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In 1954, management guru Peter Drucker introduced “management by objectives,” an approach where employees would agree with their boss on a set of goals and work toward achieving those objectives throughout the year.
The traditional approach to goals — the annual cycle, privately set and reviewed goals, and a strong linkage to incentives — can actually undermine the alignment, coordination, and agility that’s needed for a company to execute its strategy. Expecting employees to hit 100% of their targets to earn their bonus, for example, creates strong motivation for them to “sandbag” by setting conservative targets they are sure to achieve.
FAST - goals should be embedded in frequent discussions; ambitious in scope; measured by specific metrics and milestones; and transparent for everyone in the organization to see.
When goals are kept private, employees are often in the dark about what people on other teams are doing. When employees don’t know one another’s goals, they are more likely to make unrealistic demands, focus on activities that don’t support their colleagues, or duplicate effort.
In the early 1970s, Intel was making the transition from memory chips to microprocessors under Andrew Grove — then the chipmaker’s executive vice president of operations. Grove implemented Intel Management by Objectives, which required employees to translate their goals into concrete actions and metrics to clarify how they would achieve their targets and measure progress along the way.
OKRs consist of two parts. Objectives are short descriptions of what you want to achieve. Each objective should include a handful of key results — typically quantitative metrics or milestones that specify the steps required to achieve the goal and measure progress.
Defining specific metrics and milestones for each goal can also enhance agility. Key results can be treated as hypotheses: “If we do this, then we will accomplish our goal.” The more specific the hypotheses are, the easier it is to test them, determine which ones are (or aren’t) working, and make midcourse corrections. “Truth,” as Sir Francis Bacon noted, “emerges more readily from error than from confusion.” Translating general goals into testable hypotheses surfaces errors more quickly and precisely, which accelerates the pace of learning and adjustment.
When bonuses are tied to hitting targets, employees may opt for cost-reduction initiatives that are fully under their control, as opposed to growing sales, which depends on the actions of customers, partners, and competitors. Or they might attempt to wring incremental improvements out of existing products or business models rather than pursue a novel technology that offers a higher payoff in the long run. When the gap between the goals being set and current reality is wide, organizations need to search for creative or innovative ways to achieve their ambitious, overall objectives.
Research shows that financial rewards are not the only way to boost performance of an individual or team. Indeed, specific, ambitious goals (recall the research we mentioned earlier) spur performance on their own, without the need for financial incentives. A recent meta-analysis found that in motivating people to complete complex tasks that involved creativity, intrinsic motivation was nearly six times more effective than external incentives in motivating people to complete complex tasks that required creativity.24
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