Are Your Goals Too Broad to Measure?

by Stacey Barr |

Some goals are broad, and when we unravel them, there can actually be many goals wrapped up as one. Can we make broad goals measurable?

If you feel overwhelmed by measuring a goal. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/airdone

You’ve probably got some broad goals that sound a bit like these:

  • “We have the right gear and the right people, in the right place at the right time.”
  • “Deliver a best practice development approval procedure.”
  • “We consistently provide safe, high quality, timely care.”

Some will argue that lofty, broad goals are good because everyone can see something in them they can contribute to. Not so. Everyone struggles to find meaningful ways to measure those lofty, broad goals.

From every reputable strategy guru that ever was, we know that goals should be specific, not broad.

The key to strategy is omission.
— Michael Porter

If you have broad goals like those above, stop dead in your tracks and proceed no further with trying to measure them! To find out if you really do have a goal, or if your strategy process has failed to do the one thing it’s supposed to do (prioritise), ask yourself the following three questions:

Question 1: Is it a goal, or is it a mission?

A goal is based on something we want to be better at. A mission is a statement of our overarching purpose, and everything we do contributes to it. If you have a goal that sounds more like a mission statement, it will lure you into the trap of trying to measure absolutely everything that relates to why your organisation or team exists.

Here is an example of such a mission-flavoured goal, belonging to a field logistics team in a mining company: “We have the right gear and the right people, in the right place at the right time.”

That’s their mission, not a goal. To have more meaningful and measurable goals, this team needs to explore what about the right gear or right people or right place or right time might not be working well enough. They might then form a few focused goals like these:

  1. If their customers complain about delays in getting what they need, a goal might be: “field programs are not delayed by lack of field support”.
  2. If they get the right gear there on time, but it doesn’t always work, another goal might be: “all the gear works immediately”.
  3. If they mostly get what’s needed there, on time, but they don’t quickly handle it when field programs change, another goal might be: “field support adjusts quickly to emerging circumstances”.

What you can do:

Look at your goal and check if it’s a statement describing everything that you’re about, versus what is most important to improve or excel at right now. Get good at measuring what you need to improve most right now, before you try to measure everything that relates to your purpose.

Question 2: What is the impact it’s supposed to have?

Goals describe the results, outcomes, impacts or qualities we want to be better. Actions describe the tasks we do in order to produce the outputs that will have those results, outcomes, impacts or qualities. If you have goals that describe the latter, you’ll only end up measuring trivial counts of how much stuff you’re doing.

Actions masquerading as goals are more common than most people realise, including the planning and development team from a local government organisation: “Deliver a best practice development approval procedure.”

They’ve described their core process, not the result or outcome or impact or quality the outputs of this process should have. You can easily imagine that with the goal above they might simply measure the number of development approvals they process. But they’ll have much more meaningful performance measures if they talk about why they have this core process in the first place:

  1. If an outcome of development approvals is to protect the existing citizens from unintended
    consequences of new developments, then one goal might be “approved developments have community support”.
  2. If an intended impact of development approvals is to increase new business into the region, then a goal might be “business investment grows and remains in the region”.

What you can do:

Sometimes, when your goals are really just actions, it’s as simple as asking ‘why?’ Why do we do that task or that procedure or that process? Why do our customers want the outputs we produce? The answer to these questions should be the result, outcome, impact or quality that you really should measure.

Question 3: Which parts of the goal need improvement?

Great goals focus on a single result or outcome or impact or quality. They are specific (remember what S in SMART stands for?). Goals that are multi-focus are not good goals because one measure cannot provide direct evidence of different results. And when goals are broad enough to imply many different results, it’s hard to figure out exactly which of them are worth measuring.

In many health organisations, it feels like everything must matter. Consequently, goals can become bloated with many things that matter: “We consistently provide safe, high quality, timely care.”

Of course all of that matters. But this goal is multi-focused. Can you think of a single performance measure that would provide evidence for this goal? What about a single performance measure that would provide evidence just for the ‘safe’ part? Or just for the ‘high quality’ part? We move faster toward excellence when we focus on less. So the health organisation would need to decide what exactly the most important part of this goal is to improve right now:

  1. There might be specific aspects of safety that are currently problematic, like “patients are not harmed by their treatment”.
  2. Depending on which specific quality attributes of care need improvement the most, then goals might be “patients feel we have listened to them” or “patients trust their treatment” or “care plans don’t need correcting”. (Imagine how many more there might be!)
  3. Maybe there are specific aspects of timeliness in care that need priority attention, like “patients get the care they need quickly after diagnosis”.

What you can do:

Separate each implied result from your multi-focus goal into a separate goal or result statement. Then apply the Should, Can, Will test and only measure those that are a definitive ‘yes’ to each.

***

If your strategic planning process persists in producing goals that are too broad to measure meaningfully, you need to take a closer look at that planning process. Measurement is almost always easy when the goals are specific.

If you feel overwhelmed by measuring a goal, let alone achieving it, then the goal is too broad. Make each goal specific. [tweet this]

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  1. David Di Lollo says:

    Hi Stacey,
    Our organisation are still on the PuMP journey but continue to find head scratching conundrums when applying it in the real world.
    Just yesterday I was prep’ing a new Measures Reference Group (ie. business team that will help develop new process measures) with some PuMP 101 training.
    The confusion that we seem to face is PuMP talking about only measure those things you want to improve, but then knowing that our processes must also meet agreed SLA’s (service level agreement). If we strictly followed PuMP, we wouldn’t be publishing those SLA related measures, as they are something they MUST ‘monitor’ but won’t necessarily improve. In reality, the business needs to know, but it seems to contradict PuMP.
    What’s your thoughts on SLA measures in the context of PuMP for process management measures?

    • Stacey Barr says:

      David, you are right, that PuMP emphasises that we measure what we intend to improve. That’s one of PuMP’s Measurability Tests. And it’s more important for those people just starting out with measurement, and feeling stuck by all the possible things they could measure. But absolutely we can use PuMP to measure anything else. Like SLAs. The important thing here is that an SLA is not really a goal related performance result, but a business-as-usual performance result. So for SLA’s you probably don’t need to apply that specific Measurability Test (Should, Can, Will), and go right ahead and use PuMP to measure those SLA results more meaningfully.

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