A Recipe for Writing a Measurable Goal

May 22, 2018 by Stacey Barr

How we write our goals or objectives – or any result we want to monitor the achievement of – has a fundamental effect on how easy it will be to measure, how meaningful the measure will be, and ultimately how likely the right goal will be achieved.

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I’m talking here about 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 you won’t be able to find a meaningful measure – or any measure – for it. And if a goal is measurable, you still need to take care in how you design the measure for it.

What does ‘measurable’ mean?

It basically means that we’re able 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

Start with these 3 tests of the measurability of your goals. They’ll help you find out which goals need to be rewritten to be able to measure them meaningfully.

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 with how people write goals, that make those goals immeasurable.

The problems with how people write goals get in the way of those three parts of measurability, listed above. Many goals are written in a way that people just don’t understand. Or they don’t share the same understanding of them. Weasel words are usually the culprit here.

And many goals aren’t really focused on making a difference; they’re focused on doing stuff. They’re simply actions or milestones.

And there are plenty of goals that are not written specifically enough. They don’t make it clear what exactly we want more or less of. Weasel words are at fault here too, but so are the goals that are really several goals smooshed together into one sentence.

The solution is not to use a trivial 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 cute but not practical. The solution is to understand and apply the grammar of measurable goals.

Writing a measurable goal requires we meet five grammatical checkpoints:

  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, you need 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. The main reasons that I see are these:

  • Leaders aren’t doing enough deep strategic thinking, about what goals really matter, what changes are really needed. They’re just jumping through a series of strategic planning hoops.
  • Organisations have forgotten that an ounce of planning is worth a pound of prevention. 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.

So we must now do the rework on our poorly articulated goals. We need to rewrite them, to make them clearer and more 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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DISCUSSION:

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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  1. Bob Harper says:

    Hi Stacy, thanks for this; it’s really useful.

    How different is your approach crafting measurable goals to the Objectives in the OKR model made famous by Google?

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Generally the way goals or objectives are written include weasely language or action language. The OKR documentation I’ve seen does not address either of these two problems. But they are very common problems, so I believe we need to give deliberate attention to prevent them. Weasely language is impossible to measure, and actions lead to trivial “tick box” measures.

  2. Allan Coker says:

    I don’t understand. On one hand you say that we should NOT use a trivial framework like S.M.A.R.T. but then conclude that we need to rewrite goals to make them clearer, more specific and measurable?

    I also have difficulty understanding how the examples you have provided and which are intended to demonstrate the recipe for a measurable goal (noun + linking verb + adjective phrase or adverb phrase) are measurable. For example if the goal is to make the delivery process more accurate, how is that measured? How do you find out if customers are more loyal?

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