Replace Your Action-Oriented Goals With Result-Oriented Goals

by Stacey Barr |

One of the reasons why we can’t find meaningful performance measures for our goals has to do with whether the goals are about actions or results. Action-oriented goals aren’t true goals, since goals should be about making a difference, not just doing stuff.

We find plenty of both action-oriented and result-oriented goals, often mixed together, in strategic plans and operational plans in all sectors and industries. And we find that many people don’t even realise there is a difference.

But there is a difference, and the difference matters in how meaningful (and useful) our performance measures can be.

Action-oriented goals are tasks, projects, milestones or activities.

They aren’t true goals, even though it’s common to refer to the completion of a task or project as a goal.

  • They don’t describe an impact or outcome that is an enduring quality that can be continually improved, or that continually matters.
  • They describe discrete units of work that might very well achieve an outcome or create an impact on an enduring quality. They have a start, a finish, and series of steps in between.
  • They consume resources and time.
  • They are done or completed, rather than achieved.

Examples of action-oriented goals are:

  • ‘Build a network of priority bus corridors.’
  • ‘Implement the new financial software by June.’
  • ‘Train all staff in time management.’
  • ‘Enhance our customer service policy.’
  • ‘Introduce at least one new innovative product.’
  • ‘Report near-miss accidents.’

Action-oriented goals cannot be meaningfully measured.

They lend themselves to be measured in trivial ways:

  • milestones like ‘completed by end of year’ (milestones are not measures, by the way)
  • single points of data like ‘on-budget’
  • volumes of inputs or resources like ‘number of staff trained’ or ‘kilometres of bus corridor constructed’

These measures don’t describe performance, because they don’t describe whether the action created the desired effect or not.

Action-oriented goals and action-oriented measures keep our attention on doing stuff. Project management takes care of this. What we need our attention on, through performance measurement, is making a difference that matters.

This doesn’t mean we discard actions. We need to start by setting result-oriented goals, and then choosing the best actions that will achieve those goals.

Result-oriented goals are true goals.

They are true goals because they statements about improvement compared with now; a change for the better.

  • They describe an impact or outcome that is an enduring quality.
  • They can be changed (improved) by more than one type of action and some actions will have more impact on them than others.
  • They don’t have a start or finish nor are they a series of steps to follow.
  • They are qualities that are always present, and they either matter to us right now or they don’t.
  • They don’t consume resources or time.They are the effect of how we spend resources or time. They aren’t completed.
  • They are achieved and being achieved means that the quality they describe has in some way improved.

Examples of result-oriented goals are:

  • ‘Decrease peak-hour transit times.’
  • ‘Reduce the error rate in financial reports.’
  • ‘Reduce overtime hours.’
  • ‘Increase customer loyalty.’
  • ‘Grow our market share.’
  • ‘Keep projects on-time and on-budget.’
  • ‘No-one is harmed by preventable accidents.’

Result-oriented goals are easier to find meaningful measures for.

When we look for a measure for a result-oriented goal, we’re looking for direction and objective evidence of the result we want:

  • We could measure the average transit time during peak-hour periods over time and see by how much our bus corridor project reduces it.
  • We could measure the number of errors per data item in financial reports and look for the decrease we expect after the new financial system is up and running.
  • We could measure the total overtime hours worked each week and test what impact productivity training has on reducing it.

Result-oriented goals and result-oriented measures keep our attention on making a difference that matters, through the actions we deliberately choose and implement.

Result-oriented measures are what performance measurement is all about.

DISCUSSION:

Do you have action-oriented goals? What result do you think they are aimed at achieving?

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  1. Thangavel S says:

    I am working as talent assessor in a company.

  2. Patrick says:

    Hello folks;
    One of our goals is currently written as “Simplify development of relevant HR data and analytics enabling evidence based workforce decisions”, While I realize there are some weasel words in there (simplify, evidence base) how could it be improved but still keep the essential elements and focus? Thanks for any feedback.
    Patrick

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Patrick, a few thoughts on improving the measurability and clarity of your goal:

      1) It’s written as an action, and risks being measured by a milestone relating to WHEN the simplification is complete. It might help to write it more as a statement of fact, as though it’s already happened e.g. HR data is relevant and HR analytics enable more workforce decisions to be evidence-based.
      2) It’s multi-focused, which means it’s really two or three goals in one: data is relevant, analytics are useful/usable (=enable), workforce decisions are evidence-based. Each of these goals would be measured differently.

      Try this: https://www.staceybarr.com/measure-up/a-recipe-for-writing-a-measurable-goal/

  3. Jenny says:

    Hi Stacey,
    I noticed in the examples you provided that results-oriented goals tend to use only two types of verbs: increase and decrease (and their respective synonyms).
    The verbs to “improve” and to “reach” are results-oriented as long as they have the connotation of increasing or decreasing, for instance:
    Improve pizza delivery time to the client (the clear implication is reducing delivery time).
    But if I say: improve the needs assessment process, the intent is more qualitative (perhaps make the process more efficient) so this would be an action-oriented goal.
    What’s your take?

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Jenny, you’re on the right track. Any verbs (like improve, reach, decrease, optimised, enhance, increase, and so on…) are irrelevant as to whether or not your goal is expressed as an action or a result. Those verbs are merely expressions of our intention to make something better than it currently is. The important part of a goal is the object to which the improvement is being done.

  4. Jim says:

    In your link “Make sure your goal is a result, not an action.” (Short cut 1), you rightly explain that there is a difference between actions-orientated goals and result-orientated goals (true goals) and you give some examples e.g.
    • ‘Decrease peak-hour transit times.’
    • ‘Reduce the error rate in financial reports.’

    You also go on to state that “Result-oriented goals are easier to find meaningful measures for”. e.g.
    • We could measure the average transit time during peak-hour periods over time and see by how much our bus corridor project reduces it.
    • We could measure the number of errors per data item in financial reports and look for the decrease we expect after the new financial system is up and running.
    However, I am struggling with the lack of a quantitative element of the goal i.e. “what does success look like”?
    If we don’t have a measurable target how will we know how much, time / effort / resource etc is required to deliver the change and how will we know whether we have succeeded or not
    I quite often have discussions with colleagues regarding qualitative goals and pose the question (using your example above) e.g. if we decrease peak-hour transit times by 1% we have in fact met the goal by way of a 1% decrease but is that enough and was it worth the effort?
    Do we not need to identify a target within our goal that will make a difference?

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Jim this is a great question, because it relates to a common confusion I see so many people stuck in. The problem is the meaning of the word ‘goal’. Some believe a goal is just the words that describe the state we want. Others believe it has to include a measure and a target and a date. Others believe that some goals should be the how-to. It’s a mess. What I suggest is that when you want to make something better, you need four components (whether they are integrated into the same statement or not doesn’t matter): goal that describes in words the state you want + a measure that is evidence of that goal + a target that says what the measure’s baseline should move to + a date by which to achieve that target + an action that will make the necessary changes to reach that target. It can come together something like this: https://www.staceybarr.com/measure-up/the-5-essential-parts-of-a-dust-repellent-strategic-plan/

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