The relationship between goals and success is tricky. Leaders and decision-makers often struggle to build a healthy and collaborative culture due to the tension between setting and meeting the right goals. Consequently, teams struggle to perform and execute plans that unlock business value. It's a problem every company faces to a certain extent despite the level of maturity and track record of success.
How can we think differently about goals? (since it's that time of the year when everyone is paying most attention to their objectives)
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Every quarterly planning session brings the opportunity to improve existing frameworks such as OKRs, KPIs, and SMART goals. Don't we all want to increase our performance and success rate? While energy levels and the drive for renewal are still high from the New Year, it's tempting to place your strategic goals as a cover for uncertainty and the unknown. Better do something than not. And by the end of the year, you can look back at everything you've done to see whether the approach was smart and effective. But what if there was a better way to find high-impact goals from the start?
Having OKRs may clarify and quantify desired outcomes to make success measurable and repeatable, while KPIs help companies anchor and track progress in areas they prioritize. But even with the help of these tools, businesses still have to factor in the element of the unknown and cope with ambiguity and unexpected risks.
The biggest limit of all these tools is quite simple: finding which goals have the highest impact on your success. Without that, the implications can be quite costly. You are pushed to act in good faith and hope for the best, develop an extensive foresight which is hard to do or remain in a shallow comfort zone that slows you down. But regardless of the method for goal setting, companies make progress when they move forward. They need goals to validate their strategic direction and correlate it to future success.
Depending on the culture and organizational structure, some have developed internal processes to withstand the pressure of the wrong goal setting. Still, many challenges remain urgent to address:
In traditional organizations, teams have very little flexibility and autonomy to overcome that initial goal-setting approach. Revisions happen periodically, but if there's an underlying issue with the goals, teams don't have the means to address it. Part of refining goals is trial and error, but this experimental approach brings many risks that some businesses don't want or can't afford to take.
Design-driven organizations attempt to overcome at least the bureaucratical limitations by borrowing practices from design thinking processes to ideate and iterate faster and increase the alignment of the yearly objectives with its strategic goals. Divergent-convergent phases add more depth to goal discovery and delivery by allowing teams to discuss more openly the value of their objectives and initiatives. Still, the challenge remains to set high-impact goals more consistently.
In our work with clients, we often approach goal setting differently to improve the limitations of existing methods and the results. We use strategic design as an emergent way that combines design thinking and problem-solving to identify more effective goals. To get there, we often have to take a step back to analyze the nature of the goals and their relationship to success. This approach allows you to rethink three major decisions you need to make around goals, success, and the relationship between them:
1/ Revision of Success
What are high-impact goals, and why are they important?
Whether we talk about OKRs or SMART goals, these frameworks have one big flaw: impact is hardly filtered or clarified. As a team or a leader, you must know the impact you want to achieve beforehand to better prioritize work on those critical areas with low predictability of the outcome. Instead of taking on this extremely challenging task, you need to consider high-impact goals as convergent action points practically aligned to the relevant definition of success to add value from the start. So, before jumping straight into goal reframing, it's crucial to determine what grounds your story for business success.
"High-impact goals are convergent action points practically aligned to the relevant definition of success."
For instance, if you are familiar with OKRs and your company has used them for a while but failed to distill their true value, it is worth asking the question: What constitutes success in your company? Finding the most positive scenario, such as peaks in popularity or profits, is quite an exciting reflection.
Success can be summarized as one abstract word or catchphrase: growth, stability, trust, customers will be forever faithful, etc. But the definition of success must not be permanent but temporary. This approach will give you enough flexibility to formulate your active strategic goals and give room for change, especially when the business is undergoing transformation.
"Performance is bounded, but success is unbounded."― Albert-László Barabási, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success
According to Barabási, there is no limit to how successful one can be. Still, it often seems that companies push their employees to surpass their performance targets before they remove the boundaries in performance (the size of your business, team, org structure, specifics of your industry, etc.). Putting first boundaries in contrast with your definition of success can reveal tensions and friction that hinder the emergence of a productive flow.
Secondly, you must be able to determine the value you provide and check if there is a mismatch. Of course, you must always offer value for money to your customers or risk losing them to the competition. But it is equally important to determine whether you are under or overpricing your services depending on the value your customers receive. Depending on your services, it's crucial to pay close attention to how effectively you deploy them because all of this will, later on, reflect on the quality of your goals.
Lastly, the possibility of pursuing new opportunities verifies how long the definition of success stays relevant because launching a new product, pursuing a new customer segment or market altogether will require you to update the foundation for innovation, hence your vision of success.
2/ Revision of Goals
Having that honest conversation about what people correlate with success is important to any revisions to the OKRs.
OKRs split goals into Objective and Key Results, a useful and practical move to make goals more attainable and clearer. However, Objectives preserve further ambiguity of goals and may fail to incorporate the impact you want to make. No matter how realistic and measurable they are, are they truly relevant? To overcome this limitation, it's crafty to divide once more the Objectives into Incentives and Priorities.
With Incentives, you map the impact of the different outcomes your team is trying to achieve.
You can set better Priorities by ranking the incentives from high to low impact. The Key Results or the Initiatives that follow are easier to determine once the relevance of the objectives is traceable.
For companies that have struggled for a long time to make their OKRs more impactful, this could be a power move. Even those who don't use the specific framework can still transfer their usual goal framing on this logic to test its utility and shed better visibility on the impact.
3/ The thread between goals and success
The last and most powerful intervention you need now to consider is the potential to revise the relationship between goals and success. They influence each other constantly, and they belong together. When they are misaligned, the pursuit of impact becomes a risky affair, but when they do fall into place, your company can overcome its limits and achieve breakthroughs at the targeted levels.
This alignment between goals and success is the last and essential practice to setting goals with the highest impact and ensuring success follows through. Because this is a highly reflective activity, it requires collective power; it requires the decision-makers to sit with their teams to discuss this diverse array of elements and keep an open mind for revisions on every level.
Well-being and collaboration between peers suffer when the best efforts are not appreciated, or results fail to meet expectations. In retrospect, many things could contribute to failing to meet your and our goals – poor performance, no resources, unrealistic goals, and bad luck.
Using the framework has taught us to think differently about our goals so we can set high ambitions while removing some of the "goal anxiety" that comes with them.
Success and goals are interdependent but also different:
Goals lead the way from the sidelines, not by standing in front of us and telling us what will happen further.
Success pushes us from behind, so we must always be aware that we become our own blind spot.
We can learn a lot from the goals we failed to meet, but we can also gain clarity, confidence, and valuable insights from the ones we achieved but didn’t make a difference.
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