Recently, an employee from an organization I worked at several years ago reached out on LinkedIN. They wanted to share their experience of a project I led back then to introduce SMART goals as part of the performance planning and assessment process. They were not a fan. I don’t blame them.
My thinking about goals has shifted since then. I’ve come to believe that an increased focus on data and metrics has not been accompanied by sufficient curiosity and care to understand the effects of those metrics. We often hurriedly assign simple, formulaic success measures to goals that are not simple, formulaic endeavors. A lot of work being done in the organizations I’ve been lucky to work for is not algorithmic and predictable. It’s complex, novel, and ambiguous. And yet, far too often, we still slap some fairly arbitrary milestones on it, and define what future success will look like based entirely on our present knowledge and understanding.
Often, these success measures, KPIs, or OKRs will be used to assess our performance and allocate rewards. So, we work towards them (potentially ignoring signals and signs along the way that the goal should be rethought). Or we ignore the success measures, and adjust course as we go. We might be rated poorly for this based on a literal reading of our original objectives, or (if we work with decent people) our manager will work around the performance system to rate us based on a subjective assessment of our effort and progress, not on the (now outdated and irrelevant) success measures. In either scenario, success metrics fail to deliver their intended effect.
As Margaret Heffernan recently said:
“…as much as everyone is in love with metrics, we need to recognise that every metric comes with a cost and generates perverse outcomes”.
“People are so focused on targets that the meaning of what you’re measuring sometimes gets lost,” she explained.”
So, does it ever make sense to not have a crystal-clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve? I think so.
One example is the ‘strategic flexibility’ required of a start-up. The Actionable team is necessarily re-evaluating our approach constantly, and the chance last week to spend three solid days with some of our most engaged and accomplished Consulting Partners was, unsurprisingly, a seismic event for our team. Letting the perspectives, experiences, and insights that were shared wash over us, transform our thinking, and change how we see our work is critical to chart our course forward. And I think that’s so different than the way that most organizations operate.
I’m not talking about agility as much as I’m talking about adaptability of vision. Even organizations and industries who are flirting with ‘agile’ ways of working (outside of their software teams) seem mostly to be talking about how they work; experimenting with and executing strategies faster in pursuit of a clear objective. Underlying that is an assumption that there will still be a laser-like focus on where they’re going.
But so many of the problems we’re trying to solve as societies, organizations, institutions and individuals are too complex for us to pinpoint a singular, obvious answer that we might focus our lasers on.
From Rocking the Boatby Debra Meyerson:
”[Those] who want to advance change cannot operate without a general vision of the changes they are seeking, and yet visions that are too clear and specific can be overly constraining. Blurry visions of the future allow people to be flexible and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves…It simply means that they hold visions that are sufficiently ambiguous to allow for strategic flexibility.”
Whether you work for a start-up, or are trying entirely new things in a more established organization, having an extremely clear vision for what your end state must look like, especially for something complex that hasn’t been done before, just doesn’t make sense. The process of moving towards a new state (whether that’s finding market fit for a business, or trying to solve a social problem) will result in all sorts of unexpected insights along the way. In some cases, these insights might validate an initial hypothesis about how to move closer to where you want to be. In other cases, they might completely redefine where you thought you were headed in the first place. Is that failure? According to the traditional way that we do goal-setting and performance appraisals, it would be.
We seem to fear that unless we have exact coordinates that we’ll stall out and crash. But in many cases, those coordinates are only a guess. Too often, we begin to treat the guess as certain. Then we characterize any detour as failure by insisting that reaching the coordinates was the entire point of our journey in the first place.
Dave Snowden, who created the Cynefin framework, describes complex systems this way:
“Complex systems aren’t predictable. they are dispositional. We can’t draw a line from A to B, we have to nudge a system, and then amplify or dampen the resulting pattern.”
Seeking to hold a vision that is “sufficiently ambiguous” while continuing to move forward is uncomfortable, both personally and organizationally. However, this week reminded me that maintaining a slightly blurry vision leaves space for other viewpoints and experiences to bring the next few steps into clearer focus.
I’ll be speaking about sexual harassment as a mental health issue at a Conference Board of Canada event this week, and then it’s off to SHRM 2018 next week, where I’ll be speaking about remote work. If you’ll be at either event, please do reach out and let’s make sure to meet.