For many of us it’s now goal-setting season, especially for non-quota-bearing roles. In my opinion, most organizations overcomplicate the process and the goals themselves — resulting in goals that don’t inform daily activities.
My views on goal setting came from three lessons I learned early in my career:
- Shared goals drive outcomes. I spent three years working at a restaurant during college: first as a busboy, then as a waiter, then as a bartender, then as a cook. This restaurant practiced tip sharing. All tips went into a pool and were distributed among all staff at the end of the night. Waiters got a higher percentage, of course, but even the busboys got something. What was the result of this approach? No one ever said, “That’s not my job.” If a waiter asked a busboy to refill water glasses or needed help getting plates to a table — no problem. If a cook was asked to rush a meal — no problem. It was easy to link customer satisfaction to higher tips and higher earnings for all.
- The mission must be actionable. My first professional job after graduating college was with Lockheed, working on a NASA contract. We were responsible for capturing the data being streamed from Earth-orbiting satellites, authenticating that data, archiving it, and making it available to research scientists. Even as an entry-level engineer, I understood that our mission was to ensure no data was lost during the process and that data was available on demand to researchers. It was easy to connect my daily activities with the mission, which was a particular hallmark of NASA.
- Simple goals are best. After Lockheed, I joined MCI Communications during the first years of competition in the telecom industry. MCI was an early adopter of an employee stock purchase plan, and almost everyone in the company owned stock. In any MCI office, the day’s stock price was usually posted right in the lobby. Our common goal was to drive our stock price up. We were encouraged to challenge the purpose of every meeting, project, or initiative by asking, “Is what we’re doing right now driving up our stock price? Is it capturing market share? Is it driving efficiency and profitability? Is it improving customer service or giving us a competitive advantage?”
If you want functional and individual goals to be meaningful and applicable, my advice is to start with a straightforward purpose that defines what you’re trying to accomplish. Then keep your goals simple, understandable, actionable, and limited in number, with clear linkage to the purpose.