At the beginning of each quarter many of us spend some time setting (what we think) are important goals. We dream about what it would be like to achieve them, and for a little while... maybe about a week... we have hope that success is just around the corner.
Then reality hits, and the tyranny of the urgent continues to wash over us day after day. Goals? We forget about them until it comes time to set new goals. And the cycle continues…
Why does this keep happening?
In talking with hundreds of leaders over the years, I’ve learned the discouraging cycle of goal-setting continues because we don’t know how to set goals that keep the hope of success alive. They are often too vague or too big to grasp, and not long after they’re set they start to fade into the background.
How can we set goals that are both meaningful and energizing?
Using S.M.A.R.T. Goals
You’ve probably heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals, but you may not know how to use them. S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym that helps us define what we need to create a real goal. There are several different definitions that people use, but I prefer Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. Let’s look at each word in relation to an example from my own life.
A few years ago I was feeling out of shape. “Get in better shape” was a goal I had set for years, and I never succeeded. In reality, "get in better shape" wasn’t actually a goal, it was more like an aspiration. I decided I needed to have a REAL goal, so I downloaded an app on my phone called “Just Six Weeks”. (Even the name indicates there is a goal!)
The point of "Just Six Weeks" is to take people wherever they are in their fitness journey and give them the ability to do 100 pushups in just 6 weeks. Whether they knew it or not, the app creators helped give me hope of accomplishment by using the S.M.A.R.T. principles. Here’s how they did it:
S - Specific
It’s important to answer a few questions first.
Who is going to be responsible for this goal, and who else is needed to accomplish it? Without a “who” - a person accountable for making sure it happens - you will have very little chance for success. In the case of “Just Six Weeks”, the "who" was me.
What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish? What does success look like, and how do you know when you’ve achieved it? A goal to "increase revenue" doesn't tell anyone anything, and at the end of an evaluation period it would be very difficult to know how to measure success. Presumably you're not looking for a $.01 increase in revenue, right? So, what's the number?
Fuzzy goals like "cut costs" or “get in better shape” will never leave you feeling like you’ve done something significant. So dig in, get detailed, and write it out. In my case, I was trying to complete 100 pushups six weeks from the day I started the program.
M - Measurable
If you can’t measure it, how do you know if you’re done?
"Increase revenue” may sound like a goal, but it’s really just a platitude until you put the teeth of measurement into it.
I’ve heard it said that a good goal includes an “x to y by when” component. In other words, “from $10M in revenue to $20M in revenue by 12/31/2020” is a measurable goal. At the end of 2020, you merely need to look at your revenue numbers to see if you've accomplished it. For my pushups goal, I would certainly be able to know whether or not I could do 100 pushups six weeks after I started.
A - Achievable
Can it be broken up into smaller pieces so you can actually do it?
In the revenue example I mentioned, the "how" of increasing revenue is as important as the "what". The goal needs to be broken into pieces so you can evaluate progress. For instance, actionable steps could be "increase sales calls by 20%, cut customer service times in half, and reduce manufacturing costs by 10%".
Goals can be hard. In fact, they should be hard or they’re probably not worth achieving. That said, if they're not realistic they can just be discouraging. The purpose of goals are to inspire achievement, not cause frustration or depression. If my pushups goal was 1000 pushups in 6 weeks I never would have believed I could accomplish it, and probably never would have started. 100 sounded hard, but doable. It’s important to ask yourself whether the goal you’re creating is realistic.
R - Relevant
This is the "why" question. Will this actually make a difference in your life or in your business? Sometimes we feel like we need a goal, so we create one to make us feel better. But will it actually move the needle in the right direction? And is it the right thing to focus on?
In my revenue example, we should ask why it's relevant – even if it's obvious. Ask yourself who the key stakeholders are and how they will benefit from increased revenue. Better stock dividends? More resources for developing new products? The ability to hire more staff? Bonuses for the employees? There should be a relevant reason for your goal, because if there's not it'll be hard to stay motivated when obstacles arise. And if you're working on goals with a team, making it relevant will make it infinitely easier to get their buy-in!
In my case I was horribly out of shape, and doing 100 pushups would be an indicator of better health and would give me the ability to do other physical activities I love. I was motivated!
T - Time-bound
Setting a time frame is critical to making a goal tangible. Before you set an arbitrary time frame for a goal, spend time on the "S.M.A.R." part of your planning, and set a challenging but realistic completion date for your goal.
If you know how much you want to increase revenue but you don't know the "by when", you will make completely different decisions. 1 year? 10 years? Imagine how much knowing the time frame would make a difference.
In the pushups example, six weeks felt both challenging and hard, but because the time-frame was specific I felt like success was possible. The added benefit of “six weeks” was that it didn’t feel like I had to commit to it forever, which would have been overwhelming.
Did I make it to 100 pushups? Yep… I actually got to about 130! But the truth is, without the app creators using the S.M.A.R.T. principles I never would have achieved it.
For more reading on how to set S.M.A.R.T. goals, check out these takes from other companies: