5 questions to answer when creating meaningful goals

Is there anything worse than the boring “same old same old”? Every day bleeds into the next and work feels like a swamp of tasks with no measurable goals or outcomes. Can you feel it?


No finish line. No measurables. No feeling of “winning”. Many of us have experienced this, along with the loss of energy, hope and a sense of purpose that accompanies the boredom. Perhaps you are experiencing it now.

But meaningful goals are hard

Yep, they can be.

For years I would set goals with my teams at the beginning of a cycle, and the next time I really even thought about them was when I went to set up goals for the next cycle. The tyranny of the urgent completely wiped out any focus on our goals, in part because I hadn’t done a good job of defining why they were important, what we were actually expecting, when we wanted it completed, who was responsible for the goal, and how we would completed it on a step by step basis.

While I am a believer in S.M.A.R.T. goals, there are some things that need to be defined to make that methodology even more powerful. So let’s dive into the key components that will help your team gain momentum and be an exciting and productive place to work.

1. Why is this goal important?

Answering this question with clarity will inspire team members, helping them understand they are a part of something bigger than themselves.

Perhaps you are aware of this metaphor:

Three team members were at work assembling electronic pieces. Each was asked the question, “What do you do at work?”

The first said, “I am soldering a circuit board.”

The second said “I am putting together a piece of equipment that completes a navigation system.”

The third said, “I am building the space shuttle!”

All three were doing the same work, but understanding the ultimate “why” of their goal brought different levels of energy and enthusiasm. Helping your team understand why what they’re doing is integral to the overall success of the team and the company. And it doesn’t only bring clarity to their work. It also makes it much more likely they’ll feel energized and motivated – which in turn will make them more productive, positive and proud of their accomplishments.

2. What is the actual, measurable goal?

In a previous post, I outlined the philosophy of having S.M.A.R.T. goals – goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. You need to be able to measure it, or it will be much too easy to declare victory, or even defeat, based on fuzzy information.

An example

A couple nights ago my mom asked me to come over to help get some things done around their house. She gave a list of several possibilities. If I had gone to their house to simply “help”, it would have been difficult to know whether or not I had actually hit the mark for them. But when I said, “I’m happy to come over and install the ceiling fan for you”, it made both of us happy. Knowing exactly what she expected from me helped me know when I had achieved success, and she was able to enjoy cooler air and could check something off her list. It was a win-win!

So how do you do it with your team members?

As we stated in our post about goals:

If you can’t measure it, how do you know if you’ve hit your goal?

“Increase revenue” may sound like a goal, but it’s really just a platitude until you put the teeth of measurement into it.

I’ve heard it said that a good goal follows this formula: “X to Y by DATE”. “From $10M in revenue to $20M in revenue by 12/31/2020” is a measurable goal that follows that formula. At the end of 2020, you merely need to look at your revenue numbers to see if you’ve accomplished it.

Non-SMART goal: Increase software sales revenue by 100%

Specific + Measurable goal: Increase software sales from $10M to $20M in six months.

Identifying what you’re actually trying to accomplish, very specifically, will help your team know where the finish line is. That’s important to both the momentum of productivity and morale – it’s important to know when to celebrate!

3. When should the goal be completed?

You’ll notice that the goal example above had a specific timetable? Why?

Well, think about the fact that each project has a budget – a TIME budget. Now, you may say “My goals don’t necessarily have a time budget.” Really? Think about that for a minute…

Right now I have a goal to complete a course called “How to Have Great Performance Reviews”. Am I willing to spend all of my time for the next year developing the course? No…no way. The next six months? The next six weeks? The next six hours? Answering that question helps me understand my budget for the project.

Clarity and specificity makes it happen

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, cites a study that measured 3 groups of people and their motivation and ability to stick with exercise.

  • The first group was instructed to track how often they exercised in the next two weeks. This was the control group.
  • The second group also tracked their exercise patterns, but were also shown a motivational video about the benefits of exercise. This was the “motivated” group.
  • The third group also tracked their exercise, and watched the motivational video. But they also filled out this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].” This was the “intentional” group.

The first group, the control group, saw 38% of the participants follow through on exercising. The second group, or the motivated group, saw only 35% of the people worked out. The 3rd group? Well, by pre-committing themselves to what Clear calls “Implementational Intentions” – specific, time bound goals – 91% or the participants completed their workouts!

By setting a specific “when” for a goal, you communicate your appetite for the deliverable and are MUCH more likely to complete it. Without that level of specificity it is way too easy to let’s projects diesel on and on, and no one feels good about that!

4. Who is responsible for the goal?

When initially setting up a goal, it’s often fairly simple to identify the person ultimately responsible for the goal. Great, but is that all there is?

Often, when setting up goals, we assign them to our team members in a vacuum. We forget that there are often dependencies – other people we count on to get work done that enables the goal to be completed.

For example, assigning a goal to the marketing director that states “Increase unique website visits to 50,000/month by 9/1” sounds reasonable. But to make the goal actually reasonable requires understanding all the resources that contribute to the goal. In this case, we may also need a designer, a copywriter, and input from our customer success department. We’ll need to engage our web developer if we need any changes on the website, and our sales team will need to be made aware of messaging changes so potential customers have a consistent message they’re hearing.

So while it’s the marketing director’s goal, there are a lot of other folks that make up important dependencies. In Uptick, we say those people are “in the loop”. They’re connected to an important goal but not directly responsible for it. Accounting for the contribution of these team members and making sure they’re in the communication loop is essential to making this a completable goal!

5. How will we complete the goal?

The right kind of goals not only have whys, whats, whens and whos – they also have hows. A goal without a how is simply an aspiration. As I mentioned earlier, there have been too many times in my career that I’ve set goals and completely forgotten them. Why? Because I didn’t have an action plan to complete them.

Action plans are a group of action items that lead to the completion of a goal. (Many folks also refer to these as milestones.) Thinking through the steps necessary to achieve a goal not only sets the outline of action, but it may also reveal how easy or difficult the goal will be to accomplish. This will influence both the scope of the goal and the budget (of time AND money) you’re willing to give it.

Though they use different terms, Franklin Covey’s gives a great example in their book The 4 Disciplines of Execution. In the book, they make the argument that action items should be predictive. In other words, completing all the action items would predict successful goal completion. And if action items cannot be completed, and if you’re not seeing progress toward the goal, you can make mid-course corrections. That will help recenter the project toward a successful outcome!

An example

Imagine that you have put on some weight during the pandemic, and that you’d like to lose 25 pounds in the next 4 months. That’s the goal: Lose 25 pounds in the next 4 months. It’s clear, time bound and it seems reasonable. But if you’re anything like me (and I know I am! 😉 ), without clear action items I probably won’t get all the way to my goal, and I’ll feel guilty every time I think about it.

But, if you’re willing to take on the discipline of adding clear action items, your chances of hitting your goal go up exponentially. So you might add these action items:

  • Reduce caloric intake to 2000 calories per day
  • Work out 3x per week at 6AM with Sarah (get specific!)
  • No snacking after 9PM

By adding these action items, I not only have a plan, but I also have the opportunity to tweak the action items depending on the success I’m seeing. If I have seen the progress I expect after a month, I press on with the plan. If I’m not seeing progress, I’m not doomed to failure. I simply adjust the plan.

Wrapping it up

So if morale is sputtering and momentum is slowing it’s time to take a look at your goals. Are your why, what, when, who and how clear? If not, working through this 5 step process will not only help you accomplish more, but you’re likely to see an “uptick” in your team’s morale, too! 😉

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