Sunday, January 3, 2016

Visualizing The Goal To Create Alignment

Have you ever worked in an organization where there were so many goals and objectives that it was not clear how they should be traded-off against one another when there was a constraint?  I have.  In fact, most of the organizations I’ve worked in were like that.  However, I don’t think it has to be this way.  I believe that an organization’s goals can be visually arranged to convey meaning and intent in a manner that helps people make better decisions.

Goal Example

Let’s look at an example.  One e-commerce organization I know had a list of objectives that looked something like:
  • Broaden the portfolio of products
  • Reduce the time it takes to introduce new products
  • Provide a better user experience
  • Streamline the merchandising process to allow non-experts to self-serve
  • Enhance the business intelligence capabilities
  • Increase profits
  • Estimate operating expenses for next year
  • Etc.

This list went on for a full page.  Is it any wonder the people of the organization had difficulty deciding what was most important to do immediately, what could be deferred, and what should perhaps not be done at all?

When asked for assistance in prioritizing between two goals, executives often reply with the platitude:  “We need to do both.”  And in a sense, I agree that over the long-term – absolutely – yes, we must indeed achieve both.  However, when there is a personnel or equipment constraint that limits us to executing just one thing at a time, we need better guidance.

One helpful tool is Cost Of Delay.  However, as much as I love it personally, it does not resonate well with everyone, and it also involves at least a slight learning curve.  We should instead seek to use something that can provide some clarity along with a lower barrier to entry.

Show And Tell

I propose a basic visualization.  In the example above, the goals could be organized into a lagging-to-leading tree.  Said differently, the layout of the tree conveys the intent of the business regarding the relative priority of the goals.

In Figure 1, the business is expressing a strategic belief that more profits will hinge on both broadening the product offering and enhancing the customer experience.  If at any point in time there is contention between pieces of work pursuing each of those goals, a different dimension than strategic alignment will have to come into play.  Cost Of Delay would probably help.

Figure 1

In Figure 2, the business is stating that an enhanced customer experience matters only as an enabler of a wider product portfolio, not as an end in and of itself.  This could entail, for example, better navigation or improved search capabilities.  Moreover, it would probably exclude projects like sharper photography, more detailed product information, or easier account management, because those activities don’t enable a wider product assortment.  This is a much different situation than in Figure 1, where any UX improvements could be considered.

Figure 2

In both cases, the goal hierarchy conveys additional information.  It says that activities related to Business Intelligence should be in direct support of UX improvements.  It also explains that although we are interested in the budget forecast, we don’t want that to come at the expense of streamlining the merchandising process.

The visual thus carries more information than a mere list of objectives.  It conveys intent.  As we saw through the two basic examples, it’s all too easy for two people to have a vastly different interpretation of goals presented in a list format.  Some may well end up inadvertently working contra-strategy, which is something nobody wants.  It will likely require some tough conversation around priorities to arrive at the right visualization.  Nevertheless, as difficult as that might be, it has to be better than the self-inflicted wound of misalignment.