What makes a good goal versus a bad one? Having set a lot more bad goals than good ones, I have many thoughts on this topic. A goal should be clear, simple, specific, and so on. But in this article, I’ll focus on a single attribute of a good goal: whether it is realistically achievable.
By realistically achievable I mean there’s a clear path and plan to achieve the goal. Everyone should know what’ll be true when we achieve the goal, and that steps X, Y, and Z will get us there, barring “acts of God.” If those are true, we should feel it’s possible, but we should know it isn’t certain.
Why does this matter so much? There are two big reasons why good goals are realistically achievable: what happens if you reach it, and what happens if you miss it.
What Happens When You Reach It
When you reach a goal, everyone should celebrate it. It should bring people together around a sense of accomplishment, shared purpose, teamwork. There should be a sense that we pushed ourselves to do what we weren’t sure we’d be able to do. It should be motivating; it should reinforce the team’s momentum and energy.
There’s two basic possibilities when you reach a goal: it was realistic and achievable, or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, that undermines the whole thing. Nobody knows whether it’s really worth celebrating. How do we know we weren’t sandbagging? Maybe we could have done a lot more and we just didn’t expect enough of ourselves. Or maybe it was just luck and next time we could do the same thing and get different results? There’s no sense of any direct relationship between planning, effort, skill, and outcomes. The wind goes out of the team’s sails.
But if the goal was realistic—meaning that there was a plan, and it was clear that we all had to push ourselves really hard and work tightly together—we know we didn’t just stumble past the finish line. It wasn’t dumb luck. We worked hard, and we achieved the goal because of our teamwork and effort, executing on our careful and intelligent planning. That is something we can celebrate wholeheartedly.
What Happens When You Come Up Short
If you fail to reach a goal, it should be motivating anyway. Sure, we need to acknowledge our disappointment, and say “take your mind off work for the weekend and I’ll see you Monday.” But we can still use the occasion to bond more tightly, to redouble our resolve, to acknowledge our respect and dedication to each other.
As long as the goal was realistic and achievable, that is! It’s the same dynamic that happens when we reach a goal: in failure, realistic goals are motivating, and unachievable goals are demoralizing.
When we know that the goal was realistic, and we fail to achieve it, we know whether we gave it our all or not. We know how much was our effort, and how much was just luck or circumstances. If we came up just a bit short on the goal, and we feel like we also fell a bit short on our personal effort, that’s motivating: next time we’ll work harder. We won’t let each other down again.
If the goal was unrealistic and we fail to achieve it, we see it as confirmation that we were set up to fail. Few things feel worse than being set up to fail.
When Are You Ready?
What if you can’t set a realistic, achievable goal yet? What if you know that you need to set a goal related to a particular part of the business, or a team, or a customer outcome, but a) you’re not sure how to measure it or b) you’re not sure you can build a plan—such as a spreadsheet—that’ll credibly show the math of what’s necessary to get there?
I think this probably depends a lot on leadership style. Some people motivate and manage with logic and plans; others can do it with personal charisma, appeals to loyalty, mission focus, and so on.
What I’ve found personally, is that it’s better for me not to set a goal before I’m ready. Your mileage may vary, but after setting a bunch of goals that did more harm than good, and then seeing how much better it works when I do the preparation work first, that’s where I’ve landed.