October 30, 2015

No goals, no glory

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Take a minute to think about your latest change project. Did you achieve the goals of the project? Can you actually, honestly tell? If not, you’re not alone. Most projects fail to specify concrete, falsifiable goals. Goals that allow you to check whether you have achieved them or not.

Why is this, and how can we improve?

An example

A real life example is the use of tablet computers in schools. Let me share some quotes from two news articles:

  • Almost 70% of primary and secondary schools in the UK now use tablet computers, according to research. But the study says there is no clear evidence of academic improvement for pupils using tablet devices.
  • “The iPads should encourage collaborative learning, which has to be good,” says a teacher of politics. “The ease of communication means that classes can share ideas and resources easily. They will even be able to participate in live e-debates for homework.”
  • “I think it’s really important that schools function in the way that the world is.”

In these few lines, we discover no less than five different reasons for using tablets in school:

  • Academic improvement
  • Collaborative learning
  • Share ideas and resources easily
  • Participate in live e-debates
  • Function in the way the world is

While it makes very much sense to use tablets in school, how you use these tablets will be very different depending on the goals you are trying to reach. Tablets may not even be the best or a sufficient solution for achieving some of these goals.

Arrows going in different directions with a question mark on top

What is a goal?

An important distinction is the difference between output and outcome.

  • Output is the product produced during a project. It can for example be a physical thing (a new machine), a virtual thing (a new software application), a people thing (a new hire, an updated business process).
  • Outcome is the result we achieve with this output. It is a change that follows from using the (new or updated) product.

In other words:

  • Output is what you create (build, buy, remove, …). You can check at the end of a project whether you have the desired output or not: it’s a simple yes or no.
  • Outcome is why you create the output, it is the change you aim to realise, the purpose of your project. You can check, some time after having created the output, how much change you have achieved: it is an increase or decrease, it’s about how much you have moved the needle.

The goal of a project can never be the output produced by the projectThe goal of a project is the change you aim to achieve, specified as a SMART target (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound). It is the reason we start the change project in the first place.

The goal of a project can never be the output produced by the project. The product is only the means to an end.

Why do we forget to set clear goals?

While it may seem common sense to define SMART goals up front, there are some very understandable reasons why we often fail to do so.

  • As described in my previous post, stakeholders often jump from a very abstract goal to a very concrete solution. In the school example, you get something like “We want to improve academic results, so we will introduce tablets since they allow us to [add favourite tablet feature here].” This is normal human behaviour: most people find it much easier to think about tangible things.
  • Once we start shaping the solution, we tend to think about detailed scope and scope realisation. Again, this is normal human behaviour. The problem is that the solution definition brings about complicated feature and implementation choices, taking our focus completely away from the goal. We shift from outcome focus to output focus. If this happens too soon, you will end up with vague, non SMART goals.

This is were BAs can offer a helpful hand:

  • Help stakeholders make the link between goals and solutions. In the process, define more concrete goals.
  • Help stakeholders set SMART targets: when will they consider the change (the project’s outcome) a success? Most important aspects are the unit of measurement, the target and the deadline. At this stage, you shouldn’t care too much about how you will measure the actual change, because that will complicate the thought process.
  • Trigger stakeholders to take a step back, away from the solution. How do they believe the solution will enable achieving the goal? By how much? Is the solution sufficient?

The result could be something like the benefit map below.

Benefit map example of tablets in school

Why is this important?

You do not invest in projects to deliver output. You invest in projects to create a change. Spending some more time on goals before starting a project forces you to concretely specify what change you want to achieve and by when. This way, you can objectively assess afterwards whether the project was a successful investment and adjust future investments.

Furthermore, if your project team understands what you want to achieve, they will be able to take better implementation decisions. Will feature X help achieve our goals? Should we implement feature X or feature Y first? Which one will contribute most to delivering the outcome we aim for?

But having clear goals also gives people a purpose:

People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going. It’s that simple. Earl Nightingtale

What’s your project’s purpose?



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