Setting a goal provides a focal point and helps with prioritization and deflecting distractions.
Have you set any new year resolutions? They’re goals. Promising to exercise more, drink less or eat less chocolate are all too ambiguous and usually end in disappointment. Smart goals reduce ambiguity. But there are smart goals, and then there are smarter goals. How they’re expressed will influence whether they’re treated as targets or approached with a sense of purpose. Look at the following smart goals:
- To 'lose 6kg in weight in 4 weeks'.
- To 'it into a Paul Smith suit bought off the peg in 4 weeks'.
The first is a solution expressed as a statement of measurement. You either achieve it or you don’t.
The second is the desired outcome. It appeals to our imagination. It’s inspirational and thus garners greater emotional response. But, critically we don’t lock ourselves down to one solution—in this case losing exactly 6kg in 4 weeks. We retain the flexibility to explore different solutions in order to achieve the outcome we want.
Smarter goals express a desired outcome.
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. —John F Kennedy
He didn’t say, 'let’s build a rocket'.
Focusing On Solutions Increases The Risk Of Failure
Solutions fix scope. Too often people define success by having a solution made up of a fixed set of features delivered by a certain date. This is a target. When managers set targets and use them to force performance, they bring out the wrong behaviours—we cheat, cut corners, and forget about the real needs of users. The cost of those cuts come back to bite us.
An assumption is that the features will produce the desired outcome—which is typically not expressed or visible. What if they don’t? Fixing scope locks in our ignorance and stops us responding to what’s being learned and making adjustments en route to ensure the desired outcome.
Similarly, setting Scrum’s sprint goal in terms of a set of features rather than a desired outcome is fixing scope. And asking the team to commit to its delivery is setting a target. With fixed time, fixed scope, and fixed cost, quality will suffer driving up the cost of future change and the total cost of ownership.
Without smarter goals, all we do is chomp through the backlog of features like Pacman. This suits fixed-scope thinkers because they’re measuring progress by the rate at which the backlog is decreasing. Should it look like things are running late we can expect pressure to be applied, bluntly or otherwise.
Focusing On Outcomes Sets Us Up For Success
Samuel Pierpoint Langley was trying to build the first powered, manned airplane. Solution. The Wright brothers wanted to fly and see the world as birds do. We all know who flew first. Langley promptly quit any further exploration into flight.
Outcomes that we feel are worthwhile drive us. By focusing on a business outcome we’re acknowledging that estimates are never accurate and that we can’t anticipate everything up front. Murphy’s Law tells us that s**t will happen. We’re free to explore options and think about different ways to meet user needs rather than gambling on any one feature. We can self-organize effectively and vary scope safely to achieve the outcome. This is the environment for iteration and continuous improvement, and the means to deliver the right thing in the right way at the right time—something that’s desired by users, economically viable for the business, and technically feasible.
There's Joy In Them Thar Goals
How did you feel as you crossed the finish line in that marathon? There’s deep satisfaction to be had when we realize an outcome.
We aspire to more than building features. What matters is that we have a lasting, valued effect on users. So we should set goals that are business outcomes. If we don’t, we can expect to have targets set for us.