Decide What to Measure Before You Set Your Goals

Photo by Tadeu Jnr on Unsplash

Are you sure you know the difference between a measure and a goal, or a goal and a task?

I work with a lot of teams in different organizations. When asked to decide what they want to measure, teams often produce a list of tasks. When asked for their goals, they often produce…a list of tasks.

Tasks are not measures, and tasks are not goals. This pattern has been repeated often enough that I’m beginning to see it as a common, widespread phenomenon. Many folks have a hard time getting their heads around “measures and goals.”

And perhaps paradoxically, the more senior the the team (think of the C Suite, leadership team, or company circle), the more they struggle.

So much has been written about setting goals. SMART goals, KPIs, OKRs — the list goes on an on. This is not an attempt to challenge, nor endorse, any of those approaches. I just want to make the case for deciding what is most useful to measure before setting goals and defining tasks.

When I use the term “measure” as a noun I’m referring to it in the dictionary sense of “the dimensions, capacity, or amount of something ascertained by measuring.” Or to frame it as a verb, I’m asking, “what do we want to measure to know that we are moving toward our purpose?”

Measures and goals should support the purpose of the team. If they don’t, they are extraneous, or at least belong somewhere else in the system (maybe in another team, or a role). Measures usually remain valid longer than goals; goals are bounded in time and so they change more often.

Let’s try an analogy. You are going to learn to fly a single-engine airplane. You decide your purpose is to safely travel from point A to point B. What would you need to measure, in order to pursue that? I would suggest a few instruments: an altimeter, a compass (or heading indicator), an airspeed indicator, and an attitude indicator. These are measures — things you’ll want to keep an eye on — to know how you are doing as a pilot. Notice that they are not (yet) goals. And they are definitely not tasks. For instance, I didn’t say “design and install a device that checks to see if the plane is climbing, descending, or banking.” I said “attitude indicator.”

Now we’re ready to extend the analogy by adding some goals. We might decide for a particular flight that our altitude should be 8000 feet; our heading 90° (due east); and our speed 175 knots. Those are goals.

Identifying measures and goals feels easier for work that can be quantified. In Sales, we may want to measure revenue from new customers and revenue from existing customers. Our goals might be to increase revenue from existing customers by 5% per quarter, and to increase revenue from new customers by 10% per quarter. Straightforward.

This gets harder if your team does something more abstract. Maybe you are part of the people & culture (HR) team. What will you measure? Engagement? Skills? Collaboration? Choosing what to measure and setting goals in functions such as this can be harder, but it’s not impossible. There is an expression in self-management that goes “start by starting.” Choose some measures and set some goals. Then refine them over time, as you learn more about what is needed to effectively check progress toward your purpose.

If you are really stuck in identifying what you want to measure, you might want to start with your goals, and then ask “what is each goal measuring?” And if you keep coming up with tasks, see if you can work backward from a task to a goal, to a measure.

For example, let’s say your people & culture team has come up with a task expressed as “establish a new performance review process by end of year.” That might imply that you want to measure individual performance; or that you want to measure individual skill development and personal growth. Then you can set goals for each measure, something like “90% of team members report meaningful development and growth opportunities in the past quarter.” Of course this is a simplified example; your own measure and goals will reflect the uniqueness of your organization.

Now you know the difference between a measure, a goal, and task; and you are ready to select measures that support your team’s purpose.