Counter-Intuitive Leadership: Building Teams That Can (Accurately) Predict the Future

12 min read

If you’re a CEO in charge of running internal meetings, there’s a few things you might want to know to predict the future. For example, according to this infographic created by and Fuze:

  • 15% of your organization’s collective time is spent in meetings,
  • Your people spend an average of four hours each week preparing for those meetings, and
  • On average, executives consider 67% of those meetings a waste of time.

And according to Attentiv’s “America Meets a Lot,” 45% of meetings are internal. Let’s take a simplified look at what this means in reality:

Imagine your company has 100 meetings each month. Of those meetings, 45 would be internal. And of those 45 internal meetings, 30 would be considered unproductive.

Now there are a number of different types of internal meetings, but we’re going to focus on one of the types most often considered “inefficient,” “unproductive,” or even a flat-out waste of time: Weekly status meetings.

We’ve all had meetings like this: A bunch of people sitting around the table talking about what they did last week and what they’re working on this week. Too often, these meetings end up feeling like everyone’s just trying to make themselves and their team look good without offering measurable insights about whether or not they’re on track to meet their goals.

At the end of the day, what exactly your teams worked on last week doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not they’re on track to meeting their weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual goals. For example:

  • How many deals the sales team closed last week doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not they’re going to hit their sales quota.
  • How many support tickets the engineering team resolved doesn’t matter. What matters is if they’re on track to reducing their technical debt .
  • How many views the marketing team earned last week doesn’t matter. What matters is if they’re going to hit their traffic goals.

But getting that information from your team is sometimes easier said than done.

That’s why I sat down with Luke Kanies, (@puppermasterd), a former-CEO-turned-startup-mentor whose meeting management approach has practically eliminated the dreaded and unproductive “Status Update” meeting. This is what I learned.

The Death of the Status Update

Luke is the founder of Puppet (@Puppetize), a powerful platform for “automatically delivering, operating, and securing your infrastructure [so you can] deliver more software faster than ever while maintaining quality, security, and compliance.” Some of their many prominent customers include NASA, Salesforce, and Intel.

Luke founded Puppet in 2005 and served as CEO since that time. Although he’s recently stepped away from that role, he continues to stay involved with Puppet as Executive Chairperson. Today, he spends much of his time helping new founders and entrepreneurs succeed.

Image source: True Ventures

Luke credits a number of different tactics and strategies to his success at Puppet (such as overcoming impostor syndrome, as covered in this brilliant feature by Julie Bort (@Julie188)), but one in particular stood out to me during our conversation:

The elimination of the “Status Update” meeting and the introduction of “predictive” meetings, called Operations Reviews.

“Busy” Does Not Mean “Productive”

In Luke’s experience (and in the experience of many CEOs), most internal meetings quickly devolve into status updates sounding something like, “We had a really busy week and accomplished X, Y, and Z.”

The problem is, these “status updates” don’t actually tell Luke (or anyone else, for that matter) anything. As Luke puts it, “I really don’t care how busy you were. I care about what progress you made.”

After all, busyness and productivity are not the same thing. Too many people make the mistake of believing that busyness and productivity are correlated 1:1.

In reality, there’s a chance someone who’s busy isn’t necessarily productive because they’re focusing on the wrong things. It’s the difference between motion and progress. Imagine a riding a rocking horse vs riding a stallion: Both move, but only one moves you forward.

In business, productivity isn’t measured solely by what you got done. Equally important—if not more important—is whether or not what you did moved you closer to your long-term goals and objectives.

To overcome this “status update” tendency, Luke introduced what he calls Operations Reviews; predictive meetings that exist to answer one question: “Based on what you know right now, what’s the probability you’re going to reach your goal?”

This meeting is the difference between, “What are you working on?” and “How are you doing in relation to your goal?” The answer to that first question is, “Well, I made 30 cold calls last week.”

The other is, “We’re about 35% of the way to meeting our quarterly quota. Last week, we qualified ten new leads which—historically speaking—have a 75% chance of closing in the next 3-5 weeks. As a result, I feel comfortable saying we are on track to meet our goals.”

Do you see the difference in the quality and insightfulness of the data? And how the second example has predictive utility?

According to Luke, focusing on predictive data has almost entirely eliminated firefighting within Puppet. And that makes sense: Most crises are the result of surprises, and most surprises are the result of teams failing to use insightful data predictively.

By focusing on predictive data, you can prepare for—and often altogether avoid—surprises and crises before they arise.

How to Eliminate Status Updates and Integrate Predictions

So what does it actually take to incorporate this strategy into your business? As Luke points out, it isn’t like flipping a switch, and the change isn’t going to take place overnight.

As with establishing any new habit, the secret to making it stick is consistency and repetition. Specifically, you need to repeatedly communicate your expectations and help your team consistently follow through on them; and, especially at the beginning, you need to make sure the predictions they’re making are accurate.

Let’s take a closer look at how to integrate predictive meetings within your teams.

Communicate Your Expectations

If your people have been trained to give status updates, they think that’s what you want; and that’s not going to change right away. You’re going to have to help them adopt this change by being patient and consistently communicating your expectations.

In the beginning, Luke recommends starting every meeting with a line like, “This is a predictive meeting, not a status update. I hired all of you, I know you’re great at your jobs, and I don’t need you to justify your salary with a list of tasks. I want to hear about outcomes, not activities. Tell me where you are in relation to your goals.”

And when you catch people slipping back into old habits, be firm. Say, “I don’t need to know what you’ve done. I need to know if you’re going to meet your goals. Tell me about that.”

Help Your Teams Follow Through

The easier you make this process for your team, the likelier they are to embrace it. Luke recommended providing tools that make the process as effortless as possible.

In particular, he told me about a meeting template he had his people use as they were learning the new system. This form had five fields for each team to fill out:

  • The department’s quarterly or annual goal,
  • A prediction as to whether or not the goal will be achieved,
  • An estimate of the final numbers or outcome,
  • Data or historical performance to back up the prediction, and
  • A confidence rating for all of the above.

If you can train your team to fill this template out before each meeting, it’s only a matter of time (about 66 days, according to this article by James Clear (@james_clear) until they begin to naturally think and act that way.

To make this even easier, we went ahead and created a free template for you in advance. Download it below!

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Predictions in Practice

Let’s take a quick look at what these meetings might look like in practice.

First, a look at a standard Status Update meeting: Imagine you’re in a weekly review meeting and it’s your sales teams’ turn to present. You ask them, “How’d you do this past week?”

You’re probably going to get an answer like, “Well, we did about $1M last week.”

That might sound impressive, but is it? The only people with enough data to interpret that information is the sales team, making it more-or-less meaningless. Now, imagine you’re in that same meeting, but you ask a different question. This time, you say, “How are you progressing toward your goal?”

Since your team has been trained to know what you want, you’re going to get a much more valuable answer.

For example: “Our goal for Q3 is to close $15M in new deals. Last week we did about $1M, which puts us just over 25% of the way there. In addition, we were able to qualify 8 new prospects that—historically speaking—have a 50% chance to close. Based on this, I predict with 80% certainty that we’re going to meet and exceed our goal by about $2M.”

That is information everyone can understand; information you can ask questions about and take action on. The question is, where did the sales team get that information, and is it accurate?

After all, predictions are only as valuable as they are accurate; and for predictions to be accurate, they have to be rooted in historical performance data. But how do you know what data to look at to make objective predictions?

Before we wrap up, let’s talk about that.

How to Make Accurate Predictions by Focusing on (the Right) Historical Data

First things first: 100% accurate predictions are impossible, no matter how well-trained your team; but that’s okay.

The aim isn’t to be right 100% of the time, the goal is to raise awareness around whether or not the actions you’re taking are aligned with your goals; and, if not, to allow you to make adjustments while there’s still time.

That said, accurate predictions certainly help; and accurate predictions are rooted in reliable data. To find out what data you and your teams should be looking at, you need to perform what I call a Core Driver Analysis.

Simply put, a Core Driver Analysis analyzes past performance data to identify the key variables that have contributed to the team’s past successes. To understand how this works, let’s continue the sale example above:

If their goal is to close $15M in new deals, they need to ask themselves: “What primary factor has allowed us to achieve this goal—or a similar goal—in the past?”

Let’s assume the factor they identify is closing customers with an average deal size of $500,000. Now they have to ask, “What primary factor has allowed us to close $500,000 deals in the past?”

Let’s assume they looked at their sales history and found out that 50% of all leads who reach the “Qualified Prospect” stage convert into paying customers. With that information, they could reasonably say that …

  • To reach $15M in new deals, they need 30 clients worth $500k each ($500,000 x 30 clients = $15M in revenue).
  • To close 30 clients, they would need to qualify 60 leads (60 leads x 0.5 close rate = 30 conversions).
  • To reach the quarterly goal of $15M, they would need to qualify about 20 prospects every month (20 monthly prospects x 3 months in a quarter = 60 quarterly prospects).
  • To qualify 20 prospects each month, they’d need to qualify one new lead each day (1 prospect x 5 workdays each week = 20 monthly prospects)

If they wanted, they could regress this even further by asking, “What drives our ability to generate new leads?” but we’ll leave the example at that; I think you get the idea.

All-in-all, the goal’s simple: Identify your core performance drivers so all predictions are objective, data-driven, and reasonably accurate.

With the information in the example above, the sales team could say, “Because we qualified 8 new prospects last week instead of the usual 5, we predict that we are on track with our quarterly goal with the added benefit of a little buffer.”

And keep in mind: Just because we used sales as an example doesn’t mean this practice is limited to the sales department. I recommend performing a Core Driver Analysis for all departments, including marketing, engineering, and operations.

Your Choice: Reactive Busyness or Predictive Progress?

By eliminating status updates in favor of predictions, you’re going to get a lot more than just productive meetings: You’re going to fundamentally change the culture of your business from one of reactive busyness to predictive progress.

At the end of the day, the mindset is this simple: We want to hear about how we’re doing as a team, not what we’re doing as a team. Because once you know how you’re doing, you know how the company’s doing.

And only once you have a clear picture of how your company’s doing can you develop an action plan to take things to the next level.

Alright, that’s it from me. I want to hear from you: What are your thoughts on Luke’s meeting approach? Are you going to give it a try? Let me know in the comments below! And don’t forget to download your free Operations Review template!

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