What to Do (and What Not to Do) When Setting Goals


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Thursday, September 30, 2021

Following positive practices and avoiding negative ones can help you set goals that will improve performance at both an individual and organizational level.

Article 4 Minutes
What to Do (and What Not to Do) When Setting Goals

Effective goal setting has a critical role to play in business performance. Clear and compelling targets - possibly with an enticing reward attached to them - can motivate people to do their best work and deliver great results for the business.

On the other hand, poor targets - ones that are unrealistic or unconnected to your broader business aims, for example - can have the opposite effect.

Here are some 'dos and don'ts' for you to bear in mind to make sure your goals are inspiring rather than discouraging.


The SMART framework is a well-known method of goal setting that helps to ensure every objective you put in place for your people and your organization is:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

If you always have these qualities at the front of your mind when you're evaluating and establishing targets, you can feel confident that your resources are being directed towards activities that make sense and hold value for the business.

The SMART framework also helps to ensure that you can draw data-based conclusions about the progress you're making towards your goals. Furthermore, it emphasizes that the outcomes of all your hard work should lead to practical actions for the company, which reduces the risk of wasted time, effort and budget.

Don't be unrealistic

There's a lot to be said for aiming high. After all, some of the most successful and influential figures in business - Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, to name but two - reached the top by dreaming big and being ambitious.

However, it's also important to acknowledge the risk of setting goals that are simply unrealistic, or put too big a strain on your employees and resources.

If you start a project by establishing targets that are clearly impossible to reach, the most likely outcome will be a sense of disillusionment and disengagement in the team. People will either feel that managers are completely out of touch with what can realistically be achieved in the set timeframe, or that the business is deliberately setting unreachable goals to push people to their absolute limit.

Do consider different goal-setting frameworks

The SMART system isn't the only way to approach setting targets for your employees and teams. There are various other goal-setting frameworks, each with its own unique characteristics and advantages.

One option is to focus on objectives and key results (OKRs), which has proven beneficial at companies such as Google. The tech giant uses OKRs to set "challenging and specific goals" that drive employee engagement and raise performance.

Another strategy is the 4 Disciplines of Execution, a methodology developed by consulting and training firm Franklin Covey. This advocates:

  • Narrowing your focus and concentrating on "wildly important" goals
  • Acting on 80/20 measures - the 20% of activities that produce 80% of results
  • Keeping scoreboards that provide a visual representation of performance and motivate workers to win
  • Creating a culture of "frequent, positive and self-directed" accountability

Don't be negative

Goals are most likely to be effective and motivational when they're positive. People will be more inspired and willing to work towards targets that enable progress for them as individuals or for the company as a whole. They're less likely to be motivated by measures that focus on discouraging or eliminating negative practices.

A good rule of thumb is to set aims that encourage the positive habits and outcomes you want to see in your business. Incentivizing teams to raise productivity and efficiency, for example, will prove more effective than setting goals designed to stamp out late delivery or missed deadlines.

Do put your goals down in writing

Writing your goals down and publicizing them across the business is a simple but effective way to make your objectives tangible and ensure they're widely recognized and understood.

Establishing your targets in writing will also help you be positive and forthright in stating what you want to achieve. If a key focus for the business right now is to bring in more website traffic, for example, you could set a SMART and positive goal such as: "We will increase the number of visitors to our blog by 5% by the end of this quarter."

Having this down in writing will help you establish it as a core part of the company's current mission and get everyone working towards it.

Don't forget to review and re-evaluate

Setting a goal doesn't mean the objective is set in stone and you have no option to revisit or review it.

One of your top priorities as you work towards your targets should be to regularly take stock of your progress and to question whether the original goal still makes sense.

It might become clear that your initial objective is no longer achievable or relevant - perhaps through no fault of your own - and continuing to work towards it might demotivate your team or waste valuable time and resources.

Or, you might find that you're on track to comfortably surpass your goal, in which case you'll want to rethink it to maximize results and drive your people to higher levels of performance.

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