how to set goals that are real, not wishful thinking

As a manager, you want your staff setting and working toward clear, concrete goals. After all, goals are how you can measure progress, hold people accountable, and drive real results. But some teams set goals that aren’t “real” – they’re so lofty that they’re unlikely to come to fruition, and because people sense that, they’re not taken seriously and don’t truly shape the course of people’s work (thus defeating the purpose of setting goals to begin with).

Setting ambitious goals is important. It’s one of the practices that separates high-performing teams that make dramatic progress from those that just go about the ordinary course of business. But to have real power and truly drive your team’s work, they also need to be realistic. Otherwise, they’ll represent wishful thinking instead of real commitment.

Here’s how you can ensure your team’s goals aren’t just pie in the sky.

1. Insist that goals have plans behind them. Goals with no plans behind them aren’t real goals – they’re more like hopes. For a goal to be real, your team needs to have some idea of how they’ll reach it – what tactics you’ll use, and what a realistic path to success will look like. Tactics may end up changing, of course – but without any road map at all, you can’t reasonably have an idea of whether a goal is achievable or not.

2. Create short-term milestones. If you’re setting annual goals, you should also create shorter-term milestones for interim progress (monthly, quarterly, or whatever time period makes sense for your context), so that you and your team will know throughout the year whether you’re on track to meet the goal or whether you need to course-correct.

3. Consider what else will be going on in the same time period. A goal to increase your media coverage by 50% in a year might be perfectly realistic if you have the right plan attached to it – but it would probably be unrealistic if you also have multiple other stretch goals during that time that will be taking up most of your staff’s focus, plus a new media database being implemented that will slow your work during the transition. You can’t consider goals in a vacuum; consider them relative to other goals and any conditions that may impact people’s work.

4. Make sure your goal-setting is a discussion, not an announcement. As a manager, you could just announce to your team members what goals they’ll be responsible for meeting. But you’re far more likely to come up with the right goals – with the right targets and measures – and have buy-in from your staff (the people who, after all, will be the ones who need to carry them out) if they’re part of the conversation before goals are finalized. Your staff should have input and perspectives that shouldn’t be ignored as you’re setting goals, especially if you want those goals to be realistic. Plus, part of the value of a strong goal-setting process is that the discussion that goes into it can help bring different assumptions and perspectives to the surface; that discussion should ultimately result in better alignment about priorities, strategies, and expectations than you may have had earlier.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Meg Murry*

    Oh my goodness, yes, +1 to the realistic goals, or at least acknowledging which are “stretch” goals that may or may not happen.

    I worked for a Fortune 500 company that set a goal to sell 150 million widgets a year by the time the 5 year goal was over. This was obviously a stretch goal, since they were currently selling 50 million widgets a year, and it became more apparent that the only way to reach this goal was to buy a few companies that were nearly their size – there was no way to just magically increase their demand that much. The company was on target to hit a lot of the other goals in the 5 year plan, but not the 150 million widgets one – they weren’t even close. Sales were going up, but not to the 150 million level.

    Except one of the VPs wanted to make sure no one could point the finger at him as to why it couldn’t happen, and one of the things taht was identified was that in order to make 150 million widgets, we would need 3x the amount of a key raw material that we were currently buying now, and there was a worldwide shortage of that raw material. So my group was tasked with investigating a really expensive alternative solution to the problem of not enough of that raw material. Tons of man hours and resources were invested in this plan of how to get more of this raw material (it involved making plans for building new factories, changing supply chains, etc – it was a huge project). It was apparent pretty early on that there was no need for this project – because there was no way the company was going to hit that 150 million widget goal, since they missed the goal in years 1, 2 and 3. But still we pressed on.

    It was corporate big group-think at it’s worst, and all of us peons realized early on that we were just wasting time being a pawn in someone’s game. I was so frustrated, it was the final straw for me and that company. Luckily, my boss knew that the project was stupid and had a high likelihood of not going forward due to the fact that is was so freaking expensive, so he didn’t make us tie our individual goals to it, beyond the general “hit the timelines” part of our jobs. But then he moved on, and our new boss had completely drank the Kool-Aid about our project being key (or maybe he was just pretending to us) and it was ridiculous.

    1. Mike C.*

      Wait, so no one could say, “That particular goal is actually impossible because there isn’t enough raw materials to meet production needs”?

      Holy cow.

      1. the gold digger*

        At least nobody asked the question that was asked to a friend of mine (who has a PhD in chemistry) about why couldn’t they reduce the amount of chemical X used in their production process and still get the same amount of product.

        My friend: If I could figure that out, I would be in Sweden next year.

      2. Meg Murry*

        Well, Mike, it would be kind of like saying “well, there isn’t enough sugar to make 150 million Chocolate Teapots. But maybe we could use honey, or corn syrup. Oh look, corn prices are down, what if we used 50% sugar and 50% corn syrup instead? But we want the product to have the same quality as using sugar. And we want custom corn syrup with just the right sugar ratio, so we’ll need to build a corn syrup making plant. And put in corn syrup tanks in every factory, and extra lines for the tanks. But there isn’t enough room in most of our plants, so we’ll have to knock down some walls to make room for the tanks ….” and so on, and so on. It seemed like an easy swap at first – but the logistics behind it were super daunting. But we couldn’t just kill the project, because no one was willing to admit it wasn’t going to happen – they wanted us to get it turn-key ready, “in case of emergency or a major drop in [raw material] availability”, because no one was willing to admit it was a stupid project, so at least having it develop into an “emergency plan” was producing something they could pretend added value, instead of just saying, nope, this isn’t going to pan out, shelve it and move on.

  2. AndersonDarling*

    We’ve gotten in the bad habit of tying personal goals to other departments. “You’re a receptionist, so you support the factory by sending them calls. Your personal goal is for the factory to make 99.5% of it’s deadlines. I hope they can do it or else you won’t get a raise this year.”

    1. Nashira*

      My office does something similar. We have a bonus that HR encourages us to relie upon, and a large portion of it depends on the performance of teams whose work never intersects with ours. I don’t even know what those teams *do*.

      Of course, mine is also structured so that a single error (like… A small, fixable typo) on something that’s maybe 10% of my time = almost no bonus. Make a mistake due to working 1.5 jobs while a coworker is sick? Too bad: a mistake is a mistake.

        1. Nashira*

          I’m working on getting out, yeah. Hopefully before finding out that surprise surprise, I’ll get no cost of living increase because I can’t be perfect when working 1.5 jobs. It’s so depressing.

    2. hbc*

      That’s my last company, except it wasn’t as obvious. “Complete teapot design project in Q3.” Sounds reasonable for the design lead, except both QA and the factory have to sign off that it’s completed, and neither are incentivized to close projects that aren’t 100% perfect. They’re both in better shape if you have several “pilot runs” of 500,000 teapots each, because the (perfectly normal) startup inefficiencies don’t go on their records.

  3. Beezus*

    Also, set improvement goals based on what is reasonable and achievable, not just a blanket recurring mindless improvement percentage. I worked a job once where every goal had a minimum 10% improvement target over the previous year’s results, no matter whether improvement was needed or reasonable or achievable. Being faced with a blanket 10% improvement goal in areas where our performance was already industry-leading, or when conditions made even maintaining the status quo a challenge, was really demotivating.

    1. Mike C.*

      In a similar vein, stack ranking is a terrible idea outside of doing it once or twice to clean house. You’re going to run out of fat and start cutting muscle or bone instead.

      1. BeenThere*

        This, so freaking much. I am so tired of seeing the bones being cut in IT then expecting what’s left to hold the body up for a marathon.

    2. Meg Murry*

      Or is super demotivating when you actually had a killer year the year before. Oh, last year you had record sales that increased 20%? That’s great, here’s the same bonus as you would have got for increasing sales 10%. Now go do 10% more than than you just did in the record year or no raises for you!

      1. Beezus*

        Yeah, different people took it different ways. I really tried to just keep my head down and do my best and not worry about the numbers too much. I definitely saw people who avoided knocking anything too far out of the park because it just meant they’d have to knock it out of the park +10% the next year. No point in pursuing that cost savings project in October when you’ve already made your goal for the year, might as well save it for first quarter so it can count for next year, etc.

    3. James M.*

      Wonderful! I can just imagine having a bonus contingent on achieving a 102% success rate or a minus 4% error rate.

  4. Kyrielle*

    Oh man. $Former_Boss at $Former_Job so could have used this information. Goal setting was part of the review, happened once yearly, and wasn’t discussed again until the next review. I put a lot of hedge conditions on my goals, since I could, and since I knew that most of them would never happen.

    He wanted me to get $MajorCertification – in my personal time, and at my own expense, with reimbursement from the company possible but not guarateed for the certification exam fees only. I flatly refused to put that one on, there was no way I had the spare time in my personal life at that point. The certification would’ve been cool (and would be totally irrelevant to my job now, but so it goes – it *could* have been career-useful depending on my next step), but again…scheduling, work/life balance, total lack of work time to pursue it.

    In another example, that did stay on but got scheduling-permitting hedge words added, he wanted me to master $NewTechnology used in some parts of our product by taking on increasing responsibility for those parts of our product. That we already had two experts on. That he sent *all bug reports and feature requests regarding to those experts* so they’d get done faster. While other things, using other technologies I was expert in, came to me so they’d get done faster. It was my goal two years running. It failed to happen because *he wouldn’t let me work on it*, two or three years running. I would have loved to add this one (also irrelevant to my current job, amusingly!), but I knew it wasn’t going to happen.

  5. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    At my school, we set annual individual goals, and are encouraged to think with the acronym SMART: goals and sub-goals should be Specific (not just a vague “I want to get better at writing report cards”), Measurable (how can you figure out if you met the goal?), Attainable (be realistic), Relevant (to the key work of your job) and Time-Based (when do you plan to accomplish the steps of your goal?)

    1. Mockingjay*

      Our very small company uses SMART goals for professional development. The goals are strange – they have to reflect the company culture and have no relevance to the work on the contract. It goes without saying that we don’t meet them.

      I struggle mightily to write these each year. I’d rather be assessed against the work I do on the contract, such as timeliness and quality of deliverables. Those are quantifiable.

  6. Anomnomnom*

    Wish management would read this! Any tips on how you handle working in an environment where not only the goals are super high, but you are expected to go above and beyond them?

  7. WriterLady*

    My company is HUGE on goal setting. But you know what I wish they would present it as rather than “goal setting”…I wish they would say, “What would you like to learn?” as well as “What are your goals?” The what would you like to learn can open people up to say, “Oh, I’d love to learn this particular software.” or “I’d love to learn about THIS side of the business.” That can reduce pressures of describing goals that may incidentally say that you don’t like your department or job duties.

  8. Verde*

    I am going to cross stitch a sampler that says “Goals without plans are just hopes” and hang it in our conference room.

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