Building Strategy Via Questions


One of the criticisms leveled against OKRs (Objective and Key Results) as a means to steer an organization’s activities is that the jump from an objective to measurable key results can be pretty arbitrary.

In Business frameworks can't replace thinking, I explored this problem and offered some ways to help steer that difficult jump.

Roger Martin characterized the issue by saying

Desire is not a strategy.

The whole idea is to have measurable key results to demonstrate the objective is met. But the procedure of defining key results based on a chosen objective can be opaque to the point of looking arbitrary: mere desire, as Martin says.

Lee Fischman offers this example of such a leap of faith. Imagine you are working for the State of Minnesota on a plan to elevate the State’s innovation ecosystem. You might wind up with something like this using the OKRs approach:

Figure 1 - Objectives and Key Results

While these are measurable key results, how were they arrived at? What thinking preceded selecting these three KRs, and no others? Why “Top 5”? Why 25%? Why aren’t they time-bound? Can they actually be accomplished?

I am a great believer in asking questions to get at the heart of issues. Crafting the right questions can circumscribe problems quickly, and — in a real sense — finding plausible answers to strategic questions helps to meet Rumelt’s definition of strategy:

Despite the roar of voices equating strategy with ambition, leadership, vision, or planning, strategy is none of these. Rather, it is coherent action backed by an argument. And the core of the strategist’s work is always the same: discover the crucial factors in a situation and design a way to coordinate and focus actions to deal with them.

And the best way to discover those factors is to ask a lot of questions.

There is a technique that I have used that uses questions to triangulate toward focused actions to then coordinate and focus action to effect a strategic goal. The technique is known as GQM, for Goals, Questions, and Metrics. How does it work?

You start with a Goal, for example, Make Minnesota's innovation ecosystem a national leader.

Lee Fischman provides this case for the power of questions:

Why is asking questions so worthwhile? Look at the example above and notice how the Key Results are basically arbitrary. Presumably, some research was done to justify them, but it isn’t obvious. By contrast, GQM questions are intended to be a fairly complete inquiry into the Goal. Because of their completeness, GQM’s questions help you stay focused on what matters.

His first-order GQM for that Goal looks like this:

figure 2 — Goals and Questions

First of all, this GQM involves a great deal more questions, thereby getting more into the meat of the makeup of an ‘innovation ecosystem’. However, in the eagerness to get to quantifiable metrics, this analysis seems to conceal considerable earlier questioning. For example, why select these metrics and not others?

My bet is that a great deal of work precedes a list of quantifiable questions like these. Consider them categorical questions, the sort that might be raised in a brainstorming activity. Here’s an example:

This canvas captures a number of deep questions about the strategic goal, like ‘how to define a national leader in innovation?’ as opposed to just jumping to a hypothetical metric. My sense is the sort of canvas that might come out of an initial set of questions, but where not all have been answered, like the various quantifiable questions. Maybe other States use different metrics, and research should be directed toward finding those factors out.

And this implies an ongoing learning loop, so the hypothetical staffer doing the research would be refining the mindmap and the quantifiable questions.

At some point in this scenario, the research will have been done, the data assessed and arrayed, and then — and only then — measurable results can be defined. The answers to the categorical questions become the next tier. For example, it might be the case that — based on what other leading States have done — it is possible, but ambitious, to increase Minnesota’s innovation-related events and conferences by 25% in the following two years after launching the project. Likewise, research might show that innovation-related job postings follow the founding or relocation of startups and innovation partnerships, so the focus shouldn’t be on the job postings, but on creating more innovative start-ups and initiatives, and setting a growth target for that.

Those sorts of analyses are needed to move beyond ungrounded desire toward Rumelt’s end state:

Discover the crucial factors in a situation and design a way to coordinate and focus actions to deal with them.

So the takeaway is that GQM is a means to lay bare all the unexplored territory between an objective and the key results needed to determine success.

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