Adding value when goals are unclear

Brendan Ward
Mar 20, 2018 · 4 min read

I’ve been struggling with a situation at work where I am being asked to help define how much effort is required to meet a major business goal. The problem is that I’m not able to gain enough clarity around that goal to be able to develop a mental model of WHAT we are trying to achieve, let alone the HOW that this required to get there. I’ve found that once I have a clear understanding of WHAT, I’m pretty good at figuring out reasonable steps to achieve that. It is the classic approach of breaking a big something into much smaller, more easily achievable parts. As software engineers and project managers, this is one of our most essential skills, and I’m used to this being one of the value-adds I bring to any project.

It is easy to be frustrated when you are asked to do something you don’t understand. Some people are able to shelve their need for understanding, and can just get right to work. They can just focus on the tasks in front of them, and not worry about where they are trying to get to. I’m not one of those people. Simply being told to run, or run faster, doesn’t do it for me; I need to know where the finish line is. Because you could expend the same effort with the same intensity running in circles, and putting your very best effort into it, but in the end, did you get to where you needed to go?

Instead of putting the owner of this goal on the defensive by asking them probing questions to try and build our own mental model (because, of course, it is already crystal clear to them), I wonder if it would be better to approach this situation by trying to add value differently. It is easy to feel out of balance when there is organizational hierarchy involved, and disengage because we feel powerless instead of asking ourselves:

What is the maximum value I can add toward achieving this goal?

When hierarchy is involved, we often think in terms of our role: what is expected of me? When your role is typically that of leading implementation toward a goal, you are used to being handed goals and then having responsibility for achieving them. But if the goal is insufficiently defined, we are not able to add our maximum value.

In this case, the maximum value we can add is helping define the goal in the first place. We may not be able to engage in the process as early or as completely as we like, but we can provide a valuable service. Ultimately, the owner of the goal wants it achieved, and they may be frustrated by our inability to read their minds. This presents us with a unique opportunity: we can help lead them through a process of clarifying this goal into something tangible for the tasks at hand. For example, turning a general business need into a more clearly articulated scope of work. Instead of focusing on what we were specifically being asked to do — estimate level of effort to reach that goal — we can add more value by defining the WHAT so that we can move on to working out the HOW.

We have to help the owner of the goal understand that we need to do this in order to add our maximum value throughout, because ultimately the business depends on each person adding value instead of focusing only on doing what they are told. We can do this in a reassuring and affirming way, to build their confidence that we care about achieving their goal. We can even make this fun: they might be excited about achieving their goal, and will appreciate our efforts to build positive energy toward that. Instead of subjecting them to an inquisition to gain the understanding we need to do our jobs, we can lead them through a process of clarifying and distilling down their great idea into a shared sense of purpose. We can lead this — we shouldn’t always expect our leaders to do so, or be frustrated when they don’t.

When goals are vague, think about how you can add the maximum value toward achieving those. It might not be where you are used to adding value, and you may have to push your comfort zone a bit. But focusing on value add from your effort will increase likelihood of a successful outcome.

Brendan Ward

Written by

Lead software engineer & owner of Astute Spruce, LLC. I build intuitive, compelling applications for science to create greater impact.

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