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Why every PDP should include work design

At the end of 2019, the mood in the Growth team was low. The team had been working individually for long stretches, shipping impactful but smaller-scale CRM tests to hit our targets. The work was tedious, uncollaborative, and gave little room for creativity.

We did hit our end of year objective for driving increased orders, but it was at a cost. People were not excited by their roles. The siloed, non-explorative approach we’d developed was not sustainable. First, we were running out of valuable small-scale optimisations (a topic for another day). Second, if the team continued to be less engaged, there was no way we would achieve our ambitious targets for 2020.

So in our December personal development plan (PDP) meetings and objective and key results (OKR) setting process, we tried a new approach that dramatically reshaped each individual’s job on the team. And two months later by February 2020, we were flying. Making sure everyone on the six-person team continues to feel challenged and able to grow remains a perpetual area of focus. But with this new process described below, I now have an excellent tool to help maintain high levels of personal growth and engagement.

A quick note on Gousto. We’re the UK’s largest recipe box business, still growing our triple-digit revenues by close to 100% y/o/y. I lead the Growth team: a 7-person Growth Marketing team working alongside an analyst and a 10-person tech squad consisting of web and app developers, a designer and a product manager.

The new “work design” component of every PDP

  1. Every quarter, for each individual, define or revisit:
  • Their top 1–2 critical development areas
  • What they enjoy most, trying to get into specifics
  • Their most significant strengths and weaknesses as seen by them (and you)

2. With that knowledge, work out the following:

  • 1–2 “golden projects”
  • The optimal time to spend on each project or set of tasks within their role

3. Define these projects and restructured roles in your OKRs

If you think this methodology sounds similar to job crafting theory, you’d be right. The method is manager-led job crafting on a team level, combined with OKR setting to establish clear goals. The goal is to explicitly manage the tension between individual, team, and company goals. And to find the best balance between all three parties to maximise value for everyone.

The benefits are significant. Empowering individuals to make their work more valuable for both them and the company is massively motivating. And this motivation leads to amazing team results. This experience is not just my own, but of many others in empirical research. As Carucci and Shappell note in their Harvard Business Review article:

In one organisation we worked with, three months after implementing newly crafted jobs for her team, our client said, “It’s like night and day. People are bringing me creative ideas, the team’s energy has skyrocketed, and our case-close rate has nearly doubled.”

Let’s look at each step of the process in turn. Note that the process is not always as linear as I’ve outlined above. At every step, you should have a broad view of how it will all come together at the end. But the process both refines and challenges your thinking and enables you to receive critical input from the team.

1. Get the right knowledge for optimal work design

This stage constitutes standard PDP discussion topics, and is not something I will dive into in great detail here. But in particular, we discuss the following items:

  • Their top 1–2 critical development areas or “limfacs”. A limiting factor or limfac is the single biggest thing that is holding someone back from development. It’s a widespread expression in military speak, and is referenced by General Stanley McCrystal in his fantastic book “Team of Teams”.
  • What they enjoy most, trying to get into specifics. I often ask the team to think back over the last 6 weeks or quarter and ask “what did you enjoy the most”. The more specific the better, and can then dive into motivations behind why they chose certain things.
  • Their biggest strengths and weaknesses as seen by them (and you). I always find it’s best to each prepare thoughts on strengths and weaknesses separately, and then compare together.

The most important thing is to have regular PDPs so you are always learning more about what motivates everyone on your team. I find conducting structured PDPs every six weeks works well.

It’s also always very impactful to review levelling docs periodically to help people understand the skills or competencies that they need to demonstrate to reach higher levels. You can see an extract from our Levelling doc for strategic competency below.

We also cover other criteria in the full doc including Innovation, Execution, Communication, Reporting & Analysis and Cross-functional working.

2. Work with each team member to define 1–2 “golden projects” for each team member, and restructure their priorities

Once you have the right context around PDP goals of each individual, identify a “golden project” to maximise both development and business value. A golden project is something that should make people jump out of your bed as they’re so excited to solve it. It represents an ideal, but an ideal we should be looking to reach for every person on the team.

As Michael Lopp — Engineering Leader at Apple, with former leadership positions at Slack and Pinterest — highlights in this article, keeping an interesting problem squarely in front of people is one of the most important factors for preventing boredom and thus regrettable departures.

A golden project should meet the following criteria:

  • Represent a significant challenge, as it relates to their PDP goals
  • At its core, be something you know they can excel at (playing to a strength)
  • But enable them to develop new skills along the way
  • Meaningfully contribute to the value generated to the team

You might find it hard to identify enough of these projects or workstreams for everyone on the team. I recognise that it might be easier in an area like Growth than in other departments. And even I have ended up racking my brains at the end of a quarter to define a set of valuable opportunities. But I do think it’s always possible to find them if you look hard enough.

Once you’ve got one or two golden projects defined for each individual, then work out the expected time they should spend on the rest of their work. Run through all components of their role and discuss how valuable they are for achieving the team’s goals. Add or remove, reshape or distribute tasks among other team members as appropriate.

You might end up with the following:

  • Personalisation workstream: 50%
  • Onboarding education workstream: 30%
  • Active customer notification messaging tests: 10%
  • Ad hoc team tasks: 10%

To do the above successfully, you need to be transparent about the objectives of the team. You must not only surface the overall business goals but the goals of others on the team. Everything needs to get done, and people need to “wash the dishes”. I’ve found that everyone is willing to do less exciting work as long as they feel the work has been distributed relatively equally across the team, or according to a fair set of criteria.

You can find more detail on team-wide job-crafting in the excellent article I referenced in the previous section on “How to job craft as a team” by Carucci and Shappell.

3. Define these projects and restructured roles in individual’s and team’s OKRs

Once you’ve identified and distributed “golden projects” and other job priorities across the team, you can then pull all this work together in the form of clear OKRs. If you are not familiar with them, you can find a brief introduction to them here from the online project of the man who popularised them with their use at Google— John Doerr.

Super visible OKR definition has been one of the main tools we’ve used in Q4 2019 and Q1 2020 to drive focus, accountability and momentum.

Above is a redacted extract of our Q1 2020 OKRs. If you were to scroll down on the doc, you’d find OKRs for each focus areas of every individual, that roll up to the main OKRs at the top.

By identifying golden projects and documenting them in your targets, OKR and PDP processes can work synergistically. Combining them unlocks the two benefits:

  • OKRs cement PDP goals. By solidifying a PDP goal in an OKR, it cannot get “lost” as many other PDP goals can do (remember that plan to complete an Excel course?). For example, if leadership is a PDP objective, OKRs for the success of a cross-functional team will require that individual to practise those qualities.
  • OKRs make the goals of the team highly visible. By seeing the full view of the team’s goals in a given quarter, individuals can then understand trade-offs that come with expanding their goals at the expense of others’.

As with the job crafting process in steps 1 and 2, we take a bottom-up and top-down approach to OKRs. Every individual creates their OKRs, and I create them also. We then compare and come to a joint conclusion. And as you might expect, it’s important to have a strong conception of what these OKRs will be before doing Step 2.

Work design works. But be mindful of four things.

Deliberate work design is a transformative process. It has helped our team become 2x more engaged and impactful. You also do not have to use a structured process to derive benefit from it. Spending any amount of time thinking hard about what projects will motivate each individual on your team will get you most of the way there.

And through several iterations of the process, I’ve noticed several important factors to be mindful of:

  1. Don’t be unprepared. Think deeply around how to best distribute work across the team before every conversation you have. Over-promising or not having a refined idea of how people will work on projects together is a sure-fire way to disappoint individuals or cause friction or ineffective work.
  2. Ultimate owners are still required. Through this process, you might end up with two people working on a single project as it fits both their PDP objectives. Doubling up on big projects is okay and encouraged. But always designate ultimate leads for the project so that accountability is clear.
  3. Sometimes not everyone can “win”. No job can be perfect, and going through this process can lead individuals comparing their projects to others. It’s important to remind people of the longer-term trajectory, everything should balance in long-run.
  4. Find the cadence that works for your team. For some people on the team, you may just be tweaking small aspects of their job together. For others, you may do wholesale restructures. And if your team is more stable, this may be a process you might only want to conduct every half year rather than a quarter. Do what works for you.

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I’m mostly writing about building teams, product and doing great experiments.

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