Sunday 4 August 2013

'If everything is important, then nothing is' :: Five principles for bringing focus when setting team goals

This time I decided to blog on goal setting for teams where I see managers/team-leads generate a long listing of goals and priorities that have little chance of ever being completed or addressed. These ‘wish-lists’ contain goals that are all arguably important but then fall into the trap alluded to in the title.

When I was first made a team lead I prepared a list of goals that I wanted to outline to my new team as the focus for the next year. They were goals that I felt would deliver positive outcome and position me well as I started my new role!

I came up with twelve goals and was 'proud' of my ability to draw these up as a guideline for my new team. However, I did do one thing before I presented the twelve goals to my new team and that was to walk up to my manager (Elise) and ask her for a few minutes to review the list with her. Elise obliged and the ‘interrogation’ that she undertook became a lesson for life and led to me adopting some basic principles that even after so many years I felt obligated to write down for the readers of this blog. Better late than never!

Principle 1 : Understand the utility that each goal would deliver

Elise used a sham aphorism “All men are born equal but some are more equal than others” [borrowing from George Orwell’s Animal Farm] to force me to understand that my list of twelve goals did not imply that the goals were all equal in priority. She forced me to consider the return on investment of the goal in question and attempt to stack rank the twelve goals in terms of highest ‘utility’ to my team and then the organisation. I was unsure but did apply a logic whereby I ascertained the value that the completion of a goal would deliver to the team and the organisation and then changed the prioritisation of the goals to reflect the same.
The assessment of ‘utility’ that I undertook at that point was a qualitative assessment and completely subjective. I recommend that if you are unsure then you can use simple labels like High, Medium or Low or give a score where a higher score shows higher 'utility'. 

Principle 2 : Consider the resource allocation and stress placed on the team from a goal

Elise joked that my list reminded her of the joy of eating pizza where one stuffs themselves for taste but then pay the price by the ‘residue’ left on one’s waist!

She asked me to assess the utility of each goal with the amount of resources that would need to be invested or consumed and also consider how the team would be burdened in delivering the same. She even reminded me of the
knapsack problem, which was an optimisation technique that I had studied but never applied in this manner!
Some of my goals were clearly going to consume more resources than others and hence the return on investment was different for each priority. In simple terms, I would have to spend more or wait more (time is also money) to complete the goal! I ended up with some more changes to the list!

Principle 3 : Look at the level of difficulty in addressing a goal

Elise then took the list that was now in a sorry state of affairs due to the constant changes and asked a simple question “How difficult was it to undertake the goal?” I told her that we had already done that when we looked at resource allocation. She asked me to relook at this and review again by assessing how much impact my team had on the goal being achieved and how much was reliant on support from outside my domain of influence. I looked at the list and realised that some of my goals were highly dependent on the support of others outside of my team and that without their alignment I would not be able to do justice to the goal.

She labeled each goal with a simplistic difficulty index, which was formulated as a response to a simple question – Is your goal fully within your and your team’s control or dependent on other individuals/teams and external factors or circumstance?

She referenced the process of ‘triage’ in medicine [
the process of determining the priority of patients' treatments based on the severity of their condition] which was similar to what she was asking me to attempt! The lower the score the higher the difficulty in completing the goal. This allowed her to break the priority list into two components. Those which were in my control and those that weren’t.

I now found that my list of twelve goals had been pruned down to show what could be attacked immediately by my team as they were in my control and the rest would need more support and more time to complete i.e. potentially moved for resolution into the future or dropped completely!

Principle 4 : Assess the level of commitment against your goals before finalising them

Elise asked me to review the list of goals with my team and to show them the full list but also tell them the considerations I had taken in prioritising them. She asked me to get them to align on the four goals that I had complete control over and a strong chance of succeeding. From the rest, I was asked to get them to select the top two but that the timeline for completing the same would be longer.

I met Elise a few days later and showed her the final list of six goals that the team would be pursuing. I was comfortable as my team was also comfortable with the thought process and the visible concern of ensuring that we do not stretch the team too much on goals that would deliver low value. Elise's guidance was that the objective was to get 100% commitment to pursue the goals even if we could not get 100% consensus on what goals to pursue [but this element of securing 'buy-in' is another blog by itself!].

From the initial list of twelve goals I was driving towards six goals! Four for the short term and two over the full year! The team was in agreement that this showed balance and would stretch the team in a positive way and they also felt that by dropping six goals I was also giving them a say and voice in the process, which I realised in hind-sight was made easier by already having created a better understanding of the situation by working through principles 1, 2 & 3 with Elise.

Principle 5 : Measure and keep assessing progress against your goals to validate the original goal prioritisation logic

Elise was delighted to see the focus and change in prioritisation since the first list and then gave me the final piece of advice i.e. the fifth principle.

Figure out a feedback and measurement system to assess the progress on each goal and whether there was any ongoing tweaking needed to the prioritisation applied and whether the preliminary assessment of return on investment or resource consumption were holding true over time. As
Ron Ashkenas cautions “opportunities, issues and threats will continue to materialise and new projects will emerge, often without the senior team understanding how they got onto the table. Setting priorities is not therefore just a one-time exercise. It needs to be repeated periodically to make sure that you and your people are working on the right things.”

Over time I have become smarter at giving quantitative scores to each principle and even creating a prioritisation index by multiplying scores for Principle 1, 2 &3 but one thing I have also learned is that continued use of these principles sharpened my instinct (‘gut feel’) and I have seen better alignment in my qualitative assessment with the outcome of the quantitative process.

I have also have learnt and used many techniques to sharpen planning around goal setting but the five principles highlighted above have always brought some structure to how I would undertake prioritisation of goals and ensured that I end up focusing on the ‘few and not get distracted by the many’. What do you think?


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