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Using Planning to Balance Innovation and Processes: Interview with Rob Attwell

By Grace Lu - July 27, 2017

Rob Attwell, COO of Careteam Technologies, joins us for a chat on the strategies he uses to effectively manage his team and understand his clients. Overloading on processes has been known for slowing down innovation, but Rob talks about how Careteam is able to balance both while scaling up a nine-month start-up. Finally, Rob emphasizes that there is no excuse for not planning for the future.

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Topics that we cover in our conversation include:

  • Fulfilling a niche market gap with a unique value proposition
  • Staying on track with a vision while scaling quickly
  • Promoting an innovative working culture by understanding the needs of employees
  • Processes that Careteam uses manage work and their people
  • Managing rapid change in an organization

Listen to the full podcast below:


Interview transcript:

RA: Careteam is a digital health platform built for health care systems that empowers patients to get person-centred care. We provide a way that they can get their discharge plan and all the information that they need to care for themselves at any stage in their patient journey. Our customers are hospitals, but are also patients and their entire family and caregiver team.

GL: And what do you do in the company?

RA: I’m one of the co-founders, and COO. I take the COO and CFO roles. I do a lot of things that are externally facing as well, almost like a co-CEO role.

GL: The company has been around for 9 months? So why don’t you tell me a little bit about the process of how you got started

RA: My co-founder and I started another company called My Best Helper, which is a care locator service for families. And while we were doing that we wanted to find a way to be more relevant to our users by giving them some tools to coordinate their daily activities and the groups and people around them. We created a care coordination platform for families, kind of like a Teamsnap for families if you will. Once we launched it, we realized that there are bigger opportunities. We started to tell people about it, and we thought that what we wanted to do with the technology was to make money, obviously, and also get spread. We were looking for a more economic customer than a family. So we started to look for enterprise customers and see what we could do it. We spent about 8 months looking around the health IT space. And we realized that the entire discharge management process is really crappy. As soon as we were really confident that there’s a real market and that the competitive landscape was understood, we started to build our product. It was 8 months from there, and now we’ve sold around 5000 care plans, and we’ve got a couple of health authorities in Canada and now spreading to the US and UK.

GL: It seems like you found a need where you’re very relevant to the users that you want to target, and you used that need, and the goals to make money and spread your service around in order to make the decision to find enterprise customers and really dig into something that the entire industry needs, is that right?

RA: The most important thing for us was just to validate and understand the customers and what their needs had. The other thing is that we define our sandbox or the place as we work as solving stress of the modern family. Everything that we’ve done has to fit that mission, because that’s how we see that we’re different, and the kinds of problems we want to solve. So for example, we didn’t want to solve things for physicians.  So even though hospitals are our customers, the way we built our product is that it solves a problem for families. So when families need to care for their loved ones following an acute event or illness, or if they’re frail and elderly and living at home, everything we’re doing fits with our overall vision and the space that we want to plan. So we have said no to certain opportunities because that does not fit with our vision. I think that’s the key to strategy is not just what you decide to do but it’s when you say no.

GL: Right, so, because you have the vision of solving the problems of the modern family, you can then prioritize what decisions are most important to you and what your customers want, and you feel like that has been very effective in getting started as well.

RA: I mean that’s foundational.

GL: More on the team culture piece, so you are just getting started, how do you find the right people and find a good culture in your team to make sure you are ready to continue growing and expanding the business.

RA: In terms of the team and culture, and the alignment of culture and strategy, I think the most important thing is to start by selecting people who share the values and attitudes and align the culture that you want based on the mission of the company. We’ve found people who have an interest in our domain, and who obviously have the skill sets and so on that are needed for the roles that we have in our company. What we needed were people who shared our vision and were a fit with the culture and the people in the company. We did a lot of work on screening early on, just to understand the fit.

So then the next thing is we enroll people in the culture of the company, we explain to them multiple times, tell them about our values, our expectations, what we are and what we’re not, reinforce that constantly. We check in for values and make sure we catch people exhibiting the values and reinforce that, and if people are not exhibiting the values and we talk about it and we flag people right it. The thing is what we’ve found is that one of the most important things is to get rid of people that don’t fit with the strategy and culture, and don’t perform up to the level of the team.

It’s Jim Collins good to great, get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. It’s usually good for everybody. Do it in a good way and a nice way, leave on good terms and make sure people find the next thing.

GL: And that’s especially important as you are starting off and growing, how do you think you culture, or people, or processes will change as you continue to grow bigger and scale?

RA: I think that as you get bigger the need for communication gets more and more important, because you have to constantly have to find ways to touch people in terms of culture and strategy is so on. What happens is that you get more structured, you have to structure your communication and you have to keep your communication going forward. It’s always a challenge with companies but I think that as long as you keep bringing people on and keep reinforcing your culture and having people live and breathe the culture, and you communicate it both internally and externally, it keeps reinforcing that element.

GL: And what kind of advice would you give for listeners who are trying to lead different teams while also trying to manage a strategy?

RA: I think that our approach is that we integrate all the people in our company as much as possible. So we have daily scrum strategy and agile strategies, the company meets on a weekly basis face to face. So including people, having an open and transparent approach to things we find is a way to make sure that everyone in the company knows what people are doing, and are able to see the contributions of the other parts of the organizations. So breaking down the silos and spending the time to bring people together to interact with each other, speak with each other, ask questions, challenge each other, debate things, and basically investing in a lot of planning and communication so you can flag things early.

The other thing is that we use systems, so we have a very structured process for communicating what’s going on and whose doing things. So even if you’re doing a lean start up, there’s a certain amount of planning and communication that needs to be done to get to your VP. The other thing that we do is we make sure that people touch our customers. So everyone in our company has to see customers, and get exposure to what the real customer needs are, and how things are perceived by customers, what their responses are, what their feedback is and so on. If everyone remembers that we’re building it for families, then if they’re not speaking to families them we’re doing something wrong.

GL: So for you having your people touch their customers is a big part of how you build your culture as well, you reflect the values that your company values.

RA: One of our strategies with the way we build things is for people to have a view of how this impacts the customer. Whatever I’m doing, if I’m writing some code or writing a marketing document, or if you’re doing anything in the company well how does this supporting our customers. It’s not always direct, obviously someone doing accounting doesn’t necessarily touch the customer, but the thing is that everyone on the R&D team, or the UX design team, sales and marketing, everyone has to be a customer orientation both in understanding what’s working and what’s not working, how we’re serving the needs of our customers wants, how we’re perceived by them and so on, that is absolutely essential.

GL: And that really comes down to integrating everyone into the company and its vision.

RA: All these things go together

GL: What advice would you give a manager or director who is trying to manage the change in their organization?

RA: I think when you’re managing teams, I think first of all it’s important to understand the company and it’s different needs. We use various tools to help our companies in handling change and so on. So we use a DiSC assessment that helps us understand people’s work styles and communication needs and so on. Based on that we know who needs a lot of communication and information about changes and other people who need less. We understand our team members individually and as groups. When it comes down to the communication what we do is that it comes back to first principles. So when something is changing its case of explaining it and rooting the communication on why that’s happening in first principles, why are we doing this and how it ties into our mission, our values, our strategy, and how it affects our customers. What we do is everybody in the company gets to weigh in on what we are doing.

So for example we have a scoring system, if someone really disagrees with a decision, they have what amounts to a yellow card or a red card. If anyone has a red card it’s like the Toyota production system where anyone can pull the line or as we call it put up a red card and say “This is not something that I agree with” and we won’t move forward until it is resolved. I think that when you empower employees to be able to stop anything that is going on in the company, I think that creates a great culture because they’re invested in the decisions, we ask them and require that they provide their feedback and that if they don’t agree with something they find something objectionable or something they don’t think is going to work, whether it violates our strategy, our values, our customers aren’t going to like it or need it or somehow a technical decision, we want and empower people to put up a yellow card or red card, and that means that we stop and figure it out before moving on. I think that brings quality and makes people enrolled in the entire process. That’s a key to our success

GL: I really like this red card system, because in our experience employees also want to feel like they’re needed in the organization, and I think that’s a really good idea, and good advice to give our listeners as well.

RA: The assets we have are our people, the only people we can execute is if our people are fully on board and if they agree with what we’re doing, that they have the ability to have an impact on it, and if all the decisions comes from up high then we don’t make good decisions. It’s when the team gets together and makes them, and it’s not like we don’t set up a strategy or direction from the leadership team, but in terms of executing that strategy if we don’t use all of our people to bring their insights, knowledge and expertise to bear then we’re never going to be successful.

GL: And for you, you have to do all these things. You have to integrate the people, empower your employees, communicate, touch everyone’s needs in the organization. How do you divide your time and resources?

RA: We do some simple processes, we report on a weekly basis to each other on what we’ve accomplished for the past week and what our goals are for the next week. We have sprint planning, so we have our quarter and then we break them up into 2 month sprints, so we have very clear goals and plans, and it’s very structured, and it feels painful to spend the time to work on that and develop it, but the only way we can get everything done and make sure we are all aligned is to do that planning. And we do a daily check-in where we talk about our top 3 tasks to accomplish for the day and what we accomplished yesterday and figure out what blocks us there, so I think planning and communication are the 2 key mechanisms that help us figure out and allocate time. We have a shared calendar that updates all the company events that has to happen. So when our next planning meetings are, when we’re doing retrospectives, when we have our board meetings and communicate with our shareholders, what we call our tribe, all of them is scheduled and structured and planned. We also have schedules for when our goals have to be accomplished, so it’s systems that support the strategy, and people both being accountable for those deadlines.

GL: A lot of our customers are small to medium size companies, and for them it’s difficult to get everyone on board with these kinds of systems when they’re newly introduced. So how do you motivate your employees to do daily reporting or use these systems very carefully so you can manage the communication very well?

RA: None of these are particularly onerous, it’s find of a case of just creating a routine, and everyone knows that it’s expected of them, and this is just how we communicate. We have other things in terms of how we document our code, document our time, our hours, so being part of our organization means having to do this. Then we also give the people the ability to work on their own projects that is related to what we do, so there’s this formal structured goal-oriented stuff that we do like hackathons, we let people work on innovative projects and initiatives. There’s give and take, so we’re thinking about them letting their creativity and innovation out, and to try somethings and we bring other people in, we have internal hackathons and we bring external people in to judge or participate in those.

There’s a balance between innovation and structure, and the other thing is that we have processes where we want people to be able to accomplish their own goals in terms of their own professional development. We’re fairly mature in the way we do things for a fully matured company. Both founders are career founders, so that gives us a lot of experience, we’ve worked in a lot of big organizations and done big projects, so done hundred million dollar projects before, so we’ve got a good skill set. I think that to answer your questions, my advice to founders who have smaller companies, teams of 2 or 3, just because you’re small there’s no excuse for not planning, and setting goals and timelines and deadlines. Things don’t happen in a vacuum, so if you don’t plan, nothing gets done.

If you don’t spend the time to think about where you’re going and what you want to do, it doesn’t have to be a big onerous process but it’s like where do you want to be 2 weeks from now, what do you want to accomplish, and the other thing is you should measure what you’re doing all the way along. The most important thing is to measure what your companies think about what you’re doing, and how many people respond to this message. How many people can I get to sign up on a landing page, and how many experiments are you doing. So you should be planning how you want to develop your company, figure out the value proposition and where your market is and so on, so all of those require a little bit of thought and agreement between the co-founder team. So a start-up is not a start-up if it’s one person, you need two three people to create a start-up and make some velocity, and the only way to make velocity happen is for your group to plan and decide where you’re going and what you’re going to do. To agree or disagree, and figure out what has to be done, but then to make a plan and execute it.

GL: It sounds like you found the balance between having processes and also creativity and innovation, because something that we do find is that some companies get really bogged down by processes and therefore tamper on the innovation aspect. But you really focus on employee development and the culture piece, to make sure everyone is empowered to reach their own goals as well.

RA: People don’t come work for start-ups because they want to work 9-5 or because they want to do what everyone else is doing, so you have to find a way for people to want to contribute in terms of innovation and figure out ways for them to develop their passions. When we have software developers, we hire for people who love to code, and if people love to code then they love to learn. So we provide ways for them to develop things, we provide access to knowledge-based stuff so they can read everything they want to read and learn everything they want to learn, and we encourage them to do that.

GL: What is kind of the main challenge that you’re still facing in your role right now?

RA: Typical start-up stuff, we have so much to do that it’s a case of how to simplify things so that you can do sales, fundraising, R&D, operations, anything else you need to do and getting it done on time. The challenge of start-ups is that there’s no in-point to the work, so it’s a case of figuring out how to be effective. You can’t avoid hours spent, but it’s also a case of figuring out how to be the most effective and how to bring other people in from the outside to help accelerate your progress. And these include advisers, investors, partners, channels and so on. Start-ups don’t succeed by having a little insulated thing, you have to reach out to the network and the ecosystem around and draw that into your mission and enroll other systems networks companies and so on in order to accelerate. We’re always thinking about what are the chess moves and strategies where we can add capacity by bringing stronger, more powerful partners that need what we are doing, and that need our innovation to deliver results to their user base of customers.

GL: It’s all about the hustle and bringing in the right people

RA: All those and more. Hustle, hard work.

GL: As we’re wrapping up, is there a piece of final advice you’d like to give our listeners about managing their people, processes, or running a business in general?

RA: I think that there’s an important balance between monitoring the external environment and looking for opportunities, threats, competitors, and so on, all the trends that may be impacting you, and this is a constant issue. So constantly reading about your industry, and seeing yourself not as part of the start-up industry but as the industry that you’re going to serve is important, and understanding that market. So there’s a balance between looking at what’s happening externally and sticking to your vision, and not getting distracted and pivoting too soon. The 2nd part of my advice is just to read, successful founders, investors, successful people in any walk of life are people who read. So I recommend you read about your industry, you read newsletters, blogs, listen to podcasts, read books from opinion leaders, read biographies, read classic business books whether it’s Peter Jarker or reading new stuff. Mu current read is Platform revolution, because we’re thinking about what we’re doing in terms of being a platform. So to end that, read. As much as you can, read 8-10 hours a week if you can.

GL: It really boils down to keeping yourself informed, both about the external environment and also the people in your industry and people who have been successful.

RA: The thing is, business isn’t new. People have been innovating for hundreds of years, so reading historical, reading about great thinkers and inventors, you’ll find surprisingly relevant to you working today in the digital economy. You don’t have to just read what’s out there now, read about great business leaders of the past as well.

GL: That’s wonderful. Well that’s our time up for today, really appreciate you taking the time to have this conversation Rob. Have a wonderful day

And that was Rob Attwell from Careteam technologies. Thank you for tuning in to our strategy and leadership podcast. If you enjoyed this podcast, please check out the rest of the series on iTunes, StitchIt or Soundcloud. See you next time.


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