Matt's Articles

A few thoughts for this season of goal setting

In my first few articles I discussed the importance of making missions tangible. They have to be tangible for us to have evidence that we realized the mission. The best evidence comes from the achievement of a quantifiable goal. We tend to set our goals early in the calendar year so I thought it would be appropriate to discuss goal setting.

Goal setting is simple and straightforward, right? 10% reduction in this or in that… why you ask? Well, I have ten fingers, is that a good enough reason? I tend to think goal setting is as much art as it is science. We have all seen poorly written goals and are likely guilty of writing some poor goals for ourselves over the years. For example:

“Improve customer satisfaction”
“Reduce errors”
“Implement a new tracking system”

Why do you think we create poorly structured goals? I believe it has little to do with ignorance and much to do with lack of effort. Some of the reasons I hear for ineffective goal setting are: “I didn’t have the time to really think about it.” “I guess I don’t really understand the problem enough.” “I don’t have any data.” “I’m not sure of the impact we will have.” Or “I don’t know if management is really going to support this effort.”

Note that I wrote “I” because I am guilty of succumbing to some of these these reasons. Once we take the first step in admitting our own shortcomings, we can start to ask why. Let’s go deeper and think through each of these reasons and how they can be mitigated. Then we can improve our goal setting processes.

“I didn’t have time to really think about it.”

We are all time strapped in this high-paced world. I could probably do a series of newsletters on time management. However, I will keep this simple and say that setting priorities properly is the easiest way to manage limited time. It is easy to fall into the trap of shortcuts in goal setting as we are naturally drawn to the immediate work. In my experience this leads to long run conflicts, misalignments, and confusion with peers or management (a.k.a time sinks). A well written goal that is universally understood will save time over the course of a 4 to 9 month initiative. The mitigating solution to this cause is prioritizing your time with the long term goal in mind. Yes, I am a poet and I didn’t even know it. 😉

“I don’t understand the problem enough.”

It is true that early in an initiative the specifics of the problem are elusive. We don’t know exactly what to fix and by how much it needs to be fixed. For example, if all we know is that we receive many customer complaints, we may feel that all we can say is “Improve customer satisfaction” is the goal. This is not an effective goal; it is too broad and open to many interpretations. My first suggestion is to use the SMART goal framework as your guide:

SMART goals are

Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time Based

If you really do not know enough to be specific then I recommend having a goal to set a goal. It is okay to start a project with a loose goal so long as there are deliberate and expedited actions to collect the information needed to narrow down the goal. Leadership and peers must understand this. If that is the route taken, then you must have a commitment date. In this example, I would tell the executive that I need 30 days to reach out to customers and review documents or complaints to establish a high-level cause and a baseline for comparison. The mitigating solutions here are to follow SMART goals and establishing a time boxed, deliberate plan to understand the problem.

“I don’t have any data.”

In this era we have access to thousands of lines of data, yet it never seems to be the data we need. I find that in many cases we simply don’t or can’t track the activity which is of real interest. As in the previous case, the challenge may be that we need to better understand the problem before we can establish a SMART goal. Again, setting dates or time boxing research activities are acceptable starts. There is an additional problem here that I observe in practice. The reluctance to manually collect data is a common obstacle. Observational and time study data collection methods are an important component to any analysis. A large dataset without the context of how it was created is dangerous. When I am told “but we don’t have data” my response is, “well, go get it.” Create a tracking form or log sheet. Physically visit the factory floor or the field. Call the sales representatives. Call the customers. We are surrounded by data. However, we often don’t acquire it because we haven’t taken the time to look and capture our observations. The mitigating solution for this cause is “go collect data!”

“I’m not sure of the impact we will have.”

I call this one the “fear cause.” From the time we first begin to learn and through most of our lives the value of being “right” is reinforced in us over and over again. A goal is not a correct or incorrect answer, it is a desired future. When we achieve a goal we receive praise and recognition from our mentors, leaders, and peers. Missing a goal brings torment and horror. I hope that caused a chuckle. I’m being dramatic because there isn’t necessarily a “right” goal. We need to fight off the fear of being “wrong.” It is not useful in goal setting. A goal is a stake in the ground on which to compare, just as is the baseline. It must inspire us to see what is possible and try new things. In the beginning of a significant initiative, the goal is largely an aspiration because we don’t know what can or will be achieved. Without the goal we miss an opportunity to focus and inspire ourselves and our teams. We cannot move forward without a definition of success. It is true that once the goal is set there is the possibility of failure. But fear will keep you rooted in the present. The mitigating solution to this cause is to remember the slogan from the 1990’s “No fear!” And for all you young folks go look it up.

“I don’t know if management is really going to support this effort.”

This last one is pretty easy. There are two solutions here that are based on one ultimate truth. If you are given an initiative and management doesn’t support the effort to achieve the goal then this is a misaligned or superfluous initiative. The first solution is revise the scope and align the goal to something that is important to management. The second solution is recognize the misalignment and exit the initiative. The bottom line is to never move forward on activities for an effort that management doesn’t support.

In summary, it is rare to find an organization that hasn’t heard of SMART goals. People readily run through the acronym. Yet, in working with organizations, I still find significant initiatives and activities with poorly written goals. To address this we all need to stop, look at our goals, and ask, “Are these goals SMART enough?” The extra time you take will ultimately benefit you in the long run.