There is an old grainy image that I love. Babe Ruth pointing to the bleachers right before hitting a home run in the 1932 world series. You’ve likely seen or at least heard of this. Why does this particular home run still stand out 85 years later? The simple reason is because the Bambino pointed before hitting the ball. The image is iconic due to the power of setting then achieving a goal.
Every modern organization is divided into teams. A team is defined as a group of two or more people working together to achieve a goal. Working towards a goal is an intrinsic part of our professional structure. So why then are we so bad at setting and achieving goals?
Before I’m heckled for being unnecessarily cynical I can back this up with some data. In the software world for example, according to a recent KPMG Project Management Survey only 33% of projects meet the original project goals. With all the tools, tasks, tickets, dashboards, and charts at our finger tips we only mange to achieve the stated goal a third of time. That‘s awful!
So why is this? It’s certainly not because of the lack of content or a catchy mnemonic. There are thousands of blogs and articles on setting and achieving S-M-A-R-T goals. But clearly we’re still not good at doing this.
Like many things articulation and communication are key. You need to write the goal down, if nothing else, this will help counteract your own capacity for self deceit. Share the goal with the others involved in attaining it. The ability for two or more people to hear the same thing and to take away two completely different meanings never ceases to amaze me. Make sure that everyone is (literally) on the same page.
In the process of writing down and sharing the goal, the concept of “when” will invariably come up. This shouldn’t require a lot of discussion — goals should have a date associated with them. Agree one, and move on.
The key skill to develop is the knack for stating goals in the right way. At the most basic level, it must be clear whether the goal has been achieved or not. Ideally you should be able to quantify the degree of success or lack thereof. “Wriggle words” are not your friend. It is important to phrase things in a way that removes subjectivity.
A good way to think about it is to think whether someone completely impartial would “score” the goal in the same way. “Make our product better.” is an example of a really bad goal. Whether things are “better” after the initiative is completed is likely to be arguable. However, “Increase response time by 100ms.” is a great goal. If the outcome was that the response time was increased by 90ms, even someone with little context can acknowledge that although you failed to achieve your goal — you did get 90% of the way there.
A common objection is “but our projects are complicated, so our goals must be complicated as well”. I reject this utterly. Keep things simple. The single thing you can do to become a more highly performing team is to be able to repeatedly set and achieve goals. In order to get good at this, you’ve got to practice. Which means, you’ll have to fail a bunch of times before you succeed. However, once you do get good at it — well then, it’s such a remarkable thing that people might still be talking about 85 years from now.