At the beginning of the year, senior managers start sending their organisational and departmental objectives to staff. I remember receiving these objectives and, as a good corporate citizen, wondering what I could do to contribute. Despite my best intentions, I ended up doing very little and the reason was that I hardly understood a word of them.
Many years later, I learned techniques for assessing the quality of documents. Methods that could count the major defects in a document. For objectives, a major defect is a potential misunderstanding, a high likelihood of someone doing the wrong thing or not doing anything at all. Something that could mean the success or failure of your strategy and your business.
Given the costliness of such mistakes to your business, how many major defects would you be prepared to have in your organisational or departmental objectives? None? Maybe one or two?
When I assessed the quality of organisational objectives I discovered shocking results: hundreds of major defects even in one or two page documents. When there are hundreds of major defects in the objectives you communicate, the chances that your people are going to be aligned to your strategy is zero. So, it’s not a surprise that, year after year, the objectives came round, yet very little improved in the organisation.
What do bad objectives look like?
Here are some examples of organisational objectives from a Tier 1 Bank, which are publicly available from their website:
- Implement new organisation structure
- Stop low-value add activities
- Continue to improve system resilience
- Simplify product offering
- Provide transparency on pricing/charges
- Increase penetration of online and mobile applications
- Investment in front-line customer propositions
- Future proof our technology infrastructure
- Complete fundamental end-to-end process re-design
Just take one and ask yourself if you could, given the appropriate budget, people and skill, meet that objective to the satisfaction of the person that wrote it. What do you think? Do you know what they mean? Would you know definitively when it was done?
I could certainly implement a new organisation structure but I have no idea whether it’s the kind of organisation structure that the senior management want! I could invest £2.5million in front-line customer propositions, but I’m wondering what the management want in return for that investment… and maybe they meant I should invest £2.5 billion or maybe just £2.50.
Hopefully you get a gut feel that you don’t understand what these managers want and you wouldn’t know whether you’d successfully achieved it or not. But let’s look at how you can turn a gut feel into a formal measurement.
Measuring the quality of documents
There are formal processes for quickly measuring the quality of documents and also for removing and even preventing errors in documents. We’ll just look at the basics here.
For something to be a defect, it must violate a rule of what “good” is. For requirements and objectives there are three fundamental rules:
- The objective is unambiguous to the intended readership
- The objective is clear enough to test
- The objective does not include a solution
These are fundamental because of the consequences of violating them:
- Violating the first rule means that different people may interpret the objective differently, act inconsistently and deliver you the wrong thing.
- Violating the second rule means no one can tell whether you actually met the objective or not. So, by definition, you can’t meet it.
- Violating the third rule means these aren’t objectives. You’ve removed the opportunities for creativity and skilled problem-solving from your staff and, assuming they are smart talented people, they can probably think of better solutions than the one proposed. In other words, you’re going to implement a sub-optimal solution.
An example of counting defects
Assessing the quality of a document involves inspecting the document, word by word, sentence by sentence and counting violations of the rules. The formal processes have some clever tricks for doing that in less than an hour even for thousands of pages, for using the skills of a group to get more accurate measures and for creating a defect prevention system so people don’t write defects in the first place. But, we’re going to keep things simple in this article…
Let’s take an example from our real-world list: Future proof our technology infrastructure
I assessed this as having 4 defects:
- “Future proof” is ambiguous – proof against technology change? market conditions? cyber-warfare?
- “Technology infrastructure” is ambiguous – hardware? software? desktops? servers? all of it? some of it? even the legacy stuff?
- It’s not testable
- I think the whole statement is a solution to something (e.g. to allow our business to expand)
You may have found different defects or disagree with mine; it’s not too important to be “right” about the defects, what matters is to get an approximate measure and do something about it if there are too many. Four defects in five words is far, far too many.
Here’s another example: Continue to improve system resilience
- “improve” is ambiguous – by 1%? by 50%?
- “system” is ambiguous – which system? all of them? even ones that aren’t particularly important or are already super-resilient?
- “resilience” is ambiguous – resilient to what?
- It’s not testable
Arguably “Continue to” is simply not necessary, so this is potentially four defects in three words!
There’s an additional subtle defect in both these examples: they are both ambiguous about when then objective must be met. You might assume for yearly objectives that it’s 31st December. But if the organisation assesses people’s performance in October then you may want to set targets for end of September.
What do good objectives look like?
Getting to good objectives can take a lot of discussion and clarification, which is a highly valuable activity when the result is a management team that are completely aligned on unambiguous, testable objectives that can be understood by the rest of the company.
Let’s assume that “Continue to improve system resilience” was actually about availability of the systems. A better objective might be:
Availability of critical systems
Goal: 99.9% by 30th September 2015
Current average: 85%
with some extra information to avoid ambiguity, such as:
- a link to the list of “critical systems”
- a definition of “availability”, if it’s not widely understood, such as “the time that a user can use system functionality, as a percentage of the time a user would expect to be able to use that functionality”
This is just a better objective. You might disagree with the definition of availability: what if the user can use the functionality but it’s extremely slow? And what does “the user would expect” actually mean?
Answering those questions could lead to important understanding and clarification that means hitting the target will make the difference to the business that you want it to.
Getting to good objectives is a process of improving and re-inspecting; and the most important part is having the conversations that clarify and create a common understanding.
What happens when you have good objectives?
Imagine being a member of IT staff receiving objectives for the year and reading “Continue to improve system resilience“. Would you know what to do? Perhaps you’d use your personal understanding of resilience and maybe you’d make some kind of business-useful improvement to the system. You’d spend the year having arguments with your team-mates and management as they did different things based on their different understandings.
Imagine being a member of IT staff reading “99.9% availability of critical systems”. You can check if your system is on the critical list. You can check your own system’s availability. If it falls short, you can join with your colleagues to design and plan a way to get to 99.9%. You’re all aligned as a team and you’re all aligned to what the organisation wants. And, when you achieve it, you know it’s done and can celebrate and be rewarded appropriately.
I’ve seen again and again the waste and confusion caused by unclear objectives. And I’ve equally seen the intense focus, motivation and creativity that can occur when people share clear objectives.
I hope this article has shown you why some objectives are so difficult to understand or act on, and has given you the basic tools to start on improving your own objectives.
If your objectives have lots of solutions, you’ll find the article Uncovering Business Value useful for getting to the objectives.
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