Goals cascade. It seems it is just something that they do.
Goals start at the top and then cascade through the organization. That is very common. And just plain wrong.
Have you ever seen a cascade that flows bottom-up (i.e. a cascade that is not 100% top-down)?
Can you think of a more top-down, hierarchical analogy than "cascade"?
Cascading processes are remains of a Command & Control mindset in which decisions simply flow downwards from the top.
In modern high-alignment, high-autonomy cultures using Agile Goal Setting, goals are set in a "bubble-up" process in which teams set their own goals after receiving clear direction in the form of high level goals for the organization.
Setting high level goals for the organization should not be done by the top executives in isolation, without inputs from the team. In his article titled “Should You Build Strategy Like You Build Software?”, Keith R. McFarland describes a model to create a more refined and execution-ready strategy:
Since people at many levels of an organization make daily tradeoffs that impact the company’s strategic success, the process needs to be designed to tap into ideas from all corners of the organization — more than just the top executives.
A faster, parallel process
James Harvey lists another disadvantage of the traditional model:
[The traditional model]…is a top-down approach and often takes too long to achieve alignment. Direct reports are often dependent on the completion of their supervisor’s goals before they can begin building their own goal plan.
The alternative is to have a parallel process in which individuals and teams define goals that are linked to the organization objectives and validated by managers, in a process that is bottom-up and top-down simultaneously.
What should we use instead?
If we are sticking to water analogies, a fountain would be much better. In a fountain, water flows at the same time bottom-up and top-down in a cyclic, almost iterative, process.
Unfortunately, fountain is not a verb so we need something else. Align is the best fit.
Stop cascading your goals and start aligning them.
Stop using top-down, Command & Control analogies. Words and images are very powerful and help shape the culture of your organization.
Castro's First Rule of OKRs
A core philosophy of the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework for goal setting is that around 60% of the OKRs should be created by the team, bottom-up. So I will state my first rule for OKRs (it is the only one, but who knows?):
OKRs never cascade. OKRs align.
PS: If you are working in a Lean/Agile environment, you really should stop "cascading" goals.
Thanks to Paul Niven for inspiring this post during our recent conversation and for reading drafts of this.