Importance of setting goals

Having goals is very important to make sure we’re productive and delivering value.

How to know how much value we’re adding?

Having goals means that we can focus and see the road ahead. A nice test we can do the assess the healthiness of our goals is to ask on one-on-ones the following:

What are you goals for the next quarter?

We can have several types of responses:

  • I guess I’ll just follow the backlog and do what’s assigned to me
  • I can’t commit to goals because I don’t know what’s to be done
  • I’ll do the same I’ve been doing

This is the most common I’ve seen so far. We don’t know where we’re headed so we just follow the stream. Another question that might bring up this problem is:

Can you sum up what you’ve done on the previous 6 months? And your team?

This may be very frustrating. I’ve been on the other side of this question thinking that I felt that I’ve done a lot and accomplished a lot, but not being able to properly communicate that.

All this is a huge problem. Because if we can’t clearly articulate the value we’ve added so far, or the value we’re going to add, how will our stakeholders do so? That will create trust issues and will affect recognition. We may have the leadership starting to push deadlines because they may think the team is slacking.

It starts at the top

For we to feel aligned with the company and have a sense of purpose we need to know what are the main company goals. And then we can have team goals and personal goals. If all these are aligned we know that we’re going in the same direction.

But gathering these goals can be very complicated. It may be very hard to have a vision of what’s to come and translate that into meaningful goals. Fortunately this is something that can be trained. We just need to exercise it and learn as we go along. We need to get better in clarifying things that are in the future and that we don’t know much about.

But my main point here: if we, as managers or leaders, don’t know the value that is being added or that was added, then we need to make something about it.

Goals should be attainable

We should have ambitious goals, but they should be attainable. We should be able to see where we’re heading and understand what’s the end game. I’m currently struggling with two types of goals and I’d like to break them down here.

Goal example 1: To be a market leader

So image that the company’s leadership get together and comes up with this goal: we want to be market leaders. This is actually a typical example on OKRs (objectives and key results framework).

But when I look at this, I don’t see it as being attainable. I start having several questions:

  • What’s a market leader?
  • Who’s the current market leader?
  • How will we know that we’re the market leader?
  • What happens when we reach market leader? What’s next?

This seems very vague to me. We could fine tune the goal. For example: we want to be market leaders on a specific niche. This is more focused but still raises several questions. Here’s another one:

  • Should we aim for few big clients, or for may small clients?

Okay, maybe that question is not so much about goals but about direction. Even so it’s very important. Because if we’re not aligned and the development squad is doing features for small clients but marketing is communicating for big clients, then we have a problem.

The great thing about this is that discussing these topics allows us to better understand where we’re going. It’s not so much about knowing the answers, but following the path to be continuously iterating.

In the OKRs way, we may have objectives but we also need quantifiable key results. This means that we set an objective and the key results will tell us if we’re getting there. Again, it may also be very difficult to elaborate them. But if we can’t come up with proper goals and key results how are we going to succeed?

Goal example 2: What’s the 10x better version of you?

A question I asked on a one-on-one was the following:

Imagine that in 2 years you are 10 times better than today. What does that mean, and how to get there?

My mentee took it as homework and on the next session I got an answer:

  • I’ll need to know more about the business rules
  • I’ll need to improve more in technical terms
  • I need to be better organised

This was very interesting and a source of a great discussion. If we try to apply the OKRs principles here we can see that the goals aren’t attainable. They are very vague. We can’t see the end game here. I asked for a vision of what means to be better, and I got a plan to get better. But how can we plan for something that is vague?

Imagine that we’re building an invoicing software. Let’s deconstruct the I’ll need to know more about the business rules. To see the end game we should be able to set a more specific (and ambitious) goal. For example: I want to be proficient in the Portuguese invoicing rules, so that I don’t need to consult an account when customers pose questions.

Okay, now we have something more concrete. We can clearly see what reaching that goal looks like. How do we know that we’re getting there?

  • We can do an accounting training course (?)
  • We’ll take 5 hard questions and try to answer them by ourselves, like going to the law books and doing research, and then asking the accountant for a review
  • We can measure how many account related questions we don’t know how to answer and decrease that by 20%
  • We’ll review section X of the site aiming to understand all rules going on

Does this look like a better plan? Forcing us to define proper key results is hard but really tests our vision.

Time bound goals

It’s very important to have a time frame on our goals. The time frame forces us to better define the scope and understand what’s to come. As an example, consider the I’ll add automatic payments to our app goal. If we put a time frame on this, let’s say a quarter, we are forced to limit scope to accomplish that goal. We may realise that we can implement paypal but we can’t do stripe just now. So we may change the goal to I’ll add paypal support to our app. Which would be the end result anyway. But by creating the deadline we force ourselves to assess the time investment we’ll need. And if we have enough of it.

I’d say that a goal without a deadline can turn out to be just whishful thinking.

Summary

Defining goals at the company level, at the team level and at individual level, that are all aligned, that are attainable and with key results that are properly measurable is very hard.

But trying to achieve it will be great for a better understanding of where we’re going and how to get there together. Without these goals we may have teams that are going in different directions and aren’t aware of it. We won’t be able to see what we’ve done and what we need to do today to accomplish something tomorrow.

Like the saying says: “if we don’t know where we are going, then all directions are okay”.