How to make your NPD / Startup execution agile and lean

New Product Management = Project management + Strategic alignment

Startups should pivot and adjust their product and business model to find the secret or magic that will make an idea succeed. The uncertain world of startups creates the need to pivot efficiently and cascade the effects of a pivots to all aspects of execution quickly. The ability to adapt to changing requirements is “agile” and adjustment of the team’s actions accordingly eliminates waste and is thus “lean”. The pivots usually arise from customer interaction, new realization in technological capabilities or restrictions, adjusting the problem solution fit and product market fit, changes in market place or competitive landscape. Most pivots result in tweaks to the strategy and business model. The secret to communicating and adjusting to pivots in a volatile environment is a mechanism that will tie team actions to strategic needs. The key to cascading changes in strategy to team actions is to ensure the objectives and goals properly reflect the changes to strategy. This is possible by identifying the “Key Strategic Elements” that tie strategy to team actions. In the rest of the article we will introduce a framework to automatically tie strategy to team actions.

The Frame work for startup execution has three tiers of what I call “Control Tiers”. At the highest level is the tie to strategy it called the “Strategic Elements”. The Strategic elements are the goals and objectives for project execution. The second tier is the tasks that need to be done to achieve the goals and at the base tier is the current activity that is moving the needle on each task. It answers the question as to what are you doing now to achieve the goals to meet your strategic needs.


 Strategic Project Management

Tiers Of Execution Control In Startup Management

Strategic Elements

The figure above helps in understanding the mechanism of startup execution. “Strategic elements” are the off-shoots or derivatives of strategy. These are the drivers of execution. It is not a statement of the strategy but a translation of the strategy to key aspects of execution. Good execution will cover all aspects of Planning, financing, development and marketing – the four pillars of execution. Hence, the “strategic elements” will pan the four pillars of execution and articulate the “strategic needs”. The common types of “strategic elements” and the needs are listed below;

  1. Business plan / canvas – Test assumptions
  2. Product Requirements – validate value proposition, test MVP
  3. Risks – mitigate risks
  4. Financing – maintain cash flow
  5. Budget – control expenses
  6. Milestones – Achieve deliverables
  7. Marketing Plan – Execute tasks
  8. Competitive Intelligence – Monitor and Adapt

Depending on the stage and the business model of the startup it is likely that the needs are not equally weighted between the four pillars of execution. Just because you have more tasks needed around one or two pillars does not mean your execution is going astray.  More importantly all current strategic needs should be addressed through the Key elements. This helps communicate the strategy to the team and drive the tasks required to meet the strategic needs and it also sets the objectives for the milestones. The Key Elements are thus pivotal in execution success as they drive all team activity and should steer execution in the direction set forth by the strategy. Hence, it is to be expected that they are established with care and deep introspection with the buy-in of the key decision makers. It is seldom a solo task and should be with the buy-in of all key decision makers, preferably in a group meeting so that key players can weigh in and be part of the formulation of the key elements. Likewise, the changes to Key Elements should not be done in isolation. Buy-in creates accountability and responsibility for the tasks and objectives that are driven from the Key Elements.

In some ways you might think this creates waste and bureaucracy and is not any different from a de-coupled process where strategy is set outside of project management. But it is not quite, the hierarchical nature and tight coupling between the tiers of execution control reduces the time required to adapt daily activities with strategic changes. And also when you can automate the execution with a software tool the time required to update and maintain the upper tier is little. Typically, the frequency and time spent on updating will be more on the lower tiers than the higher level tiers. Hence, the first tier of Key Elements will require the least amount of time but is significant enough that these should not be updated in isolation.

Execution Tasks

The second tier is the tasks associated with the key elements. This answers what needs to be done to address concerns or fulfill the needs of the strategy needs defined by the Key Elements. Tasks are the center point of execution. Meaningful tasks can make execution successful by achieving the strategy and similarly poor execution because of wrong tasks can make strategy a failure. Tasks should not be too long term or short term focused. If the due date is too far out, it could be because the task is too abstract and broadly focused. This will make it hard to understand and difficult to define the desired outcome. In other words, every task should clearly define the criteria of success in terms of a deliverable or milestone or a quantifiable result. Typically a task should be around 3-6 months in duration but this will vary according to the industry and stage of the startup. Some common types of tasks that will be associated with Key Elements are – validation of assumptions, testing and experimenting of product requirements, mitigation of risks, achieve milestone deliverables etc. These are the results or outcomes of the tasks.



Attributes Of Tasks In Execution

Strategic Execution

There are a few task attributes to consider for good execution. These are shown in the figure above, these are;

Owner: All tasks should have an owner that is the road block buster or the principal individual responsible for successful completion of the task.

Deliverables: This is the desired outcome, results or deliverables of the task. It should be clear and determinable (not ambiguous). Quantify and specify if the deliverable is measurable.

Timing: Should have reasonable start date and practical expectation of the completion date.

Priority: Set a priority to help organize tasks. If there is not enough resources to do it all, which is usually the case, you know which tasks to slip the end date.

Strategic Element: This is the last but not the least important of the attributes. Tasks associated with the strategic “Key Elements” help in the realization of the strategy and hence, need I say it, these are important. Again by qualitatively and quantitatively evaluating the tasks associated with a Key Element you can assess the effectiveness of execution. For example; if a high risk has no associated tasks and a low risk has ten tasks – does this tell something is wrong? What do you think are the chances of a successful strategy for this company? While this may sound ridiculously obvious, you will be surprised how easy it is to get carried away by the whirl wind of daily firefighting in a startup world.

Current Activity

The lowest rung of the blocks of “execution control” is current activity. The current activity is where the action happens. It captures the “to do” and links to the strategic needs. By virtue of the execution framework any team member knows what he needs to focus on and how it contributes to strategy execution. It is fair to say that “Current Activity” moves the needle on execution. This answers the fundamental question as to “what are you doing now so as to successfully close your tasks” or put another way it prompts; “what should you be doing now to make progress on your tasks”.

Current Activity Sticky Note
We suggest that the current activity have about four major attributes.

  1. The Key (Strategic) Element and Task associated with the Current Activity.
  2. Name of the owner, due date and priority inherited from the associated task
  3. The main action – description of the action and job to be done. As a rule the current activity should be short term focused and hence the activity here should something you should do in the current period of about 2 weeks max.
  4. House keeping items to “mark complete” and “edit”


The above framework makes it possible to drive meaning and purpose for the daily activities of a team. It promotes accountability among the team and makes it possible to automate execution. is an online platform for execution based on this framework. Please comment and let me know what you think.


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