How to set more effective goals?

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It is widely known that working towards a goal is a major source of motivation. A study done by Locke et al. (1981)found that in 90% of the laboratory and field studies they carried out, specific and challenging goals lead to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals or no goals. In many organizations employees follow a process implemented by the HR department where they set annual goals which are later followed up and used as a basis for salary increase/decrease and bonuses. Goal setting is extremely important for your performance and your career, so whether you are a people manager setting goals with your team or if you as an individual want to set goals to boost your own performance, knowing how to set effective goals is imperative.

SMART goals

It’s impossible to talk about goal setting without mentioning SMART goals. This is a very well-known framework commonly used in many organizations. There are, however, many different interpretations of SMART and the exact words for which the abbreviation stands differ. I learned the following from my professor at London Business School:

  • Specific: The task needs to be carefully articulated and the goal clearly described
  • Measurable: The results and behaviors that determine goal accomplishment need to be measured and quantifiable
  • Action-oriented: The goal needs to be framed in terms of engaging in certain behaviors
  • Reasonable: The goal needs to be challenging, but realistic, accepted and consistently applied
  • Time-bound: There needs to be a clear endpoint for when the goal should be accomplished and it needs to be accompanied by feedback

If you look up SMART on Wikipedia you will find a slight variation of what SMART stands for, namely: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. If you do more research online you will find even more definitions. Take the “A”, for instance, this can mean: Action-oriented, Attainable, Appropriate, Achievable, Agreed Ambitious, Aligned, and so on.

I see this as one of the downsides of the SMART framework – there are just too many interpretations and implementations of it. Another downside is that many people spend too much time and energy on “how to correctly articulate” goals according to the SMART framework. This isn’t where your time and energy should be spent.

Effective goal setting

In the Manager Tools podcast on How to set annual goals, Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne recommend that you only focus on the two most important aspects of SMART – which are Measurable and Time-bound.  The other criteria will more or less “fall in to place” anyway. In addition, they introduce some additional recommendations for how to set effective goals that I fully agree with but that I’ve worded slightly differently below.

1. Define a success metric for all goals

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – which means it’s not a good basis for a goal. Every goal needs to be defined in a way that clearly articulates success and the best way to do that is by setting numeric measures. For example:

  • Publish 3 customer reference stories by…
  • Reduce machine X downtime by 25% by…
  • Raise $125,000in sponsorship funding by…

This leaves no room for discussion, either you have achieved your goal or you haven’t.

2. Set a deadline for all goals

The second part of the SMART framework that you should make sure to include in your goal setting is the deadline. Each goal needs to have a finish date. In many annual goal setting frameworks you are just assuming that all goals need to be completed by December 31st, but just having this loosely implied is not effective. Each goal should have a clear deadline.

  • Publish 3 customer reference stories by July 30th.
  • Reduce machine X downtime by 25% by October 9th.
  • Raise $125,000in sponsorship funding by May 15th.

3. Smartly distribute the goals

It’s wise to give yourself some extra “time buffer”. If you set your mind to completing all your goals December 31st, you stand a bigger chance of one or more “slipping” past the year-end. If you smartly distribute your goals over the year, you might risk a chance of missing your deadline, but you won’t be missing the year-end.  I can guarantee that your boss will be much more forgiving in the latter case. Also, distributing the goals smartly enables us to focus better, which is fundamental to achieving your goals.

4. Stay focused on a limited number of goals

Having too many goals becomes very ineffective. Instead of focusing on your key priorities and getting the most important things done you end up running around trying to do a little bit of everything. I believe a good number is 3 goals – maximum 5. You can start the year with 3 goals and leave room for an additional 2 throughout the year if needed. Things happen over time and we need to be agile and adapt to the ever-changing environment we are in.

5. Start with the end in mind

In order to select the right three goals for the year you need to start with the end in mind. What is the big picture? What goals will have the largest impact on the overall performance of the company? How are your goals aligned with your manager’s and how are your manager’s goals aligned with the organization’s overall strategy? Starting with the end in mind helps you define your goals. Each goal will take some planning to achieve, so when you have defined your goal you need to come up with an action plan. But there is no use in planning actions without having a clear picture of what you are aiming to achieve.

Give yourself a constant reminder

All too many times I’ve been through a goal-setting process where you submit your goals into a system and then you don’t look at them until half the year has gone and it’s time for you and your manager to have a mid-year review. This is such an ineffective use of goals – not motivating at all! The goals you set need to be constantly visible to you. Write them down on a sticky note and put them on your laptop desktop, or pin them up on the wall in your office. It doesn’t matter where you put them as long as they are visible to you on a daily basis as a constant reminder. I strongly believe that we can achieve anything we put our mind to, but in order for this to work our mind has to be constantly reminded – consciously and subconsciously, of what it is we want to achieve. So good luck in setting and achieving your goals – whatever they may be!

(If you have difficulties reading this article, you can access the full article in pdf here)