While an estimated 80% of companies have a formal system for managing commitments, only 2 in 10 managers believe these systems work well, finds the Harvard Business Review. This how-to guide will teach you how to set effective goals that are clearly defined, aligned company-wide and stretch your potential for growth.
Goal setting is a powerful skill that directly relates to success. Habitual goal-achievers are a small minority, making up roughly 8% of people, according to numerous studies. While we all know that we should be setting goals, the rest of us have a really big problem following through. We like to blame it on a lack of motivation or time or resources. The reality is that most people don’t know how to write clear, inspiring goals that serve as a roadmap to success.
While that sounds like a grand idea, goal setting is a learnable skill. With practice, anyone can become good at achieving the things they want. In the beginning, all you have to commit to is a little daily effort. Eventually, you’ll develop the discipline and focus needed to stay hyper-focused on the priorities that will move you closer to the end goal.
Defining great goals is how you set yourself up for success. However, this first step is exactly where most people falter, which is why they ultimately fall short or fail. There are dozens of systems and frameworks available to follow, but their effectiveness varies greatly. In this guide on how to set dream-reaching goals in the workplace, we will explore:
How should organization goals be done?
What are the pitfalls that derail success?
Which tools are successfully creating alignment across organizations to focus on important tasks?
How can organizations use goals to obtain, as What Matters founder John Doerr describes it, the four primary superpowers: focus, alignment, tracking and stretching?
Why Do We Even Need to Set Goals?
What purpose do goals serve and why take the time to invest in them?
It is clear that most companies understand the importance of setting goals. The Harvard Business Review reports in its examination of “Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About It” that 80% of managers believe they are setting limited goals that are specific and measurable – the marks of a “good goal.” Yet, many companies continue to struggle with executing their strategies, placing it as their top challenge among 80 issues.
When goal setting is done well, it rallies entire teams around the most impactful things to achieve a common dream. It leads to better outcomes, higher engagement and stronger trust between teams. A two-year investigation into which practices make organizations irresistible revealed that employee engagement is closely tied to the presence of simple, “clearly defined goals that are written down and shared freely.” The Deloitte Insights study also notes that “goals create alignment, clarity and job satisfaction,” which contributes to employee productivity and commitment to the mission.
With so many critical aspects of creating a focused, thriving organization interconnecting, effective goals must promote:
Alignment within teams and across the entire organization.
Clarity for each employee and every team to know exactly what they’re working on.
The ability to say no to stay focused on the most important work.
Demonstration of success that explicitly proves we did what we said that we were going to do.
Align Strategic Goals
Companies cannot operate efficiently and as a single force without a unifying target. When everyone is aligned with the company’s core principles, then they are able to work together toward the same goal. Alignment to a single objective creates shared cultural values, nurtures trust in leadership and motivates everyone to put in their best-coordinated effort.
In his Ted Talk on “Why the Secret to Success is Setting the Right Goal,” Doerr explains that meeting objectives and making numbers is not enough to achieve real growth. When a company is able to define its why, “truly transformational teams combine their ambitions to their passion and purpose, and they develop a clear and compelling sense of why … that can be the launchpad for our objectives.”
Still, HBR data shows that managers consistently rely on “translating strategy into objectives, cascading those objectives down the hierarchy, measuring progress and rewarding performance.” They rely on tools like management by objectives and balanced scorecards to increase alignment between activities and strategies. This allows them to place failure on the shoulders of a “breakdown in the processes to link strategy to action.”
The problem with this approach is that it fails to engage the entire team in the goal-setting process, which diminishes buy-in. The HBR study found that only half of managers understand how their priorities fit with the company’s major initiatives, but that number drops to 30% among those reporting to senior executives and a mere 16% of frontline employees.
Alignment isn’t about handing down directives that everyone must follow. Instead, each person must participate in the decision-making process. Consistent commitment to the goals happens when they have the freedom to determine which of their own contributions will best support the progress toward the core objectives. Strategic goals should still be set at the executive level and then cascade down, but only as a guide for establishing the team and individual goals. All goals should also ladder up, connecting directly to the level above and below, to create overall alignment with everyone working toward one set of goals.
Clearly Identify the Right Goals
Clarity is the most important principle of goal setting, yet most of us struggle to define the right goals for the right reasons. Edwin Locke, the 1960s pioneer in goal-setting theory, found that “a clear, measurable goal is more achievable than one that is poorly defined.” Several psychological reasons support this claim. Most importantly, when we clearly identify what we want, the brain receives a signal that puts it on high alert to pay more attention to opportunities, patterns and pitfalls.
This hyper-focus points the brain in a specific direction, allowing it to draw more connections and think more effectively. Doerr describes action-oriented goals as a “vaccine against fuzzy thinking.” Those who know exactly what they are working on excel at productivity, achieving what they want in a shorter timeframe.
It is critical that companies achieve clarity at an executive level. Goals should be so specifically defined that there is no room for varying interpretations. Each team and individual must be able to articulate how their work directly impacts the company’s success. As the HBR survey points out, communication of the company’s goals does not equal understanding. The 2019 Achievers employee engagement survey found that only 4 in 10 employees know their company’s vision and 57% are unmotivated by the guiding mission. Transparency and ownership are the keys to motivation and accountability.
Give Permission to Say No
Establishing clear goals also provides the framework for making informed decisions about direction and prioritization of which projects to pursue. It is much easier to say no to activities and extra tasks when you have a great reason. When you are clear about your goals, both with yourself and others, you are hyperaware of which actions distract or propel you forward. Attending an unnecessary meeting, working on a task you aren’t particularly good at or constantly chasing new ideas gobbles up the precious time you should be spending on higher-value projects.
Michael Hyatt, a former publishing company CEO, warns about the dangers of the hustle fallacy in his 2019 book “Free to Focus.” Fear of missing a game-changing opportunity or disappointing others drives us to say yes to every opportunity. However, this creates an environment where we are constantly working on a never-ending list of tasks. Rather than getting closer to achieving our goals, we are left feeling overwhelmed and too exhausted to do anything extra.
It is possible to achieve more by doing less when we concentrate on “the things that really drive our goals and careers forward – and saying ‘no’ to everything else,” Hyatt advises. His proof: A 62% growth in business while enjoying a total of 11 weeks of vacation.
Prove Your Success
Specificity and measurability are critical to being able to prove that you have achieved your work goals. This objectivity leaves no question that you have reached, or fallen short of, the destination. It is not enough to write down your goals and action steps in a way that they can be quantified. To elevate to the next level of high goal-achievers, you must share your plans and progress with others.
In one study conducted by psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews, building in strong levels of accountability is the determining factor in mastering the process. In the control group, which asked participants to only think about their goals, only 4 in 10 people achieved success. In contrast, the group that shared weekly progress updates with a specific person had a whopping 76% attainment rate.
Plans fall through without periodic measurement. You can’t simply set aside a task until the deadline approaches. Big goals are broken down into specific steps that have a timeline. Check in on a regular basis to monitor progress, review feedback and make adjustments as needed. As Doerr notes, “An effective goal management system respects targets and deadlines while adapting to circumstances.”
“Contributors are most engaged when they can actually see how their work contributes to the company’s success,” Doerr writes in his book, “Measure What Matters.” “Quarter to quarter, day to day, they look for tangible measures of their achievement. Extrinsic rewards – the year-end bonus check – merely validate what they already know.”
Common Mistakes with Goal Setting
Since the 1960s, goal setting has largely followed the same processes and formats. While the foundational theories of these systems are still solid, the traditional practices often fail because they are directly linked to task performance. Compare your goals to this checklist to ensure that these common issues don’t derail the process or return poor results:
Top-Level Cascading Decisions. Setting goals for others that are only decided from the top and then cascade down to every level has numerous problems. First, it creates a loss of agility as everyone waits for the trickle-down changes. The HBR study shows that the greatest challenges to executing strategy are managers’ inability to seize fleeting opportunities, mitigate emerging threats or react quickly without losing sight of company strategy.
The drawn-out process also makes organizations less willing to adjust their goals outside the predetermined review period, which leads to irrelevant goals in a rapidly changing market. Even worse, innovation sits trapped at the outside edges of the organization when frontline employees are marginalized in the goal-setting process.
Irrelevant Goals. Goals that do not push you toward your greater purpose are just distractions. Organizations will never nurture engagement or achieve meaningful growth if their strategies conflict with their identity and core values. Goals that are set by those who are detached from the work required to accomplish the goal will also feel irrelevant to the employee. Other reasons goals become outdated include lack of frequent updating and inflexibility to changing circumstances. This creates fragmentation in focus and alignment on the most important priorities.
Vague and Hidden Plans. Goals that are too general do not inspire you to fulfill your journey. Others may create excitement without direction, measurability or accountability. Doerr warns against the dangers of getting people whipped up with enthusiasm but not providing direction on what to do with it. Goals are not standalone adjectives, such as becoming richer, healthier or less stressed. If you are not specific about how much money you want or what happier looks like to you, then you will quickly give up. Private goals that are not written down or obscured in silos create non-collaborative teams that fail to align.
Fragmented Focus. Having more than five active goals splits your focus on what is most important. Laundry list goals are also harder to circulate and coordinate with other teams. Oftentimes, a laundry list of goals means you have compiled a task list instead of a challenging set of goals that require growth.
Too Big, Too Soon. While you want to stretch beyond what you are currently accomplishing, the goal must be achievable. Perfectly fine goals fail from not allowing sufficient time, by assigning massive benchmarks or being tied to factors beyond your control. Plans also often flop from not thinking through foreseeable obstacles and planning ways to obtain resources that you don’t have. The HBR report notes that only 11% of managers say they have the financial and human resources needed to accomplish the company’s strategic priorities.
Focusing Only on KPIs. These benchmarks provide important data on the what, but when used alone, they do not shine a light on the how or why. Performance-based goals do not provide clear direction or recognize milestones, which means managers miss valuable opportunities to teach ownership at an individual employee level.
A performance-driven culture is also a terrible metric for determining bonuses and salaries. The fair question in these circumstances is, “If risk is penalized, then why chance it?” The HBR study revealed that two-thirds of managers would advise new colleagues to make commitments that they know are attainable rather than stretching for ambitious goals. When the definition of failure is based on perfection, growth will become stagnant.
The Basics of Goal Setting
Types of Goals
There are many types of goals that you can set and even more methods for defining goals and tracking success. Let’s review some of the prevailing theories and differences between goal types:
Personal vs Professional Goals
Personal goals are aspirations of how you can strengthen a character trait or change a lifestyle habit. These typically center on fitness, family, education, finances or career. Professional goals focus on growing the business. These might include reducing overhead, increasing market share or improving client retention rates by a certain percentage.
To nurture a forward-thinking culture, encourage employees to set one personal goal that stretches their professional vision, such as earning an industry certification, increasing job performance metrics or improving time management skills.
Company, Team and Individual Goals
Company goals should focus on the handful of initiatives that can make a real difference. These are centered on the why and tie back to the mission and values of the organization. While focused, they are also broad enough to apply to every level of the business. Doerr reminds us that conviction and buy-in start at the top. As the CEO, “if you don’t model it, no one’s going to do it,” he writes. “An effective goal-setting system starts with disciplined thinking at the top, with leaders who invest the time and energy to choose what counts.”
Team goals tend to be project-based or metric-driven, such as hitting a sales target to drive growth. By leveraging the diverse strengths of each member, team goals have the power to propel us further than when we work individually. This approach also promotes real collaboration and teamwork toward achieving a common goal, which builds trust, unity and pride in the outcome. Successful teams encourage collaboration and provide space for trying new ideas, but they also hold each other accountable for decision making and task completion.
Individual goals focus on completing a subset of tasks that support team goals. When each person has the opportunity to shine using their skillset and the freedom to innovate, they finder a deeper meaning in their work. That sense of ownership fosters engagement and passion to do better. Individual goals should also challenge employees to stretch their professional skills, which will ultimately benefit the team and organization as a whole. Individual goals feed into team goals, which in turn support the company goals. All three levels should connect to encourage alignment.
Annual to Daily Goals
Annual goals represent your long-term vision of the things you want to accomplish in the future. These big-picture targets support the company mission and serve as a blueprint for prioritizing the plan of action. This broader scope takes time to reach, so you need to break it down into smaller action steps that you can do right now to achieve your bigger dream.
Organizing goals into quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily tasks makes reaching the end goal more manageable and keeps you grounded in the present instead of daydreaming about your ambitions. Meeting those minor milestones not only establishes accountability but also keeps you motivated to power on as well.
Goals vs Tasks
Goals are the guiding directive, pointing us toward the work that needs to be done to fulfill our why. Each goal is specific in identifying the desired outcome, how success will be measured, relevancy to the mission and when it will be completed. Goals are limited in number. The sweet spot appears to be between three and five to keep the brain focused.
Tasks are the many action steps we take to achieve those goals. Organizing these hows into daily lists keeps us moving forward and helps us manage time more efficiently. Progress on tasks proves that you are moving closer to making your goals a reality. Items that make it onto your list that do not relate to the overall mission should be delegated or nixed from your to-do list.
Traditional Goal-Setting Frameworks: SMART vs KPI vs OKR
Goal-setting systems give us a framework for defining, organizing and tracking the things we want to achieve. They give us perspective on what is most important and keep us focused on those priorities.
The SMART system, which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound, is the most widely used framework for clearly defining a long-term vision. The outline is meant to direct action steps, keep goal-setters motivated and prove the success of the project. A major drawback is that SMART goals emphasize attainable and realistic ideas, which can hold followers back from taking bold action or learning new skills in order to succeed.
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) focus on performance management to gauge progress toward a goal. They are based on a blend of business objectives, departmental targets and data. The measurements have the power to strategically improve operational performance and individual efficiency as well as provide a rubric for analytical decision making. However, KPIs need to be tied to the right metrics to be valuable in nurturing growth. They also tend to focus on the outcome despite the quality.
Objectives and Key Results (OKR) is a goal-setting model that has been adopted by some of the world’s most successful companies, including Google and the Gates Foundation. The objectives define where you want to go. The key results specify how you are getting there. While transparency and measurability are still stressed, the approach also leaves room for flexibility and higher aspirations. Incentives, reviews and salaries are not based on achieving the goals. Doerr describes OKRs as having the ability to “speak to something more powerful, the intrinsic value of the work itself.”
What are some of the keys to effective goal setting?
Effective goals are collaborative throughout the defining, maintaining, revising and reporting processes. Ideally, this collaboration is cross-discipline and the final product is both inspiring and furthers your mission.
Effective goals are set using a mix of both top-down and self-imposed objectives to fully involve the entire organization in the planning and decision-making process. This strategy nurtures a culture of ownership and achievement.
Effective goals, and your progress toward those goals, are transparent across your peers, other teams and the organization. Open communication about challenges, successes and industry changes must flow both ways to build trust.
Effective goals are regularly revisited and adjusted as needed to make sure they are the most relevant top priorities at all times.
Effective goals utilize a management system that assigns tasks, tracks progress and sends automatic reminders to update goals.
Great, You’re Ready to Set Goals! What Now?
Getting good at achieving goals requires the support of a specific skillset. As Doerr explains it, “You need to build your goal muscle gradually … It’s not going to be perfect the second or third time, either. But, don’t get discouraged. Persevere. You need to adapt it and make it your own.” Focusing on sharpening your abilities in planning, decision making, time management and productivity will also help you get closer to your vision much faster.
You also need to dedicate some serious time to thinking about what you really want. Begin your goal planning with a brain purge. Simply start jotting down all the things you would like to accomplish. Let your imagination float beyond what you think is possible. Don’t censor. Just write. For the next couple of days, revisit the list only to add new ideas that pop up.
Next, group the items on your list into common themes. These larger categories will direct you toward your why. Use them to define your overall mission and as a guide in choosing your first priorities. Some of these aspirations may be used to define your idea of success or they might move into action steps under the larger goal. Others will be tabled for now until you reach other destinations.
Once you have determined your desired outcomes, you’ll need to set a frequency for checking in and choose a reporting method. When it comes to selecting a framework, choose the one that fits your organization’s culture. For those who want to go the route of the OKR, we’ll cover the framework in more detail below.
Using the OKR Framework to Launch Innovation
When John Doerr published “Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs” in 2017, his revolutionary approach shook up traditional goal setting strategies. The technique, which was invented by his mentor, Intel founder Andy Grove, has been around since the 1970s. However, Doerr’s inspiring account of how industry pioneers harnessed the OKR goal-setting system to reach explosive growth has modern companies curious about how they can also thrive under this innovative thinking.
The legendary venture capitalist explains the OKR methodology as the “whats and hows of our ambitions." The objective is what you want to accomplish because of your why. It is inspirational and meaningful. This drives the direction of the key results, which are three to five hows that need to get done. Like SMART goals, good OKR results are specific, measurable, mission-relevant and time-bound. However, these action-oriented steps are more aggressive. When ambitious goals are harnessed through meticulous execution, companies achieve the four superpowers of success: focus, alignment, tracking and stretching.
Focus Identifies High-Priority Commitments
Greater success is achieved across the organization when top executives commit to the process. Larry Page, cofounder of Google, blocked out two days each quarter to scrutinize every software engineer’s OKRs and debate the leadership team’s objectives. The OKR model helps us make the hard choices in identifying the most relevant, high-value work. The transparency not only dispels confusion but also streamlines focus on three to four urgent priorities per quarter.
It helps us plan the scope of our work and gives us permission to say no to the hundreds of good ideas that float past us. “The art of management lies in the capacity to select from the many activities of seemingly comparable significance the one or two or three that provide leverage well beyond the others and concentrate on them,” wrote Grove in “High Output Management.”
Align Efforts to Strengthen Teamwork
Deloitte reports that only half of companies even try to establish aligned goals. While leaders may be reluctant to embrace the new process, implementing an OKR framework delivers investment-worthy benefits. Doerr explains that connecting each contributor to the organization’s success deepens their sense of ownership for their work, which fosters engagement and innovation.
One of the hallmarks of the system is that everyone, from the CEO to the team leaders to each individual employee, publicly shares their goals. This process identifies the cross-dependencies that need to happen in order to achieve the objectives. As teams begin to collaborate, new networks begin to align vertically, horizontally and diagonally, making it easier to answer individually and collectively, “What is most important for the next three, six, nine and twelve months?”
Track and Share Accountability
Successful OKRs are built on data, reanimated by continuous assessments and evaluated based on an objective grading system. However, to create a culture that strives to collectively commit to achieving big ideas, bonuses, salaries and promotions are not tied to achieving OKR goals. Additionally, the quarterly review system, which Deloitte says triples employee performance and retention rates, is highly flexible, allowing for revisions any time they are needed.
Another important basis of accountability under this model is public sharing. Doerr tells the story of how every Google employee uses the OKR model to write, grade and publish their goals. Feedback is highly valued since the thorough, thoughtful peer review process often unveils missed opportunities and misdirected priorities. “When people understand your priorities and constraints, they’re more apt to trust you when something goes sideways,” Doerr notes.
Self-assessment is also an important part of the process of true learning. OKR goals encourage you to learn from experience, giving you the freedom to fail with little consequence. When reflecting on your accomplishments and goals for the next quarter, consider two questions:
What did I learn that I didn’t foresee at the beginning of the quarter?
How will I apply this lesson in the future?
Stretch Beyond Your Limits
OKR goals are highly aspirational, setting the bar higher than we think is possible. If there is even a chance that you will nail it, then you are not pushing the boundaries far enough. Raising the stakes forces us to think in creative new ways that lead to innovative solutions and improved leverage of resources. The testing of our limits with these calculated high-risk goals, combined with the freedom to fall far short of perfection, motivates us to excel in the most ambitious of ways.
In addressing the importance of stretching, Doerr notes that “Where OKRs take root, merit trumps seniority.” Serving in a coaching and mentoring role, managers become architects in supporting employees as they design amazing goals that create maximum value.
Useful Goal Templates to Track and Report
The secret sauce to success in goal setting is to identify a method for planning and tracking that works for you. The good news is that you do not have to start from scratch in designing a system. There are dozens of tools and templates available that run the gamut from simple spreadsheets to sophisticated people management software.
Goal templates help us refine our ideas and desires. They also create order in the chaos, allowing everyone in the organization to follow the same model. Effective templates are versatile enough to work for everyone, from the executive suite to the frontline desk. They can be used for personal and professional aspirations, and they can be recycled from year to year or goal to goal.
If you are just getting started with goal setting or have limited resources, Office 365 offers several useful templates:
The SMART Goals template in PowerPoint is a great starter tool for introducing the concept at a staff meeting or sharing it with a remote workforce. The prompts and examples guide planners through the process of identifying and finalizing goals. Employees will also benefit from reviewing this insightful list of SMART goal examples for businesses from inbound marketing specialist Bluleadz.
If you are new to goal setting and not ready to invest in a software program, then you can download an efficient Idea Planner template in Excel. Transfer each goal and objective into the spreadsheet, and then identify action steps and resources needs. There are also fields for assigning tasks and due dates as well as tracking the project status.
If you’d like to give OKRs a try, this starter kit goes through the process step by step, including providing free access to a simple worksheet.
For those who are looking to roll out a comprehensive goal program across an entire organization, goal setting software will be the best choice. At Leadr, we’ve built the next generation of people management software to unify disconnected efforts and measure real-time progress.
Our software provides visibility into company, team and individual goals over time, allowing managers to continually assess efforts and deliver feedback from a coaching standpoint. Leadr is designed to support a variety of goal frameworks, including OKRs, and it will serve as the central place for all your company’s growth and development activities. Reach out to us today to take a tour of the online platform.
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