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Earlier this week I appeared as part of the QA Touch Virtual Series.  I spoke on the topic of goals and setting goals. I used the presentation to bring together a number of ideas of goals and goal setting, and this essay, in turn, is based on the presentation.

We set goals to establish a vision of tomorrow and to provide motivation and feedback for following a path towards those visions. We use goals to decide what knowledge and capabilities we need to acquire and how to line up our resources to reach toward the future.  Goals can be a powerful tool.  As with all powerful tools they can be misused or overused. 

Early in my career, I worked as a sales statistician. It was a great job, I got to analyze data, build mathematical models, carve up sales territories, and set quotas. Quotas are goals with teeth. I rarely had a conversation with the salespeople (their regional directors, yes; but not the people doing the selling), it just was the way things were done. What I did not realize then that I do now is: If I have set your goals for you — they are not your goals, they’re mine!

In many organizations, goals cascade from the top. Prima facie, there is nothing wrong with this approach. Goals set at an organization-wide level inform the lower organizational levels that search for mechanisms to support making them a reality. This approach ensures that the whole organization is moving in the same direction. Issues arise when the higher-level goals lock the lower levels into an implementation structure by telling them how they are to meet the goals. 

In a top-down cascade scenario, the “boss” role tends to have a significant amount of influence on the goal or goals within their span of control. Influence can be exerted by:

  1. Insisting on an activity being done or not done. I recently listened to a team lead insist that a specific story that the Product Owner didn’t want, be done during a sprint. It was their opinion that they knew what the ultimate customer wanted better than the PO. 
  2. Talking up the need for a specific goal to support a larger goal. I was once pressured to put a goal on my annual objectives so that another director’s initiative could succeed. While I was never told directly to take up the goal, the admonition about being a team player overwhelmed my good senses. 
  3. Requiring your goals to be built from their goals.  Simply put, you are given your boss’s goals and are told to make sure your goals support theirs.  

Any time there is positional power these types of pressure can be brought to bear. On an individual level, I could have easily substituted a partner or friends for the boss. When you are being told what your goals are, however explicitly, ask what you want for yourself. You need to determine if your ultimate goal and whoever is helping you determine your goal are in alignment. If you find yourself rationalizing that that’s just the way it is, try questioning your assumptions before acceding or pushing back.

Part Two – Value Chains And Four Organization Level Metrics