How can we involve so many people in strategic planning and decision making? Can the group make smart decisions? How much time will it take? I will answer all in this post and introduce you to our method of setting company objectives.
Why spend time setting the objectives together?
On one of our retreats when we numbered just around 10, the team came together and said they didn’t want the company to grow anymore. It shocked me and I asked the question designers always ask: Why?
It turned out they valued the highest the fact they could have an impact on where the company went and what we did. They worried we would lose it with a bigger team.
At this moment I understood that discussing what we do and defining our goals together forms a core part of UX studio culture. Since then, we have consciously experimented with methods to define company objectives together.
At first, it went smooth and easy. We just sat down around a table and discussed everything. As the team grew, it grew more and more difficult. Now, we use different workshop methods, and it takes a bit more time.
Setting goals together pays off. People become much more enthusiastic about the company objectives if they have defined them themselves. If a group of managers defines them over their heads, they will consider it just bullshit they have to listen to.
In my experience, most people have ideas about what should happen in the company where they work. On the other hand, they don’t know how to usefully prioritize these ideas and define goals. So, provide structure in a bigger team. Teach them how goal-setting happens and what good company objectives look like. Later they will fill this structure with content.
(In trouble building an efficient UX team? Read our article about UX team structure to learn about the current best practices.)
How should your company objectives look?
We don’t keep it a secret that Google’s OKR system (Objectives and Key Results) has heavily inspired us. On the other hand, I can’t emphasize enough: Never ever implement an organizational development method word-for-word. We didn’t do that with OKRs, either.
We adapted Google’s OKRs to our needs and made some major changes in how our goals look and how we set them. Our system focuses more on actions and in a bottom-up fashion. Let’s first see what our goals look like.
Setting objectives (OKRs)
Before we dive deep, understand that our company comprises two main business units of two separate teams. UX studio, our main design service business, designs digital products for other companies (aka great clients). We have also built our own product, UXfol.io, a portfolio platform for UX designers.
Every three months, each business unit defines two big goals for themselves. One sets their service or product related goal which defines how they will improve the service/product they provide. The other, a business goal, says how we want to improve the business side of each team. We call these big goals “objectives”.
For one service/product objective, our design team wanted to improve workshop facilitation and presentation skills. During those three months, everyone contributed to reaching this goal. Obviously, our design service has gotten a lot better, as we have held much better workshops since then.
With UXfol.io, we currently aim to try new marketing methods to help us build trust and speed up user acquisition. I won’t explain how this became a goal now (we talked a lot about it), but we have made it a high priority, a direction we want to go. As a business goal for the design service unit, we aim to enter the Israeli market.
Defining key actions (OKAs)
Although objectives show us where to go, they don’t suffice without measurability.
For each objective, we define two or three key actions to take over the next three months. We can easily measure them, and if we do them, we will take a huge step toward reaching our objectives.
When our design service team decided to improve workshop facilitation and presentations, we came together and defined these three key actions:
- We should organize a presentation training and everyone should take part.
- We should organize a workshop facilitation training and everyone should take part.
- Everybody on the team should hold at least one presentation and facilitate at least one workshop with real clients using what they learned.
Those who know OKRs notice we have key actions (OKAs) instead of key results. You can also argue the superiority of defining results, as we don’t know how to achieve certain goals upfront, and figure it out along the way. And that holds true.
But defining results and actions separately just adds one more round of discussion. We tried it and it just proved too much. Our strongly interconnected small team wanted to leave these discussions with an exact plan we could start working on. So, we defined key actions instead. Now we just modify them whenever they become outdated.
In our short all-hands Monday meetings this quarter, we announced who had already done their own workshops and presentations (for which they also got a cool sticker). This showed us how our team progressed week-by-week with this objective.
Simple, easy-to-track and easy-to-remember OKAs
To sum up, we set two main objectives for each business unit: one service/product-related and one business-related. Two or three key actions for each objective define a plan and make things measurable.
I love OKAs because they define a high-level goal as well as an action plan about how to achieve them. I remember our first team retreats when we defined six or seven new goals we wanted to pursue. OKAs help us focus and prioritize. Each quarter, we can have only two main goals per business unit. That forces us to choose the top priority.
OKAs also keep things simple: two big objectives with two or three key actions for each, something everyone can keep in mind. It can also go on the wall as well. It proves quite useful, having them in front of your face. If you create a nice poster, you can also track your progress on it visually.
Company objective redefinition frequency
Originally I thought we should set big objectives once a year. Big new goals take time to achieve. Then I met Kevin, a great leader at LogMeIn. It surprised him that we do it yearly and not every six months. I thought if a much bigger organization redefined their goals every six months, then as a small and fast-moving team, we should do that too.
Then we set our six-month objectives. We started working hard on them and somehow we usually did most of the things planned in the first three months. During the second half of the semester, we didn’t really care about the objectives anymore. After a while, it just felt natural to redefine the objectives every three months. It came as a good surprise when I read Google does the same.
That we can set company objectives only a few times a year proves challenging. Mess it up, and you have to wait months to try again. Although it might look easy at first, it proves much more difficult to set good goals. It sets a learning curve for the whole organization. Have patience. It will take four to six rounds to get it right, but even the first rounds will help a lot.
Steps in goal-setting workshops
1. Warming up
Time allowing, do a few warm-up workshops to get in the right mood and help people distance themselves from their daily work. These involve talking together about our common story, defining common values, and discussing where to head in the long-term. Read about my favorite warm-up workshops in my blog post about team retreats.
After setting the mood, we usually give everyone the chance to suggest objectives. Note that they have to know the meaning of an objective at this point. We give people time to think and write up both business and product/service objective ideas in silence.
Each business unit defines their own goals. We burnt our fingers letting people vote on the other unit’s goals. We don’t do that anymore.
3. Presenting ideas
Following the silent ideation, everyone tells their ideas and puts them on a wall. With all the post-its collected, we group them to look for things many people mention.
4. First round
After this early grouping, we do our first round to choose the three most popular topics for both the business and product/service goals.
5. Group discussions
Once we have these short lists, we give people time to discuss these possible objectives in-depth in small groups.
6. Second round
In the second round, we choose the winners. In the end, we have product/service and business objectives for each unit.
7. Defining key actions
Once we have the winning objectives, we also define the key actions for them in small groups. Usually, this discussion goes faster, as we know the topic quite well by then. We need someone who knows how good key actions look (measurability, scope size, etc.) to run this workshop.
At the end of the process, celebrate! The official leaders should stand before the teams, announce the new OKAs, and promise to do everything to achieve them. They can also share why they like the result.
At the bare minimum, this whole process of defining objectives and key actions together (without warm-up workshops) requires three hours from everyone.
In my experience with this method, groups can make wise decisions. Usually the results have satisfied me as a CEO. Many good ideas came up that I would never have thought of myself.
Our team goals — examples
Once we have make a decision on our goals for the upcoming months, we think it’s important to make it sink in with the help of actual visuals. Hence, our Studio Leader Ági always puts it on a poster that hangs in the office.
Here’s an actual example of an Objectives poster from the last quarter:
We also wanted to visually track our progress throughout these months. So, our designer Bence created these super cool emoji stickers that we now use when goals are partially or fully completed. And it’s really satisfying to stick them on!
Our learnings from the past
Do we really need two rounds?
Originally, we just had one round of ideation and a vote. Then we realized we couldn’t make good decisions without discussing our options, so we introduced a second round.
We have used many voting techniques over the years:
- We started by sticking little red dots next to the winning idea on the wall. It can weight the votes, but also manipulate things by putting everything in one place.
- We also tried walking voting, physically moving to a place to vote for a certain idea. It has an advantage in the difficulty of forcing others to go where they don’t want to.
- Ultimately we ended up with online voting because it grants anonymity. Also, with both methods above, some smart alecks waited to vote last and decide the question themselves.
Does this really make the best decisions?
This method of brainstorming, discussing and voting creates a marketplace for company objectives where everyone can tell their ideas, have a chance to convince others, and shape our future.
Unfortunately, it has the side effect that parties will form behind certain ideas, and those who vote for the losing idea will feel disappointed. When I first saw this, I just went to them and explained why I thought the other idea had won. Then I reminded them that after three months, they could try again.
Can we further improve this process?
Now, after a few more quarters behind us, I see this tension always arises around voting. We can do even better than this democratic process. The best votes feel unnecessary because a consensus forms and everyone senses what will win (what they would choose).
Next time, we will try not just talking about what each possible objective would mean, but also discussing which we should choose in the current situation. This will give us the chance to compare different scenarios and strategies.
Summary: defining company objectives together
These key points sum up everything about how we set company goals:
- People engage more if they define their own goals, so do it together.
- With bigger teams (10+ people) have a structure in place and teach people how goals should look and how you will define them together.
- Use OKAs. For each business unit define two big, high-level objectives: one for the business and one for the product/service side. For each objective, define two or three measurable key actions.
- Use two rounds for objectives. Let people suggest possible objectives, vote first to get a shortlist, discuss what each possible objective can mean and which the team should choose now. Then determine the winner in a second round.
- Define the key actions and assure measurability and proper scope.
- Finally, the leaders should announce the result and show some excitement.
I hope this helps you figure out how to set company objectives together in your team. As always, don’t try to replicate our methods entirely. Use it as a set of ideas, and experiment to find what works best for your team.
If you have something similar in place or have tried some of our methods, please share your experience in the comment section below.
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