metrics has a real payoff. For example, rather than working with whatever team shows up first, think strategically. Prioritize your engagements where there is a team that has a pain point, is relatively straightforward to work with, and is likely to use their new metric to guide their decisions. If there's a decent chance of having a direct impact on the bottom line, even better.

A network of allies can be a great partner in figuring out where you're likely to get the biggest bang for the buck. They can also help you think through how to prioritize metrics coaching work as your startup evolves.

Be mindful of respect and politics

Soft skills are critical when coaching teams around metrics. If people can't hear what you're saying, if they are defensive, or if they don't believe you're on their side, it doesn't matter how good your analytical skills are.

A few tips on how to approach the people side of the equation:

  • Most importantly, be humble, listen, and make clear that your goal is to help in whatever way they think is most useful (and is a good use of your time).
  • Act from a place of empathy. Before you have your first conversation with a team, for example, think about what pressures and constraints they are under, how comfortable they may feel and/or how much experience they may have working with metrics.
  • Remember that your goal isn't to be right, it's to make progress. If a manager doesn't agree with you, get your point across but know when it's time to quit. This is an iterative process; assume you’ll get more than one bite at this apple.
  • Your network of allies can be an extremely valuable asset for dealing with the people side of metrics. They may have info about what's going on behind the scenes that may be driving a team's response. And with teams that are particularly resistant, one of their peers from your network may have an easier time of convincing them.

How to elevate your metrics coaching skills

Here's a dirty little secret about the world of IT consultants: Some of the best in the business started out by having just a slightly better clue than the people around them. They succeeded because they focused on rapidly and iteratively learning from their experience and from learning from their peers in the field. So even if you feel unsure about your ability to coach around metrics right now, so long as you are a few steps ahead from the teams you support, you're in a good position to help them now and become even more helpful over time.

Here's how to keep getting better at metrics coaching:

  • Iterate every few months, by taking a step back and analyzing how you're doing as well as what small steps you can take to improve and where there are opportunities to rack up some more wins.
  • Regularly get feedback from teams, from your manager, and from your network of allies on what's worked and what hasn't.
  • Talk to your friends, join analyst communities, and build new relationships with analysts and other startups.
  • Read, read, and watch videos. Every six months, do a little Googling to see what's been written about metrics and who's given an online talk or webinar. Figure out whose approach appeals to you the most, then start following them.
  • Learn by teaching. One of the best ways to get better faster at any IT skill is to teach other people. In 2021, plan on holding a few virtual brown bags for your allies, and use the (hopefully) mild panic you feel to spur you on to read and think hard about the topics you're going to teach. Then get quick and dirty feedback on what works and what didn't.
  • Finally, set modest expectations when you’re starting out. Less telling and more showing greatly increases your odds of success, but even generating interest may be a win at first.

Conclusion

You may not yet be a world-class expert on metrics, but that's not what your startup needs right now. They need someone who understands their business and culture, who has a better handle on metrics than they do, and who they know they can trust.

With a little focus, an analytical mindset, and a drive to continuously improve, there's no reason you can't help the teams and Top Brass at your startup get better at measuring what matters and keep their eye on the prize.

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