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]

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