Which Types of Goals Are Worth Measuring, And Which Aren’t?

by Stacey Barr |

There isn’t a single and universally applied definition of the word ‘goal’. And so many different things pretend to be goals. One messy consequence is that when we try to measure our goals, we can end up with very trivial and useless measures.

If it looks, swims and quacks like a duck, then it's probably a duck. But it's not so clear when it comes to goals. Credit: gawriloff

There’s a saying that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. But it’s not so clear when it comes to goals.

There are four typical things that people call goals: actions, milestones, targets and results. I’ve seen all four used in strategic and business plans. And the amount of frustration people have with the meaningfulness of their performance measures is directly related to which type of goal they are setting.

Goals that are actions

When your goal is phrased as something that will get done and that has a start point and an end point, it’s an action. For example:

  • Communicate the new policy to customers.
  • Train procurement staff in fact-based negotiation.
  • Research our market for future directions.

Measuring goals that are actions will result in trivial measures whose values really only take one of two values: done, or not done. These measures don’t give you feedback about whether the action achieved the result you intended. They just encourage doing stuff, irrespective of whether that stuff works or not.

Goals that are milestones

When your goal is phrased as the completion of an action or project by a specified date, it’s a milestone. For example:

  • Performance and development model in place for all staff by June 2015.
  • Implement an Innovation Framework by December 2015.
  • Create a Service Catalogue by end of April 2015.

Measuring goals that are milestones is project management, not performance management. You’re not really measuring anything, you’re just ticking it off or not. Milestones just encourage getting something finished on time.

Goals that are targets

When your goal is phrased as a percentage or a multiple improvement you want to attain, what you actually have is a vague target, and often before you’ve even got a measure. For example:

  • Improve customer loyalty by 10% (exactly what is customer loyalty?)
  • Double productivity (and what precisely is productivity?)
  • Workforce transformation aligned with service transformation to be 100% (what does aligned mean?)

Measuring goals that are expressed as targets is putting the cart before the horse. Targets are set for measures, not for goals. Goals should state the result you want, measures will quantify how much that result is happening, and targets state where you want the measure to move to.

Goals that are performance results

When your goal is phrased as a state or level you want to reach and sustain, it’s a performance result. For example:

  • Improve our customer focus.
  • Reduce time spent on delays and rework across the organisation.
  • Decrease the cost of packaging our products.

Measuring goals that are performance results is where you want to be. These measures are true performance measures, the kind that drives us to recreate the world so it’s more like the one our mission and vision proposes. These measures are about making a difference, not just ticking boxes.

Meaningful measures track goals that are performance results.

The important things to get right when you set goals are:

  1. Keep project management (activity) goals separate from performance management (performance result) goals.
  2. Set your performance result goals first, then design performance measures for them.
  3. Set targets for your performance measures.
  4. Set your activity goals, and use project management to ensure the right things get done.
  5. Monitor your performance measures to ensure that your activity goals are indeed moving performance toward the targets, and achieving your intended results.


Which types of goals are you trying to attach measures to? Are your performance measures telling you meaningful things about results?

Speak Your Mind

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  1. Bryan says:

    Thanks for sharing Stacey. Love how well this cuts through the fluff around the core.

  2. May McAlister says:

    Thank you! A logical and simple way to describe performance measures – amazing how many organisations still struggle to get it right.

  3. Greg says:

    Love the article and classification but I am confused. This may just be a difference in cultures but I thought that goals are unattainable. Objectives have date and measures. Goal example: zero safety incidents. This gives clear vision and direction and can be measured. The objective could be reduction of first aid cases from 23 to 10 by Oct 10th. “SMART”

    Well I hope that adds to the discussion?

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Greg, there is NO single and clear and universal definition of words like “goal” that I am aware of. Every organisation I work with has their own definitions – and some even use these words without definition! Perhaps I’ll write a blog post about these ideas in the future, but I did touch on this in my book Practical Performance Measurement.

  4. Yes, affirmative, for sure, amen!
    And your identification of Targets masquerading as goals also makes me cringe because of their familiarity.

    “Improve customer loyalty by 10%” and “Double productivity” are great examples of bad goals/targets/measures of success. Besides the weasel level, they look like they’ll be increased if we were lucky enough to reach them. Next year, let’s improve another 10%. Let’s double productivity again!

    But also, it always feels very arbitrary to me. I ask (a lot), why “10%?” Why “double?” And normally the response is equally vague, and boils down to “I wanted to inspire or motivate the staff. Ugh.

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