This is another great piece by Manuel Küblböck, author of “How we make decentralized decisions” which I covered here:
The post outlines the way a shared map of enabling constraints, at different abstraction levels, can be used for balancing maintaining alignment and enabling autonomy at the same time.
It covers a lot of ground, and addresses a few subtle issues towards the end of the post that I’m deliberately omitting from this summary. It’s a fairly visual piece and I’m going to play a bit with the way that I’m presenting the content to make it even more so.
Goals, used in this context to mean “what I/we want to achieve”, can be defined at various levels of abstraction. By asking ourselves “why?” we move to a goal at a higher level of abstraction. By asking ourselves “how?” we move to a goal at a lower level of abstraction.
Attaining a higher abstraction goal requires either a longer timeframe or a bigger scope to complete it, or both. A standardized set of units of time, and a standardized set of units of scope create a calibrated canvas to which goals can be anchored. Different organizations may choose different units of time and scope for their alignment efforts.
Each goal we define constraints goals further down and to the left. The constraint enables autonomy at the level below by providing clarity on the boundary between what we’re doing and not doing. Boundaries don’t have to be precise, just clear enough so everyone has a sufficient understanding of where they are.
Alignment efforts, therefore, focus on the diagonal area in the middle of the canvas. The area at the top left is too detailed, and the area at the bottom right is too vague to merit defining and aligning on.
Goal types fall on a spectrum between the aspirational and the practical, and differ in the mechanisms that are used to formulate them:
- Intentions describe what we aspire to achieve. Typically formulated as a vision (what is the future we are trying to create) and a mission (what we do and for whom).
- Outcomes describe what we effect through what we do. Typically formulated as objectives in OKRs, or more fine-grained user stories in a product backlog.
- Outputs describe what we are going to produce. Typically formulated using specifications.
- Inputs describe how much time and effort we want to invest. Typically formulated using timeboxes like 2-week iterations or the number of hours that’ll be spent investigating a bug.
More practical goal categories can be used to describe goals at lower levels of abstraction. The different level of abstraction also create natural boundaries for assigning ownership:
- Foundation: The reason we are all here and contribute our efforts. The founders of an organization usually define this.
- Direction: This is the top-level direction from the most senior leaders. It is solely bounded by the foundation and not by any higher-level desired outcomes.
- Coordination: This is where desired outcomes across organizational scopes are coordinated.
- Autonomy: The part fully left to the teams who execute it. Teams break down desired outcomes into outputs and inputs.
The heart of the alignment effort takes place in the coordination zone. Perfect alignment on a desired outcome requires clarity not only on the outcome itself but also on:
- How progress will be measured?
- What will be produced to make progress? (outputs)
- What will be needed to make progress? (conditions)
A healthy process strives to maximize outcome and progress while keeping outputs and conditions flexible.
After the initial inception, where the map of goals inside the zone of alignment is defined, on-going alignment takes place at the edges of the relevant time-boxes.
At the end of a time-box, the map is consulted to review what goals were achieved, as well as what progress was made towards the goals at a higher level. If the map doesn’t match reality, opt for adjusting the scope and keeping timeboxes fixed. A goal may be discontinued altogether if it is no longer desirable.
At the beginning of a time-box, the goals for the time-box are defined (planned). This is another place to check for the relevancy of the goals one abstraction level above, to make sure that progress is made towards a goal that still matters.
The rest of the post adds some additional color around the choice of time-frames and units of scope, how efficiency and effectiveness can be described using these building blocks, at which level of accuracy to maintain the map, the order of describing output ingredients, leadership and accountability, expectations and happiness and the timing of committing to a goal (or deferring commitment).