Goals on Every Level

Enabling your team to become more productive

Tom Sommer
Dec 8, 2016 · 6 min read

ost of us have come across goal setting in one way or another, be that at work when your boss comes over and tells you that you have to reach a certain sales target next quarter, or when we make a new year’s resolution to learn a new language.

But why do we constantly set goals? Does it even work? Can’t we just all try our best at whatever we do and be much happier? Turns out that setting effective and meaningful goals can have a tremendous effect, not only on your performance, but also on other aspects of your (work-)life. After all, “it’s forward momentum in meaningful work-progress that creates the best inner work lives”.

Why set Goals?

Research on the topic of goal setting has been around for more than 50 years and a lot of it has been aggregated to an area called Goal Setting Theory, with countless studies and experiments on a variety of topics highlighting plenty of good reasons to get into the habit of setting goals, both for teams and individuals.

  • Direction & Focus: One of the main advantages of a well defined goal is that it gives the team focus and direction, both in what should be worked on and what to leave out.
  • Engagement: A recent study by Gallup shows that worldwide only 13% of employees are engaged at work. When goals are used the right way they can increase engagement because employees have something to strive towards.
  • Motivation: Closely related to engagement, goals can also have a positive impact on motivation — especially when a team are directly involved in the process of defining said goals and can therefore identify with it.
  • Performance: The part that has been most researched the impact on performance. Multiple studies have found, that setting goals can increase quantitative output by up to 16%. The harder the targets are the more performance they can yield, but only to a certain point when they start becoming unachievable and they don’t work as a motivator anymore, a known side effect when companies start introducing so called stretch goals.
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The real challenge then is to set goals ambitious enough to yield good results, but not too hard as to become irrelevant. A couple of well-known goal setting frameworks which strive for the right balance with a set of simple rules are S.M.A.R.T. and Objective & Key Results. Both have been used in a number of industries for years and have achieved great outcomes when used the right way.

Limitations when setting Goals

After exploring some of the benefits, let us briefly talk about some of the negative effects that can occur when working with objectives, a good thing to be aware of when introducing goals into your company or team.

  • Unethical Behaviour: The most commonly known problem with targets is that it can lead to unethical behaviour. This is a well researched topic, with studies showing that people with goals are four times more likely to lie about their performance, even if they’re within reach.
  • Limited Learning: One of the things we highlighted earlier that well defined goals can focus your work and make sure you’re working on the right things. As with performance, this can be taken a step too far when targets are set to narrow so that all innovation, creativity and broader thinking gets lost.
  • Dissatisfaction: The last negative impact goals can have that we want to talk about here is dissatisfaction, which can happen when goals are set too ambitious. This can then in turn lead to less motivation and engagement, which is the complete opposite of what we’re trying to achieve while setting goals.

Goals on every Level at Redbubble

At Redbubble, we started using Objective & Key Results throughout the company. The reason to choose OKRs is to give us the autonomy each team needs to operate in a way that enables full ownership of a problem while maintaining a strong focus. In other words, the big benefit OKRs provide is that they define the What and Why, not the How. Another way of explaining this concept is that each team is largely responsible for finding the best path to reach a their target.

Creating meaningful objectives plays a big role in this setup, because it helps us to stay focused and relevant, while keeping a high rate of engagement and motivation at each level. During the goal setting process, objectives are cascaded from the top level to the individuals. Each team or individual is responsible to come up with the targets for the upcoming year and then check in with the one level above to make sure that it makes sense in regards to the overall company mission and to ensure different team’s don’t work in conflicting areas. Let us look at how this works in an example:

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Goals at the company level — which are defined first — are used to create direction for everybody else. In our case, the mission is to create a long-lasting company that makes a difference for artists. Each team then formulates a set of objectives for the area they are working in. These drafts are subsequently clarified and signed off by the layer above, in this case the company. As we can see in the example, one of our teams is focusing on creating loyalty amongst our customers, which very neatly ties in with the company objective. During the creation of the goal, we usually involve the whole team to make sure our targets are relevant and engaging for everybody. Once each of the team’s has finalised their objectives, we ask each member of the team to come up with personal goals for the year.

Using this overall process and setup gives us a very high level of engagement and motivation, because every individual is responsible for his or her own targets, no matter what role they are in. It also ensures all goals stay highly relevant since their cascading underneath the company-wide mission.

Best practices when working with Goals

The model described in the previous chapter works quite well for us, and some of the presented ideas might or might not work with your team so please apply it with an Agile mindset and adjust it in ways to fit your situation. There are however a few general concepts which should be taken into account universally.

  • Goals with Meaning: Meaning in goals can be achieved through a multitude of things, be it that it is directly related to an inspiring company vision — the way we use it at Redbubble — or simply an area the team is passionate about. Wherever meaning comes from, it is highly desirable because it leads to more engagement and motivation as discussed earlier.
  • Measure Progress & Success: Most goal frameworks have this concept already embedded, like S.M.A.R.T. and OKRs. Checking in regularly — even weekly — allows you to quickly adapt to problems and change direction if necessary.
  • Pivot when necessary: This might be due to changes outside of the team, like an adjustment to the direction of the company as a whole or because of internal reasons, for example when the team discovers a new opportunity. In either case, it is important to identify the need for a change, discuss the options and — if it is deemed necessary — go through the goal setting process again in light of the new situation.


Goals set the right way can have a lot of benefits and often the desired outcome is a boost to performance. Objectives can achieve this by giving direction and focus as well as increasing motivation and engagement.

In order to fully leverage the advantages of setting goals it is important to be aware of some of the limitations, predominantly the effect it has on affected people. This can lead from unhappiness and dissatisfaction to more severe problems like unethical and illegal behaviour.

Popular and proven frameworks can help minimise the risks, with S.M.A.R.T. and OKRs being two of the prime candidates. Other best practices can help as well, one of the main concepts being to make sure every objective is meaningful to the group and individual.

Last but not least, it can be very efficient to create a cascading hierarchy of goals. This starts with the company-wide mission and ends with every single person in the company, no matter what role they are in. The result are highly relevant goals on every level.

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