My Best Tips on Team Goals

Don't win at the wrong thing!

My Best Tips on Team Goals
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

Did I Win, or Not?

Some years ago, I was working as a Product Manager in a large company. My team was fairly well-organized. Everyone had a very clear picture of a number of metrics, and the website I was working with had a set of metric goals tied up to monthly OKRs that I had spent days crafting, reviewing and re-crafting at the start of the year.

I did everything I could to hit those goals. UI changes, flow changes, wording, intent - I hustled like crazy to iterate that website. It felt good.

Fast forward, and I was crowing in a  “we’re winning, congratulations and thank you” email (complete with amusing memes) about a nominal increase in one of the key conversion metrics. Right before I pressed “Send”, I pushed my chair back from my keyboard and took a deep breath.

What did we actually win? We were winning in the game we set for ourselves, and it looked like that game was consistent with the game everyone else in the company was playing.

Was I unconsciously gaming the system to make myself “succeed” and look great? What if there was a bigger picture I was missing in my trust of the goals?

Most crucially, did the work actually matter?

Goal Drift

In a team, we all try to work together to win.

In any organization, people make small decisions at every point in their day. In many organizations, we have goal systems designed to set objectives and measure what we are doing, and we all do our best to win in the way that we’ve been told to.

For the leaders in the organization, we spend lots of time thinking about objectives, what we’re doing next, and communicating that system to everyone. We’re telling everyone how we want to win.

At the start of that process of goal-setting, there was likely a very focused, core application that generated value for a specific group of people. At some point, especially as a company scales rapidly, the goal system in that company drifts and teams start doing things like “make features”, because that’s what they’re told to do so that they will “win”.

People are really good at doing whatever it takes to meet their goals to distinguish themselves to bosses, board or investors. It’s human nature.

The danger here is that eventually, the outcomes expressed by the goals drift away from what was originally intended unless they are constantly re-visited.

Perhaps we are tweaking and tweaking and tweaking a product, but we’ve reached a local maximum of what we can change, and there’s no payoff to the game that we’re playing anymore.

Pick an application or site that you’re using today. Is it an app that has become bloated over the years with extra features that seem non-sensical to you? Evernote is a great historical example.

Why do you think that this happens?

A product manager, or division, or team has been incentivized through the system in their company to make features. Just make them. So they do. Lots of them.

Tips on Taking Control of your Goal System

As always, the first step is acknowledging that you might have a problem:

  • Do your teams’ granular goals reflect the actual overall goal of your company and organization? How?
  • What would it look like if we thought into the future and considered the consequences of everyone following these smaller goals?
  • Are your investments directed at high-leverage areas  (i.e. the ratio of the impact of your work vs. the cost is high)?

As an example, the goal system I see most commonly is OKRs. OKRs can work to coordinate everyone, but require a great deal of care (and time) to think through the ultimate consequences of winning the way that you have defined. The portfolio of these goals must be monitored, and must remain coherent and consistent with a broader narrative.

Someone looking at the big list of OKRs should immediately be able to tell what the narrative is behind it.

It’s helpful to trace back through the history of OKRs, starting with High Output Management by Andy Grove, and moving to Measure What Matters by John Doerr (who brought these ideas into Google). Both books contain a great deal of wisdom on approaching these larger problems.

There are many other goal systems out there, but they all accomplish the same basic task. They set the rules of the game that you’d like to win by, and ideally make it clear to everyone how that game maps back into their minute-to-minute decisions.

That’s up to you, as a leader, taking the time to ensure that all of this coherently links together.

Tips on Better Goals

Within the goal system, how do we define better goals?

First, the framework defining “SMART” goals is something we’ve all heard for a long time:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

We can take a better definition from Will Larson in An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management:

“Good goals are a composition of four specific kinds of numbers:
  1. A target states where you want to reach.
  2. A baseline identifies where you are today.
  3. A trend describes the current velocity.
  4. A time frame sets bounds for the change.”

He goes on to explain:

“The two tests of an effective goal are whether someone who doesn’t know much about an area can get a feel for a goal’s degree of difficulty, and whether afterward they can evaluate if it was successfully achieved. If you define all four aspects, typically your goal will fulfill both criteria.”

Some Philosophy and Further Reading

I recommend Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse if you’re interested in some of the philosophy and an even broader perspective on “winning”.

Carse’s central point is that most of us go through life playing a series of “finite games” in which the rules are fixed and there is a winner and a loser.

There is a different perspective, one where the point is continuing the game (not “winning”), and where the rules are changeable, opening up profound possibilities. This is called an “infinite game”. Nat Eliason has a good summary.

Simon Sinek recently published a book called The Infinite Game, developing some applications of these same ideas from James Carse.

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Jamie Larson