How I Set Goals

Whether it is performance reviews, personal, strategic, or yearly, goal-setting is an important skill to develop. I find myself often helping leaders articulate and shape theirs, and today I want to cover a few basics about them.

Why Goals?

Setting goals often feels like a chore or waste of time when there are so many things to do. Strangely, those two ideas are deeply connected.

Without goals, you find your time spent for you.

When I work with leaders, they often feel like they are running from one fire to the next. Another way to put it is that they are always having to react to what is happening. I often suggest that a good step for leaders is to establish some clear goals.

The reason to have them is that once you have goals firmly rooted, the fires begin to stop. The reason for this is that the same incident that demanded your attention now turns into an opportunity. You can now clearly look at the situation as one you can use to get closer to accomplishing a goal instead of muddling through the crisis.

If you have clear goals that you keep re-enforcing with others, it helps them do the same and make quality priority decisions. An example would be that if there was a goal of getting a new product to market by the end of next quarter, the conversations focus on how much scope they can cut. Without that goal, it becomes a debate that will rely on someone’s position to resolve.

Making A Goal

Clear and Concise

There is probably a whole series I could write on coming up with a goal statement, but the essence is that it needs to be something easy to remember and say repeatedly. It also should resonate with what is going on right now.

Imagine that you’re in a small startup. Money is tight, and every decision matters. As a leader, you are trying to figure out what goals you want to communicate. Consider the two goals:

  • Be the #1 choice in online jean retail
  • Generate break-even revenue

The top one feels dreamy and vision-like, while the second resonates loudly for a startup trying to survive. You may note that your overall vision is the first, and your immediate goal is the second. That is fine. You can and should break goals down. When you’re done refining them, they need to be clear, concise, and resonant.


Sometimes a goal statement isn’t enough. It rarely is. The reason for that is most goals aren’t so simple that you can assess them at a glance.

The role of measures comes in because it helps gauge progress, set boundaries, and coach different paths. They show progress because each measure needs to move in the desired direction. If it doesn’t, we change course. They also set boundaries because if the group is looking into things that don’t influence those measures, it might need to wait. Last, they provide coaching opportunities as there are many ideas to try, but a goal with measures focuses the conversation on short experiments.

When it comes to measures, I like to walk down a set of questions to help me come up with them:

  • What do I need to see to feel like the goal is accomplished?
  • What’s the worst that can happen if we pursue only that one measure?
  • What other measures can I add to balance that worst case?
  • What can I see earlier that might indicate overall success?

These questions help me develop a combination of leading and lagging indicators that I balance against each other. For example, if the main goal was bout improving time to market, I might measure releases. When I worry about the worst thing, I’d worry about security and quality, and I might also measure change failure rate. Releases may be slow at first, so if I wanted to measure something that I could use to indicate we might have better results, I might pick cycle time for features.


With this kind of work done, I can create measures that help protect against gaming, are tied to a goal, and provide the focus groups to improve towards the desired outcomes.

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