It’s a new year. And a typical time to set goals. But how do we do it effectively?
Are goals just a to-do list, or are they a list of things we hope will happen? How realistic should my goals be? How do I organize them?
These are the type of questions we’ll dive into for this goal-setting guide.
Goals help us focus and organize our actions and decisions and define our expectations and hopes. You can express goals on various time horizons, from “What do I want to get done today?” to “Where do I want to be in 10 years?”
On the shorter end goal look more like a to-do list. And this can be helpful if you just want to organize the day.
Because life can be hectic, identifying 1-3 things that need to happen today can at least prioritize the chaos. In the short run, this strategy can help avoid aimless busyness that comes from the tyranny of the urgent.
But how do we know what should be the goal for today? Ideally, this should flow from a larger, longer-term goal.
Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years. – BILL GATES
If taking a long-term approach is the most effective, how do we play the long game? Let’s begin by taking a step back and recognizing goals for what they are.
Goals define something we want to see accomplished. It's what we hope will be true in the future. This future hope perspective can be helpful, but it can also easily drift into becoming overly self-focused and achievement-oriented.
Goals help us focus and organize our actions and decisions
To set goals effectively, first set your priorities. Priorities anchor your goals to what truly matters. If you haven’t set priorities, pause and take my 5-day journey to living by your priorities. It will help you bring alignment between all your days and your everyday.
Now that you have your priorities in place, goals are scaling those down to be more actionable. There are many ways to do this, and I’d like to share my goal journey from the to-do list to OKRs.
I thrive on focus and clarity, which leads me to enjoy goal-setting. I also love learning, so I’ve tried several methods over the years. Today I want to share my journey in hopes that it will be helpful for you on your own goals journey.
Here are a few goal-setting techniques I’ve used.
These are ordered by how I experienced them. As I practiced each, I grew and learned more about what I needed in goal setting, both personally and as a team leader.
Goals define something we want to see accomplished.
I currently use objectives and key results at work and in my personal life. But I still incorporate many of the principles of the other goal-setting strategies. You may find one of the strategies more helpful for where you are in your journey and the decisions you’re trying to make.
Let’s dive in.
To-do lists are the most straightforward approach to follow, and they are great for organizing daily goals or a specific group of tasks.
The benefit of a to-do list lies in the clarity that comes from breaking down a goal into something you can do today, tomorrow, or next week.
To-do lists help us track and celebrate what we’ve accomplished. There is something just so gratifying about crossing something off the to-do list. This is why many people 🙋🏼♂️will write down something they just completed but wasn't on the list, just for the joy of crossing it off.
Wondering how to make an effective to-do list? I present you with the to-do list for making to-do lists.
It's really that simple. But don't be fooled by the simplicity. There is still enormous power that comes from clarifying what needs to be done, ordering it by priority and focusing on one at a time.
Identifying 1-3 things that need to happen today can at least prioritize the chaos.
This practice of writing down and prioritizing your to-do list isn’t that different from how a Scrum team prioritizes their product and sprint backlogs.
The simple power of the to-do list is why I created my MinmalList method. It provides a little more structure and constraint to leverage clarity, priority and focus better. You can make your one MinimalList note or order a pad online.
When it comes to to-do lists, you can take a low-fi paper approach, or there are plenty of apps if you want to go the digital route. Five apps that I recommend:
I started with to-do lists and still use them as a quick and easy way to organize my goals.
If you want to upgrade your to-do list skills, two great books are To Do, Doing, Done and Getting Things Done.
However, to-do lists are also limited in that you may end up writing down a lot of tasks without making sure they all contribute towards the larger goal. That is where the SMART goal system comes in.
The SMART Goals system is a time-tested method to help make goals more actionable. The acronym stands for
Using the SMART method, you can structure your goal and break it down into actionable steps more likely to lead to results.
To understand how to use the SMART goal system, let's look at an example of a goal.
Let’s say your goal is “I want to be in better shape.” This goal is too vague and not very actionable. How do you know if you moved toward being in better shape on a Tuesday?
There is enormous power that comes from clarifying what needs to be done, ordering it by priority and focusing on one at a time.
If we use the SMART system, it might become: “I want to train for a 10K race by running at least 15 miles per week and completing 5 yoga sessions each month over the next 6 months."
Now this goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. You’ll know if you’re doing the work, and you can see how it leads to your desired outcome. That’s the power of SMART goals.
If you like simple frameworks like SMART goals, I encourage you also to check out user stories and acceptance criteria. They are both simple structures for identifying your goals' why, what and how.
The strategic planning process is a more structured approach. It will feel like a big jump from the to-do list and SMART goals. It’s most commonly used for teams but also applies to an individual.
The process does an excellent job of identifying information that will inform your goals and the steps you will take to get there. One key advantage of the strategic planning process is that your plan fits on one page when completed.
To create your strategic plan, you define each part in order:
The strategic planning process was the preferred method for the organization I was in when I first began leading teams. It was helpful because the process is straightforward and well-defined, but I quickly began to adapt it using some of the following methods.
For a deeper dive into each piece of the strategic planning process, I have a post that will walk you through running your own process.
You can also check out the book Advanced Strategic Planning by Aubrey Malphurs if you want a really deep dive.
The vision frame comes from Will Mancini’s book Church Unique. It improves on many aspects of the strategic planning process and excels at fleshing out the vision in clear and compelling terms.
I find writing the vision very helpful when setting the direction and aligning new teams. It provides a tangible and compelling picture of where we’re trying to go.
The tool creates a “frame” around your vision. Visually this helps you focus on where you’re going and what milestones take you there. Let’s cover some of the critical elements.
Vision Frame Elements
I like the visual nature of the Vision Frame approach. I’ve used it leading many different teams over the years and still refer to it when setting up a new team.
If you want to do this for yourself or your team, I’ve written out the steps you can follow to create your own vision frame. I also recommend buying Church Unique and working through it.
4DX comes from the same people who brought us the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I discovered The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) about ten years ago as a young leader. It filled the critical gap of execution. 4DX focuses on expanding from strategy (what we will do) to execution (how we will do it).
Here are the four disciplines:
The 4 Disciplines of Execution are beneficial for teams and projects that are more complex or require coordinated contributions from the team.
4DX focuses on expanding from strategy (what we will do) to execution (how we will do it)
The team I led ran 4DX for several years, which significantly impacted our goals and our team’s engagement. Some team members took a little while to get the hang of the lag measures. But once it clicked, we were able to see the daily impact of our actions on a four-month-long goal.
If you’re interested in applying 4DX personally or at work, I’ve elaborated on each discipline, and I recommend getting the Four Disciplines of Execution book.
The creating clarity concept comes from Parick Lencioni in his books Silos, Politics and Turf Wars and The Advantage. Side note, if you’re not familiar with Lencioni, take a moment and check out his leadership fables. They are easy to read, or listen to, and have a ton of practical wisdom for leadership.
You’ll see some significant overlap with each of the previous models. However, there are some helpful additions and nuances to the creating clarity process.
The clarity comes from answering six questions:
Answering these questions provides a framework to set goals and lead your team. The answers to these questions should align with each other and fit on one page, providing structure, focus, and clarity so that everyone can move in the same direction.
Creating clarity is an excellent tool for teams that must maintain focus on strategic goals. It keeps everyone aligned, accountable, and motivated toward achieving their objectives.
It has a lot in common with the vision frame, but Creating Clarity is a comprehensive framework that stands on its own. I like how it identifies the values driving individual and team behavior.
For this reason, I often combine Creating Clarity with other frameworks. In particular, I like to combine it with either 4DX or OKRs.
The last goal-setting strategy I want to share is the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) method. This system was pioneered by Intel in the 1970s and popularized by Google in the early 2000s.
OKRs share many similarities to 4DX, and both are scalable across teams and organizations. But ORKs are lighter weight and thus a more adaptable system.
This approach focuses on setting a big, audacious goal (the Objective) and then breaking it down into smaller, achievable tasks that will move you toward the goal (the Key Results).
Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.
– JOHN DOERR
Objectives identify to goal to achieve. They’re usually one sentence, specific and actionable.
Key Results describe how the objectives are achieved. They are specific, quantifiable, and time-bound. When reviewing key results, it should be immediately apparent whether or not the result has been reached.
OKRs are great for teams who want to focus their efforts on a single, ambitious goal. They’re also helpful when coordinating across multiple departments or stakeholders to achieve a shared outcome.
The beauty of OKRs is that they are flexible and iterative. You can adjust the objectives or key results as needed to ensure you’re on track. They also provide a clear sense of progress and momentum, which can motivate your teams.
OKRs feels like a sweet spot to me of lightweight but fully integrated. I use it for my personal goal-setting, and it’s what I most commonly recommend to organizations I work with.
The framework is simple to learn and communicate but requires a high level of commitment to succeed. If you’re interested in learning more, I walk through the OKR process in more detail. I also suggest reading John Doerr’s book Measure What Matters or checking out his website.
I run Scrum both at work and at home. OKRs are my roadmap.
My sprints still have goals, and they often come from the key results I’ve set. Before that, I used the Vision Frame to set the direction and 4DX to get there. And I mixed a fair amount of flavor from the Advantage.
Whether you pick one of these goal-setting methods or create your style, I encourage you to take the time to set goals for this year. Then share them with someone else.
Pay attention to how it feels when you say them out loud to someone else. And ask for feedback. Seeing your goals through someone else’s eyes helps uncover blindspots and may generate new ideas for reaching your goals.
Whatever goal-setting strategy you choose, the key is ensuring that it fits your or your team and helps you achieve the desired outcome. Take a look at all of them – or better yet, combine them – and find the right system for you! Good luck! ;-) ! :)
I’d love to hear what goals you set for this year. Let’s connect on LinkedIn and take the journey together.
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