Most corporate goal-setting programs are a giant waste of time. You know it and I know! Add to that a looming recession, hiring freezes, budgets tightening and very public layoffs swirling in the headlines, and you get a perfect storm of goal-setting sabotage.
Now, more than ever, we need teams and individual contributors to enter the new year feeling empowered, aligned, and engaged. The good news? With the right framework, goal-setting can transform leaders and teams into indispensable powerhouses.
Goal-setting for a competitive edge
I worked at Amazon in the early 2000s, just after the DotCom Bust, and at Google during the 2008 financial crisis. Famously, both companies weathered those crises well. How? Both companies use the same moonshot goal-setting system called OKRs: Objectives and Key Results, to create an empowered, aligned and engaged workforce.
In my consulting work today, I always take my CEO clients through a Masterclass in OKRs as we kick off our work together. This is the foundation upon which they will not only survive but thrive during the oncoming recession and pivots.
Properly formatted goals can convert corporate strategy and performance coaching into powerful action playbooks for individual contributors, which feels empowering and leads to greater engagement and results.
Below are the 5 common reasons employee goal setting becomes a fruitless exercise and how each can be avoided:
1- Lack of Meaningful Performance Feedback
Most employees, especially women, receive vague feedback from managers – if any at all. Managers are busy and often haven’t received training on how to coach their employees. Far too often, feedback is general and infrequent.
For example, it would not be uncommon in an end-of-year performance evaluation for a manager to give a direct report the feedback to “be a more proactive problem solver”. This advice is not specific, measurable nor time-bound; it’s up for interpretation. The employee has no clear guidance on what behaviors to change or how improvement will be measured at the next evaluation.
2- No Clear Objective
Far too many employees rush to write goals based on vague manager feedback without first having a vital clarifying conversation with their manager.
Before we can break this down into actual goals, we need to first identify the vital piece of information that is missing in this feedback: What is the problem we are actually trying to solve? Don’t be fooled! Despite the feedback given, the problem to be solved isn’t “being more proactive”.
The underlying problem to be solved is almost always rooted in what worries, processes, and problems the manager is empowering the employee to take off their plate. The root problem to be solved is going to sound more like “reduce the average product launch timeline,” or “increase internal team cross-collaboration to avoid information silos,” or “decrease meeting time/frequency through asynchronous workflows to increase efficiency”. These are the unspoken problems getting in the team’s way that the manager wants this employee to work towards solving.
Once we are all clear on the problem we are focused on solving, we can agree on actions to be taken to produce these results.
The key to converting problem-solving objectives into actionable key results is to create a common scorecard where all terms are defined, and expectations are clarified for full accountability and empowerment. Each key result needs to be: 1- specific, 2- measurable, and 3- time-bound.
3- Lack of Specificity
First, we need to define the terms in our goal results. The keywords in the performance assessment that we need to define are “proactive” and “problem solver” within the context of the actual objective. “Proactive” correlates to the timing and frequency of the behavior, and “Problem Solver” will define the desired behavior.
For example, you might create a key result goal where you send your manager 3 suggestions for improvements on Project X every Monday to be discussed during the team strategy meetings on Tuesday. Proactive = Mondays. Problem solver = list of three proposed improvements. Check and check.
4- No Performance Measurement Indicators
The only way to know if these proposed behaviors are having their intended effect is if they are measurable. To answer this, we need to understand what the desired outcome of this new behavior is. The feedback to “be a more proactive problem solver” implies that there are inefficiencies in the current process. A measurable outcome could be to “reduce the number of meetings required in the product launch process by 15%”, for example.
5- Lack of Checkpoints and Timeframes
Lastly, we need to set a deadline, or at minimum, a checkpoint, for the intended results. What is expected to be delivered by this week, this month and/or this quarter? This goal to “be a more proactive problem solver” is general enough that there are likely several key deliverables at different stages along the way. There will be some small wins that can happen immediately that will then lead to longer-term results.
Once we have our terms defined, we can write an effective OKR to take action on our performance evaluation feedback. For example, this employee might propose the following OKR based on their feedback to “be a more proactive problem solver”:
Objective: Reduce the average product launch timeline by 15% by Q3 (July 2023)
- Key Result 1: Update and review Project X launch dashboards with all direct reports every Monday morning to identify common roadblocks
- Key Result 2: Send a weekly summary report with three proposed action items to improve launch process efficiency to Manager before end of day Mondays for approval and/or discussion in the team’s senior strategy meeting on Tuesdays
- Key Result 3: Create an automated tracking system for measuring the intended results of new systems and produce a report every Friday and a summary status report at the end of Q1 (March 31) for review by senior management.
Properly executed OKRs give teams a clear scorecard for performance and tracking improvements. Vague feedback is converted into unified goals with criteria that drive meeting agendas, time and resource prioritization, and drive daily conversations and culture. With this framework in place, managers naturally shift from micromanagers into mentors and accountability partners empowering progress.
Innovation abounds when there are consistent tools used to incentivize, correct, guide, and reward. Meaningful goals not only drive but predict the future success of an organization.