Growing Leaders Through Participatory Goal-Setting

Jean Barmash

CTO at Apprentice.io



Towards the end of the year, to plan for next year, I ran a goal-setting exercise that turned out very well. My organization at the time was about four teams, total of about 15 engineers. I wanted us to think about what we can do better next year.
I wanted the goal-setting to be a bottoms up exercise. This was for several reasons - to get better buy in and also to enable my engineer's creativity. Ultimately, I wanted most of my people to have some area they were working to make better - to take initiative and own something outside of their primary duties.

Actions taken

When designing the exercises, I wanted to strike the balance between focusing on solving existing problems, and also finding a way to create some aspirational goals that would lead us to new levels of performance. We did it over two half-days in a large conference rooms. The first half-day I asked four questions:

  • What is important for us to be good at next year?
  • What are the things that are slowing us down?
  • What is preventing us from being better?
  • Why will people want to join us next year? (This question was more about understanding cultural values of my team, less about setting goals). For each question I had people think of answers, and write them on sticky notes for about 5 or 10 minutes. At the end of each question, I had everybody read out the ideas they came up with, and I grouped them together into common themes that were emerging.
    At the end of the first day, I took all the sticky notes, put the content into a spreadsheet with counts, and from that, extracted six high-level improvement goals for my organization. Some of the goals:
  • Improve our technical expertise
  • Ensure we understand the business and our users better
  • Recruit and quickly onboard many new team members
  • Don't forget to spend time together and have fun On day two, I presented the goals and made sure they rang true to my team. After that I asked each engineer to pick an area they were especially interested in, and we broke out into groups to brainstorm ideas / projects / processes we could do to meet those goals. From there, we got some great ideas, and also people were passionate about bringing them into reality. For example, one idea was to create an SDK to call some APIs, another a program to have regular contact with our users, a third one was a series of workshops to teach out frontend developers some backend concepts.

Lessons learned

  • The results were great; people were excited to drive the improvements themselves. They appreciated having autonomy to identify problems and solutions. The structure gave everybody a chance to own something while ultimately growing our ability to deliver over medium-to-long term. Some ideas spread beyond my organization to the larger engineering team.
  • Each project or initiative had one or more owners that would be responsible for proposing the idea and explaining what was needed to make it happen.
  • I gently nudged some people towards projects I felt were aligned with their growth goals.
  • In my role as sponsor of these projects, I worked with the point people on the initiatives to think through the program, create some boundaries (i.e time we could spend for certain initiatives in any given month), work with other departments where needed, and fit them into schedule.
  • Because we had almost everybody participate, and the projects were in very different areas (improving onboarding vs implementing a new developer tool), that allowed us to tackle multiple things at the same time.
  • Not all people executed projects at the same time, in practice some projects were more impactful, or some people had more availability, which affected scheduling. Some projects were to create ongoing processes or programs, vs others were more one-time improvements (e.g. creating the SDK example).
  • In retrospect, six goals are too many. Once I came up with the six things I heard the first day, I should have asked my people to prioritize the top three goals for us to focus on. We could always redefine priorities in a quarter of half. This is what ended up happening anyway.
  • These initiatives and projects enabled me to create a common language within my people about leadership and skill growth. It also helped reinforce that leadership is about seeing opportunities and taking initiative. Anybody can be a leader, even without formal management title.

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Jean Barmash

CTO at Apprentice.io

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