Business outcomes are smarter goals

Wright brothers take flight

Wright brothers take flight

Setting a goal provides a focal point and helps us prioritise and deflect distractions.

Have you set any new year resolutions? They’re goals. Promising to exercise more, drink less or give up chocolate are all too ambiguous and usually end in disappointment. Smart goals reduce ambiguity. But there are smart goals, and then there are smarter goals. How goals are expressed will influence whether we treat them as targets or approach them with a sense of purpose. Look at the following smart goals:

  1. To lose 6kg in weight in 4 weeks.
  2. To fit into a Paul Smith suit bought off the peg in 4 weeks.

The first is a solution dressed up like a smart goal because it manages to express a measurement. We either achieve it or we don’t.

The second is the desired outcome. It appeals to our imagination. It’s inspirational and thus garners greater emotional response. But, critically we don’t lock ourselves down to one solution—in this case losing exactly 6kg in 4 weeks. We retain the flexibility to explore different solutions in order to achieve the outcome we want.

Smarter goals express a desired outcome.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
— John F Kennedy

JFK didn’t say, “let’s build a rocket”.


The goal was to put a man on the moon

The goal was to put a man on the moon

A space rocket was the solution

A space rocket was the solution

Focusing on solutions increases the risk of failure

Solutions fix scope. Too often success is defined by having a solution comprising a fixed set of features delivered by a certain date. This is a target. When managers set targets and use them to force performance they bring out the wrong behaviours—we cheat, cut corners, and forget about the real needs of users. The cost of those cuts come back to bite.

An assumption here is that those features will produce the desired outcome. And, by the way that desired outcome is typically not expressed nor visible. What if those feature do not realise the outcome? Fixing scope locks in our ignorance and stops us responding to what’s being learned and making adjustments en route to ensure the desired outcome.

Similarly, setting Scrum’s sprint goal in terms of features rather than an outcome is fixing scope. And asking the team to commit to its delivery is setting a target. With fixed time, fixed scope, and fixed cost, quality will suffer driving up the cost of future change and the total cost of ownership.

Without smarter goals all we do is chomp through the backlog of features like Pacman. This suits fixed-scope thinkers because they’re measuring progress by the rate at which the backlog is decreasing. Should things run late pressure gets applied, bluntly or otherwise.

Focusing on outcomes sets us up for success

Samuel Pierpoint Langley was trying to build the first powered, manned airplane—a solution.

The Wright brothers wanted to fly and see the world as birds do.

We all know who flew first. Langley promptly quit any further exploration into flight.

Outcomes that feel worthwhile drive us to achieve them. By focusing on a business outcome we’re acknowledging that estimates are never accurate and that we can’t anticipate everything at the start. Murphy’s Law tells us that shit will happen. We’re free to explore options and think about different ways to meet user needs rather than gambling on any one feature. We can self-organise effectively and vary scope safely to achieve the outcome. This is the environment for iteration and continuous improvement, and the means to deliver the right thing in the right way at the right time—something that’s desired by users, economically viable for the business, and technically feasible.