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  • Matthew Jenkins

The art of effective goal and objective setting


It’s that time of year again when lots of talk centres around New Year’s resolutions and our personal ambitions and aims to do better or simply do over. The turn of a year, or the turn of a decade as we’ve just encountered, presents the perfect opportunity for self-reflection and a chance to highlight things you want to do more of, do differently, or simply strive to achieve in the fresh year that lies ahead. Business is no different either. This time of year, for many, sees the annual goal / objective setting period kick well and truly into gear as organisations look optimistically to the future with fresh eyes and healthy ambition.


Goal and objective setting isn’t new, it’s far from new in fact. Whether you follow the MBO (Management by Objectives) principles laid out by Peter Drucker — of Culture Eats Strategy for breakfast fame — in the 1950’s, its OKR (Objectives and Key Results) evolution founded by Intel’s Andy Groves in the late 60’s, SMART objectives founded by George Doran which came in the 1980’s, or more common initiatives like Jim Collins’ BHAG (Big Hair Audacious Goal) or even Google’s ‘moonshot’ principle; the fact is, people and businesses need something to aim for and leaders, at all levels of an organisation, hold the responsibility to ensure that any goal or objective that gets set is understood, easily measurable and contributes to the overarching mission of a company.


Unfortunately, for many individuals and their respective organisations, goal and objective setting is something we can be notoriously bad at. It’s not uncommon in organisations large and small, for individuals to have objectives set a third or more into the year. Regular and consistent reviews can be something of a non-entity for many and the idea of a goal or objective linking to something bigger is completely alien. Employees drift from month to month hopeful that all will eventually become clear and they will discover exactly what it is they are supposed to be aiming to achieve in the rapidly reducing amount of time left in the year. Of course, this is a large generalisation and there are in fact many organisations (and leaders) who do this very well and have likely perfected a clear process for executing this activity over the course of twelve months. Talk to your friends, your family, your co-workers though and you won’t have to look far to find someone who isn’t clear on what their organisation’s priorities are or how they fit in and contribute to them.


Much has been written over the years about goal and objective setting, as it has about new year resolutions no doubt. In fact I’m sure LinkedIn and other such social platforms will be full to overflowing on the subject this month. In case you haven’t come across something else yet, or if I’ve held your attention long enough and you’re still interested, here’s three common sense principles worth bearing in mind when setting a goal or objective in the coming weeks or months (work or otherwise).


1. Link it to a bigger picture

Nobody can be entirely sure whether it is fact or fable, but the story is well known regardless. In 1962, while touring one of NASA’s premises preparing for the Apollo moon mission, JFK took a wrong turn and ended up in a corridor only to come across a janitor mopping the floor. It is said that the following conversation ensued:


“Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy.

What are you doing?”


“Well, Mr. President,

I’m helping put a man on the moon.”


This encounter is as popular today as it was five decades ago when it supposedly took place. It has been used to influence and encourage the linking of goals and objectives for the best part of fifty years and speaks to Patrick Lencioni’s teachings on the art of employee engagement. Lencioni shares in his book, “The Truth About Employee Engagement” that it is every leader’s responsibility to make clear the purpose each employee has within the company and how that links to the overall goal of the company. He articulates firmly that every person contributes something to a company no matter how large or small, and a true leader prioritises - ensuring that every employee is clear on what their purpose is and how it aligns to the bigger picture in the same way that the janitor knew that keeping a clean and tidy workspace contributed to the overall goal of putting a man on the moon.


2. Use words we can visualise

Still on the topic of the moon landings, JFK’s famous speech to congress in 1961 is a great example of how language is in many ways key to effective goal and objective setting. In a world where we can all too easily overcomplicate things, JFK’s mission of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” inspired a nation to achieve something many thought truly impossible at the time. In just thirteen words, JFK created a goal so clear that all could understand it. If you followed any of the numerous documentaries or films that broadcast in 2019 — the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings — you will have seen that for many of the individuals that worked as part of the team on achieving this, these words were enough to make people up sticks and move across a country just to have a chance of being part of this mission. In many ways, JFK, through his moon mission speech, was a pioneer for effective goal and objective setting, he played to our natural human instincts by creating a goal that we could visualise in our minds eye and that in turn inspired people to get behind it and want to be part of.


As laid out by Simon Sinek in his book “Leaders Eat Last”, Sinek highlights that humans are dopamine driven animals. He shares that as humans we are “visual animals”, we have to be able to see and visualise goals in order to have our naturally produced dopamine chemical work for us. Sinek’s research finds that the very chemicals that flow through our systems need us to be able to visualise what it is we are trying to achieve in order for us to have the energy and get-go to achieve them. If we can visualise a goal, dopamine actively makes us drive to achieve it. Sinek says, “This is why you have to write down your goals; we’re no good with the abstract…. Give me a number, tell me what I need to hit and I will work towards that." It's about both clarity and simplicity.


3. Make it measurable

Most leaders are likely familiar with the concept of SMART objectives but for many, the measurability aspect of objectives all too often gets deprioritised or altogether over looked. However, it is in fact one of the keys to successfully working towards goals and objectives. Sticking with Simon Sinek’s dopamine principles, he again shares that as humans “we like metrics because they tell us that we’re making progress”. Lenciocini says the same thing, we not only need a clear sense of purpose, we need to know how we will be measured against that purpose - it’s a key driver in how we function and operate at work and in life, it's what helps us stay engaged and enthusiastic about our work.


To emphasise the importance of measurability further we only need to look to the work of Peter Honey who through his research found that employees should expect to have three core employee rights met by their employers, all of which point to measurability.


· The right to know what is expected of me

· The right to know how I am doing

· The right to know what I need to change or do differently


If you are struggling to identify a personal goal or aim for the year ahead, or are one of the many that often end up waiting for an organisational goal or objective to be set, why not simply choose a word that you want to define this next year with. As we see through the teachings of many of the referenced individuals above (JFK, Sinek, Lencioni, Honey et al), simplicity is often key in identifying and delivering on goals and objectives. For me, the next year is all about “BALANCE”.


Taking time to reflect over the Festive break I identified ‘balance’ as the one thing that hasn’t been present enough in how I’ve spent my time this last decade or so. In fact, the last five years of the twenty-tens in particular, the word ‘extreme’ more likely defined this period of time. So, as we kick start a new year and a new decade, my focus is about achieving balance this next twelve months - balance amongst myself, my work, my family, my health, my development amongst other things. This doesn’t mean to say that I’ve lost any passion or ambition for what I do. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s about giving my best to everything and to able to achieve that, I’m going to need, you guessed it, balance. Knowing me, I won’t find this easy, but through frequent and consistent self-reflection and both myself and those around me holding me to account over it, I’ve got the best chance of achieving it.


Here’s to an exciting 2020 and the start of an entire new decade!

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