This article explains why conventional goal-setting is usually self-defeating, and how organizations can free themselves to act more autonomously and effectively by focusing on tradeoffs instead.
I call this tradeoff-oriented process Boris. The name I have given to this process has no connection with politicians who seem not to understand that any action taken entails tradeoffs which must be accepted. The link to the Boris prework tool has been fixed. I should also say that this article is about Boris for organizations, but I first developed the process for individuals.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a startup, an established business, a government agency, an NGO, or a not-for-profit. When it comes time to set strategic goals, the organization’s internal leaders spend a lot of time and often spend a lot of money going through a goal-setting process for agreeing on shared goals. The problem is that they still end up working at cross purposes to each other. The organization’s leaders have usually agreed among themselves on what shared goals to pursue, but have not agreed on what those shared goals means in terms of implications for their respective areas of responsibility.
The cost of coming to this kind of false agreement about goals is not limited to the time and expense of conventional goal-setting. False agreement about goals has a much more profound effect on the entire organization.
I have personal experience of this.
More than a decade ago, I worked for a while as one of the Googlers tasked with aligning OKRs across Google’s Product Team, the part of Google responsible for product strategy and development. We often spent more than an entire quarter across the entire company on developing OKRs and rolling them up and down from the whole organization down to individual contributors. The aligner minions spent many weeks syncing these OKRs across teams and divisions. But it didn’t matter how much alignment we did. The result was always the same: At the end of the year, teams would be working at cross purposes to each other, individuals on the same team working at cross purposes with their teammates. Sometimes, individuals ended up working at cross purposes to themselves.
Even when middle managers and individual contributors do their best to achieve team and individual goals that are set in alignment with what they believe are agreed organization-level goals, that work ends up conflicting with work by some other team or individual. Work must be undone, plans re-made mid-course. They don’t meet their targets because their actions run head-on into something done elsewhere in the organization. They begin to second-guess themselves. Sometimes, there is blame or distrust from senior leadership downward, or even among the leadership team.
The deep cost of false agreement is that the various parts of the organization — from the leadership down to the rank and file — are unable to act autonomously, effectively, and happily. This is not how a high-performing organization works.
Boris is a facilitated workshop I run for organization leadership teams that fixes this problem. Boris significantly improves on conventional goal-setting processes (such as OKRs) by taking a fundamentally different approach that focuses on understanding acceptable tradeoffs among participants. The outcome of Boris is that different parts of the organization become free to operate autonomously in pursuit of the organization’s shared goals without working at cross-purposes to each other.
To explain why and how Boris works, I have to first explain why the instinctive approach to goal-setting doesn’t work.
The default, instinctive way we set goals for ourselves is to think about what outcomes we want to achieve, and these outcomes become the goals we pursue. In an organization, it is the task of the leadership to set goals. Instinctively, leaders in an organizations set goals by thinking about what outcomes they want to achieve, and then discussing those desired outcomes with each other until they agree on them. This instinctive approach to goal-setting generates a set of shared goals at the organizational level. If the organization is big enough, it will hire an expensive management or strategy consulting firm to help them do the same thing, but with more slide decks.
This instinctive approach to goal-setting is what I label “conventional,” and it has two key elements:
The result of conventional goal-setting exercises is that teams and organizations spend a lot of time (and usually also a lot of money) to agree about what outcomes they are trying to achieve collectively — their shared goals.
When individual stakeholders act to achieve those shared goals, they almost inevitably choose actions which represent tradeoff patterns that make sense for their areas of responsibility but usually conflict with initiatives in other parts of the business.
A lightly fictionalised actual example illustrates how false agreement harms an organization.
PrintCo is a business selling customized, high-volume, precision printing equipment goes through a conventional goal-setting exercise with all its key stakeholders, eventually agreeing on the goals of increasing revenues and profitability in the next year. There are other stakeholders involved, but we’ll zoom in Sandra (the Chief Sales Officer) and Petra (the Chief Product Officer) both of whom agree on these shared goals.
Sandra’s strategy is to push the sales team hard on selling a particular long-established existing product line because it has a well-understood target market which isn’t yet saturated, her sales team has excellent pre-qualified contacts there, and the cost of sales is likely to be relatively low.
Sandra’s tradeoff: Focusing on this product line means there’s no good sales resource to do any pre-sales for a new product addressing a different target market.
Meanwhile, Petra intends to focus the product team’s attention on launching a new product built around a new environmentally friendly proprietary ink technology (several years in development) because market research strongly suggests that there is an underserved market for such a product with no competing offerings, and proprietary ink sales will provide a highly profitable additional revenue stream.
Petra’s tradeoff: Focusing on delivering the new product line means there’s little product support for software updates to existing product lines to keep them comparable with competing printing systems.
Fast forward to the end of the year: Sandra’s sales team built a strong pipeline to sell PrintCo’s existing product but closed almost no deals because competitors released software updates that allowed their products to outcompete on overall functionality. Petra’s product team launched the new environmentally friendly print product but found few buyers because there was almost no pre-sales and sales support.
Both Sandra and Petra developed strategies for achieving PrintCo’s common goals of increasing revenue and profitability that would have been sensible for the sales and product teams … had they been acting independently. Sandra’s and Petra’s strategies were sensible because their respective tradeoffs made sense for their respective parts of the business. Unfortunately, in the overall context of PrintCo, these tradeoffs meant that the product and sales strategies were working at cross-purposes to each other.
This kind of false agreement arises like clockwork in startups, NGOs, government agencies, and not-for-profits that use conventional goal-setting processes. The problem is not that these organizations don’t agree on their shared goals. It is that they don’t agree on what tradeoffs they are willing to make to achieve them.
Conventional goal-setting sucks because it overlooks the actually important part of agreeing on goals collectively, which is to also agree on what you’re willing (and unwilling) to give up to achieve those shared goals. By not paying attention to what tradeoffs stakeholders believe are (or aren’t) acceptable, conventional goal-setting makes conflicting actions and unhappy, ineffective organizations practically inevitable.
Boris is a one-day small-group workshop for all key decisionmaking stakeholders in an organization. For a large business, the entire C-suite would participate. For a small startup, the founding team and its board of advisors would participate.
Each Boris workshop consists of four stages:
Stage 1: Elicit individual tradeoff patterns. Each participant articulates their individual tradeoff pattern (this is pre-work, using this 2-page tool).
Stage 2: Establish initial overlap. Convene participants to see where and how much overlap there is between individual tradeoff patterns.
Stage 3: Negotiate to convergence. Facilitate deep dives into justifications for divergent tradeoff patterns across participants.
Stage 4: Strategize around collective tradeoffs. Identify concrete actions to obtain resources and/or change constraints so individual tradeoffs align with collective tradeoffs.
If PrintCo had done a Boris workshop, this is what might have happened:
Stage 1: Elicit individual tradeoff patterns.
Before the workshop, Sandra, Petra, and the rest of the C-suite separately write out their individual goals and non-goals (things they each know in advance they don’t want to achieve), and prioritize them on the tool. The prioritization process imposed by the tool forces each of them to be explicit about which goals they are willing to sacrifice (the deprioritized goals) and which goals they’re not willing to sacrifice (the prioritized goals). Sandra would have prioritized selling the existing product and deprioritized any pre-sales activity for new products. Petra would have prioritized bringing the new product to market and deprioritized existing product improvement.
Stage 2: Establish initial overlap.
The C-suite comes together to see what their individual goals/non-goals and prioritized goals are. The tool forces each person to be explicit about what their non-goals are, as well as what goals they are willing to sacrifice — so the whole group can immediately see whether they are aligned in those two respects. Bluntly, when each participant’s list of non-goals and sacrificeable goals is put up in public, it is quite clear whether the group is in true agreement or not. In Sandra’s and Petra’s cases, the conflict between their acceptable tradeoffs (sacrificing pre-sales for new products and improvements on existing products) becomes instantly evident.
Stage 3: Negotiate to convergence.
Participants in the group negotiate with each other about what tradeoffs everyone will eventually agree to make. For Sandra and Petra, this means trying to change each other’s mind about the best way forward.
Sandra tries to convince Petra to change her tradeoffs: Instead of a new product line, the product team should work on enhancing the existing product so that the sales team can sell more of it. Sandra’s argument is that the sales team already knows of several major clients who have been considering the existing product and would probably commit with a little push — it will be an easy win for the company.
Petra tries to convince Sandra to change her tradeoffs instead: Rather than sacrificing pre-sales for a new product, the sales team should sacrifice sales for the existing product. Petra’s argument is that the new environmentally friendly product line will increase revenue and profitability in this and subsequent years and give the sales team prime early access to a new and rapidly growing, but still underserved, market of major users seeking more environmentally friendly printing technology. Petra’s kill-shot, so to speak, is that the sales team will benefit from ongoing commissions from recurring sales of the new proprietary ink (akin to the disposable razor blade business model) — selling the new product line will be the gift that keeps on giving.
Thelma, the Chief Technology Officer, weighs in to say that the new ink technology will make it easier to produce a high-reliability commercial printing line. Long term, Thelma thinks it makes more sense to invest in building new products around the new inks because they’ll require less post-sales handholding for customers. The other C-suite participants also agree with Petra’s approach. Sandra grudgingly concedes that Petra’s argument makes sense and agrees to change her tradeoff pattern to what Petra suggests.
This negotiation over tradeoffs happens with every other participant. It takes several hours and emotions can run high at times because often taken-for-granted beliefs are being challenged and discussed in the open. The result, however, is a set of tradeoffs that everyone agrees with: a collectively agreed tradeoff pattern.
Stage 4: Strategize around collective tradeoffs.
The C-suite has now broadly agreed that PrintCo will focus on developing a new product line around the new ink technology and is willing to sacrifice sales of existing, mature product lines. Each member of the C-suite now has to consider whether they have the right resources for this and, if not, to negotiate for them with other stakeholders.
Sandra: “We’re almost at the end of the year now. Pivoting to a new product line next year will mean that no one on the sales team will be able to hit sales revenue targets in Q1 or Q2, and their commission income will probably take a serious hit. I won’t be able to get the sales team motivated to spin up the new customer pipeline unless the company approves a special unconditional compensation package for them. It’ll need to be at least 80% of their commission forecast.”
Fergus, the CFO: “Next year’s budget is tight, and we’ve already been through an aggressive trimming exercise. There’s just no room in there for unconditional comp for sales. The only semi-discretionary spending we have is all the R&D hires we’ve approved for the first half of the year. If Thelma is willing to delay most of those hires, we could probably make this compensation plan work.”
Thelma: “If we’re going to make a big push to get the new product line out, I’ll need at least two new hires by the start of Q1: The mid-level R&D manager is backfill we’ve been trying to hire for several months and the senior ink technology researcher we managed to poach will be essential. The others I should be able to put off to Q3.”
Fergus (looking up the commission forecast): “Those are the two most expensive hires you’ve got. To get to 80% of the forecast commission payout, you’d have to delay one of them at least. Sandra, could you make it work on 65% instead of 80%?”
Sandra: “I could probably make them swallow 70%, but only if they get a bigger commission percentage on any of the new ink sales.”
Eventually, they agree that Thelma will delay all but two of her new R&D hires, and Sandra will accept a 65% unconditional compensation package for her team in Q1 and Q2 in exchange for a 15% higher commission rate on any ink revenues for the next 3 years. Fergus and the Chief Operations Officer will work together to get any budget shortfall from trimming the allocation for general administration. For the rest of the workshop, the other participants negotiate with each other in a similar way to develop concrete resource plans to get what they need, or get over roadblocks, to make PrintCo’s new collectively agreed tradeoff pattern work.
By the time they reach Stage 4 of Boris, the key stakeholders at PrintCo have each adjusted their goals and tradeoffs to the new collectively agreed tradeoff pattern. In Stage 4, they begin to consider their resources and constraints they are working with, and negotiate these resources and constraints with other participants. By the end of the workshop, each participant has a concrete resource plan in context of the rest of the group.
Boris works because it forces decisionmaking stakeholders to talk about what they are willing to give up to get what they really want. Being aware of tradeoffs and agreeing on which ones are acceptable is essential to both good strategy and good execution.
In other words, Boris works where conventional goal-setting fails precisely because it does the difficult thing that conventional goal-setting always ignores.
Let me unpack this:
Conventional goal-setting tells us to focus on what we want to achieve. This approach seems obviously correct, since these are called “goal-setting” exercises. Unfortunately, unless specifically pushed to do so, we pay no attention to what we are willing to give up to achieve the goals we set. And conventional goal-setting doesn’t push for attention to tradeoffs.
However, reality bites. Resources (time, money, attention, people, equipment, raw materials, press coverage, you name it) are always limited. If you only have $3 and each ice cream flavor costs $3, you can choose to have either strawberry or vanilla, but not both. There is no escaping this, and it is worth repeating: Resources are always limited and resources affect action.
Achieving any goal requires taking action. Taking any action where resources are limited always means making tradeoffs—choosing to give up some things so that you can get others. If you only have $50bn, you can either buy Twitter or ten on-demand delivery startups, but you can’t buy them all.
The pattern of tradeoffs you choose is important because it is a frame that determines the actions you can and will take to achieve your goals. People who choose different tradeoffs end up taking different actions even if they are pursuing the same goal.
This may be unproblematic when acting solo, where no one else is affected by what you do. But it is very problematic in any kind of organization where one part’s actions affect the other parts. Without agreeing on tradeoffs collectively, even if the organization has agreed on shared goals, its parts are likely to work at cross-purposes to each other by taking actions based on different tradeoffs.
To agree on tradeoffs collectively, tradeoffs have to be made explicit, then negotiated between stakeholders. In fact, tradeoffs are highly informative for two reasons.
First, the tradeoffs you’re willing to make reveal more about the situation you’re in than the goals you’re trying to achieve. As in the printing equipment example above, people make sense of tradeoffs (and choose them) in the context of the resources they have and the constraints they face. This is just another way to say that people and teams often choose tradeoffs based on their current situation. If you have a new ink technology with great consumables profit potential, it makes sense to develop a product line around it even if it means spending less time on existing products. Articulating tradeoffs explicitly helps reveal what resources and constraints actually matter and affect action.
Second, your tradeoff pattern shows more about your values than the goals you’re trying to achieve. A clothing company demonstrates different values if it is willing to use cheaper high-pesticide, water-intensive cotton than if it insists on only using low-input cotton in its products. What you choose to do and not do reveals what is and isn’t important. This is another way of saying that what a person or organization implicitly believes is valuable (or good, or moral, or worthwhile) determines the tradeoffs that are made.
Different people and organizations have different tradeoff patterns because they have different values, different resources, or different constraints. Usually, all three forms of difference are at work.
An organization that does conventional goal-setting will have agreed on shared goals but not on the acceptable/unacceptable tradeoffs in achieving those shared goals.
In such a situation, it comes as no surprise that organizational stakeholders with autonomy choose different tradeoffs in achieving the same shared goals. This is because different parts of the same organization have different resources and constraints. But more than that, the leaders and members of different parts of the organization often have differing values as well. Consequently, driven by different tradeoffs, the various parts of the organization take actions which work at cross-purposes to each other. And malign purpose isn’t even necessary; this happens even when everyone involved has the best intentions of pursuing agreed-upon shared goals.
Boris works because it forces participant stakeholders to be explicit about what tradeoffs they are and aren’t willing to make. The side effect is to reveal their resource/constraint situations and values in a setting where these can be considered concretely. Specifically, Boris
When written out, the four stages of a Boris workshop (elicit individual tradeoff patterns, convene, converge on agreed collective tradeoff pattern, do some resource planning) are cognitively logical, transparent, and straightforward. And they are. It really is as simple as doing that.
However, I’m pretty sure it isn’t the explicit and logical part of the process that explains why Boris gives organizations internal autonomy without internal conflict. With every Boris I do, it’s becoming clearer that Boris is effective because of its side effect of revealing individual values. This happens in a largely tacit and unpredictable way.
Because thinking about tradeoffs is not habitual, Boris asks participants to do something they’re not used to doing. This is uncomfortable enough. More: Thinking and talking about tradeoffs surfaces often hidden or taken-for-granted value systems. These value systems are rarely (never?) easily or fully explicatable. Invariably, the most important and determining aspects of values are inherently tacit.
Because thinking about tradeoffs is not habitual, Boris asks participants to do something they’re not used to doing. This is uncomfortable enough. More: Thinking and talking about tradeoffs surfaces often hidden or taken-for-granted values. Bob wants to build the best damn sales organisation in the world. Mary dreams of running a marketing campaign that would be talked after for years afterwards. And Joe just wants to do the bare minimum at work in order to get back to his kids.
Exposing individual tradeoff patterns within a group of stakeholders reveals their respective value systems. There is often (always!) considerable divergence in value systems even in a group of stakeholders that has gone through traditional strategic goal-setting and believes that they share common goals and values. It comes as a rude shock for a group of leaders to realize that they are far from being as aligned as they thought they were — emotion can run high, though few participants will admit that to themselves or others.
These tacit and emotional/non-cognitive dimensions dominate the experience of a Boris workshop. While each Boris goes through the four stages outlined above, what happens during the stages and how the group is navigated through each stage is pretty much unpredictable. The facilitator is therefore compelled to act in the moment rather than in a preplanned way.
Every Boris workshop is difficult for participants but produces three related outcomes:
For an organization (whether a startup, established business, NGO, not-for-profit, government agency), facing up to tradeoffs through Boris is hard. But in exchange, Boris produces the clarity that conventional goal-setting tries but always fails to provide.
Conventional goal-setting leads to false agreement that ultimately prevents the group from acknowledging the reality that 1) all actions require tradeoffs, and 2) that an organization’s parts must agree on those tradeoffs to take effective action to achieve shared goals. By design, Boris makes tradeoffs clear and provides a setting for negotiating to a shared agreement on acceptable tradeoffs.
The result of Boris is that the organization’s parts know what can (and can’t) be sacrificed to achieve shared goals, and each part has a concrete plan for getting the resources it needs to work autonomously without getting in anyone else’s way. Boris frees the organization to work both more effectively and autonomously than before.
Participating in and facilitating a Boris workshop is simultaneously terrifying, exhausting, and exhilarating — and, like most such experiences, profoundly useful in unexpected ways.
🙏 to Cedric Chin, David MacIver, and Chatham Sullivan for their comments, and to James Cham for a long conversation many months ago which was the seed for this article. I am obviously responsible for the poor thinking that remains.