Alice Newton-Rex is Chief Product Officer at WorldRemit, leading the company’s product and design teams. She joined the fintech company as its first product manager when it was a small start-up, and has run product there for the last five years. She studied at Cambridge and Harvard, and had her first few experiences in the mobile health market. She then worked for various tech projects for the UK Ministry of Justice and the Government Digital Service. She is also a member of Tech City UK’s Fintech Delivery Panel and Board Trustee for Local Welcome, a charity that connects Syrian refugees with local residents.
We all know that having a sense of direction can really help teams remain cohesive and push hard. Here, Alice will explain what are the key principles that sustain effective goal-setting. Check it out!
Empowering and motivating a team around a common set of goals is the key to building a successful product—but where do you start?
Setting the right goals is hard. You have to define your product strategy, consider your product lifecycle, and understand the product user and broader business context.
Make goals outcome-focused and measurable
These are the most fundamental, but often ignored, principles of goal setting: your goals should be focused on outcomes, not outputs, and they should be measurable. I’ve spoken about this at more length elsewhere, but essentially, you should focus on the outcome you’re trying to achieve (e.g. help customers sign up in half the time) not the output you’re trying to deliver (e.g. ship new sign-up flow on website).
Otherwise, you could churn out features without actually making anything better for your users or your business. The outcome has to be measurable, or you won’t know whether you’ve met it or not.
You’ve got the team fully focused on achieving a measurable, outcome-based goal. So what could go wrong, now? You might find that focusing on your goal has unintended consequences. For example, at WorldRemit, a quick way to meet a goal of increasing the number of customers who make a transfer with us would be to dial down our fraud controls, but this would have the negative effect of increasing financial losses.
It can help to set boundaries with a goal such as:
“We want to increase the number of first time users who make a transfer with us by X, while keeping fraud below X%.”
Using this framework helps you open up a conversation about the trade-offs that might be involved in hitting a goal, and which ones you aren’t willing to make.
Watch your environment
Watch out for external factors that can influence the outcome you’re targeting. It can be really disheartening when all your hard work has been side-lined by forces beyond your control. The best way to understand risks that might impact whether or not you are successful is to pay close attention to historical data.
Sometimes you may find that a metric has moved in a way that doesn’t match up to expectations based on recent product improvements, or a shift is taking place when you haven’t yet changed anything at all. These phenomena sometimes come down to a ‘mix’ question.
In an international business like WorldRemit, this might be the mix of customers from different countries. Once, for example, one of our teams chose a goal of improving customer satisfaction on our app, measured by NPS. But after a few months, despite some great product work, NPS seemed to be moving up or down at random.
Diving into the data, we found that this metric was being heavily influenced by the proportion of our customers from countries which persistently give high NPS scores (😀 Canadians) or those that give more conservative scores (😐 Japanese), and this was creating noise that made it hard to judge the effects of any product changes. Another factor that can affect our goals is the exchange rate: people send less money when the exchange rate is worse, irrespective of whether the product is getting better.
You have a few options for how to tackle this problem. The best one is a/b testing, which allows you to hold all other factors equal when measuring a given product change. If this isn’t possible, you can also try to slice the data differently to exclude the noise.
At WorldRemit, we sometimes set goals based on the segment of users who find our product organically, so that we can eliminate all the variation introduced by big campaigns our marketing team might be running. But this can be risky: you don’t want to narrow down your metrics so far that you aren’t focusing on something which is meaningful to the business (it matters if users who saw a marketing campaign are engaged too!).
Remember where you are in the product lifecycle
The kind of goals you want to set will be different depending on where your product or service is in its lifecycle. If you have an existing product, and you’re optimising some part of it, it should be easy to create a classic OKR-style goal like ‘increase X by Y%’.
But, in my experience, these goals aren’t so useful for new products. It’s a lot harder to put numbers against your goals when you don’t have anything to dial up or down, and achieving some business outcome at all costs is less important than learning. I suggest adopting more hypothesis-style goals, in which success looks like proving or disproving that hypothesis. Don’t default to aiming to gain sign-ups, users or revenue for your new product. Aim instead at proving your riskiest hypothesis.
Define goals as a team
If you believe in empowered teams (and you should!) then it follows that the team should craft their own roadmap for how to meet a goal. But who gets to set the goals?
On the one hand, goal setting feels like the opportunity for the leadership to create alignment with a company-wide strategy. On the other, the team is usually closer to what makes a realistic goal. If they don’t buy into the goals in the first place, then they won’t feel very motivated to hit them.
I try to strike a balance between top-down and bottom-up:
- Each team has a mission that was originally set by me and our Chief Technical Officer, in collaboration with the executive team.
- Each quarter, the product manager works with the rest of their team (engineers, QA, design) to set goals that align with their mission.
- Before the quarter starts, all the product managers and I come together for a big workshop to review and try to improve each other’s goals, as well as spot any dependencies or areas of overlap.
- Once the PM has done a second iteration of their goals with their team based on the feedback, I (as Chief Product Officer) will give them to green light to move ahead.
Review your progress
At the group workshop where we review each other’s goals, there are a few questions we try to ask to make we’ve come up with robust goals.
- Are they measurable? It’s surprising how easy it is to slip back to output-focused goals.
- Do we know what our baseline for this number is and whether it has any seasonality effects or other external influences?
- Are they ambitious enough? Are they too ambitious and therefore completely unachievable?
- Will looking at these goals help us to decide what to do each sprint? Or will they feel irrelevant in the context of our “real” goals?
- Are they aligned to the company’s broader strategy?
- Will they keep us focused on delivering value to customers?
- Are we all happy to sign up to these goals? No one in the room is allowed to be sitting there thinking ‘this is crazy / unattainable / a bad goal’.
Once you’ve set great goals, remember the importance of regular reviews and check-ins with the broader team to ensure you’re on track.