A Recipe for Writing a Measurable Goal

by Stacey Barr |

How we write our goals or objectives has a fundamental effect on how easy it will be to measure, how meaningful the measure will be, and ultimately how likely the goal will be achieved.


What we’re exploring here is how measurable a goal is, and not what the measure of the goal is. There’s a difference. If a goal is not measurable, it means we won’t be able to find a meaningful measure for it, or perhaps no measure at all. And if a goal is measurable, we still need to take care in how we design the measure for it.

What does ‘measurable’ mean?

If a goal or objective is measurable, it means that we’re able to easily find a way to measure it. We’re able to measure a goal when we:

  • understand what specific subject the goal is about
  • can visualise or imagine what will be (and hopefully stay) different, when the goal is reached
  • can agree on what exactly we’d see more or less of, when the goal is reached

There are a few tests of the measurability of any goal. These tests help us find out which goals need to be rewritten to be able to measure them meaningfully. Three of these tests of measurability are whether:

  1. the goal is written as a result, not an action
  2. the goal is written with clear and specific language, not weasel words
  3. the goal is focused one one thing, and not multi-focused

Unlike the approach too many people take, rushing straight to the measures, the best way to find good measures or KPIs is to first start with goals that are measurable. A measure is evidence of something, and to be sure the evidence is useful, that ‘something’ needs to be clearly articulated first.

There are common problems that make goals immeasurable.

There are some traditional ways that we learn to write goals. We learn to be action-oriented. Or we learn to use ‘sophisticated’ business language. Or we learn to include as much as we can, so nothing important is left out, but in as few goals as possible. These traditional goal-writing approaches create problems for goal measurability, like those listed above. For example:

  • We end up with goals written in a way that people just don’t understand, or don’t share the same understanding of them. Weasel words are usually the culprit here.
  • We end up with goals that aren’t focused on making a difference, but instead focused on doing stuff. They’re simply actions or milestones.
  • We end up with goals that are not written specifically enough. Weasel words are at fault here too, but so are the goals that are really several goals smooshed together into one sentence.

You might already be agreeing, and thinking that the solution is to make our goals SMART.

The solution is not to use a framework like S.M.A.R.T.

S.M.A.R.T. means specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. S.M.A.R.T. is easy to remember, but not particularly practical. It names attributes of goals, and includes two that greatly influence measurability. But doesn’t help us to create goals with those attributes. For example:

  • How exactly do you write a goal that is specific?
  • What exactly makes a goal measurable?

A more practical solution is to understand the grammar and language of measurable goals. That’s because the way a goal is written is, essentially, about using grammar and language (or words) to express a desired state we want to achieve for some specific performance attribute.

Writing a measurable goal requires we meet five grammatical checkpoints.

The grammatical checkpoints for writing a measurable goal are not too difficult to understand, but it does require that we slow down a bit and be deliberate in how we articulate each goal. These checkpoints are:

  1. The noun is the subject the goal is about. It will likely be a part of the organisation, one of its stakeholders, or any of the routine outputs produced by the organisation. For example: the delivery process, customers, or policy documents.
  2. The adjective is the difference the goal is to make. It’s an observable or detectable quality about the subject (noun) that you want more or less of. For example: accuracy, loyalty, understandability.
  3. Verbs and adverbs often (but not always) suggest you have an action, not a goal. Check if you’ve actually written a milestone or project, rather than a result-oriented goal. For example: complete, put in place, set up, implement, build, establish.
  4. Commas and conjunctions suggest you have more than one goal. Each goal should be about just one thing. For example: increase speed, accuracy and productivity.
  5. The recipe for a measurable goal is: noun + linking verb + adjective phrase or adverb phrase (without using weasel words)

Consider how these examples follow this recipe for writing a measurable goal:

  • The delivery process is more accurate.
  • Customers are more loyal.
  • Policy documents are easier to understand.
  • Revenue is less volatile.
  • Problems are resolved more quickly.
  • Employees feel more engaged.
  • Recruitment becomes less expensive.
  • Work hours are not wasted.

Of course, goals can be a bit more complex than these. But I don’t think they need to be. Particularly if your goals are not measurable, it will help immensely to go back to basics, first.

Why do we have the ‘immeasurable goal’ problem in the first place?

It’s endemic, the incidence of goals that are not measurable. I’m flabbergasted by the overwhelming proportion of organisations that have immeasurable goals and, consequently, very poor measures. And I hope the irony hasn’t escaped you, either, that if a goal isn’t measurable (not specific and clear), then we can’t ever objectively and convincingly know if it’s being achieved or not. Why set a goal we can’t know we’ve achieved?

The main reasons for our struggle to set measurable goals, that I see most often, are these:

  • Leaders aren’t doing enough deep strategic thinking, about what goals really matter, what changes are really needed. They’re merely jumping through a series of strategic planning hoops.
  • Organisations have forgotten that an ounce of planning is worth a pound of rework. Everyone rushes through the goal setting process, because “OMG we’re so busy!” We need slower thinking if we’re going to avoid trivial goals that waste everyone’s time and energy.
  • Transparency and accountability are frightening. Society is still judgment-obsessed, and leaders are fearful of the judgment that will come down on them if they are specific and honest about improvement goals.

Many of us, therefore, have to do the rework on our poorly articulated goals. We need to rewrite them, to make them clear and specific and measurable. How else can they be achieved?

The formula for a measurable goal is: noun + linking verb + adjective phrase or adverb phrase.
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What grammar do you notice in your organisation’s goals? Which ones do you now see are measurable, and which ones are immeasurable?

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