Putting aside the bullshit, how does one actually set goals?

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Goal setting activities: crucial. Most companies: not very good at them.

Here is, ideally, how goal setting would work in a company:

  • Strategy is set by the senior leadership (ideally it would be set by everyone, but that’s usually impractical)
  • That strategy would be communicated out silo-by-silo and manager-by-manager
  • The communication would have a logical set of talking points
  • Each employee’s daily tasks would be mapped to this overall strategy of the company and department
  • This strategy would be revisited and adjusted at points
  • The new approach would be communicated in the same way

The goal is this: on a Wednesday in July, Employee A should sit down at their desk and know what they are supposed to do. It should be the same on a Wednesday in November, or a Thursday in April. This is not rocket science. It’s simply the alignment of strategy with execution.

OK. So that’s (semi) ideal. What actually happens at most companies in terms of goal planning?

So we’ve got a “Bucket A” (good) and a “Bucket B” (less than good) on goal setting activities and general strategic alignment. How can we move from B back to A in 2017?

Goal Setting Activities: Let’s listen to a tech CEO

We tend to love us some tech CEOs. We deify them! Here’s an interview with Anil Dash, who is the CEO at Fog Creek Software. They make Stack Overflow and Trello, among other products. This is a generally good interview that touches on a lot of key points, primarily about the intersection of “technology” and “people.” We often get a little muddy at that particular intersection.

Dash claims that leadership essentially boils down to three things:

  • People need a clear understanding of values, so they can understand the framework by which they make decisions on their own
  • They need clear goals, so they know what they’re working toward
  • And they need support, in terms of resources and infrastructure and just basic human needs at an emotional or social level

Indeed. Leadership is much simpler than we often try to make it. It’s kind of ironic to see a tech CEO speaking this way. A lot of times, those guys talk about “saving the world” through some software application. Usually software applications make things faster (good) but make people dynamics worse (bad). And don’t even get me started on automation.

OK, so … values?

Yep. They matter. Problem: most CEOs and senior leaders have one value. Make money. So they take this idea of “core values” and somehow turn it into buzzwords. Then they let HR own it, which means it dies a slow, process-laden death. At most jobs, “core values” means “adjectives we use when we fire people.” That’s sad. Core values actually do matter; they guide most of what happens day-to-day, even if you can’t always see it. So you do need to start there. It can’t just be owned by HR either. It needs to be owned by every manager and, yes, every rank and file.

Clear goals?

Yuppers. This is where we come to goal setting activities. The problem with most (not all) managers is that they don’t even really care about the quality of the output. In a Knowledge Economy, work has become a lot more subjective. Assembly lines and production plants were not subjective. The managerial role needed to evolve, but in most cases it has not.

With a good number of managers, you can turn in a worthless, shitty project — but if they had control of it end-to-end and felt like you hit your boxes, they will smile and love it. That’s terrible management, but it’s normative at a lot of places. Control means more than quality. Process means more than human interaction. Not great.

When we think about goal setting activities between a manager and employee, we tend to couch that in process too. Check-ins. Emails. Performance reviews. None of this stuff is really that effective. It really never has been. You want to set goals better with people who work with/for you? Talk to them. Be human. Have conversations. Here are a couple of ideas.

When you hide behind process and call that “strategic planning,” nothing you want to achieve will actually be achieved.


A lot of managers horribly whiff on this one. They often think “accountability” means “scaring someone.” (That’s not even remotely what “accountability” means.) Many managers like to think of themselves as productivity task-masters who in turn please their own boss. Thinking this way usually reduces all their direct reports to a number. This is how “The Spreadsheet Mentality” persists at most offices. John is no longer John. Instead, John is 11 KPIs hit, 7 KPIs missed. John is a 1.3 percent raise. (Barely ahead of inflation.) Who cares that John’s mom has Alzheimer’s and he has three school-aged children? Not Mr. Manager. Mister Manager cares about those KPIs.

I understand companies are not beholden to moral norms. That’s obvious from about the second you walk into most places. We’ve had bad managers since the dawn of time. Ethics in the workplace has been in the shitter for generations. Trust too. I understand all this. I’ve lived it at most jobs.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

The simplest advice I could give: people are still people, and they have the needs of people. Until we automate them out, we need to treat them like people. When you set goals with employees, talk about the context. Their life. What they want to accomplish. Where they see themselves, who they are, etc. People are more than numbers. Human beings are social animals. Support is needed. Empathy for technological adoption is needed. All the things we gloss over as we chase productivity (and usually fail) are necessary.

The bottom line on goal setting activities

Sit down with an employee or co-worker. Start with these questions:

  • Have we lived up to our promises to you?
  • What do you think we do best?
  • What have you seen in your other jobs that might work here?
  • Have we done anything in 90 days where you might consider leaving?

(More on that here.)

Now move to:

  • What are your goals?
  • How do you see the department’s goals?
  • What about the overall company?
  • How can you best fit in?
  • What spots can you hit that you’re not hitting right now?
  • What other ways could we work better or be more productive?
  • Where do you want your career to head?

After all these questions and everything you learn, then you set the goals. Only then. The context needs to come first.

You do this four times per year. Yes, it will take time. These conversations are in-depth. But they lead to real understanding of goals and priorities, and that’s the only consistent way to hit revenue targets.

What else would you add on goal setting activities?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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