Last week I appeared as part of the QA Touch Virtual Series. I spoke on the topic of goals and setting goals. I used the presentation to bring together a number of ideas about goals and goal setting, and this essay, in turn, is based on the presentation. This is Part 3, please read parts 1 and 2 before reading this section.

Read Part 1                  Read Part 2

Part 3: 

Setting goals is important for deciding and communicating what you want to achieve in a specific period. Goal setting provides value by forcing a degree of introspection, acting as a filter to separate the important from the irrelevant, and as a guide to channel behavior. Like many things in life the journey is often as important as the destination; however, setting goals is complex because there several systematic problems that affect setting goals.

  • Too Many Goals: Goals are not like potato chips (crisps), more is not better. It is possible to set too many goals. Like any other work environment, having too many tasks or projects in progress at any one time tends to complicate and slow progress. Solution: Implement a work-in-process limit (WIP) for your goals so that resource contention is minimized – your attention is a resource that must be managed.
  • Too Narrow of a Focus: This is a corollary to the “Too Many Goals” problem. Focusing on a single aspect of your life—your hobby or career, for example—can lead to a lack of balance that might cause you to sacrifice attention on other important aspects of your life. Solution: Ensure that you have a solid systems thinking view of the product your work impacts. Consider performing a value chain analysis. 
  • Poorly Estimated Goals: SMART goals are by definition supposed to be attainable and time-boxed. Any task that has a time box needs to be the right size to fit in the time box. Determining the right size requires estimating what can be accomplished in the amount of time in the time box. All estimation exercises require a solid definition of done and an understanding of the level of commitment to the task or goal. Solution: Use portfolio management techniques to prioritize your goals. Prioritization techniques include value ranking or weighted shortest job first. Once prioritized, the goals can be broken down into subgoals and tasks and then planned using agile planning techniques (backlogs, Kanban, and planning meetings similar to sprint planning).
  • Static Goals: The world is a dynamic place. As time moves forward, life happens, and it is possible that the context may have shifted. That means that you may need to change your goals. Similarly, as time goes by, some goals may have been accomplished without a next step or follow on goal. I have adopted a weight loss goal nearly every year of my adult life which I almost always meet. Which once accomplished is quickly celebrated and then not maintained. Solution: Consider adopting a broader BHAG type goal that requires more of a systemic approach that can’t be achieved or failed in a single step instead of a single step SMART goal. For example, improve your health rather than a simpler goal of losing 20 pounds. The sub-goals to support the BHAG goal can use the SMART framework. Secondly, perform periodic retrospectives to review progress and re-plan your goals based on context.
  • Inflicted Goals: Don’t set goals for others, and avoid having goals set for you. Goals that are imposed on you are not owned, which will lead to problems with motivation. Once upon a time in my role as a manager, my boss provided me with my annual goals which I then turned around and apportioned to my employees. I was not very motivated even though I received monthly tongue lashings to ensure I was progressing toward the goal (I did not pass the tongue lashings down). Solution: Push back on goals that are set for you (within the limits of decorum). When setting a goal, the person who is going to be held accountable for achieving the goal MUST be involved in setting the goal.
  • Weaponized Goals: When I first got out of school, I worked for a now-defunct clothing manufacturer. On my first or second day, my boss was explaining how sales quotas were set. One of the quotas was significantly higher than the equation should have called for. When I asked why I was told that the organization wanted the person to quit and that the goals were being used as a tool to send a message. A goal being used as a weapon will almost always demotivate everyone involved. Solution: Goals are not weapons; don’t use them that way.

Goals are used to guide and motivate. However, getting goals wrong can demotivate and lead to poor outcomes. There are a number of classic issues that lead people to set or adopt poor goals. Begin by reviewing how you set your goals over the last few years and identify whether you suffered from any systemic problems. Knowing the problems that tend to impact how you set your goals before you start the process will allow you to modify your process so that you don’t make the same mistakes again!

Ideas like having a BHAG, using SMART goals, wording statements in a more positive manner, and things to avoid are useful only if you remember them. A tool to remember is a simple checklist.

  1. Have you set a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG)?
    A BHAG is typically at the edge of possible performance and should push the envelope of what is possible.
  2. Are non-BHAG goals stated using the SMART framework (or equivalent)?
    Using the SMART (or other similar frameworks) will help you to craft goals that not only are attainable but also provide feedback on how you are progressing.
  3. Do your goals motivate you to higher performance?
    Goals are a tool to prompt and guide you to an achievement or level of performance.
  4. Will achieving your goals feed your sense of accomplishment and build self-confidence?
    Use your goals to create a positive feedback loop that supports you.
  5. Do you have control over achieving the goals you are writing?
    Goals that you have no control over achieving are not goals . . . I am not sure what I would call these (at least not that would be business safe).
  6. Are your goals prioritized?
    All goals are not created equal. Understand which goal (or goals) are the most important and which can be deprioritized if absolutely necessary.
  7. Have you written your goals in clear, positive language?
    Goals stated in a positive fashion provide more motivation by helping to frame feedback in a positive fashion (most true for novice and intermediate personnel). 
  8. Did you set your own goals?
    If your goals are inflicted on you, tweak them so that you can own them. Goals that you own provide more motivation. 
  9. Have you planned specific points in time for retrospectives and planning?
    Retrospectives provide time to reflect on progress and to re-plan how you will meet the goals you have set.

Goal setting is an important method of providing guidance. Goal setting in some contexts can be a formal process with rules, frameworks, and forms, or can be slapdash in other contexts. This simple checklist is offered as a tool to help you maximize the value you get from the process of setting goals.

Any effective approach to evaluating the goal performance requires a broad approach that combines measurement and observation and an understanding of why things work – theory. Most agilists are used to an empirical process that includes observation and measurement, Scrum is an empirical process. Empiricism uses our senses to generate knowledge. We use the phrase “inspect and adapt” to encapsulate the approach. Deming showed us one of the flaws in the purely empirical approach with his funnel experiment. In the experiment, tampering with the system—reacting to every change we see without understanding which outcomes are a result of a fundamental change in some important part of the system as opposed to normal variation within an otherwise well-calibrated system— results in poorer outcomes overall. Said a little differently, simply reacting to everything you see will not deliver efficient results; goals help us decide when to intervene and when not to intervene.