This post provides guidance on how to set and evaluate goals in a work context. I recommend doing this on a monthly basis. Set aside 2-4 hours at the end of each month to go through the steps outlined below. Your manager should invest about 1 hour to give feedback.
Why set goals?
- Identify and focus on what’s most important.
- Motivate yourself and your employees.
- Establish accountability for certain outcomes.
Goal setting produces the best results when goals are:
- Aligned and important. Each goal should help the organization to deliver one of its most important objectives.
- Limited. Each employee should have no more than three to five goals for any period. Do less, then obsess.
- Ambitious. Bigger goals that create lots of value motivate us to deliver bigger results since we’re hardwired to respond to a challenge by giving more effort.
- Beyond key job responsibilities. Goals should represent major achievements rather than items from the job description or single tasks.
- Set for a short period of time. See Parkinson’s Law. If a goal will take more than three months to complete, break it down into more proximate goals. Start with monthly goals.
- Clear and specific. Describe your goal in ten words or less. Goals should start with a verb and identify a single key outcome. Ensure you can assess whether you’ve achieved, exceeded, or fallen short of the goal.
- Identify 35 new leads and convert five into donors. (Specify a deadline if it’s not clear from the context.)
- Test three new methods for collecting credit card payments.
- Design and conduct two experiments that will help us decide how to organize catering in the future.
This section proposes a step-by-step template for how an employee and their manager can set individual goals. Involve the employee in setting goals and determining how to achieve them. This gives them a feeling of commitment and will help with accountability.
1. Develop draft goals
Employee: Use the prompts below to come up with possible goals. Aim high: What would it take to rate this period—e.g., this month—10/10? What are the big promises you can make to your organization? Don’t constrain your brainstorming by worrying about how you’d accomplish ambitious goals.
- Organizational strategy. What are the three most important objectives for your organization for the next three months? Support them with key results.
- Unit (project) strategy. Ideally, it is completely aligned with the organization’s strategy and breaks the larger strategic goals down into responsibilities for each division.
- Comments and suggestions from previous brainstorming on monthly goals.
- Comments and suggestions from previous performance reviews.
- Organizational problems and pain points. Talk to colleagues about how to improve internal processes.
- Personal development and interests.
- Key job responsibilities. They are an inspiration for what the employee should accomplish within their job.
Once you have a list of possible goals, narrow it down to the three to five goals that will create the most value for your unit and the organization.
- Eliminate trivial goals or big tasks, or combine several related tasks into one goal.
- Which goals does your organization value the most?
- Which goals will have the greatest impact on performance and profitability?
- Which goals best position our team for future success?
Manager: Draft your own set of goals for the employee. Compare the employee’s draft goals with your list and consider which are most important to your organization and department.
2. Meet to finalize goals
Employee and manager: Meet to finalize a list of three to five goals and turn them into succinct statements. Ensure each goal meets the criteria for effective goals (see above). With the list finalized, talk briefly about how the employee might accomplish each of their goals.
3. Make a plan
Employee: Flesh out each goal using the prompts below, then send it to your manager for review.
- Goal statement: What will you achieve?
- Benefits: What are the positive outcomes if you achieve this goal? How will this advance your organization, division, or team strategy?
- Measures / verifiable criteria: How will you determine if you’ve actually achieved this goal?
- Resources required: What will you need in order to complete your plan?
- Existing resources: What existing work can you build upon?
- Step-by-step plan: What are the main steps you need to take to achieve your goal? What are the immediate next steps?
- Completion date / deadline. Be aggressive and use artificial deadlines if possible.
Manager: Approve the plan, or suggest changes.
4. Regularly review the plan
Employee: Embed the plan into your review and planning routines. Regularly ask yourself “How am I making progress towards this goal?” and “What do I need to do next?” to increase the perceived urgency and importance of the goal and ensure you’ll take action.
Employee: After the end of the period, answer the following questions for each goal:
- What were the desired outcomes?
- What were the actual outcomes? Please reference the most important materials you’ve produced for quick accessibility.
- Was the goal achieved? If so, how was it achieved? If not, explain why not.
- What went well and why?
- What can be improved and how?
- Do you need to communicate your evaluation to anyone?
Manager: Give feedback on the goal evaluation and capture lessons.
If you’d like to explore these ideas further, here are a few resources that you’ll find useful:
- HBR Tools: Goal Setting – Harvard Business Review
- Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) – Google re:Work
- Deliberate Once – Nate Soares
- How to Plan Your Life When the Future Is Foggy at Best – Harvard Business Review