Agile Goal Setting: How to Get Started


Stuart Hearn CEO at Clear Review

Friday, February 26, 2021

A new year is a perfect time to review performances and set goals and objectives. The global pandemic and its impact on the economy made 2020 a challenging time for businesses in every sector, and the ability to continually assess and adapt goals in line with rapidly changing situations set successful companies apart from those that fell by the wayside.

Article 5 Minutes
Agile Goal Setting: How to Get Started

However, goal setting is an often undervalued and misunderstood concept. Many organizations continue to follow outdated thinking practises and perform goal setting as a tick-box exercise to be completed once a year and then forgotten.

So what is agile goal setting, and how can it help your organization and its people to perform at their best?

Why is goal setting important for business success?

Effective goal setting provides direction and motivation for an organization and its people. Goals are a means of tracking progress and attributing accountability.

As many businesses teetered on the brink of collapse in 2020, those that continually evolved and aligned their goals with the changing economic landscape thrived.

For example, London-based Chocolate Ecstasy Tours saw profits soar despite COVID-19 by switching walking tours to mystery online tastings. Eco-conscious travel company OneNine5 moved its focus from travel services to products that meet people’s everyday requirements.

Continually monitoring, reviewing and adapting goals from company level right down to the individual employee is essential for success.

What’s wrong with traditional goal setting strategies?

Everybody knows that goals have to be “SMART”, right? For years, employees and managers have had it drilled into them that specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and time-bound goals are the only way to achieve results.

The problem with SMART goals is that they only tell part of the story. They weren’t designed for today’s complex, rapidly evolving organizations. Traditionally, SMART goals are set during an annual performance management review and are dusted off a year later, perhaps with a cursory glance at the six-month marker. This approach has obvious limitations, not least of which is its distinct lack of flexibility.

As the performance management process has evolved, forward-thinking organizations have shifted from annual or bi-annual reviews to continuous development throughout the year. This “agile performance management” focuses on the process of development — removing barriers to effective performance and adjusting goals in line with changing business or individual needs — not just the end goal.

Traditional goal setting lends itself to being a tick-box solution that has a limited impact on the day-to-day performance and development of the individual. And as all successful leaders know, the people in an organization will ultimately determine its success or failure.

What is agile goal setting?

A quick Google of “What is agile goal setting?” reveals that there’s no fixed, one-size-fits-all definition. This demonstrates the fluid and flexible nature of the agile goal-setting process. However, there are several fundamental elements of an agile approach:

  • Adaptability: An agile approach requires adaptability and openness to change. The process may look and feel different for each business and employee that engages with it. 
  • Shared goals: The modern workplace relies on collaborative working, and one of the fundamental tenets of an agile approach is that goals must unify the people who work in an organization. Individual and team objectives should tie into an overarching goal.
  • Context-dependent goals: Goals aren’t static entities, only to be reviewed after long periods. Unlike SMART goals, agile goals don’t need to adhere to a specific set of criteria. Instead, they depend on their context — sometimes measurability will be the most important factor, and in other situations, the need for innovation and inspiration will be paramount.
  • Intrinsic rewards: Incentives and rewards are a key element of traditional goal setting. This isn’t untrue of agile goal setting, but the focus is on intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic rewards. People should be driven to achieve their goals for the sense of achievement and contribution to wider business goals, rather than by the promise of a bonus or pay rise.

How to get started with agile goal setting

Remember that there are no fixed criteria for setting agile goals — they’ll depend on the context, and they must be easy to change as business needs evolve. However, the following ideas will help you get started in developing an approach to agile goal setting that meets the needs of your organization:

  • Set CLEAR goals: Olympic medallist and entrepreneur Adam Kreek developed “CLEAR” goals as a more flexible or “agile” alternative to the SMART system. CLEAR is an acronym for collaborative, limited, emotional, appreciable and refinable. Introducing such criteria may seem like a reversion to the traditional approach and a contradiction of the fluid nature of agile goal setting, but CLEAR promotes a flexible, team-based approach that fits the fast pace of the modern workplace. If you’re just getting started with agile goal setting, this acronym can provide a helpful structure.
  • Goals as part of continuous development: Some organizations still cling on to the traditional annual or bi-annual performance review. Agile goals should form part of a continuous performance management process, whereby personal development is an ongoing conversation. Goals should be short or medium-term, and in an agile environment, these objectives can be regularly changed as needed.
  • Tie goals to a company vision: Consider the “why” of your company, and create an overarching company vision. Tie individual and team-level goals to the vision and wider business objectives. People need to feel emotionally invested in their work and everyone should be pulling in the same direction.
  • Focus on intrinsic rewards: Everybody loves a company perk or a healthy boost to their pay check, but research shows that intrinsic rewards are more motivating. Avoid micromanaging and empower your people to guide their own development. Allowing employees to be selective and set their own goals will give them a greater sense of achievement, competence and value.

The concept of agile goal setting may seem complex and confusing at first glance, but don’t get bogged down with the jargon or what the “perfect” agile approach should look like.

At its core, an agile environment is one in which common sense and pragmatism reign supreme. Instead of being tied to a fixed checklist of objectives that cannot be changed outside of an annual review, organizations foster a culture of flexibility that allows them to adapt to rapidly evolving business needs.

Agile goals will allow your organization and its people to succeed and grow even in the most challenging of circumstances.

Stuart Hearn

Stuart Hearn has over 20 years of experience in HR and is the CEO of Clear Review, an innovative performance management software company.


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