Set Themes for 2020, Not Goals

Goals, objectives, KPIs. They are my favourite thing in the world to hate, both when I was working as an individual contributor or as a people manager. My weary amygdala sends a fight or flight response every time I have to commit to anything, especially when it’s tied to a specific date. I always disliked setting goals for myself and now, for my team.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in this. Jason Fried recently shared an older blog post about about how he’s never had a goal. He also mentions a quote from Jim Coudal:

The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.

That sounds like the adult way of thinking about goal-setting, compared to the temper tantrum my mind throws every time I’m faced with such a task.

However, there’s a metric ton of research, books and articles out there directly contradicting my (and Jason’s, and Jim’s) fiery hate of goals. Setting clear objectives and working towards them is essential both for personal and team growth, some bright minds say.

I thought a lot about the reasons why I dislike the commitment to specific objectives these past few months, as I was trying to make sense of what it means to be a design executive.

Why does setting goals suck?

While working in smaller, more close-knit teams, setting goals is a simpler matter. People tend to wear many hats and focus on the never-ending list of things that need to be done. Goals are mostly based on the next thing on the roadmap:

Let’s improve the UI of the checkout process because people seem to get confused and abandon it midway.

Or:

Let’s improve SEO in this page by changing the taxonomies to get more hits from Google Search.

On the other hand, larger teams tend to suffer from inertia. As a manager of a large team, you can often find yourself struggling with the effort that it now takes to steer your team’s ship. Processes tend to be more complicated, thus slower. Even simple objectives can take much more time to complete because of the extra process overhead.

It’s also much more difficult to track what needs to be done, what’s being worked on and what’s already been done. As a manager, you sometimes struggle to look at the bigger picture, and you always have this nagging idea in the back of your head that you missed something.

However, being a manager means letting go of operational work and avoiding micromanagement. Inertia, difficulty in keeping track of things and the fact that you’re not hands-on anymore make setting objectives for your team a Sisyphean task. Most end-of-year objectives are obsolete by the time March pulls in.

Despite all that, you need a way to influence your team members and promote their growth. How can you set a North Star to keep everyone on the same page and at the same time, make them feel excited for the future?

I found out after lots of trial and error that the answer is to focus on setting themes, not specific objectives, for your team.

Replace goals with themes

Themes are broader areas of improvement on which your team can work. Narrow, overly specific objectives can easily become obsolete because of shifting business priorities. They are also limiting your team’s capacity to innovate and adapt to change.

Think about the difference between these two statements:

This year, we’ll focus on making our product AA accessible.

Versus:

This year, we’ll focus on improving user experience for people with disabilities.

The first statement describes something pretty concrete. It’s a relatively easy goal to scope and its definition of done is quite specific.

On the other hand, the second statement allocates more room for innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. Working to achieve a AA accessibility level for your product is just one of the many aspects of this theme. How about interviewing more people with disabilities to get better acquainted with their everyday challenges? What other problems are they facing you could help them overcome?

Another example:

This year, we’ll focus on making 4 positive feedback remarks for every 1 negative.

Versus:

This year, we’ll focus on improving the feedback cycle.

The first goal is measurable, easy to track and seemingly simple. However, setting a theme like the one on the second statement allows for more experimentation and can become the start of a great conversation on feedback.

Abstracting objectives to themes is a reliable way to empower your team to suggest their own solutions and improvements. It’s also a great chance to weave a direction throughout everything that the team works on. To borrow from the example above, how to improve the feedback cycle will be the guiding light for your team. They will seek documentation and write-ups, they will improve the way they work on evaluations and design critiques and will keep each other accountable.

Essentially, they’ll take all that nasty goal-setting effort off your hands. What’s not to love?

Lifecycle of a theme

The start of Q1 is an obvious candidate as the best time to set the themes for your team. It blends nicely with roadmap discussions and end-of-year reviews. You don’t have to wait for January to get started, of course! You can start experimenting with the idea right away. A good approach would be to set a meeting with your direct reports and compose a list of priorities together.

Themes can be active for as long as you deem necessary, but it’s important to note that you have to give your team some time to see results. I wouldn’t recommend switching themes every month, unless there’s an important reason to do that (eg. a business pivot). I’d recommend giving it at least a full quarter.

Nevertheless, you shouldn’t be afraid to reevaluate your themes periodically (eg. every quarter) or every time there’s an important business decision that directly affects the theme in question. As a rule of thumb, setting and evaluating themes twice per year (roughly based on your evaluation cycle) would work for most companies of small to medium size.

A theme is never considered “done”, you just make the conscious choice to switch your team’s focus on something else. If you evaluate a theme at some point and you consider that things are “good enough”, you can focus on another theme where the team needs more improvement. Choosing and setting a theme depends on company priorities and seasonality, so don’t be afraid to revisit and pause it for a while.

Translating a theme to action

Expanding and acting on a theme should be fairly straightforward for a team that has a growth mindset. After sharing the themes for the next months, I’d recommend setting a discovery meeting with your team, asking them to come up with ideas on how best to act on them. Aim for quantity of ideas at this point and don’t focus on constraints. Let them explore how to best follow their North Star by helping them align their ideas with the business.

However, there’s a pitfall here. A theme is not something you set and forget, expecting from your team to act on it without guidance. Make sure you support your choices throughout the quarter by acting on them yourself. Make some research, improve your knowledge of the subject, share relevant resources with them and be the number 1 advocate of the whole idea.

It’s also imperative to touch base often. I’d recommend setting a monthly meeting to discuss how you’ve been acting on the themes. Are there any adjustments that need to be made? Have you strayed from the path you’ve set?

Ownership is another idea that can help translating themes to actionable items. Think about the strengths of your team members and assign ownership depending on what people are good at - or what they want to get better at. It’s often inspiring to see how people care for a project and bring it to the next level if they’re clearly assigned as its owners.

If your themes are just a nebulous idea on top of all the deadlines your team has to meet, nothing ever is going to get done. If however you make sure to conduct frequent reviews, clearly assign owners and stakeholders and be an advocate for the themes yourself, you’re going to make the most of the idea.

A ready-to-use themes framework

Since I started working on this idea of themes, I wanted to create a template of sorts to make the process of writing and sharing them with the team a bit more automated. I put together a simple Google Doc with the basic axes of what a theme is, which you can reuse as you see fit.

How do you plot a direction for your team? I’d love to know your thoughts on that.

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