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Connecting the Dots: From Vision to Execution
Getting everyone playing beautiful music together
Vision → Mission → Strategy → OKRs → Priorities → Execution → Accountability
Every company, team, and product needs a clear vision. That vision should translate to mission and strategy, which should then link to specific Outcomes and Key Results (OKRs). This should in turn lead to prioritization, which should naturally align with your execution. For this process to happen correctly, there must be accountability on an individual level. A well-run team or product is like a well-conducted orchestra: Everyone is playing the same music to the same beat. While the musicians and their instruments are individually excellent, they are also an integral part of the whole, which is the key to playing a beautiful symphony. In the same way, a successful team combines the work of many individuals in service to a common goal.
Everything starts with a vision. A vision is the “where”: the destination the company is heading toward. Imagine you have to describe what your company, team, or product will be when you reach full success. What does that look like? When I arrived at Ancestry, together we updated our vision to ensure that it would last for the next decade of work we do together.
A vision is how you want the world to change as a result of the work you do. A company with a clear vision ensures that everything unfolds and flows from that central goal. As you read the vision statements below, you might notice that they are so large and all-encompassing that they likely can never be achieved. But that’s the point. The work is never quite done. The fact that there may never be a world without poverty isn’t a reason to stop pursuing that ideal. Similarly, a far-reaching vision is motivation to keep striving for a better world.
LinkedIn: Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce
Nike: Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world (and if you have a body, you are an athlete)
Habitat for Humanity: Create a world where everyone has a decent place to live
Oxfam: Create a just world without poverty
A mission statement is the action, the “verb”. It is the way the company will go about achieving its vision. It is a call to action for an organization and a way to rally teams. While the vision is the destination, the mission is the path to that destination.
TED: Spread ideas
Kickstarter: Help bring creative projects to life
Google: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful
Human Rights Watch: Defend the rights of people worldwide
The strategy is the next level of detail stemming from the vision and mission. It refers to the “who” and the “how”. While two companies could share a vision or a mission, who they choose to serve, and how they choose to serve them, is the approach that sets them apart. A great strategy includes both a narrative and a roadmap describing how to get from where you are to where you want to go, and for whom you are doing this work. I’ve written more on this in my post, Best Practices for Developing a Product Strategy.
Objectives and Key Results (OKR)
OKRs are split into two parts:
The Objective is the high-level and often inspirational goal you want to achieve over time.
The Key Results are how you will know you have achieved it. These are time-bound and quantitative.
One mistake companies often make is to have too many OKRs. They want every team to have a line item, and thus they become too complex or detailed to remember. OKRs should be easily recitable by every single member of the company; for this reason, you should limit yourself to a list of three or four.
Each objective should have one clear and memorable key result to define success. For example, if the goal is growing user engagement, it matters to have a common definition of what kind of engagement you’re looking for. Are you trying to optimize daily sessions or time spent? Are you looking at deepening engagement or broadening growth? The phrase “user engagement” can mean many things, so having a clear metric is critical to alignment. This allows everyone to envision how their work ladders up to the company’s overall goals. A great set of OKRs allows every team to “write themselves into the story,” as Mike Linton, the Ancestry Chief Revenue Officer, likes to say.
Many companies think that OKRs are enough, but they are often still too high-level to enable specific teams in a larger organization to align their work. Thus, each group should have clear priorities. When I joined Ancestry, I worked with our Product & Technology (P&T) teams to design our Product Priorities. We started by examining user problems through user research, Member Services feedback, and data insights. This led us to our first priority: “Make the tech invisible.” This is an unusual choice, but we wanted to focus first and foremost on common issues users were encountering, including bugs, site speed, and reliability.
Priorities are must-haves for achieving your vision, mission, and OKRs. Stack-ranked based on importance, they define the boundaries of what you want to achieve over the coming years. Areas outside of these should be reviewed for reprioritization or stopped altogether.
Execution is the day-to-day work that teams do. There was a poster that I loved during my time at Facebook — it had a picture of a rocking horse on it, along with the caption, “Don’t Mistake Motion for Progress.” Often, we think of execution as completing tasks, checking off to-dos, and getting things moving. But in what direction are they moving?
Aligned execution moves things forward, but marching in a circle or going in different directions can create more work than progress. Ensuring that each part of the work being executed aligns with your priorities, ladders up to your OKRs, and ultimately serves the company vision is crucial. Each team should take a critical look at their work plans and roadmaps and think about how they fit into the larger whole. Anything that is not aligned should be reprioritized or canceled. A company that does a tremendous amount of execution on the wrong things only ends up reducing motivation and burning out its employees.
As important as they are, vision and strategy don’t mean much without alignment among all employees. This is where accountability comes in. Each individual must clearly consider how the work they do every day contributes to the greater whole, starting with priorities, then OKRs, and finally strategy, mission, and vision. Accountability is about impact. Is every person working toward the same thing?
When someone is working in an area that is unclear or misaligned, it is not the fault of the individual, but rather a failure on the part of leaders, processes, and the company at large. Ensuring a clear cascade from vision to individual accountability allows everyone to understand their goals and work in areas that make a positive impact.
Imagine you go to a concert where there is a wonderful strings section making beautiful music. Beside them, there is a woodwinds section playing its heart out. The brass and percussion sections are filled with world-class musicians. If they are all playing in the same key and at the same tempo, you experience the beauty of a hundred musicians creating a unified sound.
Now imagine one section is half a beat off. The sound goes from a symphony to a cacophony. Alignment can be the difference between order and disarray, between inelegance and beauty, and between chaos and success.