Only the Radically Focused Will Survive and Thrive
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
We are in a uniquely challenging time. It is harder than ever for teams to stay focused, motivated, and aligned. The unpredictable economic environment blurs our ability to forecast how well we are pacing towards our goals. The downward pressure on revenue and cost makes it essential that every resource is dedicated to only the highest value tasks. In today’s environment, only the radically focused will survive and thrive.
Align, Motive, and Learn with Radical Focus
Organizations with radical focus act and feel different than the norm. Teams are bought in to the company strategy and know how they contribute to it. The scoreboard is unambiguous. The mission is clear. The drive to achieve is palpable. Teams know how other teams depend on them. There are no silos; no unnecessary last-minute pleas for help. There is tight alignment. With radical focus, every resource is dedicated to what matters most to the business. There is little slack in the system. There is a high level of accountability. Additionally, these organizations are always learning. Because benchmarks for success are clearly defined when there is under-performance we can quickly diagnose why and continually improve.
How do we create an organization with radical focus? It starts with adopting a rigorous goals setting framework.
While there are several good goal setting frameworks, the OKR model is particularly effective (Objectives and Key Results). I’ll give a brief description of the OKR basics here, and then drill into best practices for adopting an OKR process. For a more details on writing and managing OKRs, I have included resources in the appendix below.
An OKR is a goal with two parts – an objective and a key result.
Objectives. This is what we are trying to achieve; the purpose of our work. Good objectives are inspirational and qualitative. Team members should read them and say “heck yeah … I want us to achieve that!!” They are frequently long-lived, spanning multiple quarters or even a year. Each team or person typically has three to five objectives.
Key Results. This is how we measure progress toward our objective. Key results can be measured quantifiably (e.g. build 10 widgets) or in a binary way that allows us to verify if something was completed or not (e.g. the widget design is approved). There are typically three to five key results per objective.
Seven Best Practices to Achieve Radical Focus
Goal Period. A common practice is to create annual OKRs that support the company’s annual strategy, and then move to a quarterly OKR setting process. Given the current economic crisis, setting very focused and simple monthly or even bi-weekly OKRs can be very helpful. In unpredictable times, near real-time views of progress against measurable objectives is critical. If things are going south, we need to know quickly, so we can pivot.
What to include in OKRs? OKRs should include both the essential outcomes and the necessary initiatives that create the conditions for those outcomes to be achieved. For example, outcome-based key results are “reduce downtime by 10%” or “achieve 5% less churn than forecast.” Whereas condition-creating key results are “design and launch the new QA process” or “create and distribute the new churn management dashboard.” When we stay focused on how to create the conditions to achieve our desired outcomes we are much more likely for those outcomes to be realized. See more on the importance of a “conditions focused mindset” in my blog post on creating a Talent Farm.
Vertical Alignment. There are multiple layers of OKRs; frequently company-wide, then team, and then individuals. The OKRs from the higher level clarify priorities for the lower level as it sets its OKRs. This creates top-to-bottom vertical alignment, ensuring we are all focused on what matters most to the business. However, cascading objectives downward word-for-word is too cumbersome and limiting. It's better to let each team write their objectives in a way that best clarifies their organizational needs.
Horizontal Alignment. The OKR process breaks down silos. When we set our OKRs we ask, who in the organization do I depend on to achieve my goals? Before finalizing OKRs each function should share their OKRs with each other, highlight any cross-functional dependencies, and either get a commitment of support from the other function, or take it off the list. This creates horizontal alignment preventing surprise bottlenecks and wasted time down the road.
Prioritization. ORKs should be ambitious but realistic enough to force prioritization discussions. Generally, if we complete 70-80% of what we planned at the start of the quarter, that is good. Ambitious goals push teams to achieve more. Yet, there is tendency to add more throughout a quarter as unanticipated needs come up. OKRs force “yes AND” conversations. They empower us to say “Yes, I can do that new thing, AND I need to take something else off the list to make room. So, help me figure out what to cross off.” Crossing things off the OKR list isn’t a bad thing; it means your prioritizing!
Excitement. Great talent loves to win. OKRs define what winning means so we can run hard and fast to that goal. To maximize this energy, do two things: (1) Make goal setting a collaborative process. At least 50% of team goals should come from the team themselves. (2) Keep the goals front and center. At least once a month check-in on progress toward the goals with the team. Find reasons to refer to the goals in team meetings and other communication. OKRs are the scoreboard, so be as transparent and real-time as possible in showing the score.
Learning & Adapting. Achieving 100% of our OKRs is not particularly important. Learning why we did not achieve 100% of our goals is very important. When reviewing where we missed on our goals and why, we generally learn one of three things: (1) we spread ourselves too thing and tried to do too much. We need to be more focused in the future. (2) Improved execution in an area is needed so we don’t miss our goals in the future; or (3) external factors beyond our control led to the miss, so let’s not worry about it. Whatever the reason, taking the time for thoughtful retrospectives will motivate us to continually improve in the future.
Yes, this is a very difficult period. However, business history has taught us that many great companies were founded during a recession. Those companies focused on what they had control over. We cannot control COVID-19. We cannot control the markets. We can control how well we execute. Great execution in a difficult market requires radical focus. These seven best practices will help you adopt a strong goal setting framework and build the operating muscle of radical focus.
A great book on the subject is Radical Focus by Christina R. Wodtke