Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Goals as Triggers: An Outcome-Process Matrix

Goals are an essential part of life for individuals as well as organizations. Goal setting is an important mechanism for development. In individuals it reflects leadership to take charge of one’s life and live optimally. In organizations it reflects a leadership capability to drive the organization on development path. Goals that are easy to achieve and will, anyway, happen in the natural course are not goals truly in a developmental sense. Goals which require planning, generation and deployment of resources, and which involve complex managerial processes are usual goals in an organizational sense. Goals by themselves are meaningless without they becoming outcomes, and outcomes are impossible without dedicated efforts. Aspirational adrenalin and situational stress are two important components of the journey towards converting goals into outcomes.

Goalsetting by itself is an emotional trigger. For some, setting mild easily achievable goals acts as a relief while setting lofty and tough-to-achieve goals could be stressful. For others, the reverse can be true. Outcomes, apart from the developmental satisfaction of achieving, involve emotional outcomes too. There are many components that vest in goals the stress dimension or lack of it. Time is the most impactful component. There is no linear correlation, positive or inverse, between factors supporting goal achievement and actual achievement of goals. It is not necessarily true that few is better for goals and more is better for resources for smooth goal achievement. It is this complexity that makes the theory of goals a challenging one. This blog post proposes a simple outcome-process matrix to understand the goal theory.

Goal-resource conundrum

Many advise that fewer goals make for better accomplishment. In matter of practice, there is nothing like being able to live with fewer goals. Even a singular goal has a cascade of goals. A singular goal like “I should join medicine” has several goals like “getting top ranks in certain qualifying subjects”, “getting top marks in the qualifying entrance examination”, “arranging resources for the costly medical study” and “preparing with the family for separation into hostel life” etc. In respect of organizational goals, there is never anything like singular goal. Something as singular as “we want to achieve the highest market share at X percent” has to be viewed really as a cascade of goals even at business level, let alone at each functional level. The goals would cascade into revenue, cost and profit goals at the business level, and each of these will further cascade into functional goals. Each organizational goal has a hierarchy of goals. And, some of the goals could conflict each other too!

Resources are also complex to decipher. The law of proportionality does not work beyond a point. When a company has a design, manufacturing or quality issue just throwing more people into the ring to solve the issues would not help. In certain situations, quality rather than quantity would be more important. In certain other cases, just giving more time (time being a very important resource) would help. Resources are, more often than not, are shared. In most cases, the impact of doing or not undertaking an activity or not providing a resource allocation would have its impact much later. Relating goals and resources uniquely, in a defined time frame, therefore is a problem in itself. Budgeting is a process to regulate resource allocation but it is a set of numbers. Achievement of goals, and the process thereto, is an emotional ownership journey. The outcomes and process interact in a way that ownership comes with a tinge of emotions.

Outcome classification

Outcomes are basically of two types; those that are potentially feasible and those that are seemingly unworkable. For example, in a market duopoly where both the players have equal share, it would be potentially feasible for one of the players to aim at a 75 percent market share. However, aiming at 95 percent market share would certainly seem to be unworkable. On the other hand, in the same duopoly, if the shares are 10 and 90 percent, it would be potentially feasible for the 10 percent player to become a 20 percent player or a 90 percent player to further become a 95 percent player. It would certainly seem to be unworkable for the 10 percent player to become a 90 percent player, however. In a way, the feasibility or otherwise of outcomes is contextual, depending on organizational, technological, market and environmental conditions. More importantly, it is a function of passage of time impacting these dynamics.

It would have been impossible to conceive of a smart phone which can be assembled and disassembled to suit different functionalities in user’s hands. The first step towards that has been made with LG G5 modular phone which enables upgrade of certain functionalities with addition of certain modules.  Google Ara with its Lego like phone construction which seemed infeasible prior to LG G5 suddenly becomes feasible now. Travel en masse to other planets and setting up human colonies would seem infeasible even today but could become feasible in a few decades. Visionary leaders set goals which are not easily visible to people reasonably versed in current state-of-the-art. Feasibility or otherwise depends on the processes adopted to work towards such goals. 

Process classification

The processes for achievement of goals are of two basic types; those that are carried out as they are instructed to be performed and those that are performed with experimentation. For example, most processes followed in most organizations by most individuals are all instructed processes. The advantages of process instructions are evident; they lead to repeatability and consistency with predictable results. They allow quality checks to be performed at key stages. Instructional processes promote learning, and lead to productivity. Well instructed people tend to be compliant and focused. Certain goals benefit immensely by instructed processes; in general, goals in industries with high safety risks or quality variations are better off by following instructional processes.  In goal setting, however, certain processes have to be extrapolated or creatively constructed; yet in instructional processes these are also codified.

Experimental processes are those processes which are generally first time processes. In certain aspects of business, experimental processes become inevitable. Most R&D goals can be achieved only with experimental processes. Market positioning of new products requires experimentation with consumer preferences. Even in a manufacturing setup, certain experimental processes would have to be gone through before standards can be established. Experimentation of even standardised processes occurs in empowered organizations which seek continuous improvements.  Experimental processes which are successful bring pride and ownership to the developers. Tolerance to mistakes is an essential requirement for successful evolution of experimental processes. When goals are lofty, resources thrifty and timelines tricky, experimental processes are the better option. Typically, not all individuals may be well suited to experimental processes.

Outcome-process matrix   
As mentioned earlier, outcomes and processes constitute a matrix. Depending on whether the outcomes are potentially feasible or seemingly unworkable and whether processes are instructional or experimental, four grids get formed which influence the emotional stress or satisfaction that gets generated. The four grids are: (i) feasible outcome-instructional process, (ii) feasible outcome-experimental process, (iii) unworkable outcome-instructional process, and (iv) unworkable outcome-experimental process. Each of the combinations leads to different levels of stress and satisfaction levels. A stress-free situation occurs when outcome is considered feasible and people just follow instructions. In this situation, the stress of failure is on the lower scale. When the outcome is considered feasible but people need to experiment their way to the expected outcomes, there would be a positive stress and joy of discovery through experimentation.

When the combination is that of unworkable outcome and instructional process, there would be dissatisfaction of failed goal but there will be lack of guilt that the failure has occurred in spite of following instructions. The grid of unworkable outcome and experimental process is all the more stressful and dissatisfying due to outcome failure and guilt of failed process discovery.  This does not mean that the feasible outcome-instructional process grid is the best solution, and others lead to stress and dissatisfaction in varying degrees. In fact, the driver for industry leading growth is to be seen in terms of making the impossible possible and exploring the unexplored processes through experimentation.    

Impossible to possible

There are two simple steps to pursue the impossible to possible even when the route to achieve is completely unknown. The first step is to put in place a base case wherein an aspirational but feasible target that can be achieved in a well-planned manner is set out. The next step is to stretch the feasible to seemingly unworkable level and leave it to the team to explore their way to achievement. This enables the team to bring out their best to achieve the impossible with their ownership of processes, with the full knowledge and confidence that a backup is feasible and permissible. This approach is particularly relevant in space exploration, drug discovery, deep sea exploration, polar expeditions, and the like, where the impossible and unexplored can be pursued with the fall-back in play (space ship can be brought back after testing out the trajectory, exploration targets can be moved after the unknowns are discovered, molecules can be re-purposed after initial failures etc.,).   

Positive marginal stress and emotional ownership are critical factors that differentiate industry-leading teams from industry-average teams. Seemingly unworkable goals and hitherto unexplored pathways are well in order if the leadership understands how to inspire the team members on the discovery path. Ideally, if individuals are also hardwired to be unguided achievers of the impossible from their early educational and career days, the possibility of seeking and accomplishing the impossible becomes real in an organizational setting. Leaders in organizations, teachers in schools and colleges and parents in families have a responsibility of standing by the goal seekers in this process. The dividing line between positive stress and negative burnout on one hand and exhilaration of achieving the impossible and the disappointment of slipping from the peak on the other hand are too powerful to be left unattended.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 25, 2016    

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