The idea of using goals as the lifeline between a company's grandest vision and an individual employee's daily actions has been around for decades.
So why is it that only 14% of employees know their company’s objectives?
It's not like organizations don't bother to set goals — 65% of organizations have an agreed-upon strategy. But creating a strategy is easy — executing it is a whole other ball game. Less than 10% of all organizations succeed in executing their strategies.
And executing strategies consistently?
We don't have exact numbers on that, but you can bet they're pretty minimal. The ability to deliver solid results over the long-term is undoubtedly what makes a company (and its leaders) great. But the secret to consistent performance at the company level, is all about the people who make the strategy happen at the ground level.
That's where cascading goals can help...IF you use them right.
Cascading goals are goals that are translated from one level of the organization to the next. The point of a cascading goal is to get everyone from top to bottom completely aligned with the big picture organizational goal, and to make 100% sure they know exactly what to do by breaking that strategy down into clear tasks and deliverables that can be easily communicated and tracked.
Goals can be seen in a "cascade" — with a clear set of objectives at the individual, departmental and company levels. This can make it much easier to communicate and document your strategy, while eliminating any confusion over who owns what, when a goal needs to be accomplished, or even how to achieve a goal at the task level.
According to Billy Elliott, Country Manager of the Top Employers Institute in Africa, “Unless organizations take specific steps to cascade goals throughout the organization and align these with employee goals, the best laid plans will come to nothing. To drive true purpose and effectiveness in the everyday lives of employees, the company strategy needs to be filtered down to each level of staff."
Cascading your goals is how you achieve that "filtering down" so that no one in the organization is ever confused about what to do or when to do it.
Like all things in life, business and HR, there are two sides of every story. The magic of cascading goals will be quickly lost, if you fail to use them intentionally.
While cascading goals are a great way to break down your company's vision into actionable chunks employees can bite into, they're also inherently hierarchical and can become prone to the kind of bureaucratic workflows and tunnel vision that have upended many an industry dinosaur.
Stuart Hearn, commercial director at HR software company Vaado Software (previously HR director at Sony Music Publishing) sums it up perfectly in an interview for HR Magazine:
"If performance management is taken seriously within the senior team and they lead by example, then this tends to cascade through the organization. In organizations where the process is HR-driven and senior management is not committed to performance management, it tends to be more of a box-ticking exercise."
With cascading goals, any attempt to "set it and forget it" will backfire. Let's take a closer look at how to use cascading goals for good (rather than superfluous HR "box-ticking").
If you're doing it right, your cascading goal process won't stop after the CEO sets those initial goals.
Here are a few ways to break free of the linear approach and make your cascading goal setting process equally as dynamic as your business (and the people in it).
1. Get real about your goals
Don't overload your performance management process with too many organizational goals — but don't force autonomous departments to adopt one blanket goal, either.
Think about the top 3 things you really want to achieve and be SMART (e.g., Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Based) about how you set out to achieve them at every level of your cascading goal process.
2. Check your alignment
Alignment is key. Rather than investing all your energy at the front-end (setting up a strategic top-level goal and then walking away), give each department and employee some autonomy in setting the goals that make the most sense for them.
Make sure everyone is completely clear on what tasks are assigned to each goal, then set firm deadlines, performance metrics, and dates and reminders for check-ins.
3. Always follow up
Creating a strategic goal may feel like a lot of work for your CEO, but it's nothing compared to the burden your employees will feel if they don't have the tools and support they need to achieve those goals.
Always align goal reviews with performance reviews and make it a point to ask your people if they're getting the resources they need (including training, mentorship, and clear and specific feedback) in order to keep moving toward their goals.
Goals are an elusive subject. Research on how to set them, track them, and of course achieve them has dominated both the personal and business spheres for decades, maybe even centuries.
According to some of the crème de la crème goal-setting researchers, a goal "is the desired outcome of a particular behavior or set of behaviors, and therefore goal setting involves specifying the level or standard of performance to be attained, usually within a predetermined time frame."
Let's think about that last part for a minute. Goals can be incredibly motivating, but only if the time period makes sense. If a goal cycle is too short, we don't get the rush of taking those giant performance leaps. Too long and we risking working on outdated, ho-hum goals that no one takes seriously.
But how do you really know when one goal should end and the next begin?
Spoiler alert: As much as we'd love to give you one, there is no magic formula for setting the perfect goal cycle.
In today's rapidly-changing business climate, even the time-honored quarterly goal has come under scrutiny. At the end of the day, establishing a relevant end date for your business goals is about asking yourself the hard questions, things like:
One way to simplify the process is to start by drawing a line between your long and short-term goals. Again, this will look different depending on what business you're in.
A startup may have vastly different long-term goals than a centuries-old business that functions in a slow-moving industry. For example, 10x growth within 5 years might be the kind of high-stakes long-term goal that makes sense for a sparkling new tech company. But without clear criteria for how that goal will break down in the day-to-day, you could be putting your business at risk for the sake of pleasing investors.
For a 3-5 year goal, you might need performance reviews every month, or even week to keep your teams on track. But what if you're a major contractor who's just won a big-ticket infrastructure project that will take a decade or more to complete? In that case a long-term goal might be a 20-year goal broken down into "short-term" annual or biannual goals based on project specs that are already fully fleshed out.
Here are a few examples that can help give a little more context to how you think about the right goal cycle for your organization.
Apple - 3 Annual Objectives
"I want to put a ding in the universe.” – Steve Jobs, Former CEO, Apple
Steve Jobs was known for setting massive goals. Every year, Apple hosted a strategy meeting where the famed CEO would gather dozens of yearly objectives from key staff, then narrow them down until they were left with just three. Τhose 3 goals then became the core goals for the next year.
Jobs also set expectations for how those goals were to be reached. Focus was big. He was known for demanding zero distraction. Every activity his teams undertook either supported the annual goals, or simply weren't a priority. Apple even assigned a DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) to every project to make sure their teams stayed on track to hitting their yearly goals.
Starbucks - Why over when
“These goals represent our aspiration to create impact on the issues that matter.” - John Kelly, SVP of Global Social Impact and Public Policy, Starbucks
For Starbucks, social responsibility is the north star. The coffee giant's 2020 vision for social responsibility has clear guidelines and expectations. Starbucks breaks down their 2-3 year responsibility vision to smaller, more actionable goals under following headings:
By stating that these are the goals for 2020 "and beyond", they're letting stakeholders know that this is an ongoing, long-term goal that they're committed to setting and resetting every couple of years.
Facebook - Non-goals take you farther
"Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they're not as good as the most important thing you could be doing. And you have to make the hard choices." - Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook
At the end of the day, there isn't enough time to do it all.
Sheryl Sandberg has a great trick for choosing which goals really matter. Non-goals are secondary goals employees should focus on only after the main goal has been met. "You have your goals and non-goals. The non-goal is the next thing that you would do, because it's a really good idea," she says.
A rule like this might make more sense for a 20,658-person company like Facebook than a ruthlessly determined startup, but it's a form of prioritizing we could all learn from — both for the big picture long-term goals and the smaller day-to-day actions that get you there.
We've all heard the mantras: "A goal without a plan is just a wish," "Goals are dreams with deadlines," and the shamelessly cloying, "Reach for the sky!".
Those are great for social media memes and personal development book covers, but what should goal setting actually look like at work? You know, in practical terms.
We all know we should be setting big, juicy, inspiring goals for our companies and people, but because of the sheer size of this topic, we have no clue where to start. SMART goals, OKRs, Golden Circles, etc. — there are so many ways to break down a goal. But beyond the HR headlines and endless acronyms, what do these goal-setting frameworks have in common?
Let's get back to basics and take a deeper look at the core fundamentals that make a goal great.
Most of us think we know the purpose of goal setting, but unfortunately, life, business and bureaucracy have a way of consistently muddling the water. In fact, experts estimate that only 36% of organizations have a company-wide approach to goal setting.
Those of us who have attempted to set goals in the past — whether that be departmental revenue targets or those infamously doomed New Year's weight loss resolutions — would likely agree that setting the goal is the easy part. The brutal truth is that for a goal to make it beyond lip-service status, it must be adopted and upheld at every level of the business.
Here are the basic principles behind every great goal-setting framework.
Now that you know the fundamentals of why, let's dive deeper into the how and which.
You may already have a hunch that what works for Google may or may not be what's right for your company. Still, we now have more options for goal-setting than any other generation in business history, and deciding on something as powerful as THE north star for your entire company is a critical call to make.
After all, it may look great on paper, but what if it stops making sense as soon as the rubber meets the road? Luckily, there are some shared characteristics between the majority of proven goal frameworks.
The decision to choose OKRs, OGSMs or BSQs isn't what matters most. Any good goal/ goal-setting framework will have the same fundamental characteristics built in. The important part is not to cut any corners when it comes to executing these elements in the day-to-day.
When setting a good goal for your company and the individuals who make it run, make sure your goal ticks the above boxes.
But don't forget that, as with every other element of your business, goal setting is a living, breathing process. There may be times you have to step back and really think through what works for your unique culture and business.
Tomas Tunguz, co-author of Winning with Data: Transform Your Culture, Empower Your People, and Shape the Future says it best, “Ultimately, logic and clear thinking are probably the best tools for setting goals, and motivating an organization properly.”
At times, applying those tools may require you to adjust your expectations. Or, in the words of another goal-setting pro, Bill Gates once famously said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” (And Bill's a guy who really gets stuff done.)
If you want to go after those BHAGs (that's Big Hairy Audacious Goals, in case that one escaped your radar), more power to you! Just create a goal-setting rule that in your organization, goals are meant to be pursued, not reached. Then align that in your metrics and feedback guidelines to support that goal across the org chart.
Because at the end of the day, the most important aspect of goal setting isn't a flashy acronym or perfectly-crafted memo, it's that you and your people all have a clear target to act on.
Is there a difference between goals and expectations?
Surely, there is, but it can be hard to articulate.
According to a 2015 survey from Gallup, roughly half of employees say they know what is expected of them at work. That can wreak havoc on employee productivity.
In fact, in another survey from ComPsych, 31% of respondents named “unclear expectations” as their biggest stressor at work. Clearly, it's time to recognize that expectations matter. Here's why.
Goals give us a challenge to help bring out our best.
Expectations give us simple habits and a professional code of conduct. Good expectations should also help us reach those goals — in the right way.
Think of a goal like the finish line. Expectations are the the daily actions, attitudes, practices that help you get there.
But how much do expectations (which can be anything from your tardiness policy to unspoken collective judgments on an employee's level of dedication) impact your team's ability to meet a goal? And how far are you willing to go to uphold your expectations?
Expectations are critical because they lay the groundwork for your company's culture. And what works for the Netflix, Amazon or even "lovey-doveys" like Zappos and Asana, may not work for you.
Sometimes expectations are documented in black and white "rules" or "guidelines". Many times they're completely unspoken. Either way, they send a clear message about what's important to you as a company.
And while they may seem like simple things we can expect from any job, they’re actually much bigger than that.
They're the basic rules for the entire social system that keeps the office running.
In many cases, it's a system that works just fine. But what happens when your top performer violates the dress code? Do you let it slide or do you stick your values and address it?
Recently Wells Fargo has gotten in a lot of deserved hot water for the Fake Account Scandal. The rampant fraud that occurred across the organization shows what can go wrong when leadership sets very aggressive goals and then has very lax expectations of how employees reach those goals. Before long the implied expectations can become, meet your goals at all costs...even fraud.
Aggressive goals are important, but an organization also needs expectations if it is going to remain true to itself as it pushes to meet difficult targets.
CEO of education platform Varsity Tutors, Chuck Cohn suggests making your expectations crystal clear (and well-documented).
"Creating a cultural identity can seem like an amorphous task that is potentially boundless in scope. Step one to push through this challenge is creating a simple and easy-to-articulate vision for what you are trying to accomplish and what sorts of behaviors, attitudes, and approaches are (and are not) valued by your organization. Try to explicitly describe, both to yourself and your team members, the culture you wish to create. This should exist in written form so as to prevent the message from being distorted."
Many leaders’ identities are so intertwined with their business that they don’t see the need to articulate company values. But employees have a different live experience and won’t share a leader’s values perfectly. It's unfair to assume that they should just "get it".
Keep your expectations clear, simple and documented (or frequently communicated) so everyone knows what matters. Or at least, so they can see where you're coming from when you pull them aside for a one-to-one.
Finally, your expectations shouldn’t be yours alone.
Much like goals, expectations are a moving target. They need to be set and reset in tandem with your employees and managers. Regular check-ins and reviews can help you keep your finger on the pulse of the values and expectations that are effectively moving your teams toward their goals, and alert you to those that could use a little rethinking.
While expectations can definitely be personal and tricky, they cut to the core of what a business does and who its people are. The good news is, we can choose to be just as intentional about setting and resetting high-performance expectations as we are about setting goals.
The oven beeps, you open the door, reach in and grab the cookie sheet. A searing pain shoots up from your burnt hand! You put on an oven mitt and try again. From that point on you always use an oven mitt when grabbing things in the oven.
That is a learning cycle, and one you may have personal experience with.
Learning cycles are made up of a plan, an action, a review of the results and an update to the plan going forward. We are very familiar with learning cycles in our day to day life, we call it learning from experience, trial and error, feedback loops, whenever we say “I’ll never do that again!” we’re referring to a particularly traumatic learning cycle.
We have all gone through millions (maybe even billions) of learning cycles in our lives. Most of what we know was learned in this way. Even the things we learn from books are just summaries of other people’s learning cycles. It is staggering to think about. Just try to imagine how many simple learning cycles were needed to get us to something like your smartphone.
In business the idea of the learning cycle has been part of management science for as long as there has been management science. Walter Shewhart and his champion Edwards Deming introduced the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle in the 1950s which later became an important part of the Toyota Production System. Six Sigma’s continuous improvement is an implementation of learning cycles, as is agile development and the lean startup methodology. The idea has been applied to organizational control and improvement over and over again.
But why do we need all these implementations of learning cycles if it is something we all already do naturally? The reason is that while we are naturally very good at simple learning cycles, more complex problems require some higher-order thinking and organization to take advantage of. For example if we eat something that instantly makes us sick all of us are naturally equipped to learn from that experience, but if eating something contributes to us becoming sick over many years we need science, statistics and millions of dollars in research to figure it out. The scientific method by the way is another implementation of a learning cycle.
So how do we make sure our organization is learning effectively?
We don’t need millions of data points or sophisticated statistical analysis and we definitely don’t need artificial intelligence. We can use Shewhart and Deming’s simple Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle.
Start by getting together with your employees and working out what their process or approach looks like today. Then work together to establish a best first guess for how to do things better. This is a great activity for one-on-ones.
Take action, interact with customers, sell, whatever it is. Remember that learning cycles are the same thing as learning by doing. At a certain point you need to stop learning from books and experts and start learning from your own work.
The easiest way to close a learning cycle is to just put a time frame on it. Every two weeks hold another one-on-one to review how the last plan went and discuss potential improvements to it. Don’t let a lack of sophisticated analysis get in the way of new ideas. Data are useful, but you don’t need them for every type of learning cycle (remember the oven).
Take some of the best ideas and update the plan. You’re now back at step one, that’s why it’s called a learning cycle.
That's it, that is all you need to start your team on a learning path. A simple learning cycle like this can be implemented at your organization with a few calendar invites and a word document. It’s a great practice for regular communication between managers and employees.
Why wouldn’t you harness the learning of your whole team?
Google is the most audacious company in the world. Their new projects are often so ahead-of-the-times that it can be hard to differentiate a google press release from a blurb for a sci-fi novel. Google is currently
Maybe you work for a company with goals as big as Google’s, but you probably don’t, and that’s ok. Most of us are working on goals like “Increase employee retention 12%.” Steady, incremental improvements designed to help us get a little bit better or even just keep the lights on another year.
There is nothing inherently wrong with incremental goals, but maybe we can also learn something from being a little more like Google, being a little more audacious.
Hunter Walk use to work at Google, but these days he invests in startups and writes a great business blog. Hunter recently shared a post about a meeting he once had with Larry Page the founder of Google.
“Larry, this quarter we’re going to aim to reduce buffering events from X to 90% of X through…,” our engineering lead started explaining before Larry looked up from the paper we’d given him.
“You should have zero buffering,” the Google cofounder suggested.
As we detailed why of course that would be impossible because of all the things we can’t control for and the desire to manage our own bandwidth costs, I saw a familiar look settle on Larry’s face. Half-impish (as in “oooh, you really want to go down this rabbit hole with me”) and half-incredulous (as in “Each day I awake with my mind wiped of the fact most people aren’t as smart as I am and then progressively discover during the course of my meetings that you’re all idiots”).
“You should come back with a plan for zero buffering.” End of meeting.
Hunter’s team went back to the drawing board, and something amazing happened. Before, the team had been “tracking occurrences of buffering in the player and browser, trying to categorize the causes (insufficient steady state user bandwidth, connectivity interruption, overworked client CPU, etc) and prioritizing which we could intelligently solve for.” Now with this audacious goal in front of them they were forced to think differently about the problem.
They started by just finding solutions, no matter how impractical they were, for example “A totally private, worldwide high-speed internet with locally cached video and free state-of-the-art PCs for every end user.” They also considered approaching the problem from a different angle, “what if it was more of a design challenge? Imagine a quick transition animation which played when you pressed the Play button that seemed to be a UX affordance but actually allowed us to start caching the video locally so we could tolerate connectivity interruptions in the post-play experience.”
Hunter’s team never achieved the zero buffering goal that Larry had set, but they did radically change their approach and achieve much more aggressive targets then they had originally thought possible, “the nature of the discussion was changed by a simple stretch goal exercise.”
Larry’s insistence on zero buffering is called “10x Thinking.” It is Google’s first of 8 principles for their innovative culture. “To put the idea simply: true innovation happens when you try to improve something by 10 times rather than by 10%.”
It is very easy to try. Take whatever it is you are setting a goal for and instead of multiplying it by 1.10 multiply it by 10. Look at that new audacious, Google-sized goal and ask yourself, “how would we do it?”
The beauty of 10x thinking is that there is no way you will be able to reach your 10x goal by just improving what you’re already doing. The exercise forces you to totally rethink your approach, maybe even rethink the problem.
Hunter Walk says “when I talk with any startup – Google scale or not – my easiest recommendation in brainstorming and goal-setting is to not get caught up in just local optimizations, not to stay exclusively in the land of reasonable, but devote some time to 10x Impact conversations.”
So even if you’re just trying to keep the lights on it might be worth thinking in terms of 10x rather than 10%.