President Barack Obama had the line of the night in the third presidential debate, when he had a response prepared for Governor Mitt Romney's expected criticism of the structure of the U.S. Navy:
I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed.
Zing! But, stepping away from who won the debate (and the fact, by the way, that the military does still use bayonets), it's an interesting point. How do you measure the effectiveness of a navy--or of anything that we do for that matter?
The exchange led me to think of Christopher Michel, a naval officer turned entrepreneur who founded Military.com and Affinity Labs, both of which he has sold to Monster Worldwide. As Chris once acknowledged, it's so easy to get sidetracked as an entrepreneur, and to spend your time improving metrics that don't really matter:
I am embarrassed to say that it took me 10 years to learn one of the most fundamental pillars of leadership: It is all about outcomes--and not activities. This business truth is simple and obvious, yet, extraordinarily powerful. Unfortunately, it remains strangely elusive for most people...
[It can be] a breathtakingly expensive mistake. In a world of infinite choices, choosing which activities will occupy your day is likely to be your single greatest driver of effectiveness. Beyond picking the right objectives to pursue, you need to focus on the results, not just the means to that end. Some people choose wisely and focus on high-impact activities that truly move the needle. Others, however, work the same number of hours without making clear progress toward meaningful achievements or measurable results.
Sound familiar? It's a struggle I face in my business every day, and that you probably do as well.
I first got to know Chris, and to think hard about this question, in my 2010 book, The Intelligent Entrepreneur. And, I relearned it, along with some more practical advice, while writing Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, with Jon Burgstone.
Among the best bits of advice Burgstone shared with me: Put together a Gantt chart, as he did while building his biggest success, Supplier Market. It helps you maintain focus on the big picture and see how what you do each day affects it.
This is one of the least glamorous aspects of entrepreneurship but it's all about balancing a well-thought-out strategy with your daily to-do list. There are so many things you can do in an organization each day, and yet there are usually very few that really matter.
I served in the U.S. Army, and like most former solders, I have no idea how many ships the Navy really needs. But I do know that any leader needs to avoid spending time and treasure on resources that aren't clearly linked to a well defined strategy.
It's a lesson that's easily transferrable to the world of entrepreneurship. Spend your time on the things that are important, rather than those that merely seem urgent, and your chances of success improve accordingly.