Updated: Mar 15, 2022
Goal is a future state and how do we describe states? The state of a room can be hot or cold but it’s always an adjective describing a noun. Therefore, when you describe goals, put them in adjective-noun format. Most people don’t use this format, instead they describe goals using a verb. There's an old schoolhouse rock song that used to come on ABC, it sang, “Verb, that’s the action.” The point here is that verbs describe action; they describe activities; they describe tasks.
The reason most people describe goals in terms of verbs is because we’re used to a 1911 modeled paradigm of society, a time heavy in manufacturing. From back when managers set goals for their employees, wanting them to perform a specific task. So, goals and tasks were seen as equal. The reason work related goals have verbs in them to this day is because managers wanted employees, in the past, to complete tasks. Managers wanted the employees to focus on actions. Employees were meant to complete actions and these actions were in terms of verbs.
One ingredient that makes for bad decision making is fear. Knowledge workers want autonomy and they don’t want to be held accountable for performing tasks that don’t achieve the proper results. Usually, knowledge workers know which tasks to do better than their managers; things could change, so the task necessary could change. They also don’t want their managers judging them by the task they do. If tasks are written in a verb format and performance evaluations are done correctly, the natural tendency for the employees, even if doing that task is the wrong thing to do, is to do the task for fear of consequences. This is especially true if the company has a bonus based on performance evaluations; when the company has feedback coming from the managers.
Ergo, always set goals in adjective-noun format. Then have employees come up with metrics to incorporate into their process; a way for them to get the data on the metrics. When this process is visible, they’ll see their progress towards objectives and will figure out their own feedback needs; managers won’t have to give feedback at all. When a manager gives feedback, it can feel like punishment to the employees. However, when employees give their own feedback on how they’re progressing or reaching a goal, it feels natural and they’ll adjust to make changes accordingly. Put the goals in terms of the desired state, not in terms of what tasks are desired to get to this state, it’s essential for effective performance management.
Then it’s time to think about assumptions, it is important to know that there are different types. In fact, there are three types: contextual, causal, and meaning. The first type of assumption is a ‘contextual assumption,’ which is a judgment. When using the contextual judgment assumption, it is useful to have a noun followed by an adjective that describes that noun or judges it, and then conclude with comparisons, which provide context. See in the example here, “Lemonade is the best beverage as compared to soda, milk, or water.” Using this format and adding the last contextual part helps prevent decisions from going awry.
Let me give you another example of a contextual assumption. I’ve heard people say “Oh the economy is really bad now.” Context is important here, so the question becomes, “the economy is bad as compared to what?” A few years ago, we were in a deep session. Right now, everything on the news says that there are so many jobs out there because people are refusing to take jobs they don’t want. They are looking for something better. Employers have a hard time hiring people. Thus, what is the context for the condition of the economy and from whose perspective? If a judgment is made and the economy is compared to the wrong thing, a wrong decision is made. If I think the economy is bad, I may save money. But the economy is actually expanding right now, so I should be spending money so I can make more money. Understanding the context comparison for judgments affects our decision-making.
The second type of assumption is the ‘causal assumption.’ With the causal assumption, the ultimate goal is to reach a future state where doing tasks and activities is expected to get you closer to a particular future state. Sometimes assumptions set conditions and are in the form of, “If I do this,” or “if I’m in this condition,” then, “I do this action, then I’ll get this outcome,”; an ‘I-Then’ format. The causal assumption example in the diagram states, “If we use kids to sell our lemonade, then the results will be plentiful beverage sales.” Hypothetically speaking, “[If] I do these actions, [if] I hire kids and have them sell lemonade, [then] I’ll get better sales on my lemonade.” The causal order needs to be ordered correctly and considered well because if that causal relationship isn’t true and you’re planning on doing actions based on that, you’re not going to get the desired result.
The third assumption type is one of ‘meaning assumptions.’ This particular assumption is important because Agile uses it in the Scrum guide. Scrum theory talks about having a common understanding that concepts have the same standard meaning. A standard meaning of things is the true definition of transparency. The common definition of things provides this basis and is typically written as “Given this state,” indicating the explanation of the common meaning for a specific state. Once the given conditions are agreed to be met, then the measurements of the expectations are tested for the truthfulness of the assumption. In this example, “Given the observation of repeat customers,” the words ‘repeat customers’ communicates a meaning that the lemonade is delicious. This agreement can be made to explain that if people buy lemonade once, [if] it’s not a good-tasting product, [then] they probably won’t come back again. But [if] they come back, [then] the product must be delicious.
The interpretation of meaning that is assigned to things should be spelled out in advance. In this way, when we come to the retrospective, we can have the same analysis based upon what we saw and heard. We can use these formats for assumptions and goals.
The hypothesis has the format of, “Given the assumption, [if] I do this action, [then] I will achieve this outcome.” The hypothesis should explain the relationship between the assumptions, the actions I want to perform, and the anticipated outcome I hope to achieve. I would have a test and put metrics on it to measure the assumption. The ability to make goals and formulate assumptions to make decisions (which are designed to eliminate poor judgment) is what the performance manager should equip employees to do. Feedback can be provided by peers and the process of a decision-making tool for managers to effectively provide evaluation on the types of decisions that employees make.