On Individual and Departmental Goals

It’s that time of year again whereupon three months into the year, organizations everywhere begin the exciting task of examining the tabula rasa of a new year filled with potential of achieving amazing things. As part of that task, many organizations set goals for individuals and departments in hopes that they will lead said individuals and departments to greater success for the company. There is no shortage of information on this topic, freely available after a short Google search.

One common theme to goal setting is that they must be SMART which is a fun HR derived acronym for Specific, Measurable, Aggressive, Realistic and Time-bound. Substantial evidence shows that goals set in this manner are in fact correlated with happier, more motivated employees and greater success in the achievement of the goals. However, I would argue that the resultant success and happiness are not caused by the fact that goals are SMART but instead by the underlying process through which the goals are worked towards. It is quite feasible that an organization would set SMART goals and then still have highly unhappy employees who achieve few if any of the goals nine months later. This happens because goals alone are useless regardless of how SMART they are. Goal achievement relies on the underlying system and strategy that support the goals.

Scott Adams has written about the difference between systems and goals. We all have regular experience with goals gone awry. Many of us are sure this will be the time that we lose 20 lbs or exercise more or read more books or whatever. It does not matter if the goal is SMART or not. I can say “I will read 24 books in 2021” which is Specific (read more books), Measurable (24), Aggressive (I read 7 last year), Realistic (outside any context of course which is critical) and Time-Bound (one year). But if there is no underlying system and strategy for accomplishing this goal, all the smartness in the world will result in the same failure.

A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.

Donella Meadows, Thinking In Systems

System has a specific definition and meaning in this setting. It is the interconnected nature of the pieces of the system that produce the results that the system outputs. In order for an organization or a department or an individual to achieve goals, there must be an underlying system of management designed at least in part to facilitate the necessary behavior of goal accomplishment. If this system is designed, either intentionally or more often haphazardly, to produce behavior other than goal accomplishment, no amount of SMARTness will ever overcome it.

A trivial example applied to my desire to read more books. On its face, the goal seems SMART. However, that is only so if the underlying system that I use to make choices with my free time has taken into consideration the constraints on that time. Unless I have examined the amount of free time I had in 2020 and discovered a great deal more of it and then dedicated my future expenditures of that time to reading via a disciplined schedule, the goal of 24 books is much more likely to be DUMB (Definitely Underestimating My Behavior) than it is to be SMART even though on the surface, the goal seems to conform to the definition.

I would actually argue that one of the core principles of good management is the diagnosis and analysis of the Realistic in SMART. This is the area where management skills make or break the underlying system that allow successful goal achievement. In order to determine if a goal is realistic, a manager must understand and be able to answer the following questions:

  • What is the underlying system of how work gets done by the organization?
  • What is the underlying system of how work gets done by the department?
  • What is the underlying motivational type of the individual (if setting individual goals)?
  • Are all of these cohesive with each other?
  • Are they congruent with each other? (see Esther Derby’s work on Change and Congruence)
  • What are the constraints on work within the system?
  • How much work can the org, department or individual realistically do given the system within which it operates?
  • And so on and so on.

The key to successful goal setting and achievement is to have an underlying system of behavior that clearly defines what is realistic. It is not realistic to lose 10 lbs if you do not throw away all the Cheetohs in the pantry and continue to eat donuts every Saturday morning because it is a family tradition. The system that includes Cheetohs and donuts will overcome any amount of SMART goal setting because it is the system that produces the behavior that leads to outcomes. It is not realistic to have 8 priority one departmental goals if the underlying system of the organization is such that at any moment the entire department may be reallocated to focus on unrelated organizational goals.

A good manager understands the constraints on what is and is not realistic for an organization, department and individual. Here lie the dragons of management. Most goal setting exercises I have been a part of have applied a great deal of wishful thinking and magical handwaving around the capacity of the organizational structure. Most of these exercises identify several things that seem highly desirable and then ask “can we do all this?” Because humans are naturally inclined to be good, your experience with social media notwithstanding, the result is often a half-hearted “yes” if only so that we can get on about the business of actually doing work. But in order to have not only successful goal setting but also goal achievement, we must have a more rigorous system around what is realistic. At the very least, a manager must understand the constraints of the system within which she operates and have a strategy for dealing with those constraints.

The strategy work of Richard Rumelt is very helpful here. Specifically, we must realize that good strategy is about policy choice and commitment to action. We have to write strategies for our goals that lay out policies to guide action towards the system behavior that we want. We must lay out consequences for violating the strategy and be prepared to defend them. Circling back to my personal goal, when I discover I have 30 minutes of free time and am thinking about practicing my guitar, I must realize that this hampers the realistic definition of my reading goal and that there are consequences to that choice. The same goes for reducing technical debt of an engineering organization. When faced with opportunity of some free time, if we fill it with yet another story delivering business value instead of dedicating it to removing NHibernate (don’t ask), we have violated the Realistic nature of our goal. To prevent this from happening, we have to have hard policies that say things like “when presented with available resource time, we will always choose to apply that time to the reduction of technical debt”. This guides teams actions but does not dictate it. They can still choose what actions to take within the guardrails of the policy. We must also then ensure that free time both exists and is encouraged. If it does not or cannot be created due to organizational constraints, no amount of SMART goal setting will ever result in a different behavior.

By building a system that produces the behavior we want, goals become mostly secondary in nature. If there are clear policies and feedback loops built into the system to confirm, analyze and affirm behavior, goals will just happen. We must understand the constraints of the system and operate within them as well. We must know the inputs and the outputs of the system and how those interact to balance or reinforce behavior. We must work to ensure that goals are written in such a way that they do not violate the boundaries of the system because that guarantees failure. Successful goal setting is really about system design and is just as hard as more concrete problems like making an API faster or migrating to the cloud.

Change Requires System Change

“Getting started begins with the simple, self-evident premise that every system is perfectly designed to deliver the results it produces.”

Paul Batalden, MD

At first glance, this seems cliche. A traffic system is perfectly designed to produce the results of safe, smooth traffic flow through an intersection. A plumbing system is perfectly designed to bring water in and take gray and black water out. A release and deploy system is perfectly designed to walk through 7 stages and take 2 days and involve 40 people even if one of the company’s stated goals is to get better at web delivery. Oops.

I came across the leading quote in Esther Derby’s excellent book, 7 Rules for Positive, Product Change: Micro Shifts, Macro Results. At its heart, it is an idea about systems thinking, about how change must either work within the system to change the boundaries of the system or work without the system to alter the system itself. If you want to change something, you must change the system that produces the behavior you are interested in. Any effort to implement change without first taking into account the sociotechnical system within which you are operating will result in muddled results at best and failure at worst.

Where I work, we currently have an annual goal to improve Web Delivery Excellence. At this level, we can think of it more as a vision made up in some part by the following: improve the performance of our funnel and improve the engineering discipline and performance of the overall system. We’re now in March, almost into the second quarter of the year and we’ve struggled to make much headway on this vision. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this and I think it’s directly attributable to Batalden’s quote. We have a sociotechnical system that is perfectly designed to produce mediocre web delivery. This is because the system wasn’t built to produce the result of Web Delivery Excellence. It was designed to Prevent Web Delivery Crappiness. Hoping to improve web delivery without explicitly addressing the underlying system will almost certainly result in failure.

What does the underlying system look like? Fairly common in the industry, we have a two week sprint cycle. We deploy everything at the end of the sprint. We have a waterfall designed SDLC even though we call it agile in that the reporting structure of teams is in silos with competing biases, incentives and directives. Teams are not empowered in any meaningful sense. The two week long feedback cycles are far too long to make immediate changes. Each silo (engineering, QA, ops) has built processes that serve the silo’s needs quite well while managing to serve the organization’s new needs quite poorly. The system that has been built is a direct artifact of Conway’s Law which is probably a corollary of Batalden’s quote.

Much of this system, perhaps all of it, was designed to protect against Web Delivery Crappiness, to wit, QA tests three times because QA often finds broken things in different types of environments and only Ops can deploy because the production environment is sacrosanct as a way to shield failures. There are many more examples, none particularly unique in the industry as it once existed. We’re actually quite good at this process. But today, after all the research that has come out of DORA and other organizations, we know this type of system is not the way to achieve excellence.

In order to implement change in a system like this, the system itself must be the target. You cannot will “Web Delivery Excellence” into a system that was specifically designed to protect against Web Delivery Crappiness. Protecting against Crappiness is not the flip side of the coin to Implementing Excellence unfortunately. To change the outcomes of your software delivery process, you must change your software delivery system that produces those outcomes. The good news is that the process for that is straightforward. Some people even wrote a book about it.

So often in my career, I have seen agents of change completely fail because they try to operate within the same system boundaries that produce the current situation the change agents want so desperately to change. Many times, they will intuitively understand this and will try to create an entirely new system. Unfortunately, this also often ends in failure because systems have evolved over time to prevent change unless the system is specifically designed to facilitate change. This is one of the reasons why rewrites go wrong so often because the sociotechnical system that the software system runs in has evolved to produce results designed specifically around the existing software. The only way to successfully rewrite a system like this is to also rewrite or rewire the surrounding sociotechnical system to accommodate it.

Change is hard. But it is also inevitable. In order for it to be orderly, change agents must alter the system that produces the outcomes. In order to do that, we must examine the sociotechnical system that produced the current outcomes we wish to change and then take steps to alter that meta system in a way that is likely to result in different outcomes. To achieve excellence as opposed to prevent crappiness, we must realize that fear of failure is a major part of the current system and we must ameliorate that fear by creating a system that welcomes failure as a path to learning. To achieve excellence as opposed to prevent crappiness, we must reduce process to a bare minimum so that we optimize for flow and feedback instead of gates and checkpoints. Until we begin to analyze the systems within which we operate and which are perfectly designed to produce the results we now no longer appreciate, we’ll continue to fail to change the outcomes we receive.

On Achieving Goals

Ah the tabula rasa of the New Year where so many of us decide how much better we’re going to make ourselves in the next 365 days. We decide to lose weight or get our finances in order or be more productive. Occasionally we announce to the world these lofty ambitions like Donald Trump boasting how rich he is. Then for a month or six weeks or if we’re really lucky to the spring equinox, we really focus on these “goals”. We go to the gym. We save money. We write blog posts. And then something quietly breaks that we aren’t even aware of and suddenly it’s August and we’ve gained the weight back plus found a new appreciation for that kick ass donut shop that just happens to be on the way to work. What happened?

As it turns out, having goals makes us largely unhappy according to James Clear. This makes intuitive sense because goals so often end in failure for a variety of reasons. Then we are left with a fundamental lack of accomplishment. For several years, I’ve wanted to learn Spanish. That’s a Goal. But having Goals without a clear path to achieving them is destined for failure. What you also need is a system or a habit plus a reasonably accurate, mostly simple way to track that system (not the goal). This kind of thinking leans heavily on “small strokes fell great oaks”. We are creatures of habit but the key is getting into a habit of doing something different from our current habits. As it turns out, lots of small steps are a lot easier on the path to new habits than huge jumps. Yet our Goals are necessarily designed around these huge jumps.

Having a system mediates that. A system involves what you do every single day to achieve a Goal. If you want to write a book, your system is “write for an hour every day and track the number of words”. If you want to lose weight, your system is “I’m going to follow the five rules of the Slow Carb Diet.” If you want to write 26 letters, your system is “I’m going to write one letter every first and third Saturday of each month”. These systems are formalizations of the cues that are necessary to form new habits which lead to progress towards change. The beauty of systems and cues over goals is that even if your goals turn out to be slightly harder than you thought, you can still gain a great sense of achievement by analyzing the results of your system if you track it well.

Let’s say your goal is to win the Masters next year. Your system is hit 500 balls a day. You record this in a spreadsheet and write an easy sum function and an easy averaging function to display progress. In 2017 when you are watching the Masters on the couch, if you have followed your system, you almost guaranteed to be a MUCH improved golfer regardless of the result of the goal. This is key to Clear’s third tenet linked above concerning the fact that Goals make you think you have control over things you don’t. So many times life gets in the way and we lose sight of our goals. But if we have a solid system in place like “Don’t eat white starchy things”, we are more likely to just keep plugging right along. Also, having that system/process viewpoint can help on the days we don’t do well or have slight setbacks. If my system is workout 60 minutes a day, a day where I only do 30 minutes isn’t the end of the world because I can go for a long run on the weekend. I don’t feel guilty about working out less on some days when the system is in place.

Systems lead to progress and we can take comfort in progress even if goals are never reached. I find it helpful to know where I am in my system so I built a basic spreadsheet where I can track activities that move me towards my goals. You could easily copy it and modify it for your goals and progress. I have instant feedback on where I am which helps me feel much better about my progress (or identify places that I’m falling behind. Time to watch a movie!). And this provides the behavioral reinforcement of the system which hopefully results in a very positive feedback cycle. With that in hand, I will be able to look back at the end of 2016 and feel very good about the progress I’ve made regardless of the end result.