Do Your Company Goals Align With Your People?

September 6, 2011

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”

Lewis Carroll

Goal clarity is really important, as it will help you know where you want to go. However, just because you know where you want to go long-term doesn’t mean that you will get there.

The company goals you set for your people need to align with your peoples’ capabilities and motivation, the topic of this post.  In essence, your people can get things done if they are given the right goals (for them), yet they can’t get things done if they are given the wrong goals or too many goals (for them).

One of the major problems with emerging growth companies is that most people, teams, and organizations can accomplish shorter-term activity-based goals, but they don’t have or can’t accomplish longer-term results-based goals.

In my experience, most people follow a capability development path with respect to accomplishing goals. It starts with being able to accomplish shorter-term activity-based goals and evolves toward being able to accomplish longer-term and results-based goals.

Everyone is at a point in this continuum, and the best senior managers determine where each person in their organization is and customizes their goals in a manner that both aligns with their current level of maturity and helps them develop to the next level of maturity.

Tactical (short-term) Activity-Based Goals are Simpler

The simplest goals are activity-based and shorter-term in nature.  Examples include:

  • (Really simple) Make 50 phone calls a day to this prospect list, deliver our scripted message, and ask for
  • (More difficult) Create a blog post each week that describes something that is useful to our target readers
  • Implement a small improvement to the UI that has one story point assigned to it
  • (Yet more difficult) Set up a local event, invite the 100 people on this list, help the CEO and product manager deliver a speech to the audience
  • Give performance reviews to your staff twice a year.

In general, most people are more comfortable with activity-based goals since they know in advance what they need to accomplish and they can see their way to the finish line.  As people get more experienced with the simpler activity goals, they can work their way into more difficult activity goals, which generally have more complexity to the activities and are longer-term in nature.

In general, if your people can’t accomplish the simpler activity-based goals, then they will not be able to accomplish the more difficult results-based goals.

As an aside, many people can’t even accomplish activity-based goals without help from their managers.  For whatever reason, they don’t have the ability to focus or don’t have the discipline or personal productivity tools to get their work done.  These people suck management time and attention away from more important activities and are people that emerging growth technology companies can’t afford to keep, as they dilute management resources away from other goals.

Tactical (Short-term) Results-Based Goals are More Powerful But More Difficult

Goals that result in business impact are much more powerful, but also an order of magnitude more difficult for people to achieve.  Examples of short-term tactical results-based goals include:

  • Get 5 new sales opportunities this week (rather than the activity goal of making calls)
  • Get 15 new RSS readers this week (rather than the activity goal of creating a blog post)
  • Reduce your customer service tickets per customer (instead of adjusting the UI)
  • Get 15 people from this list to write about your new products (rather than creating an event)
  • Be listed as one of the best places to work by (instead of giving performance reviews)

The great opportunity that results-based goals have is that there are a lot of different possible activities that a person could consider that might achieve the goals (as in “many ways to skin the cat”).  Many times, your best people will discover better activities than the ones you come up with to meet the goals, and when they do it is a true value add to your company.  Also, by sharpening the focus on the result you are trying to achieve, it helps to tune the activities of everyone involved.  For example, story pitches could be delivered at the event with the goal of getting 15 people to write about your products.

The reason that the results-based goals are so difficult is the same reason that they are powerful: there are a lot of different possible activities that a person could consider to achieve the goals.  People often get caught up in one of the many traps that come with giving them freedom over choosing the right activities, including:

  • I know how to accomplish this goal.  I will do what I did at XYZ corporation!  (arrogance that they already know the answer because it worked in the past in a different situation).  The arrogance causes them to be closed-minded to additional and newer approaches.
  • How do I figure out the range of possible activities? (lack of ideas or ability to develop ideas)
  • What if I don’t choose the best activity? (lack of judgment, lack of confidence in judgement, fear of failure)
  • I don’t know how to execute many of the possible activities.  What if my manager discovers this? (insecurity, fear of being discovered a fool)
  • This is too hard! (feeling overwhelmed)

Much of the time, the people either just pick the first activity they come up with because considering the alternatives is too overwhelming OR they get stuck and spend their time on something else, either hoping that the goal will be forgotten or waiting for a miracle (perhaps the result will just happen based on luck?)

It is a huge jump for people to go from activity-based goals to results-based goals, even if the goal is short-term in nature.  If you are giving people results-based goals, even if they are short-term in nature, it may be helpful to them if you break the goal down into some activities that will help them achieve the goal.  For example:

  • Develop a list of possible activities through prior experience, research (there are a lot of great resources on the web on just about every topic these days) and brainstorming those that have the potential for meeting the goal (help ensure that they have a great list of ideas)
  • Prioritize the list and pick the best first activity (and help take some pressure off of them by telling them that this is an experiment, that failure is okay, or simply just pick the “best” alternative for them the first couple of times)
  • Plan out the activity (help them with the planning)
  • Execute the activity (help them with execution, if necessary)
  • Evaluate the results through checking against the goal and doing a solid retrospective (help them get comfortable with the process)
  • Rinse and repeat the steps if the goal has not yet been met (again, help them get comfortable with the process).

Strategic (long-term) Results-based Goals are the Most Powerful and Most Difficult

The most powerful and most difficult goals are your strategic goals.  They describe important results you are trying to achieve that are new to the company AND they are long-term in nature.  For the most part, the management team must have faith that the company goals can actually be accomplished and the people responsible must have the discipline to manage against a goal for a long period of time.

Examples of strategic results-based goals include:

  • Be recognized by your target customer segment as being the easiest product to use by (as measured by a double-blind survey to 30 random targets in the segment)
  • Win a 20% market share in our chosen segment by
  • Reduce turnover amongst the top 10% of our employees to 2% this year
  • Be recognized by your target customer segment as having the most responsive customer service team by (as measured by a double-blind survey to 30 random targets in this segment)

As you can see, these are extremely high-level and long-term goals.  It would take a lot of effort to develop a coherent set of strategic initiatives that support any of the goals and those initiatives would need to be broken down further into short term actions that people in the company need to execute in order for any one of the initiatives to be completed.  Also, during the execution, a lot would be learned about what works and what doesn’t work, which would be reflected onto the next initiatives and activities and might even help to modify the strategic goal.

It takes a serious management effort to accomplish strategic results-based goals, and you can’t just give them to any manager!

You Need to Align Your Goals with Your People!

Figuring out how to accomplish higher level goals is tricky.  The person accepting the goal must be capable of executing against it, but the person also needs to take responsibility for accomplishing the goal.

There are two major questions that CEOs and other senior managers should be asking themselves as they consider the goals for the organization:

– Will the person to whom I am giving this goal really accomplish the goal?  If not, can we give him some help or do we need to change the goal (or the person)?

– How can I help this person to be able to accomplish bigger goals (goals that are broader, results oriented and/or longer-term in nature)?

Over time, you should also develop a really clear understanding of who is meeting their goals and who isn’t meeting their goals.  This could help you both make better decisions around aligning your goals with your people, but it could also lead to some good staffing changes.  People are your most important asset, but it is people that can accomplish longer-term results-oriented goals that are your critical assets!

Do your goals align with your people?  Do your people align with your goals? 

Note: For goals that are repeated over and over, a methodology/process generally gets developed that results in activities achieving predictable results.  In these situations, activity-based goals and results-based goals become very similar.  Even then, however, there is a difference between activity-based goals and results-based goals.  Giving someone a results-based goal gives them the freedom to experiment with different methodologies, for better or for worse.

Founder & Partner

As the founder of OpenView, Scott focuses on distinctive business models and products that uniquely address a meaningful market pain point. This includes a broad interest in application and infrastructure companies, and businesses that are addressing the next generation of technology, including SaaS, cloud computing, mobile platforms, storage, networking, IT tools, and development tools.