How to Set Powerful Goals

Goals are falling out of style but they still have a place in helping teams align.


I am in a weird place with goal-setting. I used to be a huge proponent for goals, but now I am experimenting with eliminating goals from my routine in exchange for principles and values to help guide decisions. Goals can sometimes lead to a never-ending rat race of chasing goals. Nonetheless, I still think setting goals is a useful tool, especially around work, and here is how to do it well.

There are two ways to climb a mountain. The first is to strap on a pair of boots, head toward the top, and hope for the best. The other is to have a map—a planned route and clear direction showing the best, fastest, most likely way to reach the summit.

Goals can be like maps—they help us see the way ahead and plan a path to success. And what happens when you reach the top of a mountain? You feel like a champion and see other mountain tops to climb!

There are five ways to make goals powerful and useful:

1. Goals must exist in reality. This means a goal must exist in both specific Time and specific Space. If you can not measure what you have done by the time you committed to doing it, then how will you know if you achieved it? A goal of meeting Brian at 8:00 for drinks, for example, meets the criteria of specific time–8:00. But where? By contrast, meeting Brian at Zod’s Cafe for coffee meets the specific space criteria–Zod’s Cafe. But when? The more you narrow it down, the better. “Brian, I will meet you outside the doors of Zod’s Cafe Wednesday morning, the 28th, at 8:15am.” Now you have a legitimate goal! On Wednesday morning of the 28th, at 8:15am, you are either waiting for Brian at the doors outside Zod’s or you are not. You hit the goal or you didn’t.

2. Avoid ambiguity. Words like “every” and “always” kill goals. As in, “I will ask every customer to try our widgets” or “I will always try to improve”. As soon as ambiguity enters your goal, it transforms the goal into a wish. Of course you are not going to ask every customer every time about widgets. A customer probably walked in while you were reading this and you forgot to ask. In other words, do not set a goal up for failure. Answer the question, “What will be different than it is now, by what amount between zero and infinity, and by when, exactly?” 


3. Remember, goals are not assigned orders. There should be no additional penalty for not reaching goals (the penalty is not reaching the goal). Many leaders drop the ball here by attempting to provide negative incentives for missing a goal. This is like telling a marathon runner who falls short of the finish line, not only did he lose the race but also you are going to shoot him in the foot. Chances are, he will not be eager to run the next marathon for you.

4. Goals should be a stretch but possible to achieve if everything goes the as planned. There was a time when leaders were being pushed to set unrealistic goals (“Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals” or “BHAGs”). The idea was that teams do not know what they are capable of unless or until they reach for something that seems unreasonable. There is some truth to this, of course. Until you are pushed, you do not know where your limits are. However, you do not start a daily jogging routine by entering the Boston Marathon. First, you have to learn to run to the stop sign at the end of your block and back. Make goals a stretch, but achievable, and then build on successes and work toward larger goals.



5. Goals should be inspiring. This is, admittedly, the toughest part for me. I am not great at creating clever, fun ideas, or games to inspire people (luckily, though, I am good at finding people who love using those creative muscles, and I ask them for help). A goal that inspires the CEO (“Let’s increase revenue 40% by June 15th of next year”) may not inspire the clerk in the mail room even if he or she is necessary to the goal (maybe they are responsible for collection notices being sent each month). The owner of one company I know found a clever way around this. He turned company goal-setting on its head. Rather than him coming up with the next company goals for everyone to chase, he asked every department to create 1-3 goals for the next quarter (and a tracking system to measure their progress) and then he reviewed all the department goals to create the overall company goals to tie them together!



Those are the most effective strategies I use, or have witnessed, to create goals but I am not convinced “goals” as we know them are going to survive in the transforming workforce. I have begun trading goals for values and principles that over-arch all decision-making but, at least for now, I still think goals have a valuable place in our lives. Goals are especially useful for helping bring a new team together or helping an individual start down a desired path.

If you use goals, at least now you know how to use them well.