Managing Remotely: A Few Tips for “MBO+”

I saw another provocative article that might be useful if you are managing people working remotely, an article by Geoffrey James. I always value pieces like this because so many managers find their job to be such a huge challenge. They are also hungry for tips, and I have a few for you from reading this piece.

The article describes “management by objectives”, or MBO, the brainchild of Peter Drucker that was widely used in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Because MBO emphasizes goals and objectives over systems and processes, it can be very effective for remote management. But if we add to MBO the principles of team management, including transparency and communication, PLUS the principles of network management such as supporting connectivity and coordination with other individuals and groups, we wind up with a management practice that could be called “MBO+”. That’s what I have also called “Management 1-2-3”. Here are the three elements of MBO+:

#1. Goals, Measures and Schedules: Establish the goals – organizational, project, and others such as regulatory and budgetary requirements – for a particular undertaking, along with the measures and schedules for progress and success to accomplish those goals and objectives. This is what the author Geoffrey James calls “precision”, i.e., “being exceedingly clear about what constitutes achievement of every goal”. Most managers are at home with these concepts and the ways to implement them.

#2. The “Performance Network of Players and Agreements”: This element is too often overlooked by managers for two reasons.  First, most managers see their organization hierarchically, as layers of Boxes that represent groups of people, connected by Lines that represent authority relationships. Managers usually see the need to manage the people in their Box, not that they must work with their Team to define and coordinate a network of interconnected individuals and groups that are sending and receiving specific products, services and communications to accomplish the specified goals. That means they need to pay attention not only to the Box that reports to them, but also to other Boxes that will play key roles in the accomplishment of the goals, measures and schedules. Some of those Boxes, such as regulators, will be outside the organization.

Second, managers also frequently misunderstand “performance” as a phenomenon that occurs “inside the Box”. As a result, they evaluate performance in terms of the activities and results of individuals and groups reporting to them, much as a professor assigns grades to her students. But “performance” means, literally, to “provide thoroughly”, which takes us in a very different direction. To look at what must be “provided” to accomplish a goal, we need to shift our attention out of the Box and into a network of connections that is uniquely designed to accomplish the specified goals and objectives. Those Lines we saw in the hierarchy of authority have now become Arrows that represent the “deliverable connections” going between Boxes: the agreements between Senders and Receivers and the direction of flow for the products, services and communications that are necessary for the accomplishment of this specific goal and its measures and schedules.

These Arrow-connections between Sender and Receiver are where “performance” happens, showing us the key deliveries between Boxes that are required for on-time goal accomplishment. Each Arrow/delivery needs to be agreed upon between the Sender and the Receiver for each goal-relevant item to be delivered. These clearly specified agreements state what will be delivered, by whom and to whom, and by when. Performance is not an evaluation of activities or results in a Box, it is the delivery on the Arrows connecting products, services and communications that move in a  “performance network” of players and agreements, which has been designed to fulfill all of the necessary requirements for achieving the goal.

#3. Tracking, Reporting and Updating: This is what Mr. James calls “monitoring progress”. This is a process for ensuring the success of the undertaking. After designing that process, there are two primary things to be tracked, reported and updated as identified in MBO+ items #1 and #2 above.

The “tracking, reporting and updating” process is the communication and accountability structure for the manager and the goal-performance Team. The manager meets with the Team regularly, not in one-to-one meetings but with the Team as a group. These meetings are conducted not to manage people, but to manage performance, i.e., to report on and discuss the status of each of the Team’s goals, measures and schedules and the status of the agreements for deliveries of all goal-relevant products, services and/or communications among participants in the performance network. The methods and responsibilities for doing the actual tracking and reporting is the first order of business for the manager and the Team.

Tracking and reporting on the progress and status of agreements and deliveries, both between the manager and the Team members and between the Team members and each of the necessary external key players, is tracking performance. Some questions that may be asked in these manager-Team meetings include:

  • What do our measures of success tell us about our current status on the fulfillment of our goal and each of its objectives?
  • How are we doing with our timelines for scheduled milestones and actions?
  • Have all necessary agreements for goal-relevant deliveries been formulated and agreed upon between the appropriate Senders and Receivers?
  • Are those agreements being honored satisfactorily?
  • Which aspects of these “ingredients” of success now need to be clarified or updated in any way?

The performance-review meetings allow the greatest possible workplace rewards available, outside of getting a giant bonus and a big promotion. They enable the manager and performance Team members to regularly revisit the “big picture” of the goal and all its moving parts, to identify what is working and not working, and to discuss what could improve performance, e.g., correct problems, address barriers and work faster, smarter and cheaper. The reward for the Team’s staying on top of the potential complexities of this network of interactions and deliverables is a sense of progress and accomplishment toward the goal of “providing thoroughly”.

Letting go of managing individuals can be difficult for some managers. So too can having regular meetings to track, report and update the multi-faceted performance status of a goal. But when these three MBO+ elements are recognized as constituting a way to ensure clarity of purpose, coordination of participants and real-time evaluation of the network’s actual performance, they become habitual aspects of workplace communications. Even if that “workplace” is scattered across a city, a nation or a globe.

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