How to Make R&D Objectives More Effective

We knew it was the right thing to do. We were not sure how to make objectives more effective for the business and easier for us.

We wanted to make this work for us as managers, so the objectives have to reside more with the employee than with the manager. Then, we wanted to know how far to put them into the future. We want the objectives to be accomplished without our constant attention. This is how we figured out the way to make objectives work in real life. To do that, we created two tools, an early objectives test and an importance test.

What Makes the Objective More Effective

To make all of this possible, we decided that we wanted a standard structure for our objectives. This caused us to define three primary requirements for a good objective:

- Requirement One, you want the employee to be able to feel ownership. That means all objectives should match a model that's easy to remember and easy to keep in your head.

- Requirement Two, you want the employee to be able to improve it without you. The objective should pass simple tests, tests that any employee can reuse without relying on you at every step.

- Requirement Three, you want the employee to take it over. The objective should be something an employee can participate in and take ownership of.

To make all of this work, we built a tool to allow easy memorization and unassisted testing. The tool in Box 2 is self testing.

The form of the tool is not important, but the tests are. A sure way to waste time is to not use them in the beginning of an assignment or when new objectives are set. If you don't have time to waste, use the tests.

The tests for a good objective are simple. To be successful any objective must have all the following characteristics:

    •  If you line up the first letters the way we have, you'll see the memory tool. Objectives must be SMART and IMPORTANT to create results.


    • We built four examples to explain how the test works.


    • One. "Quality is job one." It feels good, but it is not a very good objective. It's not very specific. It's surely not measurable, and it is not clear whether it's attainable. Resources are totally undefined, and it is not timed. In other words, since there is no time limit on the objective, it will never be done.


    • Two. Occasionally, I find a manager who gives out objectives along the lines of: "Do whatever it takes to make this happen." That's a problem for the employee. He or she can't know whether the manager really means it. Since there are going to be boundaries, (can the employee murder to achieve targets?) this statement is not specific enough. It defies measurement. It is certainly hard to attain if you haven't got a definition of the problem. How will you know when you have achieved "this?" It is not timed at all. We can't tell if it is important.


    • Three. We might ask an employee to: "Increase thermal output by 62 percent without increasing costs." It is certainly possible to say that is specific and measurable. The questions about attainable and resources are dependent on time. If increasing output by 62 percent is a one-week objective, you will need a different list of resources, and even then it may not be attainable. If it's a five-year objective, you may need fewer resources to make it attainable. The objective would pass the tests and be improved with a time boundary.


    • Four. "Bring the new system up to specs by the end of the month." That is specific, measurable, certainly attainable. The resources can be defined and quickly determined to be available or not. There is a time boundary, and it seems important.

Of these examples the last passes all tests, except possibly the last one. We started to use the model and then ran into a new problem. That was knowing what was important.

How Do You Know What Is "Important?"

Important is defined by a specific tool: success criteria. In other words, you can't really know whether something's important unless you know that it meets specific success criteria. We came up with two questions that help us explain the criteria. We asked ourselves:

  • How will whatever it is lookwhen we're done?
  • When we are done, what will we have that we didn't have before?

The answer to the second question is really what we want. If you do not know, then you have no way of telling yourself, your employees, or your colleagues what is important. If success does not make more things possible than before, or tasks easier than they were before, then why are you spending precious resources on it? Waste hurts more than budgets.

For example at IBM I worked under Jim for two years. Widely recognized to be a brilliant man, when he came in and took over the division he decided that he needed to move very aggressively in little time.

Jim hit like a whirlwind. In the first few weeks people were busy, working extra hours, feeling very proud. This pride came from the sense of activity, and from the fact they were working with somebody who was exciting and focused. At the end of a month people started bringing results back to Jim. Then morale sank.

As work came back, Jim rejected it as off target or incomplete. He repeatedly sent the staff back for rework. You could see it happening. People walked into his office very excited and charged. They walked out tired and confused.

Five months into Jim's new tenure attitudes suddenly started to transform. Energy levels increased, Jim was sending work back less and less. Without any visible reason, productivity went up, enthusiasm went way up, and Jim was getting the results he wanted almost every time somebody came into his office. He was pleased. He couldn't explain it, and didn't mind that he couldn't. He just assumed that it was because of his masterful performance as a manager.

What actually happened was something else. It started in an interview published in the fifth month. He was asked for his strategy was for the upcoming year. When he answered, it was the first time he'd told anyone what he hoped to have changed by the end of his first year.

When we read this, we knew for the first time what our success criteria would be. With this we brought the right answers to Jim. Frustration was down. We were all much happier.

Knowing what was important helped us avoid working on the wrong stuff, and that reduced the time it took to get things done. Less waste in time and other resources increased morale substantially. The division went on to put out an enormous amount of high quality material in a very short period.

Should We Set Times for Objectives to Cover a Month or A Year?

So, we started to ask: What is a good time period to measure? We quickly figured out that a year-long objective is not productive. My wife taught me this. If she asks me to clean out the garage within a year, I will probably not focus on it right away. How could I ask others for more than I am willing to do?

We succeeded by measuring objectives over short periods. We would take a long one and break it into a series of objectives that follow each other in logical order. We learned that none should be longer than six weeks. For most of us six weeks is more than long enough to get into trouble and forget our priorities.

We ran into a special case. Many objectives require someone to reach and stay at a certain performance (for example, 100 percent up-time performance.) We changed these to measure success over a small period. When you set the objective, set it to be reviewed in a specific time. Again six weeks is reasonable. Measuring and rewarding success each six weeks has the wonderful effect of reinforcing your values with little effort on your part.

Part of our responsibility as a good coach and manager is to help our people get rewards. The flip side is that you have the responsibility to immediately let them see when they miss your success criteria.

If you set short and clear time objectives, we learned that you can transfer ownership to the employee. You can reward success because it is measured. When somebody does a good job, you can help them motivate themselves by helping them recognize it. You also help him or her to realize you think the work is important. A short time limit with a specific measurement will assist you with both.

A similar article appeared in R&D Innovator in October, 1995