You Can Only Meaningfully Measure a Goal You Understand

by Stacey Barr

You might think you understand your goal, but when you struggle to measure it, you clearly don’t understand it well enough.

You Can Only Meaningfully Measure a Goal You Understand. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/Milkos

Where do our goals come from?

Are we really doing the research, analysis, and thinking that’s required to create the goals our organisation needs to better fulfill its mission and reach its vision? Or are we taking shortcuts like these:

  • aligning to the latest themes and trends in the business literature?
  • adopting goals from other organisations in our sector or industry?
  • accepting goals that consultants have written for us? [Like this supposed strategy company that offers “56 strategic objective examples for your company to copy”!]
  • adapting goals from our last strategic plan?

It’s also a shortcut to do the research, analysis, and thinking to create our goals, but fail to do it deliberately enough.

Shortcuts lead us to goals that sound thin and hollow, filled with business jargon that the audience doesn’t understand and the creators soon forget. We cannot let our strategic plans appear as though they are “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” [Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5]

It’s goals like these, that shortcuts lead us to:

  • “Employee gender balance (50% female: 50% male) across organization”
    What deep thinking was done to work out the balance between opportunity and desire for either gender to work in this organisation?
  • “Partner with customers to provide solutions”
    This isn’t even a goal, but rather a vaguely scoped action.
  • “Transition to a cloud service model by 1st Jan 2023”
    This isn’t a goal either because it’s a milestone that belongs in a project plan.
  • “Vendor performance”
    And this isn’t a goal, but simply a broad domain of performance within which there are potentially dozens of different goals.
  • “Decrease employee turnover by 5%”
    Goals are not measures, and this is a measure. Meaningful measures need the context of a goal that describes the new state or quality we want to create.

One of the most obvious symptoms that we took shortcuts in creating our goals is that we struggle to find measures for them; measures that are meaningful, that everyone agrees are useful and relevant, and that we feel excited about.

One of my clients asked me why they were struggling to measure this goal: “Our organisation is networked and integrated”. This isn’t a real performance goal because people don’t understand it. They need to ask a few questions to get deeper into the goal’s real meaning:

  • Why is this important to do?
  • Why should the organisation be more networked?
  • More networked with what or whom?
  • What does it look like if it’s more networked?
  • Why should it be more integrated?
  • Which parts should be more integrated?
  • Integrated with what exactly?
  • What does it look like if it’s more integrated?

These are the questions I’d want to discuss with those who wrote this goal before I could understand it. It’s the kind of discussion I have with most leadership teams that I have facilitated strategic measure design with. And you might be shocked to know how often that discussion reveals that the executives themselves even have different understandings of what their goals mean.

Every single time, I’m aiming for them to articulate their goal so clearly that a 10-year-old could have a great chance of understanding it. Then almost anyone else could understand it too.

Truly meaningful measures only come about when everyone shares the same understanding – and a deep understanding – of what the goals mean. We arrive at that when they each paint the same vivid picture in their mind of how the world around them is noticeably different when the goal is achieved.

If your goals are not yet understood well, try this collection of tips to make them more meaningfully measurable.

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