Emma: Andy, you and I were chatting the other day when I said I don’t think very many managers set goals for their reports. You were surprised!

Andy: Yeah, it’s hard for me to imagine. How do you work without goals? Pretty much all of my jobs and all of my managers have been extremely into goals. KPIs waterfall from the top, annually and quarterly, which set the agenda for my months and weeks. I don’t think I’ve had a goal-less job since graduate school.

Emma: Meanwhile the rest of us are all scrabbling around hour to hour. I’m kidding, but also I think your experience is pretty unique. So often, human managers operate more like program managers who are there to make sure the work gets done. And to be in charge when there are problems.

Which are both perfectly reasonable things for a boss to focus on! They also take up pretty much all of your time. It makes complete sense to me that only around 50% of the organizations that participated in this 2015 study say their managers set appropriate performance goals for their employees.

Andy: When you’re so exhausted from extinguishing fires, it’s hard to think beyond the flames. I get that. Goals? Sure, I have a goal that this whole place won’t burn down in the next 12 hours. And then Thai takeout for dinner when I get home. That’s the extent of my goals.

Emma: I wasn’t exposed to serious goal-setting until probably six or seven years into my career. Two things happened at the same time: I worked under a CEO who was obsessed with goals, and I was a fairly inexperienced manager in charge of a team of 25 people. Goals were required, both because my CEO said so and because they are virtually the only way to get 25 people to move in the same direction.

Andy: That’s the best things about goals. In fact, they’re one of the only ways I’ve been able to get out of firewatch mode. If everyone on my team knows where we’re all going, they can independently make great decisions about how to get there. If I tell them the goal is to get to Lake Tahoe by Tuesday at 1pm, each car in the caravan can figure out their own rest stops, refueling, re-routing. If I don’t tell them the destination, I’ll be constantly micromanaging: Don’t turn there! Why are you stopping for lunch now?

Even more troubling: if I also don’t know the destination, the whole team is on a never-ending road trip to nowhere.

Emma: Exactly! There are lots of people out there road-tripping to nowhere, Andy.

Andy: I’m going through our archives and I can’t believe I’ve never talked about the OODA loop before. Every decision anyone makes follows the same process: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Say it’s time for lunch. I observe my hunger levels and the menu, I orient myself in the space and see that I need to order at the counter. I decide I want kale salad, I walk up and order it. The faster you and the folks on your team can cycle through your loops, the better. Goals help.

Emma: Yes, they provide the context you need so you don’t get stuck waiting for more information mid-OODA every time there’s an obstacle. Imagine I’m the one up at the counter ordering lunch for Andy. I know she wants the kale salad, but the restaurant is all out. What do I order her instead? I don’t know why she’s craving kale. Is she trying to eat healthy? Does she like the fried shrimp on top? Do I order her a different salad, or the shrimp with french fries? I better go back to the table and check with her.

Andy: Now replace kale salad with a sales goal or quality benchmark or any other KPI.

Emma: All the same principles apply to personal achievements, too. Knowing the goal gives me a huge confidence boost: I know where I’m going, and can work back from there. I did this with my goal-obsessed CEO fairly regularly. He called it “Road to Allstar,” which…

Andy: Yeah, I definitely don’t feel cool when I say that out loud.

Emma: Regardless, Road to Allstar was structured to map each step on your way to the goal. When I wanted to be eligible for the next round of promotions, we talked through a plan: The first thing that needs to happen is X. Then comes Y, which makes way for Z. Nothing was set in stone, and things would change and update along the way, but having that document was so orienting. I knew where I was headed, and I knew I was going the right way.

Andy: Now who’s ready to set some goals?

A Quick Intro to Setting Goals

There’s a ton out there about goals that we won’t repeat here. But, if we’ve successfully convinced you that goals are something you and your team should have, here’s a quick primer to get you started. (We know: “quick” is relative…)

SMART and FAST Goals

The best goals are SMART goals. It sounds about as corny as Road to Allstar, but the acronym is totally spot-on: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. Its fraternal twin is FAST, or Frequently discussed, Ambitious, Specific, and Transparent. We like them both.

There are two differentiators. FAST focuses more on the implementation and follow-through — you’re talking about your goals at least weekly, and everyone has visibility into how much progress has been made. The other difference is Achievable versus Ambitious. We think the sweet spot is right on the edge of both — it feels kinda scary and you can see it being possible. Missing the mark on overly ambitious goals can be really disheartening. Likewise, low-ball goals are pretty dull.

So instead of:

Learn to meditate

– Specific: Nope. What does learning look like? How will you do this?

– Measurable: Nope. How are you measuring successful learning?

– Achievable: Unlikely.

– Realistic: Hard to know…

– Time-bound: Not at all. Will you do this for the next 30 days or the next 30 years?

A better goal is:

Meditate 10 minutes a day using InsightTimer for 30 days

Specific: Yes, but I could get even more specific — perhaps by adding “enroll in and complete the 30-day beginner course” or that I’ll “mediate first thing in the morning” or “after my shower and just before going to bed.”

Measurable: I can check off yes or no.

Achievable: Ten minutes is a lot of meditating, but it’s also not 2 hours.

Realistic: I’m a morning person and have plenty of time to incorporate this into my workday routine.

Time-bound: Yep, 30 days

Cascading Goals

Ideally, the goals in an organization will align like a pyramid, so a company’s goals are supported by the subgoals of each team, which are supported by each individual’s goals, and so on. We think about them like this:

Broad organizational goals
Think financial, reach, mission, values. What is the direction of the company? To be successful this year, the company will…

Team goals
How will your team contribute to the company goals? Do you need to grow? Develop? Operationalize? To be successful this year, our team will…

Individual task goals
How will this individual contribute to the team goals? What do they need to do more of, less of, differently, to help the team hit its goal? What are their timelines, quotas, units of measurement?

Individual skills goals
Where does this individual need to grow? Where do they want to grow? What skills do they need to accomplish their task goals? What are their own long-term career aspirations and what do they need to develop to get there?

Your Turn! 

The downside to cascading goals is that if the top goal isn’t ever set, or is constantly changing, the other goals are impossible to set. If that’s the case, start your cascade where you are — no need to wait for the top. Here’s how we’d start to approach goal-setting for the first time.

1. Confirm the goals of the organization
Do they exist? And does everyone on your team know them?

2. Confirm or set up to 3 team goals
This is the work you’re making sure gets done every day. If you’re stumped on how to zoom these out into goals, start by brainstorming broad buckets of work and impact — a finance team might brainstorm “accounts payable” and an HR team might brainstorm “hiring.” Then, start to sketch SMART or FAST goals for each bucket that ladder back to the company goals.

3. Identify up to 3 individual task goals
Determine what each role on the team needs to contribute in order to hit the team-wide goals. These won’t be highly personalized — everyone with the same job title will likely have the same marching orders. You can develop these goals as a group, or simply deliver them what you come up with on your own. Both methods work. Either way, we recommend starting with yourself. It’s good practice and gives you a sense of how it will feel to have goals that direct your day-to-day.

4. Start zeroing in on individual skills goals
These ones will be highly personalized to each individual on the team. These are the most obvious when someone is in dire need of performance improvement in order to fulfill their task goals. But don’t ignore your Steady Eddies or your high performers. They have ambitions and growth areas, too! One of our favorite colleagues of all time, Nicole, had a two-pronged framework for these folks: she’d help them select one skills goal that applied to their current role, and one skills goal that would help them land their next role.