I believe that organisations that want to encourage innovation and improve employee morale should consider whether they can be more goal driven, focusing more on goals and less on tasks. All organisations are ultimately goal driven but often goals are turned into tasks too early, this immediately reduces staffs’ room to manoeuvre – to investigate, test, react, adapt and innovate to reach the goal.
Do you know that a set of features and associated tasks will deliver your goal? Do you know these features and tasks will deliver the best result using the time and resources available? Progress towards a goal is more important than completing a set of tasks. Allocate resources to the achievement of a goal and use those resources to explore problems and solutions, collect and use data to determine next steps.
Managers often prefer tasks because they predictably show a concrete output for a given input. Completion of tasks A and B delivers features X and Y. It can be demonstrate that task A has been completed and feature X delivered. The achievement of a goal, a measurable outcome, is often much harder to predict. Worse, metrics highlight sunk costs, where completion of a set of tasks does not deliver the desired goal.
This human tendency towards predictability over goal achievement is heightened by processes and structures that bet the house on the latest big idea. In a task orientated environment, a determined focus on goal achievement takes guts.
Management skill is stating the goal, posing the questions, defining and focusing on outcomes and the metrics around them. We need a process (lower case ‘p’) that helps us plan, agree, track, adapt and communicate progress towards a goal. Here’s my thoughts on such a process..
Start with the goal/s of a project and the timescale and resources available to achieve the goal/s. How will achievement of the goals be measured? These metrics should be outcomes not completion of tasks or features. For example, is the goal to increase conversion of a checkout process; to increase newsletter signups; to reduce customer service calls; to increase visibility of a product? All of these examples are goals and their achievement can be measured.
Brainstorm ideas for achieving the goals. Are there any prerequisites / stepping stones? Organise these as a tree you want to explore rather than a list of tasks that need completing. The goal is the root of the tree. The nodes are sub-goals, ideas you want to test and measure how successfully a feature may deliver a goal or contribute towards it. The tree gives you a mechanism to understand, track and communicate how the team/s are attempting to explore the problems, try solutions and ultimately how these contribute towards the goal.
Prioritise the nodes below the root, based on which you think are most likely to make progress towards your goal. Start work on the highest priority node. If you’ve multiple teams, teams can start on different siblings. Review results (goal metrics and sub-metrics), which sub-branches should you try next? Are there new sub-branches you want to add? Are they the next best thing to try? Based on your results, do you continue down those sub-branches or move to a sibling? The tree is dynamic, explore it, grow it, prune it based on progress towards your goal.
Goals and metrics for a project provides focus. They encourage conversation about whether the proposed features really achieve the stated aims. This encourages investigation, looking at data, proposing and conducting tests. Furthermore, it encourages conversations about the cost vs value of pieces of work and encourages everyone to bring to the table alternatives which may be more effective and/or lower cost.
Why not leave turning goals into tasks to the “doers”? Tasks (and expectations of their delivery) are a necessary part of successful management. It is important to know “what is going to be done” and “when it will be done”. However, I’d argue that tasks should be a proposed by the “doers” in response to being set a goal by the “leader”. The leader sets goals, puts them into context and explains how their achievement will be measured. The leader facilitates the process of turning goals into tasks and expectations about their delivery. The resulting tasks can be “hung off” each goal in the tree, abstracted away out of sight until they are needed, leaving the focus on goals.