Why (y)our goals suck




Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill

How many companies post a sign on the wall about their goals? It might be for internal or external stakeholders. It might look like this.
– 100% satisfaction is our goal.
– Our goal is to beat last year by ____%.
– Our goal is to improve ____ from x to y by _____.
– Our goal is to have only X% errors.

How many companies live it, and rarely have to say it (or need a big sign)? A few come to mind (Costco, Nordstrom, Zappos). We don’t need signs. The culture either cares or cares not.

A goal is usually a focus on a specific metric. Maybe we have 1 or 10 goals. A single goal allows “focus” but may miss many important aspects. Multiple goals can be distracting and difficult to manage. If we set 10 metrics and meet 8 of those goals, should we be happy with 80%? We succeeded on 8 of them after all. If the team wants to celebrate a low B (almost a C); pop the champagne. Most of today’s leaders will focus on the 2 that were missed and give them “extra focus” next time, taking away focus from 8 things we are doing well.

Achieving a goal isn’t like eating a meal. We shouldn’t feel satisfied at the end.  As I said in a prior post, satisfied is easily replaceable by the ones that do it exceptionally.

“Success is never final” J.W. Marriott

Who sets the goal?

Sometimes, this is an arbitrary number set by a main office or investors. Maybe it is a department head. Maybe it is the department team members.  Maybe it is pulled out of the air (or a darker, smellier place).

How do we set the goal?

Having the department responsible for achieving it, actually set the goal is a better (not best) practice. It should be moderated by someone that understands the customer and team dynamic. Most of us have heard the strong team member (or leader) take over this conversation. Most of us have heard teams set unrealistic goals.

Constantly failing to meet a goal can be demoralizing, even to an engaged team. An engaged team with no goals will beat the marginal team with the best goals and action plans every time. Simply setting a goal doesn’t necessarily motivate others.

When do we set the goal?

Did we set that based on last month, week, year? Do we set it for the next 2, 6, 36 months? Is everything the exact same as it was last year? What if we had a terrible year last year? Are we trying to be slightly less terrible? What if our product is new or aging? What if there is a shift in customer expectations? Is it the same in Cleveland as it is in Boston?

Perhaps the most important question is missing.

Why is that our goal?

Maybe it is set on the expectations of the general economic conditions or our sector. This is fine if you want to generally perform. It’s like my prior post, Look at Them. Setting a goal based on marginal competition = marginal goals. Setting a goal can limit us.

What if we meet our goal to beat budget by 15% by the end if the year and a stretch goal of 20%? If we make that by July, do we coast the rest of the year? A non-engaged team member will say “sure, let’s hit the golf course”. An engaged team member would say “Of course not. give up? NEVER!”. That person never needed a goal to produce results.

What if we are behind by that same amount with seemingly no way to get there? Do we suddenly start scrambling to recover? Maybe we should have been scrambling all along. Maybe we were and it just isn’t there.

Are we being realistic? A stretch goal can be fine but is usually just another weak goal. Maybe it’s a fall back excuse in case we don’t achieve a higher goal. We will grow by 5% or stretch to 7%. Were we afraid to commit to 7%? That’s almost 50% more. It’s very scary. “We made our primary but not our stretch. Oh well, we tried.” Here is our excuse…

Some companies actually penalize departments for exceeding their goals. “Bad forecasting” they say.

An engaged team with no goals will beat the marginal team with the best goals and action plans every time.

If we don’t have a goal, how will we know if we won? We didn’t. Remember that “success is never final” – J.W. Marriott.

If we were to replace goal setting time with vision sharing dialogue and continuous improvement, maybe the team would just give it all every day. Maybe we would just annihilate that 5% growth number. Maybe we wouldn’t lose as much as the others when times are bad.

Have the courage to have fewer goals. Have the courage to talk about goals only as necessary. Have the courage for that goal to be below last week/month/year if that is our reality. Have the courage to always drive toward being the best we can with what we have.

Like many of my posts that challenge long held beliefs, this one is likely to stir up some emotions. What do you think?  Please share in the comments below. Feel free to disagree!

While looking for images for this post, I came across this video. Different approach but still a great message.


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