Optimising for Significance

It has been a couple of years since I first read John Doerr’s OKR classic Measure what Matters. You may remember my blog post at the time: There will be caveats: Warming cautiously to OKR. What I might not have mentioned then was that I very nearly didn’t read the book – I found the title quite off-putting!

My discomfort with Doerr’s title – misplaced as it turns out – is explained by a catchphrase I later coined: Meaning Before Method, one of two MBM’s which as a pair actually map very well to OKR.  In recent weeks I’ve read (or rather listened to) the book once more and enjoyed it. As for the title, more accurate but less catchy would be Measure things predictive of success in your clear and audacious objectives, taking care to preserve meaning. No issue with that!

I took the trouble this time to follow up on one of Doerr’s few references, in particular Dov Seidman’s How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything (another being former Intel chief Andy Grove’s High Output Management, which I am still to read). This early quote grabbed me, emphasis mine:

Think of it as a shift from valuing size to valuing significance. Conversations about “how much” constantly echo throughout business, politics, and our personal lives: How much revenue can we squeeze into this quarter? How much debt can we tolerate? How much growth can we generate? How big should government be? But “How much?” and “How big?” aren’t the right questions. Instead we should be asking how we can create organizations and societies that mirror our deepest values.

The expanded edition did feel a little long but I was rewarded for holding on until the end (emphasis his this time):

Before we part company, I want to leave you with one more paradox, the paradox of success, and it’s a corollary to the paradox of happiness. You cannot do success; you cannot achieve it by pursuing it directly. Success is something you get when you pursue something greater than yourself, and the word I use to describe that something is significance. All measures of success share one commonality: They signify the value of your passage through life. You can go on a journey of significance—a journey to do, make, extend, create, and support value in the world; and I believe, in the spirit of the Johnson & Johnson Credo, it is this journey that should bring you success, however you measure it.

Pursuing significance, in the end, is the ultimate how.

I talk quite a bit about meaning in work and I am resolved now to do the same with significance. Noting that close colleagues can vary hugely on the meaning they draw from their work (for some the craft, for some the challenge, for others the meeting of needs, for example), I should say that I don’t believe that anyone has the right to dictate how others draw meaning from their work. Helping them find it though, that’s another matter – it’s one bullet of my three-bullet summary definition of Servant Leadership (see the last chapter of my book Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile). Moreover, if leaders aren’t articulating credibly the significance of the work and encouraging others to explore and even challenge it – well that’s definitely a problem.

If optimising for value is a dead end (I can’t be alone in finding much of what is said in Agile circles about value delivery to be empty or even dysfunctional), perhaps we should be optimising instead for significance, expecting meaning (and other good things) to follow. I have a hunch that it’s going to be fun finding out what that really means.

What if we put authentic agreement on meaningful outcomes ahead of solutions?

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#2MBM: After strategy and ideation, operation

Excellent response to last week’s #2MBM: Meaning before Metric, Measure before Method! Before the main business of this post, a couple of updates:

  1. In the interests of referenceability (if that’s a word) I’ve since given it a url: agendashift.com/2mbm (as shown in the image below) redirects to agendashift.com/frameworks/patterns/2mbm
  2. In the patterns pages, I’ve incorporated 2MBM into the definition of Right to Left:

    Right to Left: Ends before means, outcomes before solutions, and the two MBMs – meaning before metric and measure before method (2MBM)


Last week’s post was about keeping metrics in their proper place with respect to strategy and ideation. This one is about the use of metrics as the strategy swings into action, the ideas continue to flow, and so on.

I’ve hinted already that you probably want a multiplicity of metrics. Chapter 5 of Right to Left gives some suggestions, and they’re organised by the layers of the outside-in strategy review, or OI-SR (as practiced in the Wholehearted:OKR workshop and as supported by the free OI-SR template):

  1. Customer: Customer satisfaction; helpdesk calls and hours spent on them; customer complaints, endorsements, and reviews; user growth and retention
  2. Organisation: Financial metrics, progress against relevant organisational objectives, and so on
  3. Product: Usage analytics; funnel metrics; market comparisons
  4. Platform: System performance and capacity metrics (along with plans to keep capacity ahead of anticipated demand – another good reason for the outside-in review); new capabilities and capabilities under development
  5. Team: Lead time distribution, throughput, and work in progress; quality metrics (defects escaped to production, for example); data on blockers and their impact; staffing levels; skill distribution and development

That’s quite a long list, beyond the capacity of most people to maintain on their own, and to be clear, they’re only suggestions. Both to make it practical and to help avoid the oppressive imposition of metrics:

  • Each layer is represented by one or two people (two being preferable, creating mentoring opportunities and making it easier to broaden the range of seniorities involved in the meeting overall), each closely identified with their respective layer(s)
  • The choice of which metrics will be presented is theirs (and by extension, their respective team’s¹); the meeting’s facilitator can coordinate across layers to help ensure good coverage

In the outside-in service delivery review (OI-SDR), those layers define the top-level agenda. The sequence helps to expose any misalignment between what we’re trying to achieve and the work we’re actually doing – not just within each layer but with respect to what’s been heard already. Within each layer, we go right to left:

  • A narrative update that includes an affirmation of we’re trying to achieve
  • What this layer’s metrics seem to be telling us
  • What has been learned from our experiments completed since last time
  • What experiments we currently have up and running and what we hope to learn
  • What’s in the pipeline

I was asked in a meetup last night what I would do if I could implement only one thing. Five years ago, I might have answered with “Validation”; today, my answer is the OI-SDR. It’s a piece of deliberate organisation design, building in the strong organisational expectation that learning will be happening – learning about our customers and learning about ourselves. An opportunity for double loop learning. And to do it justice, you’ll soon be practicing validation anyway!

Find out more

The OI-SR and OI-SDR are described in chapter 5 of Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile. Available in the usual places and (since May) as an audiobook.

Check out the workshops pages also – not just for Wholehearted:OKR and other strategy workshops but also for Implementing your OI-SDR among the short training workshops.

¹ ‘Circle‘ might be a better word than ‘team’ here. I’m alluding to Sociocracy, and that’s  covered in Right to Left chapter 6.

Related posts:

Upcoming public workshops


August, Julia Wester stepping in:


The Agendashift events calendar always has the latest public workshops – watch this space for another (and updated) Wholehearted:OKR – and visit the workshops page if you’re considering doing something privately – chances are we have something of interest.

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#2MBM: Meaning before Metric, Measure before Method

In the models-sources-inspirations picture shared in the  June roundup earlier this week you may have noticed one or more less-than famous acronyms upper right. I did leave a breadcrumb or two, but as was my plan all along, let me spell them out.


The newest acronym – just days old – is 2MBM. From the patterns page (the Right to Left link points to my book/audiobook of that name):

Right to Left: ends before means, outcomes before solutions, and the two MBMs – meaning before metric and measure before method (2MBM)

MBM 1: Meaning before metric

I’ve been using this one for a while. Some clues here in From Reverse STATIK to a ‘Pathway’ for continuous transformation (October 2019):

This [understanding fitness for purpose] is OK as far as it goes, but the faster it turns … into a conversation about metrics, the less time anyone spends actually exploring purpose. If I’m honest, this part leaves me a little cold … .

My real concern here is with a common behaviour: consultants and other practitioners leading too hard with a favourite metric. My advice: whether they’re pushing lead time, velocity, or NPS, if they’re not also demonstrating an interest in connecting deeply with your purpose, politely show them the door.

More reason to trust your instincts when you feel yourself go cold at the mention of metrics is when they’re imposed as targets. It’s when OKR (Objectives and Key Results) turns into MBO (Management by Objectives), and there’s a reason why the latter is discredited, disowned by its creator (Drucker). Particularly when they’re tied to compensation and advancement, imposed targets inspire creativity of the wrong kind, too-clever ways to meet the goal. In a word: dysfunction.

MBM 2: Measure before method

So…  metrics are bad? No! As we’ll see in a moment they can be a source of healthy creativity if explored at the right time. If the first MBM translates to “not too early”, then the second translates to “not too late”. In fact, there’s “too late”, and then there’s “way too late”:

  • “Too late”: having a solution idea and then coming up with the metrics that it is likely to impact, justifying it on that basis
  • “Way too late”: implementing a solution idea and looking for benefits afterwards

Not so much alignment as post hoc rationalisation, severely limiting the likelihood of any real learning taking place, and missing some vital input into the ideation process.

To illustrate that last point, here’s how we now teach it in Agendashift:

  1. Reacquaint ourselves with the outcome we’ve chosen to work on (remember that with us it’s “outcomes all the way down” and we haven’t even got to the bottom of that stack yet) with Challenge Mapping
  2. Having explored around it, identify a list of success indicators for that outcome
  3. With the conversations of steps 1 and 2 still in the air, generate solution ideas
  4. Select the fantastic option, the one most likely to significantly outperform – relative to the others and disproportionately (non-linearly) relative to its cost and risk


And finally to two more of the acronyms on my picture (plus a bonus).

Karl Scotland‘s TASTE stands for True north, Aspirations, Strategies, Tactics, and Evidence. What we’ve known for a while – in the Agendashift material we have deliberately made this a two-part exercise to emphasise this point – is to leave Tactics until last. Cross-referencing them in an X-Matrix, we’re asking this question:

  • Inspired by and aligning to our True north, what Tactics (collectively) will support our Strategies and deliver the Evidence of success we hope for? (Aspirations are already correlated with Strategies and Evidence at this point)

Larry Maccherone‘s ODIM stands for Objectives, Decisions, Insights, and Metrics. One creative way to think of it is in behavioural terms:

  • For this objective to be achieved, what will people need to do differently? If that involves them making different decisions, what in their immediate environment will guide those? What then do we need to measure?

In the latest iteration of the Wholehearted:OKR workshop we use TASTE when we’re exploring alignment between levels, a way to build coherence at scale. ODIM is introduced near ideation time (previously it came too early, reducing its impact – no pun intended).

One last credit: I took “Measure” and “Method” come from Salesforce’s management process V2MOM:

  1. Vision— what do you want to achieve?
  2. Values — what’s important to you?
  3. Methods — how do you get it?
  4. Obstacles — what is preventing you from being successful?
  5. Measures — how do you know you have it?

Type 1 MBM but not (as presented here) type 2. Still, it starts in the right kind of place, and for that I’m glad. Thank you Steve Pereira and Tom Kerwin for an interesting Twitter conversation.

Followup post:

Related posts:

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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Doing Agendashift online (4 of n): Ideal, Obstacles, Outcomes (IdOO)

The time to take a close look at 1) your strategy and 2) your ways of working is now. You need to do those together – integrated, wholeheartedly, no half measures. The place to do it is online. We’re here to help you.

This is #4 in a series of unspecified length, covering ways you can do Agendashifty things online (we have plenty of practice). And here, we really get to the heart of things.

Followers of this blog will know that 15-minute FOTO is our Clean Language-inspired coaching game, one of the highlights of any Agendashift workshop. You might even have guessed that this would be the 15-minute FOTO installment. You’re not wrong exactly, but first let’s see it in context.

Here it is in the Discovery session of the classic Core, Applied, or Deep Dive workshop, chapter 1 of the Agendashift book:


Same workshops, same book, but session/chapter 2, Exploration:


And now the Wholehearted:OKR workshop, different book (Right to Left), and the session Outside-in review (I):


And session Outside-in review (II):


Even if 1) the slides didn’t give the game away already and 2) I told you that there are two different flavours of 15-minute FOTO here and that sometimes we use a different tool entirely, you’d have no trouble recognising that there’s a pattern here.

I’m calling that pattern IdOO:


Doing IdOO online

See the past installment 2. Celebration-5W to understand how we facilitate online at least one of the ways we can can establish some business context ahead of any reflection.

See 3. The assessments for how participants prioritise the assessment prompts on which they will reflect. For Discovery, it’s even simpler: just share the Agendashift True North (see the Resources section below).

Then (and you’ll find these questions in the True North deck):

  • When this is working at its ideal best for you, what’s that like?
  • And when that’s happening, what new stories could you tell?

Those questions work really well 1-2-4-All style as described in the assessments installment – individual silent reflections followed by pairwise, table group, and debrief conversations (a good test of your breakout room skills if you’re using Zoom).

That’s IdOO’s Ideal reflection part done. Easy!

To identify Obstacles:

  • What stops that? What gets in the way?

(See also The language of outcomes: 2. Framing obstacles)

Again, that’s straightforward enough. And again, 1-2-4-All works really well, except that this time those obstacles will need to be captured somehow when the conversation gets to table group level. Google Docs works great, but you’ll want to get documents set up and distributed ahead of time.

To generate Outcomes, you could just ask these questions with respect to the obstacles just captured:

  • What would you like to have happen? (or your favourite equivalent)
  • Then what happens? (asked a few times perhaps)

Even online, that’s temptingly easy. That would however be a huge opportunity missed. Instead of you asking the questions, how about your participants coach each other? That’s what 15-minute FOTO does, and both editions of the game (Lite and Classic) have versions specifically tailored for online use.

In some ways the online version is more efficient, with everyone joining in to help with the scribe’s task of capturing outcomes, clients as well as coaches able to refer to the notes (these roles rotate by the way). Especially if you’re facilitating it for the first time, don’t be afraid to join in – the Lite edition in particular includes a familiarisation phase.

Next time (not Monday, it being Easter) we’ll look at different ways those generated outcomes can be organised online.


All of these are open source (CC-BY-SA):

Become a partner for both the integrated workshop materials and the ability to administer the assessments described in the previous installment.

And the two books:

Upcoming online workshops

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If you knew where to look, the clues were already there: the Impact! workshop was only the first addition to a growing new family of workshops. I am thrilled now to announce Wholehearted:OKR, not only the Agendashiftiest of OKR workshops and the OKRiest of Agendashift workshops, the most wholehearted too! Of all our workshops, Wholehearted:OKR delivers the most complete realisation of our wholehearted mission, demonstrating how to create opportunities for:

  • Authentic engagement on issues that matter
  • Meaningful participation across strategy, development, and delivery
  • Anticipating and meeting needs
  • Leadership around outcomes (each inviting the other)

Wholehearted:OKR is 2-day strategy workshop that uses the Agendashift Outside-in Strategy Review (OI-SR) as described in chapter 5 of Right to Left both to understand and to introduce Objectives and Key Results (OKR). Get the benefits of OKR, avoid its dysfunctions, and begin to see your organisation differently.

It’s 100% ready to roll, and I can honestly say that I’ve rarely been so pleased with the version 1 of anything. Huge credit therefore to partners Karl Scotland, Steven Mackenzie, and guest contributor Mike Haber who joined me in London for the design meeting, and to Kjell Tore Guttormsen and Teddy Zetterlund for their pioneering work with two of Wholehearted:OKR’s forerunners, the generic OI-SR and the Impact! workshop.

Kjell Tore will be a co-facilitator with me at the workshop’s public debut in Oslo; it’s likely that Karl, Steven, and Mike will join me in London. Book your place now:

Both of the new workshops are designed for both public and private use. If you’re interested in holding a Wholehearted:OKR workshop privately, let me repeat an offer already made to some of my clients: 20% off for any workshop held in January, and 10% off for any booked by the end of that month for delivery at some agreed later date. Perfect for kicking off not just the new year but a new decade!


Amid the excitement around Wholehearted:OKR it’s easy to forget that we haven’t even reached the public debuts for the Impact! workshop yet. Not long to go though – these take place 10 days apart in February, in Tampa, FL and London, UK:


Upcoming workshops – Tampa, London (*2), Gurugram, Malmö, Oslo (*2)

(See also our workshops and events pages)

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There will be caveats: Warming cautiously to OKR

From the Agendashift Slack a few days ago:

Early morning crazy thoughts spoken out loud:
Wholehearted: bringing OKRs to life with Agendashift
A workshop based on and expanded from edited highlights of the core Agendashift workshop and the outside-in strategy review

Why “crazy thoughts”? The background: we’ve been discussing Objectives and Key Results (OKR) [1] in multiple corners of the Agendashift Slack in recent weeks (channels #wholehearted-x, #bookclub, and #strategy) and I didn’t hide my nervousness.  Isn’t OKR just Management by Objectives (MBO) rebranded, with all the dysfunction [2] that goes with it?

To cut a long story short (two books later), it’s clear now that Agendashift  – outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation [3, 4, 5] – and OKR are a great fit – so great that they almost seem made for each other. As recently as this week, Karl Scotland blogged about the combination (more accurately he blogged about Agendashift and 4DX, but the distinction isn’t that important):

I do still have reservations. It was – shall we say – an interesting experience reading (or listening to) Doerr [6] and Wodtke [7]. Good books both, but page after page (hour after hour) my frustration would grow before my concerns would finally be acknowledged. Given the acknowledged risks, it seems clear to me now that OKR has something in common with Agile process frameworks: how you approach the framework matters very much more than the choice of framework itself. Depending on your point of view you may find that thought helpfully subversive, heretical, or commonsense; as for me, I’ve staked my career on it.

So to my caveats. Coming from where I’m coming from, they’re significant enough that they should treated not as footnotes but up front as design principles. OKRs must be:

  1. Respectful of diversity and autonomy at individual and team level
  2. Agreed through meaningful participation
  3. Executed knowing the difference between implementation and experimentation

Caveat 1: Respectful of diversity and autonomy at individual and team level

An objection sometimes laid at the door of OKR is that it’s all about alignment, and that the goal of alignment is to bring about some kind of monoculture. I reject this as a strawman argument; the goal of OKR is to provide enough direction that the organisation isn’t destroying its ability to get things done because its different parts keep pulling in opposing directions. For most organisations, too much alignment would be a nice problem to have, and address that very common issue well, great things can happen. In practice, key results (the KR part of OKR) aren’t long lasting (they work in timeframes ranging from days to months), and even many objectives (the O part) don’t last for more than a quarter; good luck creating a monoculture that quickly!

That argument dismissed, it’s worth remembering that OKR is a tool for strategy deployment [8], not operations management, and it’s explicit that existing operations must continue to perform well even as they undergo change. Resilient operations in an unpredictable world depends on diversity (you need to be ready to respond in different ways to respond as both conditions and internal designs change), and only a fool would seek to destroy options for the sake of consistency. Technically, we’re in the world of Ashby’s law of requisite variety [9]; colloquially, power is where the options are. If you can, why not create that power everywhere?

But that’s just the technical argument. Take away from people and teams their ability to create and exercise options and you destroy their autonomy. With that you destroy their engagement – and then it’s game over if what you need is their energy and creativity. So how then is strategy deployment meant to work?

Caveat 2: Agreed through meaningful participation

The textbook answer to this conundrum is that OKR works both top down and bottom up. Some objectives come from on high, with lower levels defining their own objectives and key results to suit. Others bubble up, high level objectives somehow summarising (blessing?) what needs to happen lower down.

I’ve long since abandoned this “Top down vs bottom up? It’s both!” thing. It’s a cop out that does little to help the inexperienced manager and may put even the experienced manager in a bind; small wonder that middle managers can be a miserable bunch (I’ve been one, so I know). Middle out is no help either; as with the iron triangle, it’s time to recognise that these metaphors make little sense in open-ended and high feedback contexts. Also, they are hierarchical in a way that’s quite unnecessary, and clinging to them just gets in the way.

My answer – and it comes from an area where Agendashift excels – lies in participation: facilitating challenging and meaningful conversations about obstacles and outcomes (and progress thereon), making sure that they take place frequently both within and between strategy, development, and delivery, and have diversity of representation in terms of both functional responsibility and seniority. In place of top-down imposition, authentic agreement on outcomes becomes the basis for change. Where in the past innovation and intelligence would become increasingly diluted and distorted as news passed up the chain, now we create frequent opportunity for rapid and informed responses.

Of my two most recent books, authentic agreement on outcomes is a key theme of Agendashift. My latest book, Right to Left [10] explores the implications for organisation design and leadership in much greater depth, in the final two chapters most especially.

Caveat 3: Executed knowing the difference between implementation and experimentation

A common lightbulb moment for participants in Agendashift workshops comes when we organise outcomes using the Cynefin Four Points Contextualisation exercise. We dare not speak its name up front – it rather spoils the surprise – so we go by the pseudonym “Option approach mapping” initially [11]:


The key insight is that not all outcomes are alike. Easily recognised (and all shades and combinations in between these extremes):

  • Some are uncontroversial and don’t need digging into, regardless of whether they’re to be done right away or kept for another day
  • Some you’re confident can be achieved reliably, but first they will need to be broken down by someone who knows what they’re doing
  • Others can be approached in different ways, but no single approach (or combination thereof) is guaranteed to deliver the outcome in its entirety; consequently we’re in the land of iteration and experimentation
  • Sometimes, where to start and even who to ask is beyond current knowledge

Reading/listening to OKR’s fascination with stretch goals, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing in question with each one is whether we can do it in the time we’ve set for ourselves. If that’s your only hypothesis, much opportunity for learning – about customer needs as much as organisation capability or technical possibility – will be missed. Moreover, choosing a sequential approach when an iterative one is needed (or vice versa) is a costly mistake to make – costly not only in time and money but in reputations too. The books do get there in the end, but honestly, I feel they could do a lot better. For some balance on issues of complexity, I’d suggest pairing Doerr with McChrystal [12], and Wodtke (which seems to be aimed at the startup community) with a good Lean Startup book, of which my favourite is Maurya’s [13].

So what are we left with?

Ten years ago I saw my employer, UBS, nearly destroyed by the scandalously ill-chosen, ill-managed, and under-informed pursuit of the wrong goals (the recommendations of a benchmarking exercise conducted by a big name consultancy), so I speak from the heart here. But I’m not warning you against OKR – in all honesty I’m really warming to it.

My caveats take nothing away, because I don’t think I’ve said anything contrary to the literature, albeit that it takes a long time getting round to it. So a few pointers:

  • Find groups of people – let’s call them circles –  who share (or should share) some common objectives. Give them the opportunity to explore thoroughly their landscape of obstacles and outcomes, decide what’s important, and set some priorities. Agendashift is the manual on that! Expect them to track progress and revisit both their understanding and (accordingly) their plans on appropriate cadences.
  • Look for overlaps between circles, and where they don’t (a single manager isn’t enough), delegate people into the intersections. Not only will the conversations here be a lot more interesting and challenging, but we’re very obviously creating opportunities for both alignment and mutual accountability. A wider organisation listening not just for progress but for learning here will be sending a powerful message (not to mention learning itself – if it’s listening).
  • Metrics can be great, but don’t reduce it all to numbers. I’d argue that the “Measure what matters” in the title of Doerr’s book is a little misleading – certainly it deterred me for a while! Moreover, and as Doerr rightly emphasises, it would be a catastrophic mistake to connect OKRs with individual compensation (Drucker’s plausible but ultimately disastrous error with MBO).

If you’ve read Right to Left, you’ll know where the above comes from. If you haven’t, put it on your list. Doerr, Wodtke, and my recommended pairings too! Mercifully, mine isn’t too long, so you might want to start there 🙂

[1] Objectives and key results (OKR) (wikipedia.org)
[2] Management by Objectives, Arguments against (wikipedia.org)
[3] About Agendashift™ (agendashift.com)
[4] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (2018)
[5] Agendashift partner programme
[6] Measure What Matters: OKRs – The Simple Idea that Drives 10x Growth, John Doerr (2018)
[7] Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results, Christine Wodtke (2016)
[8] What is Strategy Deployment (availagility.co.uk)
[9] Variety (Cybernetics) (wikipedia.org)
[10] Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile (2019)
[11] Agendashift in 12 icons
[12] Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General Stanley McChrystal et al (2015)
[13] Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works, Ash Maurya (2012)

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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