Objectives are not Deliverables

The holy grail of Organizational Effectiveness is to connect strategy to execution.  The point of failure happens when strategic goals (objectives) spawn into work items (deliverables). Organizations can find is challenging to define objectives that are not simply deliverables.  How can we ensure that our objectives are not deliverables?

Objectives.  Objectives are strategic goals for future business outcomes.  I realize that sounds like jargon so let’s break that down.

By "strategic goals", we mean that it’s a target, a focused direction we are all moving towards.  A strategic goal is not a commitment or a quota. There is a lot of confusion out there because people have been conditioned by performance agreements, to believe that a goal is the same as a promise.  When we miss a goal, that’s an opportunity to learn. Was the goal unattainable? Can we make a change that will meet or exceed the goal in the future?

By "future business outcomes", we mean the actual result that affects the health of the company.  Did we increase sales, even if just for a small segment? Did we decrease costs?  Did we expand our market share? Delight our customers? These are real business outcomes.

Deliverables.  Deliverables are work items.  Once you’ve defined your strategic goals, you need to figure out what work you can do to meet that strategic goal.  This activity happens at all levels of the organization, so creating a line of sight and collaboration between the levels is important.  

For example, if my objective is to increase sales to millennials by 3%, we will spin up some work that we believe will meet this objective.  Keep in mind, this work is in the form of experiments because we really don’t know what will increase millennial sales. We might create a deliverable for an Instagram campaign and a “donation-with-purchase” promotion.  

Why can’t objectives be deliverables?  When deliverables are defined at the top and work is broken down and doled out, the solution is pre-determined at the top.  This means that the company loses access to the creativity and brainpower of all the people downstream from the point where the work was first defined.  Everyone who touches the work once it’s defined is simply determining how to break it up and estimating the effort it will take. No one is thinking about new possibilities for meeting the objective.  David Marquet refers to this as “blue work” and encourages organizations to get everyone engaged in “blue work”.

Do not back into a strategy bottom-up.  The popularization of self-organizing Agile teams has given some the false impression that the team should decide what’s strategically important. Look guys, maybe someday we’ll figure out how to work like a colony of ants, but we’re not there yet. Today large organizations need to align multiple teams to a strategy.  The alternative is that you have a bunch of teams running in different directions. Just like we get people on a team aligned, we get teams aligned to the larger effort.

Have you seen objectives used effectively?  Ineffectively? Let us know!