Goal Setting in an agile organization

Is your agile team is on track? Are you making progress? How do you know? Here are some tips to keep in mind.

You will notice in this article that nothing has anything to do with a specific agile framework or even with "agile" in general. Indeed, the remainder of the article will avoid the term "agile" completely. The suggestions are still fundamental to agile transition, because without these things, you're in for a trip to Wonderland!



Take your time and define, step by step, in the order presented in this article, the following items:

Mission

Where do you want to go, as an organization? Why does the organization exist, and what will be different because of the work that people do?
"To earn money" or "To pay the bills" won't cut the cake, although that's obviously something a company wants to be able to do. Your mission should discriminate you from the broad mass, giving guidance on things which the company would do and wouldn't do while being simple to remember.

Here are some guidelines when setting up a mission statement:

  1. Length: People need to remember it. Five words - maximum!
  2. Clarity: Provide meaningful guidance and direction.
  3. Breadth: Include everything you really want to - or are already - doing as a company.
  4. Focus: Must allow people to align activity.
  5. Avoid slogans: Must be useful as a yardstick in everyday work - and not just for marketing!

Examples:

  • "Improving work" is a legitimate mission for a consultancy,
  • "Delivered." would be a feasible choice for a logistics company,
  • "Everything covered" might be appropriate for an insurance.

These statements are broad, yet focused - short and clear and can be used as a discussion point when discerning whether an activity is in line with the company's goals or not.

A mission statement isn't immediately actionable. It's guiding in nature and should rarely change.

Strategy

From the mission, a small set of strategies should be derived - how do we plan to make this happen?
A strategy is a mid- to long-term plan for moving into a certain direction and should lead to some relevant outcome that is aligned with the mission.

As odd as it seems, this step is often skipped or neglected. Since a strategy is a clear statement of a direction into which we develop the organization, the presence of a strategy is necessary to determine whether you're still on track.
It isn't even necessary for management to define strategy - in many cases, employees have a good idea what strategies they would pursue, but they don't have any means or transparency to communicate this.

Taking one of our above examples, if we have "Delivered" as our logistics company mission, the following strategies might all be valid options:

  • Enter grocery delivery market.
  • Partner with company X and employ their delivery network.
  • Pivot Drone Delivery.
  • Build a Delivery Hotspot Discovery service to monitor and optimize efficiency.

Some strategies might require just a few months, others many years.
A strategy is good when we can tell clearly which set of activities is part of the strategy, when these activities are achieving the strategy - and how the strategy relates to our mission. Ideally, we can also fathom who could be involced and how long it might approximately take.

Strategies still aren't actionable, but they help people deciding for action determine what to do.
Keep the amount of strategies small, as too many dilutes your resource pool and impairs focus. Also, try having more than one strategy as putting all your eggs in one basket is a significant business risk. Two to five strategies are a decent bundle.

Revisit them about quarterly, abandoning those which are obsolete, reinforcing those which are worthwhile and adding one when needed.
Keep in mind: For every strategy you add, you should axe another, lest you lose focus and mess things up.


Goals

Strategies aren't equal, and the things we actually want to achieve might differ as well. This is where we get into the realm of setting SMART Goals: Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic, Time-bound.
We must be able to figure out how much of what we want to achieve by when - and that should  likewise be challenging and possible.

Many companies have trouble with this step because the wrong people do it. Ideally, goals are uttered by the people who will be working to achieve them and verified for priority, plausibility and strategic alignment by management, rather than enforced top-down. Only when management realizes that the workforce isn't able to set meaningful and important goals, should they feel the need to intervene by providing more clarity and context.

All goals are not equal.
Strategic goals might take years to achieve in a stepwise process, operative goals may be met fairly quickly and tactical goals could be succeeding each other in rapid succession.

The importance is that depending on their nature, they're frequently revisited and constantly verified against their alignment both with the strategy and mission - as well as with other goals the organization might be pursuing.

Transparency of goals is important to prevent the accidental pursuit of competing goals as well as enabling collaboration between people pursuing synergetic or overlapping goals.

When goals conflict with each other or strategy, everyone should feel free to have a voice and raise their concerns, as working on such goals would result in a loss of time, money and opportunity.

A problem with goal-setting is that when undergoing change, goal-setting isn't a straightforward action. Larger goals need to be achieved incrementally with intermediate checkpoints and feedback loops - another thing many organizations get wrong. Either they forget to feed subgoals back towards overarching goals, or to act upon information that a goal no longer makes sense.

Goal-setting on different levels should be a frequent exercise, but when a goal hasn't been pursued or seen progress in months, then that goal can be considered obsolete for all practical purposes. Don't bother with these - axe them. The shorter the time between goal-setting and seeing their achievement, the faster the organization can act.

Actions

Goals need to be met somehow, so some action must be initiated. Regardless of whether this action is an initiative, a program, a project or even just a small task - it needs to be clear who is responsible for the action and how we can know whether it was successful.

As one action could contribute to more than one goal, or one goal could require more than one action, creating clarity between the relationship of goal and action is essential, although the only people who can do this in a meaningful way are those who set the goal and who will be executing the action. If these people don't know - nobody will!

Since actions are only required to achieve goals, depending on the complexity of the work, it may or may not be important to make these actions transparent. When people's actions could block each other, these people need to communicate. Other than that, actions and their tracking are irrelevant.


Results

Every action should have an outcome - and that outcome can be as intended, or otherwise. It's a good idea to define the intended outcome right alongside the result, in order to assist the execution of the action.

It's essential for those who complete an action to know the intended results and correlating goals, as this is the yardstick for progress. Performance should move away from amounts of action conducted towards results achieved.

Results are the compass for action:

  • When results are moving away from the intended goal,s the action needs to be revisited immediately. 
  • When results are moving towards the intended goals, the action is on track.
  • If an action proves to be ineffective, it needs to be changed.
  • And when the intended goal is met, it may be time to either complete the action - or set another, maybe more ambitious goal.

Results should be revisited frequently and feed into their goals on at least a weekly basis. While "no result because no action" is an acceptable explanation, this is a clear indicator that something should be done in this context:
  • If the result is important, it needs to be prioritized for action
  • If the result has become obsolete, no further action needs to be taken.




Conclusion

Let's return to Alice and the Cheshire Cat for a minute.
If you don't know where you want to go or why you would want to go there, or how you would know whether you have arrived - it doesn't matter which way you take.

You need to have your mission defined ("where you want to go"), so you can state which strategy you want to pursue ("which way you go") and by defining goals with verifiable results, you can even discover whether you've gotten somewhere.

If you lack these three components, you will still get somewhere, eventually - but whether that "somewhere" is where you'd like to be, is a completely different story.

Just like Alice didn't know Wonderland and she had to explore, we often define goals without knowing the way and discover midway that both the goal and our action was maybe not the best choice. Still, we are where we are and have to move from there, so our process of locating ourselves, and determining the next step are essential.

The more frequent and painlessly we can go through the feedback process of Goal-Intention-Action-Result, the better we become at getting where we want to be.

And to close with the Cheshire Cat:
"You sure do that, if only you walk long enough".


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