First get small, next get broad

Small, small, small – I have spent a lot of my career arguing for small: small tasks, small user stories, small teams, small releases, small funding increments, small “projects”. I argue we should get good at small and optimise our systems for doing lots of small. I can justify my arguments – Project Myopia or Diseconomies of Scale. Small makes sense.


While focusing on small is good for delivery it creates other problems. In truth, no solution is ever without consequences and few have no negative consequences, all we can strive for is more positive consequences than negative.

It is not enough to get good at small in delivery, one needs to couple that with an understanding of what is commonly called the bigger picture and which I prefer to think of as the broader picture.

The failure to situate small in the broader context underlies many of the problems we see in the work place today. Take work management, ignoring the broad leads to micro-management, disempowered staff, frustrated employees and collaboration failure.

It is also failure to see the broad that lies behind two of todays most common problems: Product Owner Failure and Run away Backlogs.

Product, sigh

Product Owners – I include Product Managers here – are failing because they are failing to see the broader picture: what is the problem we are trying to solve? how can we bring value to customers?

Product people are too often too focused on features. While I’ve recently seen some point the finger of blame at product owners/managers I think they are only responding to their environment. Companies are operating feature factors and sales are made on features, people think more when they should think better. Product people need to get out and meet customers and bring what they learn back to they can try and change the inside.

The feature, feature, feature attitude is also behind the backlog fetish which leads to backlogs stuffed full of ideas which are never, ever, going to be implements.

The discussion needs to be broadened. We need to get away from quick-wins and features, we need to think more broadly. We need to think about the big things: goals, objectives, purpose and even meaning.

Post pandemic it is common to hear of people seeking meaning in their work, no wonder so many people are dropping out of the workforce when the best they are offered is “more stuff to do.” In looking at broader goals we also need to recognise goals within goals, we need to uncover the hierarchy of (possibly competing) goals, call them out and work with them.

Thats is why I am keen to emphasise outcomes over outputs and its why its tempting to think of a great big funnel containing a machine for breaking the big into small (or Rock Crushing as my old friend Shane Hastie would put it.)

The challenge is to combine the need to focus on the small for delivery while also being able to think broadly. In part it is this challenge that has caused me to focus more on agility over agile.

The Strategic/Tactical Product model but it is not a complete solution.

Iteration, again

Another part of the solution is iteration: we spend a lot of our time in the small focusing on delivery, but from time to time we surface and consider the wider context. Thats why I embrace the OKR cycle, it gives everyone a chance to understand both and take part in both discussions.

Underlying so much of my work over the years has been a desire to remove intermediate pieces: like having a coder speak directly to a user rather than through a BA, its one of my objections to projects (which claim to show the big picture but actually represent a restricted view), its lurking in my dislike of estimates, and its part of my dislike of backlogs.

Asking people to carry the broad picture in their minds while working in the small is asking a lot. Thats why the cycle of thinking broad, setting goals, then switching into narrow mode for delivery works so well. Its fair, it includes everyone and it gives everyone the reason why we do what we do.

In short, we need to think broadly when deciding “what is the right thing to do”, then switch into the small to deliver. Importantly, we need to share not just that thinking but also the discussion. Everyone has a right to be heard.

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Level 1 goals, purpose and meaning

Anyone who has been following my posts and reading my books will notice I regularly return to the topic of goals, and specifically “bigger goals”, or as I say in Continuous Digital higher purpose. I’m not alone in this. The idea occurs again and again in management literature. Post-covid the idea is even more prominent. There are two reasons why I keep returning to higher purpose.

First, there is good reason to believe that people are motivated and more productive when the work they do has meaning and purpose. When I say “good reason” what I actually mean is: a) it feels intuitively right and b) there is research that backs this up (See Alex Edmans excellent book Grow the pie. Perhaps more importantly people feel better – happier, more satisfied – when they have meaningful work.

I don’t deny that making money is what drives some people, but for most of us, while it is necessary it is not our driving force. When you get up in the morning do you think “Gee another day to make some money” ? Does paying the mortgage or rent drive you onward? The thought of anyone needing to do a job they dislike simply because they need to pay the rent makes me depressed.

Second, I have long advocated team autonomy and driving authority down to the lowest level – what most of the agile community summarise as self-organizing teams. In tandem I advocate a move away form “shopping list” projects where teams are expected to “do everything on the list” towards outcome/ goal, based working where success is not “doing everything which was asked for” but rather “achieving an outcome and delivering benefit.” In this model they teams need goals.

And, as I point out in Succeeding with OKRs, goals are embedded within goals, goals are Matryoshki.

See how all this fits together?

But there is a problem. Or perhaps two problems.

Language complicates things. I’m writing here about meaning and purpose, which, for the moment I’ll regard as synonymous. Broadly speaking this fits in with “Start with why” hypothesis the likes of Simon Sinek advocate – and surfaces again and again. So there you have three terms which may be the same, may be different: meaning, purpose, and why.

Some organizations call these missions and have mission statements. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote about BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals – in Built to Last. Salim Ismail of Singularity University suggest companies should have a Massively Transformative Purpose, MTP (Exponential Organizations). The same idea reappears as True North (or is it North Star?) elsewhere and I’m sure there other names I’m not aware of.

Then we have Objectives (with and without key results) and Aims, possibly even Targets. Where do Jobs to be Done and Epics fit in? I’d mention visions and product visions except I’m reminded of the words of German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: “People who have visions should go see their doctor.”

Let me suggest whatever term a speaker uses they are driving at the same thing: “Something meaningful, large and overarching, something beyond the details”. Which brings us to the second problem: magnitude, some of these Matryoshka dolls are in the outer layer that you open first, some of them are inside and significantly smaller. Within these BHAGs, MTPs and missions there are smaller goals, and those lesser goals – which might be quite large themselves – align to the same True North.

Lately I’ve been using the model here to explain OKRs: OKRs are nested within Missions, a team may have several missions although ideally it would have just one. Missions are long lasting and may apply to several teams or an entire division. Missions in turn are nested inside organizational Purpose, purpose is pretty fixed and is lifelong, it is shared across the entire entity.

I find this model useful and it serves to illustrate how context is important. Teams can only make decisions on the work if they know the objectives (and, maybe, key results) they are pursing, and these can only be set if the team have the context that comes from a mission and purpose. But this model fails the language test, and by referencing OKRs means anyone not using OKRs will discount the model.

To unify the ideas we need to accept them all as equal.

Let me suggest a unifying solution: Level 1 Goals – I want to number those Matryoshki, with the outer most one, biggest one, being Level 1. As you open the dolls increment the number. (I’m using the word goal in a very generic sense, you can substitute objective or another word if you prefer.)

Level 1 Goals: “Purpose”, a “True North”, possibly an “MTP”, the organizational purpose, probably singular, largely invariant, doesn’t change often, in fact, changes it can be problematic.

Level 2 Goals: “Mission”, maybe a product goal or “product vision”, slow to change, expect it to last years. Organizations may have multiple missions each has the potential to advance on the purpose. Teams too can have missions, actually, I think all teams should have a mission – something I’ll write more about, its best if a team has one mission at a time but it might have multiple.

I’m not sure whether BHAGs qualify as Level 1 or Level 2 goals. If a company has only one BHAG and everything is aimed towards that goal than it is a level 1 goal, if the company has more than one BHAG then they are level 2. Which highlights a key point about Level 1 Goals: there can be only one level 1 goal, no organization can have more than one level 1 goal.

Now there is a big gap here between Level 1 and 2 goals which seldom change and last a long time to…

Level 3 Goals: these could be OKRs or quarter plans, I’ve also heard them called or “season plans”. These reset on a regular schedule – typically every three or four months.

There may well be more nested levels. Sprint Goals as used by some Scrum teams might be level 4. An individual Epic story might be 5. The important thing is, at each level the goals should be shared and understood by all, everyone should know the goal(s) and, hopefully, be working towards them. As Steve Jobs is reported to have said: “It’s okay to spend a lot of time arguing about which route to take to San Francisco when everyone wants to end up there, but a lot of time gets wasted in such arguments if one person wants to go to San Francisco and another secretly wants to go to San Diego.”

The beauty of numbering the levels is that we can keep on going. Although I would suggest that at some point things will become so fine grained as to be trivial and unworthy of the goal moniker (Level 99 Goal anyone?)

Notice I haven’t said anything about Roadmaps or Plans, neither of which has a place in this taxonomy, something else I might right more about in future.

Nor have I used the word strategy: strategy is sometimes used to denote a goal however when used like that I suggest strategic intent (a term coined by Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad) is a better term to use. Strategic intent is the thing you aim for, it is a level 1 goal. Strategy (alone) describes how you will go about achieving your goals.

Finally, to step back to meaning and purpose. These are different, purpose is about “why”, purpose is the reason for doing something. Meaning is an understanding of explanation and, perhaps, significance. Purpose tells why something is being done, meaning explains why that why is important – although at some point the distinctions breaks down and the why might become the goal. But I think there is another difference.

A recent article (“Why we don’t talk about meaning at work“) points out: purpose is shared but meaning is personal. While some people obtain their own meaning from the stated purpose others may find personal meaning in what pursuing that meaning provides for them. While leadership can articulate a shared purpose – a shared goal – they cannot articulate a shared meaning because each individual creates their own meaning.

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