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Effective Leaders Use Goals, Measures and Data to Reshape Culture

5 minute read
Kurt Bittner avatar
Organizations must unlearn old habits that encourage conformance with expectations and validation of preconceptions.

Great leaders set bold, audacious goals that inspire, guide and shape the cultures of their organizations. Without measures, goals can become merely empty executive platitudes that inspire cynicism and contribute to stagnation. But when bold goals are quantified and operationalized with measures that give everyone goalposts to guide their daily actions, they reshape behaviors and, ultimately, the culture of the organization.

Do You Know Where You're Going?

Leaders are frequently drawn to agility because they are obsessed with “delivering faster," but speed alone means nothing unless the organization is pointed in the right direction. Delivery speed is important but delivering more value to customers is the real goal. Improving the value you deliver to customer means measuring continuously.  Obsessively focusing on customer experiences, using data, not anecdotes and hunches, is what guides organizations toward greater performance.

Speed does matter, but not usually the way that people first think. They start with an assumption that they know what customers need, they just need to get it to them faster. Once they start measuring, they realize they don’t know what customers need, so they need to deliver faster to measure faster, so they can adapt more quickly.

Related Article: Does Your Organization Really 'Get' Agile?

Identify Value, Cut Your Losses

How much of what gets developed has no value? Various estimates put it higher than 50%. All of these irrelevant features were on someone’s “must do” list. Unfortunately, you can’t separate the waste from the value without delivering something, measuring the result and adapting accordingly. The best way to eliminate this waste is to deliver in very small increments, very quickly, then measure the result, and quickly cut your losses as soon as you can.

Are You Hearing the Best Ideas?

Unfortunately, sometimes the good ideas offered by quiet, observant people can get trampled by the bad ideas promoted by confident, outspoken, dominating people. To put it more bluntly, “beware of HiPPOs,” or Highly Paid Persons’ Opinions.

Becoming data driven lets ideas be sorted on the basis of merit, as determined by facts, rather than politics or dominance displays. But moving to this model is painful, at least for the powerful and dominant. Leaders need to create a culture that makes it safe to have open discussions based on data, censoring even themselves, if necessary, to model the new culture they want to encourage to create opportunities to find better solutions.

Related Article: Get Collaboration Right and Innovation Will Follow

Not Everyone Is Going to Benefit

The idea that certain special people in an organization have “vision,” or deep insights into what customers need, is deeply embedded in the collective psyche of many organizations. It’s also deeply embedded in the compensation models, giving some people great incentives to perpetuate this particular myth.

The reality is everyone has a mix of some good and some bad ideas. Most ideas don’t improve customer experiences, and neither “experts” nor executives have much better luck in guessing what customers need than anyone else. Banishing these limiting beliefs means embracing data.

For those people who are used to calling the shots based on opinions and beliefs, the data-driven organization is an unsettling and uncomfortable place. Once their ideas are shown to be no better than, and even sometimes worse than, people with no special status, their power and influence begins to ebb. A data-driven decision-making culture is better for the bottom-line, and better for most employees. But for the masters of the old opinion-driven order, the world where data reigns is not a happy place. And while they still hold power, they will make others unhappy, too.

Learning Opportunities

Remain Open to the Unexpected

The scientific method created our modern world. Look anywhere around you, at every common object, and you see the fruits of inquiry into the unexpected.  Every modern invention started with experiments that challenged accepted dogma, and every great leap forward in understanding started with the observation “hmm … that’s not what I expected … what’s going on here?”

Organizations who have become blinded by their addiction to predictive planning find themselves dismissing the unexpected as “failure to achieve results,” instead of embracing an opportunity to advance their understanding. They must unlearn old habits that encourage conformance with expectations and validation of preconceptions. They need to learn a new language in which ideas are neither “good” nor “bad”, but are merely experiments that help them test and expand their understanding.

Related Article: Don't Wait for the Innovation Lottery: A Deliberate Approach to Ideation

'We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us'

We naturally confuse confidence with competence. We tend to see what we want to believe. We have many inherent cognitive biases that prevent us from seeing the truth, even when confronted with facts. As a result, we face great challenges in truly embracing data and learning how to use it to think differently.

Skilled pilots learn to ignore their intuition when flying at night or in fog, where absence of visual cues can cause them to misinterpret their other senses that tell them they are flying level when they are really spiraling fatally downward. Instead, they learn to read data from their instruments, overriding their senses and intuition, to navigate to destinations they can’t see, safely and adaptively.

Modern organizations are faced with a similar challenge — to abandon their intuition and the false belief that they can predict the future by planning. Instead, they need to instrument their reality, gather data through a never-ending series of experiments, and learn to fly by interpreting the data that will tell them where they need to turn next. They face a huge cultural change that rejects many beliefs they hold dear. Those who can change will achieve things they never thought possible, while those who don’t will find themselves flying in a fog of false beliefs, trapped in a downwards spiral.

For more information on using empiricism to improve organizational outcomes, you may be interested in The Guide to Evidence-Based Management and An Introduction to Evidence-Based Portfolio Management.

About the author

Kurt Bittner

Kurt Bittner has more than 30 years of experience delivering working software in short, feedback-driven cycles. He has helped a wide variety of organizations adopt agile software delivery practices, including large banking, insurance, manufacturing, and retail organizations, as well as large government agencies.