The Grammar of a Measurable Goal

by Stacey Barr |

Writing measurable goals doesn’t always come naturally, but one grammar formula makes it easier.

word cloud of grammatical terms

Goals, objectives, priority statements and performance results are just some of the terminology we use to describe the stuff we want to measure. There are different ideas and different practices for how to articulate these things. Just read through a few different strategic plans (including your organisation’s!) and you’ll quickly realise just how much variety there is in how goals are written.

Here I offer you the simplest possible way to articulate your goals, so you can successfully find a meaningful way to measure it. But let’s start by recognising the goal grammar that isn’t meaningfully measurable.

If your goal grammar is activity-timeframe…

The activity-timeframe formula (and sometimes just ‘activity’ without a timeframe) for goal grammar goes something like this:

  • Build a CRM system before December next year.
  • Train all operational staff in safe working practices by the end of June.
  • Streamline delivery processes.

Goals that are written with the activity-timeframe grammar really are not goals at all. Goals need to describe the impact or outcome or result we want to change. Actions are the things we do in order to achieve the goal, or make the change a reality.

WHAT TO DO: Rewrite your goals as results. Keep the activities, but position them as the ‘how’ that will achieve the goal.

If your goal grammar is verb-subject-target-timeframe…

The verb-subject-target-timeframe formula for goal grammar goes something like this:

  • Improve the loyalty of key customers by 10% before December next year.
  • Reduce the safety risk by 50% by the end of June.
  • Achieve industry best-practice delivery timeliness within 12 months.

The most trouble with this formula is that it forces us to select a target before we even know how we’re measuring it. Everyone gets too distracted by ‘how to measure the target’ that they forget what the goal really is about.

WHAT TO DO: Save the targets until you have the measures for the goal. Goal grammar does not need targets. When you have a measurable goal, you’ll add a measure and target to it later.

If your goal grammar is verb-subject-action…

Another way goals are written is with the formula of verb-subject-action, like these:

  • Increase customer loyalty through a CRM.
  • Reduce safety risk by training all operational staff.
  • Improve delivery timeliness by streamlining the delivery process.

The confusion with this method (which is often recommended by followers of the S.M.A.R.T method) is that people end up measuring the action, not the result. For example, they’ll be tempted to measure the implementation of the CRM, rather than the amount of customer loyalty.

WHAT TO DO: Separate the goals from their actions, in the same way we separate the measures and their targets. Each of these elements is important to single out, not mix up.

If your goal grammar is verb-subject…

A more common formula for goal grammar is simply verb-subject (again where the verb is usually a changing or improving verb):

  • Increase customer loyalty.
  • Enhance safety.
  • Accelerate delivery times.

Recall that the activity-timeframe goals above also start with verbs, like build and train and streamline. But the verbs here are what we call changing verbs or improving verbs, like increase, enhance, reduce, minimise, elevate, amplify, and optimise.

When they’re trying to measure goals with changing or improving verbs, people often ask “so how do you measure the increase?” or “how do you measure ‘enhance’?” or “how do you measure accelerate?” They focus on the wrong part of the goal.

WHAT TO DO: Read the next section to find out!

The grammar of a goal should describe a future fact.

My preference to writing goals that are results-oriented and meaningfully measurable is to simply articulate the performance result we want, as though it’s already a fact. A fact in the future, actually.

The performance result implied by the goal is the bit that we’re trying to measure. And words that describe that is all we need, until we have the measure. When we have the measure, it’s easier to choose targets and timeframes. And when we have targets and timeframes, it’s easier to decide on the how-to actions.

So the goal grammar I recommend is simply subject-state, as you’d want to witness it in the future, when the goal is achieved:

  • Customers are loyal.
  • People are safe at work.
  • Delivery is timely.

Of course, these statements still need some work on weasel words, like loyal, safe, and timely. But once you’ve replaced them with more specific language, you have something that you can easily design a measure for. A goal is only measurable when we can witness the impact it implies.

So, the above result statements could become these:

  • Customers keep buying from us.
  • People go home from work unharmed.
  • Widgets are delivered without delay.

Why should goal grammar be any more complicated than this?

Can you rewrite one of your goals so it describes a future fact rather than an action? Like this: ‘people go home from work unharmed’ rather than ‘enhance safety’. [tweet this]

Speak Your Mind

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  1. Damian says:

    I wonder if the measures are a little too stripped back? Take the first. While we can measure “customers buying from us”, I’m not sure its clear that we are looking for an increase and what degree of increase we might need to feel progress is being made. So if the objective is to measure stuff, isn’t it also important to be sure we are telling a story with our measure and wouldn’t that begin with a more specific measure, say “customers are buying 10% more from us?”

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Damian, I don’t think we need the target until we have decided what the measure is (the quantification of evidence of the result/goal), and then figured out where the measure’s baseline (current performance) is. Perhaps we also need to understand the resources we have to make a change to the process that is producing the result/goal. Then we can figure out the target. That is informed target-setting. Separate the steps and it becomes more meaningful and deliberate.

  2. Stacey,
    always great to read your ideas and how you help create a better way to see the measure or the goal. It’s about reframing the goal in a context that the people who will use it can understand it and once that happens the rest seems to fall into place.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Fall in place, it does! (Sounds like something Yoda would say.) One step at a time, I like to remind people. Result, then measure, then baseline (if one doesn’t exist yet), then target and timeframe, then how-to initiative.

  3. Benjamin Leschke says:

    Very interesting read Stacey. I went through three phases of thinking shortly after reading it;

    1. This approach (subject-state) is perfect and subscribes to the good old fashioned theory of Keep It Simple Stupid, which I think we don’t use enough these days. It also reduces the guff we tend to have in all our work. Less truly is more in the subject-state approach. It presents a straightforward outline of what you want to achieve.
    2. Then I applied this to my understanding of my own work environment and I can see people jumping up and down on their seats stating that it is overly simplistic; almost too simplistic to be useful. We have this innate sensibility, and it is quite contradictory. We SAY we don’t want much writing or many words when putting things together, however we ACT in response by claiming things are not clear enough or lack detail; thus we end up back where we started; a long document or long words that people claim they will never read/hear.
    3. Then I thought, I actually like the subject-state approach. Keeping things simple does not decrease their importance, nor does it soften their impact. I think it is ok to say that the efforts behind this (the SMART components that are missing) can be explored elsewhere and that is ok.

    It actually reminds me of an old school approach to responding to long-winded work; “That is too verbose, trim it down but don’t lose the important stuff!” Then upon further inquest, the teacher says it is all important; the elusive white whale of striking that balance. By the way I don’t believe the whale exists, if fact no one believes the whale exists, however no one wants to admit it.

    I think having a simplistic approach to goals and targets and the like is a good solution, we just need to ingrain it from the top down.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Wow, so interesting to read the thought process you went through, Benjamin. It adds to the post. Many others will also experience what you describe about people jumping up and down about over-simplifying. But like other behaviours in the field of performance measurement, it’s just a bad habit that’s become common practice.

  4. Greg says:

    Interesting, VERY thought-provoking post. It goes hand in hand with our company’s simple mantra adopted last year, “do great things”.

  5. One of my favorite posts! It is so spot-on that it’s scary. I’ve been working toward this for a while, but was missing the simple way of expressing it. Subject-state is great!

    So, to Damian’s point (and the over simplification) of the goal – “customers are loyal” is a perfect start to the goal! The reason Damian is having trouble is that it’s not clear enough…and it’s why you addressed the “weasel” factor in the word “loyal.” The minor misstep is that you turned “loyal” into “buy from us.” (Only make it as simple as possible, no simpler). If instead you left the goal as “Loyal Customers” – when you got ready to measure you’d ask:
    1. How do you define loyal? And I fully expect that you could find more than one way. Buying from you would be one. Promoting you to others could be a second and providing feedback could be a third (triangulation).
    2. How many “loyal customers” do you want? Is it a percentage of your customers? Do you want to create loyalty in your target population?
    3. And as with most good goals, you’ll want to ask, “how can we achieve it?” If you focus too low – on only one measure of “buying from you” you may do things, change processes, and expend resources focusing on the wrong thing. If you want loyalty, then your focus will help you to do things that beget loyalty and then you can check the progress using your measures.

    If we go too low on the goal we end up making our measures of success to important and run the risk of missing the real thing we want to achieve.

    In other words – you had it right the first time – Loyal Customers is the essence of the goal.

    • Chris says:

      Marty… while you make a decent point, all Stacey was doing was giving you a potential example of a more simplified result. The assumption here is that they “unpacked” what loyalty means to them in concrete terms and, for the company in her example, it is based on continued or repeat purchase. For others it could be more of a referral which would end up being a different statement. If it is a variety then you either write multiple statements or be brutally honest to pick the one that is the true result you seek.

      • Stacey Barr says:

        You nailed it, Chris. It’s so true, at least from my own experience and what so many tell me from their experience, is that we can’t wait until measure design to figure out what the weasel words mean. And people surely do use weasel words like loyal to mean many different things, even such simple things as repeat purchase. Best to clarify that first.

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