Setting goals that aren’t doomed to fail

How to direct time and energy into solid results

While goals — whether individual or organizational — cannot be achieved without solid planning, many plans and goals are nevertheless doomed to fail. 

Many employees don’t understand the strategic objectives of their organization. Consequently, they likely don’t have a clear understanding of how their work contributes to organizational success

But by applying the following three key principals, organizations can effectively direct the time and energy spent on goal management into solid results.

Align employee and organizational goals

An aligned organization is one where everyone — from the CEO to front-line employees — is working together towards achieving the same outcomes. This can only happen if front-line employees know what the organization’s strategic goals are and how their own work supports them.
With a line of sight to what the organization deems important, employees and their managers can invest their time and effort strategically. Setting priorities at work is perhaps as much about what not to do as it is about what to do. Understanding the direction and priorities of the organization enables individuals at all levels to make wise decisions about the best use of their time, thus increasing productivity.

 “Organizations with a high level of goal clarity were three-and-a-half times more likely to score in the top quartile of business performance,” according to 2014 research by Bersin by Deloitte entitled High-Impact Performance Management: Using Goals to Focus the 21st-Century. The research also found aligning goals horizontally as well as vertically is important in ensuring different functions of the organization are working in partnership rather than at cross-purposes to one another.
How can you best align employee goals? It begins at the top, by communicating and cascading organizational goals throughout the organization. Care must be taken to ensure that messages received by employees are both clear and useful for goal-setting.

Set SMART goals 

The acronym SMART (smart, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) is a proven principal in any method describing how to set employee goals. The intent is to ensure clarity, objectivity and focus in setting practical goals. These goals can then be used as guides for coaching performance as well as measuring results. SMART goals are:

Specific: Goals are chosen and worded in a way that is clear to both the employee and the manager. Specific goals describe an observable action, event or result that will take place if the goal is met. When goals are specific, performers understand what is expected of them.

Measurable: Describes the objective standard by which to determine the degree of success in achieving a goal. Measurable goals ensure performers know how much is expected of them.

Achievable: Although some goals might be challenging, the employee has the direction, ability, resources and opportunity to successfully achieve them. Achievable goals provide confidence to employees in proving they can be successful.

Relevant: This refers to the previously discussed goal alignment. Relevant goals ensure employees know why they are expected to perform the goal.

Time-bound: To ensure productivity and effective time management, time-bound goals are tied to a specific completion date. For long-term goals, it is useful to also set interim milestones with their own due dates. 

Some caution should be exercised in setting employee goals. Too many goals, no matter how SMART they may be individually, will only cause frustration, be doomed to fail or cause the employee to neglect other routine responsibilities.  

SMART goals are best set in collaboration between manager and employee, so each element can be discussed and agreed upon at the outset. Employee engagement is positively impacted when employees have a say in setting their own goals. In addition, employees often have the best view of what works best, where improvements need to be made, and what is realistically achievable.

Monitor goals
When goals are doomed to fail, it is often because they are set — and then ignored until the end of the year. When well-set goals are managed on an ongoing basis, they are much more likely to be achieved. Continuing in the spirit of collaboration, managers should be equipped and accountable to monitor their employees’ progress, remove any barriers to success, and provide effective feedback and coaching to ensure the employees stay on track.

An important part of goal management is when leaders regularly communicate the status of the organizational goals on which individuals have planned their own performance objectives. 

Bersin’s research also found more than one-half of senior leaders revised their goals throughout the year, but only 36 per cent of middle managers made similar revisions. 

What can be more frustrating than wasting time achieving goals that are no longer relevant to organizational priorities? That means one part of the organization thinks it’s headed in a certain direction, but the day-to-day actions of managers and employees are focused elsewhere.

A collaborative discussion between manager and employee, with an understanding of aligned organizational priorities — whether they remain the same as when they were set or undergo some form of adjustment — should yield a few well-aligned, impactful, SMART goals.  

Goal-setting for success
SMART, well-aligned and monitored goals are three ways to ensure personal commitments achieve their promise. By the same token, ongoing communication, feedback, coaching and flexibility in goal management bring a level of agility to organizations, ensuring the conditions for high performance are supported.

Aligning goals has a positive impact on employee engagement. Individual goal-setting in alignment with well-communicated organizational goals gives employees a chance to see themselves as integral parts of the organization, entrusted with responsibilities that can positively impact its future.

Dominique Jones is chief people officer at Halogen Software in Ottawa. For more information, visit

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