How can we be aligned and autonomous at the same time? The short answer is: a shared map of enabling constraints on different abstraction levels. This post describes the more concrete answer.
Purpose, north star, vision, mission, driver, BHAG, objective, epic, etc. Can you spontaneously explain the differences between these terms? Most people can’t. It’s easy to get confused about what these terms mean and in which context each of them is useful. In essence, they all describe what someone wants to achieve. I will use the term goal for the remainder of this post as a shorthand for “what I/we want to achieve”.
Why is aligning our goals important? Because without influencing each other’s behavior, we are just a bunch of individuals doing the best we can individually. But with aligned goals, we can form a tribe that is much more effective than the sum of its parts.
In the first part of this post, we will create a map to depict our aligned goals. We’ll first look at abstraction levels of goals to create a canvas on which to draw our map. We’ll define categories of goals to use as symbols for our map. Next, we look at who creates which parts of the map. And finally, we’ll see how to make the map actionable. The second part is about creating, consulting, and updating our maps. The third and last part adds some more details and looks at how alignment correlates with other concepts like efficiency, leadership, accountability, expectations, happiness, and commitment.
Ready? Let’s go
The dimensions: Abstraction levels of goals
Simon Sinek’s golden circle popularized the distinction between abstraction levels of goals. I find this to be a helpful concept. At the same time, I often find it counterproductive to use “Why”, “What”, and “How” as categories and to conclude there are only three levels to any reasoning. If you ever had a conversation with a 4-year-old, you know that you can ask „Why“ many more times than just once to get to the bottom of things. Instead, I understand levels of reasoning as a hierarchy of “What” on different abstraction levels that can be navigated with “Why” and “How”.
“Why?” lets us move up the hierarchy. We can answer with “We are doing X because we want to achieve this <higher-level goal>”. It gives us context for what we want what we want. It uncovers the reasons behind our goals.
“How?” lets us move down the hierarchy. We can answer with “We will achieve X by achieving this <lower-level goal>“. It gives us context through what we are going to get what we want. It uncovers the effort required to get to our goals.
What makes a goal abstract? What makes it concrete? We describe abstraction levels by defining three components: scope, time frame, and metagoal.
The canvas: A surface to arrange goals
Let’s first look at scope and time frame. With these two components, we can create a grid of possible goals to describe. We can navigate this grid with “Why?” to go up and to the right, and “How?” to go down and to the left.
Timeboxes and org structure: Calibrating the canvas
We calibrate the time frame axis with the timeboxes we allow for our goals. They define the amount of time that we are prepared to invest to pursue a goal.
We use company entities on the scope axis, presuming that our company is structured based on scope instead of function.
Off-limit areas: Enabling constraints
Luckily, we don’t need to define all points on the canvas to reach alignment. Each goal we define constrains goals further down and to the left. At first glance, constraints seem to be at odds with autonomy. However, constraints at a higher abstraction level — i.e. bigger scope and longer time frame — are actually enabling autonomy at the level below it because they provide necessary clarity.
When there are clear boundaries between what we are doing and not doing, and we need to make a decision, we can just check if something is inside or outside the boundaries. Boundaries support us in focusing on high-leverage activities by saying ‘No’ to anything that is outside of them. A lack of boundaries torments us with too many choices and often leads to analysis paralysis.
Boundaries act as constraints that enable autonomy within it. As long as the outer boundaries of the field are clear, the inner structure of the field can be left to the people playing within it.
It doesn’t matter on the more abstract level how the work is done as long as it stays within the boundaries. This allows experimentation within the boundaries. We can adjust the rules to suit our environment and our personal preferences better. We might even end up giving the game our own name (This may get a tad bit confusing if we choose to call our game by a name that is already used otherwise — say football — especially when our game is not played with a ball but an egg, and we use our hands instead of our feet). Point is: this doesn’t really matter to the person setting the boundaries (e.g. Here is a piece of land for physical activity to keep yourselves occupied and out of trouble).
When we are sure where the boundaries are, we can confidently go fast. Clarity leads to power.
When we are unsure where the boundaries are, we need to be careful and go slow in order not to overstep. Uncertainty leads to hesitation.
We don’t need to define boundaries precisely — just clear enough, so everyone involved has a sufficient concept of the playing field. While more clarity leads to more power, it has diminishing returns. Clarifying boundaries takes effort. So there is a trade-off to be made.
Now, if we map this onto our canvas, we end up with three areas.
- A diagonal area from the top right going to the bottom left where goals further up and to the right constrain and enable goals further down and to the left.
- The area on the top left where the time frame is too detailed for the size of the scope. These short time frames are not useful for periodic alignment at these big scopes. Defining goals with these time frames is better left to smaller scopes. This is where we grant autonomy.
- The area on the bottom right where time frames are too vague for the size of the scope. These long time frames are not useful for periodic alignment. Defining goals with these time frames is better left to bigger scopes at these small scopes. This is not to say that goals with long time frames on small scopes are useless, but that for periodic alignment, they are most useful when integrated on bigger scopes.
We don’t describe all these goals in the same way. Since they are on different abstraction levels different mechanisms are useful to formulate them. And this is where the third component metagoal comes in.
The symbols: Categories of goals
There is a reason behind each goal that we describe: a metagoal. Something that we want to make more clear. Something that we want to evoke in ourselves and others. We distinguish between four categories of goals on a spectrum from aspirational to practical. For each category, different mechanisms are useful to formulate goals.
- Intentions describe what we aspire to achieve. The direction we are heading. We‘ll likely never fully get there. It is emotional and sets us in motion. We formulate these as a vision (what is the future we are trying to create) and a mission (what we do and for whom). Other options to describe this are a purpose (the reason the group exists) or a north star (guiding principles). Any of those does the job. Some fit better than others, depending on the context.
- Outcomes describe what we effect through what we do. Objectives in OKRs describe this. On a more fine-grained level user stories encourage us to describe what we want from a user’s perspective.
- Outputs describe what we are going to produce. Specifications are used to do this. Task break-downs for user stories are intended to translate outcomes into outputs.
- Inputs describe how much time and effort we want to invest. We tend to do this with timeboxes like 2-week iterations or the number of hours we want to spend to investigate a bug.
The map: Placing the symbols on the canvas
As we move down the abstraction levels of goals by reducing scope and time frame, we can use more and more practical categories for describing our goals.
On a company level, we use vision and mission through statements that everybody in the group cares about. On a company, tribe, and team level, we describe objectives with decreasing scopes and time frames to align what we want to effect. Teams use their objectives to prioritize their tasks during sprint planning every other week. And each day they use a 15-minute standup sync meeting to synchronize their work for the day.
Cartographers: Who owns which parts of the map
It is difficult to keep several abstraction levels in mind simultaneously. Fortunately, not everybody needs to concern themselves with every part of the map. We find it helpful to split up the map into four sections
- Foundation: This is the basis of our organization. The intention we pursue. The reason we are all here and contribute our efforts. The founders of an organization usually define this.
- Direction: This is the top-level direction from our most senior leaders. It is solely bounded by the foundation and not by any higher-level desired outcomes.
- Coordination: This is where we coordinate our desired outcomes across organizational scopes.
- Autonomy: This is the part we fully leave to the teams who execute it. Teams break down desired outcomes into outputs and inputs.
This is not to say that there is no autonomy within the coordination section or no coordination within the autonomy section, but we find these labels useful to think about the main function of these sections.
Coordination: Aligning on desired outcomes
Let’s now zoom in on the coordination section of the map assuming that this is where most of the alignment work takes place. When coordinating desired outcomes, we find it helpful to add three ingredients.
- In order to identify when we got what we wanted to effect, we define how we measure progress.
- We predict what we are going to produce to make progress.
- And we clarify what we need to be able to make progress.
These four ingredients together form a goal description of a desired outcome.
While we find it helpful to describe all four ingredients to coordinate desired outcomes, they are not equally important to us. We strive for outcome and progress. This is what we are trying to maximize. We want to stay flexible on output and conditions. This flexibility is the essence of an Agile way of working. In fact, we are trying to minimize output and conditions. If we can reach a desired outcome with only half the predicted output, we win!
Phew, this first part of the post got longer than anticipated. But now that we have a mental model of a map, we are well equipped to look at how we use our maps in the next (much shorter) section.
Rhythms: Using the map
Rhythms describe how frequently we consult and update our goals. If we don’t want to operate without a shared direction, our rhythms need to be at least as frequent as our timeboxes. Rhythms may be shorter than timeboxes to ensure goals stay relevant and don’t go stale.
Inception: Creating the map
We created our initial map to get an overview of what is happening company-wide and to make sure that we align goals with each other across the company.
Review: Consulting the map
We consult our map at the end of each timebox to see — and celebrate — what we actually achieved. We do so in meetings that we call reviews. These are not presentations with fancy slides and prepared speeches, but an honest look at what we accomplished — if possible, looking at dashboards with real numbers or actual artifacts produced instead of slides.
When we review goals, we also check the goals at the next higher scope to see if we are on track with them. The relation between higher objectives and lower objectives is not necessarily quantitative. That means a higher objective cannot always be broken down into neat self-contained parts that are owned by separate teams. Instead, we aim for a qualitative relation, meaning when we talk about higher objectives and lower objectives we can have a discussion about if and how the lower objectives pay into the higher objectives or not.
When we notice that our map doesn’t match reality, we opt for adjusting scope and keeping timeboxes fixed. We may even decide to discontinue a goal altogether if what we’ve learned up to this point makes it no longer desirable. This ensures we don’t accidentally invest more time into a goal than we were initially prepared to. We may choose to bring a desired outcome into the next timebox, but we want to make sure that this is a deliberate choice.
Planning: Continuing and updating the map
Whenever a new timebox is about to start, we define new goals for the upcoming timebox. We use what we’ve learned from the last timebox to define the next logical steps to take.
When we define new goals, we look at our goals one scope-level above them to make sure those are still relevant. This ensures we set our goals in alignment with higher-level goals that still matter to us.
The alignment meeting marks a clear end of the planning process where we commit to pursuing our updated goals. This clear endpoint prevents us from dragging out planning activities into the execution cycle.
This last part of this post is adding some more details to the concepts of the first part as well as looking at how alignment correlates with other concepts like efficiency, leadership, accountability, expectations, happiness, and commitment.
On the size of the canvas
Our organizational structure (scopes) and planning horizons (time frames) determine the size of our canvas. The number of organizational unit types — and with it the length of the y-axis of our canvas — heavily correlates with the size of our organization. The number of planning horizons — and with it the length of the x-axis of our canvas — heavily correlates with our need for security.
The map for a company like better group (~200 people) looks like this.
On efficiency and effectiveness
When we resort to defining goals as outputs without connecting them to outcomes, we risk being efficient but not effective. For instance, when we deliver lots of features that nobody wants while the usage of our product stagnates. We didn’t do the right things.
We aim to maximize progress towards outcomes while minimizing the output necessary to get there. In fact, this is true for each abstraction level. We maximize output with minimal input. We maximize the outcome with minimal output. We maximize intention with minimal outcome. Maximizing one thing while minimizing another is the essence of efficiency. We do things right. Efficiency gives us speed.
Whenever we invest time and effort into achieving an output, we make sure it successfully gets us our intended outcome. This, again, is true for each abstraction level. Successfully get output with invested input. Successfully get outcome with invested output. Successfully get intention with invested outcomes. Successfully getting one thing with an invested other is the essence of effectiveness. We do the right things. Effectiveness gives us direction.
The reason efficiency has a bad reputation is that we focused on maximum output with minimum input while neglecting effectiveness between output and outcome. As a result, we got really fast at doing the wrong things. What we aim for is efficiency and effectiveness between all four abstraction levels. Efficiency gives us speed. Effectiveness gives us direction. We need both to make substantial progress.
On accuracy and pitfalls of maps
Beware: While not having a map has its disadvantages, having one isn’t without pitfalls either. Without a map, it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed. With a map, it’s easy to become narrow-sighted and resistant to change direction. We aim to use our map to provide us with focus while not becoming ignorant.
When we create a map of what we want to effect and how we will measure that we got it, what we will produce to get it, and what we need to be able to achieve it, we will most likely not be correct in all regards. The map is not the territory. The good news is, that is beside the point of the map. Our map doesn’t have to be correct to be useful. It just needs to model reality close enough to help us navigate. The goal is not a perfect map. The map itself is just an output. The goal is to make substantial progress. Progress is an outcome — the effect we aim for.
There isn’t much value in a detailed map when the territory changes constantly. In fact, overconfidence in an outdated map can be dangerous as anyone can attest who has ever followed the instructions of their navigation system the wrong way into a one-way street.
On the order of describing outcome ingredients
We find it most useful to define desired outcomes in this order.
- Outcomes: What we want to effect
- Progress: What we measure to identify progress
- Outputs: What we are going to produce to make progress
- Conditions: What we need in order to execute on our plan
Defining outcomes is most useful when they support us in making tough choices. Usually, that means saying “No” to outputs we would like to produce. However, having a good enough idea about what we are going to produce is useful so we can check the feasibility of our outcomes. And, at the same time, it is useful to stay flexible about what we will do to adjust our map based on what we learn during execution.
Sticking to this order of describing the ingredients of an outcome has two challenges.
The first one is that most people prefer to first think about initiatives — things they want to produce. In particular on the abstraction level of the scope of their role. But there is a pitfall with starting with things we want to produce and deriving what we want to effect based on it: We rationalize outcomes that fit what we were going to do anyway. When that happens, outcomes don’t help with making decisions and providing focus.
The second challenge is that it is difficult to define how to measure that we got what we wanted. It is much easier to describe what we are going to produce in the pursuit of what we want. It is tempting to use “We produced all those things” to measure success. However, at best, this is measuring that we were busy, not that we made any meaningful progress towards what we want to effect.
On leadership and accountability
Leadership is taking responsibility for the achievement of an goal and attracting others to volunteer their efforts. Clarifying boundaries is part of this. Leaders propose outcomes because they take on a higher-level perspective. Leaders provide focus by attracting others to volunteer their efforts to these few goals instead of the many other opportunities. Followers propose how much they can achieve how soon. They are experts in the outputs that are best suited to achieve the outcome. Together they agree on measurable progress that allows us to identify if we achieved the desired outcome.
Agreeing on how to measure that we achieved our goals enables accountability. Our goals describe what we want to be held to account for. The results we want to hold others to account for, need to be defined in their goals if we expect them to own them truly.
Being responsible for higher-level goals legitimizes influencing work on lower-level goals. For instance by delegating part of the work that needs to be done to someone else and holding them to account for delivered results. For more details, please refer to this post on accountability.
On expectations and happiness
Goals are not our prediction of the future. Predictions are for the lucky. Instead, our goals describe the future we want to create. Defining outcomes helps us agree on our shared expectations. To what extent we can live up to these expectations heavily influences our happiness.
Let’s take the conversion rate of an online shop as an example. In the following two scenarios, I depict goals as an arrow that point in the direction we want to go and what we measure as a metric on that arrow.
Scenario A: Let’s say 4% of website visitors buy a product before leaving our website. We expect to increase our conversion rate to 5%. After investing our appetite worth of time and effort, we end up at 6%. Awesome! We over-achieved our expectations. Smiles all around.
Scenario B: We assume the same starting point and invest the same amount of time and effort as above, but this time we expect to increase conversion rate to 10%. We end up at 8%. Great improvement. But we missed our target — not a reason to celebrate.
While scenario B outperforms scenario A by 100%, we are happier with scenario A because happiness isn’t derived from absolute results but from relative results compared to our expectations. Happiness = result / expectation.
By rewarding scenario A over scenario B, we incentivize sandbagging and negotiation for low expectations over achieving actual results. Welcome to politics central. If we want to avoid focus on politics, we need to stop using expectations as targets.
How we deal with expectations and their results is, more than anything else, about our mental frame: Are we looking at expectations from a win-or-lose perspective or from a learning perspective. Do we see expectations as predictions in bets that we either win or lose? Or do we see expectations as predictions in experiments where we learn regardless of what the specific result is? In the former frame, our happiness hinges on the specific result. In the latter, we emphasize process and consequences over results.
On committing and deferring
When is the right time to commit to a goal? Our answer is: When the commitment influences our behavior today. If it doesn’t, we can commit later. Committing later is valuable, assuming we will have learned something between now and then.
It is worthwhile to clarify options for what to do if this increases our shared understanding of our situation. But commitment can be deferred until the often-cited “last responsible moment”. The possibility to change our mind has value. Options have value. Beware: options also expire if we don’t commit at the last responsible moment.
Simply reading about a concept is not how we learn. If you want to apply the concept of goal alignment in your work context start by answering these questions then discuss your answers with your colleagues.
- Do you have a shared visualization of your goals across the company? Does everybody know where to find it? Does everybody understand it?
- How big is your map? Could you reduce complexity by aligning on fewer scopes or time frames?
- Is everybody clear about who owns which sections of your map? Do you have a shared understanding of how you create alignment between them?
- How accurately does your map resemble your territory? Is it the least accurate it could be to help you navigate and make substantial progress? Creating an accurate map takes precious time and effort you could instead put into making progress.
- How quickly does your territory change? Does the accuracy of your map and the effort of creating it match this circumstance?
- Which goals are you investing time, effort, and energy in that are no longer worth it?
In my mental models, I try to pragmatically synthesize what works in both traditional and new ways of working. Writing is both how I communicate my mental models and how I crystalize them. My writing is exploratory and evolving. I hope to revise this post over the next few months with newly gained clarity. To support this, I very much appreciate your feedback. Be it a critique, uncovered blind spots, different perspectives, or agreement.