by Geof Lory
Like many people across the globe, I read daily and watched nightly marveling at the incredible achievements and suffering with the inconsolable defeats of the athletes in the 2012 Olympics in London. Certain events brought to mind the first article in this series on readiness for speed, on creating a sustainable pace, Speed Kills. Long distance running and swimming require a very different pace from the shorter sprint events. Maintaining a sub-10-second 100-meter pace for 1000 or 1600 meters is just not physically possible. While the records reflect the differences, both are amazing records because they push the limits of what seems humanly possible.
While the specific physical training techniques of the athletes that compete in either end of the distance spectrum vary, they have something non-physical in common: A clear understanding of their goal, an Olympic medal. Just as a focus on a sustainable pace is essential for speed, so too is a shared clear sense of direction toward a compelling goal. It can be called a vision, mission, purpose, objectives or just plain old outcomes, it doesn't matter. Without a strong sense of where you are going it is certain you will stop and start, change directions or even go in circles. I've worked with many teams that lack this direction and all the "managerial encouragement" in the world does not prepare these teams for speed.
Everything written on teams or leadership stresses the importance of a shared vision (see "Are We There Yet?"). In this article, I want to talk specifically about how having a clear, common and compelling goal is necessary for teams to achieve speed and how it both pushes and pulls a team to speed.
Factor #2: Create a Clear, Common and Compelling Goal
These three adjectives are chosen carefully because each has a specific role in driving or drawing a team to speed. Fulfilling each adjective contributes to speed readiness in its own way. Collectively they can propel a team to greatness.
Clear. As a Project Manager I am regularly asked to create and prepare project plans and budgets designed to provide certainty to management around things like resource utilization, forecasted spend, milestones and associated delivery dates. However, by definition, since all of these will occur in the future, they are by definition uncertain. It is almost as if having this prediction (though no one calls it that) it creates a level of false certainty that disguises reality. Unfortunately, most organizations don't even bother to look at the plan during execution as the mad scramble to deliver takes over. Eventually the desire for certainty rears its ugly head (usually when the deadline is missed and moved out) and the cry goes out for a revised plan. More need for certainty.
What the team really needs in order to be ready for speed is not the false certainty of a detailed plan but the clarity of a common goal. Clarity of goals allows the people doing the work to operate within their own required level of certainty while leveraging their individual contribution and value. Every point of uncomfortable uncertainty creates a hesitation or stop, slowing momentum and reducing speed. In contrast, every point of clarity releases the capacity to achieve the goal.
On any project there will always be a certain amount of decisions in process that need to be left open, or change that creates confusion and a lack of clarity. High performing teams recognize these impediments to speed and collectively seek the clarity necessary to move forward. When faced with decisions, they ask themselves, "which option will get us closer to our goal?" If the goal is not clear, this question will be difficult to answer.
Common. A common goal is an outcome of a clear goal made transparent and regularly communicated. It is evidenced in behavior that aligns with the goal. A Project Charter or Statement of Work may publically and formally capture the project goals (and I do highly recommend them) but to really make a goal commonly known, it has to be regularly discussed and used as a compass to vet the work of the team.
Having a common goal allows the team to hold itself accountable to delivery in a safe and self-corrective way. When there is a common understanding and team buy-in to a common goal, challenges, distractions, and impediments are framed relative to achieving the goal. This creates a laser focus that enables speed.
Common goals can be at many levels -- organizational, product, project, team, and even programming pairs. In Agile we use the acronym DRY, which stands for Don't Repeat Yourself. This is intended to support the principles of simplicity and maximizing the work not done. But when it comes to making sure the goals are clear and common, DRY does not apply. The goal needs to become the mantra, repeated ad nauseam, drawing the team to a clear and common focus. It becomes a rallying point, a chant, a compass by which all decisions can be vetted, verified, and aligned.
Compelling. A compelling goal enables speed by working on an entirely different level. It engages the heart more than the head, and provides the pull to the future state where the goal is realized. Why do some athletes at the Olympics exceed all expectations, and even their own prior performances, to break world records and earn gold medals? Something happens at a level that goes beyond their preparation and physical limitations. "Compelling" is a byproduct of being clear and common, combined with an emotional buy-in that is driven from within.
You can't mandate that something be compelling. If you try to, be prepared to externally govern continuously. I have seen many "managers" who have threatened team members with their jobs in an effort to create a compelling goal. Unfortunately, this usually ends up being counterproductive and typically does more to disengage the spirit than engage it. While fear can be a great motivator, it is like adrenalin: momentary spurts can get you over a hurdle, but you can't live on a steady diet of it. It's not sustainable.
On Agile teams, the Product Manager/Owner is responsible for making sure the goals that are set are best for the business. As a Project Manager, my job is to work with Product Management to make sure those goals are clear, common, and compelling for the team. If I do this, the team will be better positioned for speed. If I don't, they will stop and start, sputter and hesitate, and no amount of external pressure to go faster will work.
I once consulted at a company and I was meeting with the executive staff. The goals being laid out were not clear and looking around the room it was also evident they were not common or compelling. So I asked the CEO, "Can you help us understand your vision?" To which he replied, "I have a dozen of them back on my desk, pick any one. We need to get moving." Needless to say, we were not ready for speed.
If you want to know if your team has clear, common, and compelling goals, try this litmus test. Get everyone in a room and hand each person a blank sheet of paper and ask them to write down their understanding of the goal(s) of the project. Give them only a few minutes, collect the papers and then read them back out loud. The results may surprise you and they will give you some context for their readiness for speed.
Teams that are ready for speed show evidence of having clear, common and compelling goals. Here are just a few of the things to look for, and look out for, before hitting the gas.
- Are goals stated in terms of business value and tangible deliverables, or dates and deadlines?
- Can every team member articulate the goals, near-term, mid-term, and long-term?
- Do you have visible evidence of the goals (taskboards, roadmaps and other information radiators) that are readily available and regularly reviewed and responsibly followed?
- Does the dialogue of the team regularly reference the goals as an integral part of the decision making process?
In the next article we'll look at the social, cultural, technical and political environmental factors that can limit or enable speed. Every project team operates within these constraints, so we'll look at how the environment and supporting team disciplines enable speed.