What’s The Objective?

A Five Minute Read

When the first call came in to the Help Desk, the agent presumed it was user error. Within 20 minutespeople, everyone knew this was a problem – rather, in industry parlance, a “Critical Incident”. Soon, redundant systems failed, and – forget for a moment the tens of thousands of people who would be unable to reach 911 – the paramount concern was What if people aren’t able to stream “Game of Thrones”?!?

Per department protocol, a conference call was opened for the designated troubleshooters, relevant software and hardware engineers, and, soon, every damn vice president imaginable. As each joined, new theories (couched as fact) were bandied in between bouts of blame deflection. Technical resources tried implementing fixes that ultimately made things worse. Everyone blamed the Network guys.

Tempers flared as executives demanded of the Situation Manager: DO SOMETHING!

One of the hardest things for a Man of Action to do is… nothing. But acting for the sake of “doing something” is rarely wise. Being a Man of Action does not mean jumping blindly into the thick of things, without considering the landscape, impact, or consequences.

This is a hard lesson to learn, much less to teach. Reaching for someone who’s falling, while instinctive, usually means two people are now tumbling. Restraint takes effort.

In another case, Kenny the Telephone Supervisor would jump into “action” and start fulfilling urgent hotel guest requests: On the one hand, that’s commendable can-do spirit; on the other, he’s abandoning an arguably more important post.

Being a Man of Action means responding, not reacting.

Being a Man of Action, luckily, doesn’t require having every answer to every possible scenario at the ready. Rather, it relies on being able to quickly synthesize ground conditions, apply a pre-considered framework, decide, and act.

So what’s the answer? How can we learn this?

Truthfully, there isn’t an answer, but a question.

On my list of Annoying Questions I Ask in My Consulting Practice, this is my third-most asked. Whenever a client (or a colleague) has a suggestion or a question – about what work to add to a project, how to design a business process, or just what to do next, I ask the same thing:

What Is Your Objective?

If they can explain to me what they hope to attain – in terms of tangible, measurable benefits – then I believe they have rational, practicable solutions to their dilemmas and are ready to take Action. If they clearly have not thought it through, hemming and hawing through unstructured answers (or worse, a preconceived, preferred solution), it is time to hit the white board.

The Omnipresent Objective

Objectives are, simply put, the reason behind doing anything. Objectives are ubiquitous. Objectives describe whether it is worth doing in the first place. Think of objectives as the benefit you want to achieve, the result you would like to accomplish. Framing an objective at its higher, loftier position allows for great flexibility of action.

Customer Objectives

Sometimes we don’t get to set objectives; sometimes those pesky creatures called “customers” set our objectives. Most of the time, customer needs are cut-and-dried (I shouldn’t need to explain why I want my diet Coke with no ice, I just do); occasionally, though, we need to understand their deeper need before we can deliver value.

This can be when selling something – if we take the time to understand what results customers seek, we can be more creative about finding the right solution (rather than trying to determine which of our products we can put them in). When responding to customer complaints, focusing on their underlying need helps us recover – often service lapsed because whatever they said they wanted (or we initially promised) wasn’t available. Understanding underlying needs leads to options.

Objectives Save Time

Being able to articulate objectives makes leaders more efficient.

There are few things more painful than listening to a micromanager direct his or her subordinates. The MM dives into excruciating, step-by-step detail on how every part of the assignment must be done. If the job is subcontracting building a fence, maybe this specificity is appropriate. But for “thinking” work, forget it. Later, the micromanager will almost certainly complain that she didn’t get what she wanted, blaming the staff. Microscopically regulating the work restricts the employee to irrelevantly narrow standards. There is no framework for making judgment calls, so things not articulated get ignored.

Frequently a micromanager will complain that “it would be faster to do it myself”; certainly, if everything is delivered as instructions. There is no benefit in being engaged with the work, so employees do the minimum, and eventually become dissatisfied drones. It probably doesn’t matter if the fence painter is satisfied or engaged with his work; the fence will turn out pretty much the same, either way. For thought-driven assignments, remember that people are hired for their ability to… think.

Micromanagers always have too much on their plates because they can’t delegate. There isn’t enough time in the micromanager’s day because they are too busy being prescriptive.

Instead, set expectations by clarifying the target – with clear, measurable results. Focus on priorities, not details. Now when an employee comes across something unexpected, she can weigh different courses of actions back against the objectives. Which one(s) will most closely accomplish the goal? Those are the questions a Man of Action is asking.

Thinking Under Pressure

Which brings us back to that crashing data network. Before authorizing Action, a good Situation Manager reviews the relevant, immediate objectives. Are we trying to find out why we had a failure? Or are we trying to get things back up and running? Are we more concerned about speed? Cost of effort? Simultaneous failures? A Man of Action doesn’t make these objectives up on the fly, she has them at the ready – and applies them against facts as presented in the emergency.

And back at the hotel, when Kenny came back from making deliveries, he discovered that even more calls piled up, waiting to be dispatched. Telephone operators did what they could to assign tickets, but they were busy answering phones and besides, there was no clear delegation.

In debrief, I asked Kenny, “What is your primary objective?”

“To deliver what the guest wants when the guest expects it,” he replied.

“No,” I said, “that’s our department’s mission statement. What is your objective?”

“To get the towels to Mrs. Johnson in 1514.”

“No,” I said again. “Your objective is to keep all of our resources balanced, and to deploy them to the Mrs. Johnsons of the world. If there is truly no other way to get that assignment completed, then you took appropriate action. How else could you have accomplished this objective?”

“I could have asked a room service waiter who wasn’t busy to do it. I could have doubled up on assignments to service agents. I could have put out a radio call for anyone to help. I could have found out when she needed them – or if there were other calls ahead of her that could be de-prioritized….”

Focusing on his objectives freed him to come up with better solutions than leaving his post – where he is the only dispatcher on duty. This is not a “Not My Job” mentality: a Man of Action knows who best should accomplish what when.

A Man of Action does not need to know how to do everything that might ever need to be done, ever. By understanding the underlying business results sought, though, (s)he can make better decisions, resolve customer complaints, meet customer needs, and take work off the boss’ plate.

Understanding and clarifying our objectives comes in handy in all walks of life – it is vital to managing projects and business processes.