Particularly at the beginning of the year, we tend to shape goals for what we want to achieve during the coming year, and beyond… This may seem straight forward, but from my own experience and from coaching a number of people, setting genuinely meaningful goals and actually reach them, can be more difficult than it seems.
As a bit of inspiration for the new year, I have done a brief exploration how you might approach goal setting from different perspectives.
There have been many approaches to how we set good goals. However, while they all contribute to tackle some of the challenges in defining good goals, they often fit a particular purpose and might or might not serve you well in defining good goals for yourself, your team or organisation.
OKRs or Objectives (“Direction”) and Key Results (“Milestones”) was originally proposed by Andy Grove in the 1970s. John Doerr contributed to bringing it to Google, and thus it became more universally adopted by a number of companies, as well as individuals.
Essentially, the Objectives define the "what" we want to achieve (or the direction, what we are aiming for), and Key Results focus on "how" (the milestones along the way) are we going achieve it, or rather how we are going to measure the outcome (not necessarily in numbers, but objectively know whether we achieved it or not, without judgement).
The main benefits of this is the simplicity of the system, the focus on envisioning the key results, and removing ambiguity.
SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound, with some variations) has almost become universally adopted as “the” way to set good goals. It is also often associated with OKRs and Peter Drucker’s management by objectives.
However, it is my experience that people using SMART goals tend to make measurability as the most important criteria. This often leads companies and individuals to go looking for things they can measure, rather than keeping focus on what are actually the most important goals. As a result, we can become highly effective at delivering on our goals, but the wrong goals.
The strength of SMART goals is that they provide multiple perspectives on how clear and robust our goals are, and particularly relevancy can help us prioritise what we should be focusing on.
Another popular acronym was BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals), which serves the purpose to push our boundaries, perhaps particularly in a company context. Typically, to be meaningful, such goals need a longer time perspective.
The dilemma with this type of goals is that they may be ambitious, but also often fuzzy and a bit abstract how to progress against in the short term.
Thrilling, Important & Daunting
Michael Bungay Stanier (MBS) recently published a book called "How to begin", which focuses on goal setting. He narrows it down to three key criteria for a good goal, and encourages a process of iterating on it, until all three criteria are well considered:
Thrilling — Does it make me fell "Yes!", does it excite me to get started.
Important — Does it contribute to something bigger than myself? Am I giving something back to the world, more than I am taking?
Daunting — Do I feel that it's pushing me a to the edge of my comfort zone? Is it challenging, but still achievable?
I think there is a strength in this model, as it is more focused on positioning your goals just enough to stretch yourself, feel motivated by them and not be demotivated because it’s too hard to achieve. I would argue it helps me to connect with, rather than simply articulate my goals.
Outcome vs Character goals
Conor Neill recently published a video on this topic, which caught my attention. He focuses on how we should define goals around our character building rather than achieving outcomes. Essentially, the most valuable goals are usually not what we achieve, but the ones that shape us as individuals.
I find this particularly relevant with a long term perspective, as it puts focus on how we grow as individuals, rather than what we do or achieve.
“Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”
— Bill Gates
Personally, I try to follow a bit of a mixture of these ideas. The simple guidelines I follow are:
- Not too many goals, typically 3-4 — as you will otherwise get distracted
- Make sure you care — as if you are not deeply invested in achieving your goals, you are not likely to prioritise the work you need to get there
- Consider the compound effect, where is it leading, while starting with small steps — as this helps you see the long impact of your goals, and have a concrete way to get started builds your motivation to move forward
- Integration, to make it part of who you are — This may sound abstract, but if everything in your life gravitates towards the same centre, it will be much easier to instinctively judge what to focus on and less conflict distracting you from achieving your goals.
For this year, I will probably also experiment with MBS ideas on how to better connect with my goals, to strike a balance between Thrilling, Important and Daunting.
I would be curious to hear about any other approach you may have, or how any of these methods have been helpful to you. Please get in touch and let me know!