Throughout my career I’ve been through several cycles of objective setting: yearly and quarterly, business and developmental, top-down and bottom-up, SMART and “dumb”. All methodologies started as the next big opportunity to provide clarity and drive much needed alignment. All of them failed miserably. Looking back at the dozens of hours spent filling in forms, assessing performances and describing things I would have done anyway in the attempt to make them look extraordinary, I can’t help thinking it was an absolute waste of time.
But does setting objectives have to be a dreadful experience? Or is there a way to use this technique to really empower people to do meaningful things? Things that they wouldn’t have done otherwise?
The purpose of setting objectives
Most organizations use some form of objective setting. The reasons for doing this are multiple and varied: from genuinely driving alignment to assessing employee performance and assigning promotions, or even because a customer has asked for it (I’m not joking). The real point is that setting objectives takes care of two fundamental business needs: working more on what’s important and working less on what’s not. In one word: focus.
What is focus?
Focus is necessary at all levels in a company. Whether you are a leader or an individual contributor, you have to be focused to identify the right objectives and execute effectively.
If you are a leader, then you are responsible to sift through the dozens of opportunities and translate them into a small number of objectives. Now, if you want to be a true leader, you’ll have to do something painful here. You’ll have to let go of the vast majority of the opportunities on the table and select the very few you truly believe in. Selecting 15 projects out of 50 isn’t real prioritization. Selecting 3 is more like it. And just in case you were thinking about being overzealous, know that not setting objectives at all is just as harmful as setting too many.
If you are an individual contributor, then you are responsible for the execution and achievement of the objectives set by the leadership. You will also have to make tough decisions: following the next shiny thing and getting personal gratification, or doing what’s right for your company and colleagues. It’s up to you to master the fine art of finding a balance between being a mindless soldier and a complete rogue. Be honest with yourself and things will fall in the right place.
I will describe what happens when focus is missing, and when it’s present, in the next few sections, but if you’re too bored to keep reading, know this: companies without focus tend to behave as a bunch of headless chickens. We all know where headless chickens end up going.
When there are too many objectives
If the leadership abdicates to its role and sets too many objectives, people will struggle to understand what is really important. There will likely be an unbalance between unrealistic business expectations (too many things to do) and available resources (not enough people to do all of them). Some individuals or teams will stretch themselves very hard to make little to no difference, since nobody knows where the company is really going. Some others will simply give up because, if everything is a priority, then nothing really is.
Different employees react in different ways, but none of them will feel energized by an absolute lack of direction, so this approach is definitely one to avoid.
When there are no objectives
Another way for the leadership to fail is to not define objectives at all. This is rarely done explicitly and a more subtle strategy is to delegate objective creation to the people that should be responsible for execution. If you are a leader and believe that this is “servant leadership”, then think again. As always, the result of this approach is lack of direction and you will witness a wide spectrum of concerning behaviors, from generic frustration to people spinning in circles or hiding in the toilet for hours.
Some people will naturally recognize the void left by management and step up to provide some sort of direction to their colleagues. This is generally done with the best intentions and should be encouraged when it happens in a healthy environment. The concern we are trying to address here is that the people stepping up are unlikely to possess the necessary knowledge of the context and will probably end up adding confusion to an already chaotic scenario.
When focus is present
Now that you have seen how things can go wrong, let’s have a look at what good looks like:
- The leadership is in charge of producing a small amount of objectives
- The executors are responsible to align their work to those objectives
In this scenario, the leadership and individual contributors work together towards common and clear goals. People are motivated, can see where the company is going and understand how their daily decisions contribute to its success. Visually, a successful company should be doing something like this:
As much as I am an enthusiast of focus, it should be noted that alignment between objectives and work is not an absolute value and a certain portion of non-aligned work will always be present, even beneficial. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The leadership should see the non-aligned work as an investment that will generate returns: if not in economic terms, at least in increased happiness.
From the library
Have you ever heard of OKRs? Objectives and Key Results are the simplest, yet most effective technique to set and measure objectives that I have encountered so far:
- The Objective (O) sets the qualitative direction in which we want to move
- The Key Results (KRs) define quantitative measures of the objective achievement
If you haven’t heard about them, then you might want to read Measure What Matters by John Doerr. As always, this technique is not a magic formula and it will take time to master it, but you know that the secret is in the “how” by now.