Setting actionable business goals

Setting goals we can keep is difficult, whether we think of personal or business objectives. Every so often, I resolve I will exercise more than the bare minimum, but a few weeks later, I will fall back to the old habits and excuses — today I’m too tired, maybe tomorrow? I’m sure you’ve been there, too.

It’s not much different for business goals. Perhaps you’ve also realized that some of the goals you’ve set for yourself or for your business aren’t actually going to pan out the way you really wanted. Why does that happen? How could we make setting and keeping goals more reliable, more motivating, and more actionable? How can we set ourselves up for the next objectives review not having to concede that many of the goals have failed, or worse yet, we didn’t even pursue seriously?

Most of the time we start setting goals, we let our intuition do most of the work. We want to grow sales by 30%, or find 4 new top people into my team, or learn to play an instrument, or whatever it is that seems like would make us happy. The intuition is great at making these lists of “what would make me happy”, and those lists end up being pretty long. What it’s not so great at is helping identify actions that move you forward to that goal. In fact, it’s really challenging to produce concrete action plans for intuitive goals, in particular when the lists tend to drag on.

Without that action plan, you will be handing the steering wheel for the pursuit also to your intuition. Every time you need to choose a path, your (and your team’s) subconscious will again instinctively pick an option that seems perfectly natural at the time. Now, you may get lucky with a goal that is so well internalized that it provides you constant guidance and motivation every day. Your instinctive choice may be guiding you towards the objective, at least as a general direction. More likely though, among a set of sometimes-conflicting goals and alternative actions that aren’t obviously connected, you’re gradually losing sight and start choosing actions that aren’t aligned with the objective, or conflict with your other objectives.

Does that sound familiar? It’s happened to me many times, both in personal and business context. You’d be among a very rare species of individuals if it did not happen to you as well. The subconscious will not keep track of your goals — it will choose the action which feels most comfortable or least scary. Your intuition doesn’t want to risk things — and without endless practice, it will not be able to understand that not taking calculated chances is the most likely way of failing to reach an objective.

What should you be doing instead, then? If you’re reading this, chances are this is not the first time you’re reading about the topic, and you’re familiar with the usual guidance. I’ll try to be concrete and actionable.

First, replace intuition with a rational analysis for the goals themselves. Focus is everything. Out of the 100 items that would make you happy at the end of the year, which few will really make a difference in the long run? Which are close enough within reach that you can realistically pursue them, yet far enough that doing so remains motivating? Choose those few directions well, and then set yourself a goal along that direction that feels a bit scary, but if you almost reach it, it will still be an achievement. Lets say you want to sell a completely new product. What’s a realistic, but ambitious number of customers to have by the end of the year?

You may also find it helpful to think about those goals in a few different categories. Mine are:

  1. a directly relevant, measurable business goal, easy to discuss also among your customers and stakeholders: the example of a new product, above, is such a goal
  2. a stretch achievement, which, if it fails, has still guided you towards a correct direction, and if it’s successful, has opened a completely new long-term opportunity. Be careful with these. They’re highly valuable goals to have, but don’t let too much of your effort and focus be diverted from the tactical short-term goals. These may be something you don’t want to advertise beyond key partners, because of their strategic nature.
  3. a development objective that will make you, your team and the whole business stronger and more resilient when situations change. If you set these, make sure there are a few people whose direct responsibility it will be do further the goal, and agree how pursuing them may impact short-term tactical actions.

Set yourself a measurement each goal. How do you know you’re moving towards it? The measurement has to be something you can refer to at any point — a binary goal you don’t know you’re getting closer to before you’ve went past it is not going to help you. You can measure customer commitment to a product even before the product is ready. No, it won’t be completely accurate, so aim higher than you need to reach. For the engineers among you, my dear audience, no, these measurements don’t have to be implemented somewhere online in an automated way. It’s enough that you’ve defined it, you know how to find out, and you regularly refer to the measurement.

That was the easy part. Now comes the hard work. You do need to set aside time, at this point when you’re still setting the goals, to think through the action plans and alternatives. Do this with your whole team, so that everyone is familiar. If it’s just your own goals, recruit someone to help anyway.

In that planning session, think through the scenarios, not just the ideal world steps:

  1. test customer demand by contacting X prospects for interview. Ask questions A, B and C, follow up with proposal for D.
  2. if feedback says Y, then react by changing activities so-and-so, because that will maintain alignment with overall goal
  3. if product feature A turns out infeasible, set up a co-operation with a partner for an alternative solution. Prepare for this by making contact now.

Continue this list for a substantial set of most likely circumstances. The point of this exercise is not to produce yourself a master list of actions, each of which needing to be implemented, but to give yourself and the whole team a practice run of “what-if”. There will be plan B and plan C actions, but most importantly, you gain insight on how to think about alternative actions when situation changes.

As you start to implement, you now will have action plans for many situations. In these circumstances, trusting your intuition is much more reliable, because you’ve already went through the alternative actions, and choosing among them is less likely to set you on a wrong path than coming up with an action plan on the fly. And, as invariably happens, the reality turns out different from any one of your planned scenarios, the planning exercises themselves give you a foundation for thinking about what is the right action.

Apologies for the long post. As a recap:

Intuitive goal choices are difficult to plan actions for — and if you don’t, the subconscious default decisions made along the way tend to turn away from the goal and create a misalignment.

To avoid this from happening:

  1. make rational choices of focused effort when setting the goals
  2. set goals in clearly defined contexts so they won’t be mirror images of each other
  3. define a measurable outcome for each goal you can continuously monitor
  4. go through a planning exercise of pre-defining what are the correct goal-aligned actions in likely circumstances
  5. following pre-defined action plan is much easier than to come up with the right action choices on the fly
  6. when unforeseen circumstances arise, as they always do, having gone through that planning exercise will help, too
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