In the last years, I have become more and more familiar with terms like "management by objectives", "company objectives" and "personal objectives". In the beginning, this was a real struggle, then it got worse, then it started to take shape and finally come around. The journey always started with company objectives which needed to be broken into personal objectives, and I must admit it was a challenge for me to apply the concepts even if they seemed easy to understand. It was really interesting to connect the dots and make them really work for me. In the hope that some of the learnings I took in the process will help others struggle less than me with this, I will highlight some of the findings here. And the interesting thing is that I don't think that this applies only to the IT world, but has a high level of application in a lot of other areas.
As our company grew a lot in the last years, the need for synchronized processes came very naturally. If, on a small scale, we can have things working only by our gut feeling, when the size of the organization increases, there is a need to set some ground rules in order to be able to keep the things under control. As a company tries to grow, part of the strategic thinking is to have a well-designed plan. And one important part of the plan is to define clear objectives. Objectives can be long term, mid-term or short term, but no matter what temporal frame is targeted, these objectives need to be cascaded through and adopted by the entire organization in order to maximize the chances to make them happening. This sounds awesome as a concept, but it's not so easy to actually do it.
The challenges we faced can be split in two areas:
If defining the right strategy for a company and setting the right yearly objectives is a huge challenge, the implementation at the company level through departments and individuals is at least as challenging. If either of the parts fails, the entire process is compromised. A bad yearly strategy cannot help anybody and a bad individual implementation can easily affect the overall result. Nevertheless, the biggest challenges we faced were related to the second part: defining meaningful individual goals. During this process, I discussed a lot with people who were ready to adopt this, with people who were totally against it, I read a lot and I put a lot of thinking into it. The twists that helped me go further and helped me shape my mindset around this have a deep root in all of this above.
My real focus in this article is directed towards personal objectives. Before defining personal objectives, company objectives need to be set and they need to be cascaded down the company structures. And then they get to individuals. Some theories say that company objectives policy should stop at the department level. Some theories say that they need to be dispatched to each individual. If we think about our personal life, we set objectives for ourselves in any point of it. Formal or informal, the objectives are there. It's somehow natural to have them also in our working environment, so my personal preference goes for the second option: objectives for everybody. This needs to happen in a natural way and in order to have everybody's buy-in, there are a couple of considerations which we need to have in mind when we are doing this.
Not everybody needs to influence directly the company objectives
This is the number one mindset directive on my list. Some people may influence directly some company objectives, but most of them will have only an indirect influence. And that is actually quite good. Because the easiest way to indirectly help on company objectives, if there is not a direct connection, is to become better on what we are doing, so our focus when setting the objectives can go to that. And to be honest, the motivation to achieve a goal when the target is to improve one's personal knowledge and skills is much higher. Let's try a simple sample: suppose that one of the company's objectives for this year is to get Microsoft Azure expertise by having three people certified into advanced Azure by the end of the third quarter. The company has 200 employees from which only 50 are working on .NET technologies. If it's impossible to set a target for every .NET person to get the Azure certification, imagine what storm will be created if you are expecting this from the developers which are working with other technologies.
Mutual benefit brings better motivation
This might sound selfish, but it's the human nature and cannot be ignored. One thing that organizations need to understand is that when personal goals are set just to meet the organization's criteria, individual motivation can go down in an instant. In order to have people buy in, personal objectives need to benefit the individuals also. Going back to the previous example, it would be a really bad move to force some of the 50 .Net developers to take the Azure certification. The logical step would be to find those who want to do so and are attracted by this idea. It's almost impossible that nobody would want to soar into new stuff. Personal development of a person helps also the company so it is ok if someone's personal objectives target cannot be tied by a specific company initiative and focus only on personal growth. It might be the case that this could have the biggest buy in from the person.
Knowledge is different than understanding
I heard this in a different context, and I found this phrase very powerful and applicable in a lot of contexts. There are tons of materials on the internet to define what an objective is and even more important on how to define a SMART objective. The short version is that when you are setting an objective, the chances of meeting the objective are considerably higher if the objective is SMART. This means that the objective needs to be specific, needs to be measurable, needs to be achievable, needs to be relevant and needs to be time-based. When I read the first time about SMART objective, I was like a child who discovered chocolate. The interesting thing is that we discover chocolate very early in our life, maybe at the age of two or three, and we are not able to open the package properly without help. And we need to do some practice on how to do it. But once we learn how to open it, after many tries, our life would be changed in good forever. And like any good stuff in this life, we need to understand how it works and we need to have it with moderation, otherwise it can turn against us.
SMART is not a myth
As I said before, defining a SMART objective is not as easy as it looks, but based on the thoughts put down on paper so far it is very important
Specific allows us to be focused on what we want to achieve. If the objective is not specific, it is very easy to get derailed in a variety of ways and lose our focus. And when we are derailed, it is easy not to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And this can lead to demotivation before the journey ends. Let's say that we are targeting to better understand the wearable concept. This is a very generic buzz-word and we can bring it down a little. We might want to do some research on iWatch and all of a sudden our objectives become very specific.
Measurable is what gives us the opportunity to say very clearly if we have met our objective or not. How do I know if I really researched something related to iWatch? I can plan to provide a prototype for some functionality or integration with some other software. This way we can say for sure at the end of the time frame if we are there or not. We can have the finality and accomplishment for our work.
Achievable is what keeps us on a realistic level. We can push ourselves and set a target to implement the best iWatch application in the next 3 months, but if we are just starting to learn about iWatch development, this is hard to achieve. Not being achievable might push us hard in the beginning but again can lead to demotivation really fast as we go for the same reason: we don't see the end result happening.
Relevant allows us to keep the focus without effort on our goal. If I am a .NET developer in a .NET oriented company being proficient in iWatch development doesn't make sense. Even more, my daily tasks may not have any connection with this either now or in the future. I would have to find time to totally disconnect from current work context and this can easily be deferred in the daily work whirlwind. But if I know that a new team needs to be set in place for this I can connect to other people, I might get a mentor to help me and the company has all the interest to set up the framework for me to do this; so, all the premises to allow me to focus on this are there.
Each person owns his objectives
This is one of the toughest lessons I learned. Once a person has committed to an objective he / she should not rely on somebody else to achieve the objective. That person is primarily responsible to make it happen. Usually, the achievement of personal objectives is monitored and evaluated at the end of the year by somebody, but it is not that person's role to make it happen. A manager can help his team members and guide them through the process, but if they are waiting for the manager to push them constantly in order to meet their personal objectives, those are half missed from the beginning.
These tips actually work:
store them somewhere easily accessible; imagine the 'motivation' when we want to revise the progress on them and we don't have them in front of us
Fear of commitment is the biggest objectives enemy
I met a lot of situations when people have done something interesting like writing an article when they didn't have this set as an objective. These people love to write, but when they were asked to commit writing more, they freaked out. It seems that we are genetically designed to have a fear of commitment. What if, any time that we acknowledge this, we think about the fact that humankind has overcome the ultimate fear of commitment: people started to get married. So, committing to a yearly objective should be piece of cake. Leaving the joke aside, when we have doubts if we should commit to something, we need to think what the root cause of that is. That commitment might really hurt us or is it just the fear of commitment? And the easiest way to overcome this is to commit to something which we really want to do. I find impossible the fact that there is nothing out there which we can find to help us improve, to help us grow, to help us become better in what we are doing.
Don't underestimate the power of the journey
This might be a walking cliché, but it is the truth and nothing else but the truth. Fishing is not always about the fish, as some people might think. It's about what knowledge you gain in order to get there. It is about learning how to overcome the obstacles. It's about the game. Winning, in this case achieving the goal, is a bonus. If somebody wants to get some expertise with a new framework and sets a personal objective to implement a prototype by the end of next quarter, I view the knowledge gain on the process much more important than the prototype itself.
I see objectives as a good way to progress, no matter if we are talking about a company or a person. Even more, I see them as a good way to measure progress. From my perspective, this is the main purpose of objectives. And on a personal level, objectives work for the people who want them to work. If somebody doesn't believe in this, then setting objectives may transform into a demotivational and not useful process from the beginning. Whether you believe in them or not, I found the thoughts I enumerated very helpful, as they have really helped me understand objectives and make them work for me. And my hope is that they will also help other people. This is not an objective, because I don't know how many people I want to help, I don't know by when and I don't know if this is achievable or not. It's just a hope.
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