How to Measure Intangible Goals

How to Measure Intangible Goals

How to turn intangible goals into SMART goals you can meaningfully measure.

Intangible goals are everywhere. Typically we see them in large corporations or government agencies, where bureaucracy can’t be avoided. But we see them in most businesses and organisations, of all sizes and in all industries, because good goal writing is an elusive skill and there are not many practical instructions for how to write measurable goals.

image of blurry vague concept

Probably the most well-known goal-writing framework is SMART, which guides us to write goals that have five qualities: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Emily Esposito, on the smartsheet blog, writes a very clear article about SMART, with two very clear examples.

But when it comes to strategic goals, or operational or team goals that cascade from a corporate strategy, making them measurable can be much harder. Finding meaningful measures or KPIs for intangible goals requires more than just the SMART framework.

If you grapple with this too, then the following resources may be of some assistance (email this page to yourself or a friend):


Step 1: Involve the person or team that owns the goal so you get buy-in.

A common practice seems to be that leaders will delegate the job of measuring goals to subordinates. This is dangerous. It creates a dysfunctional dynamic that ultimately ends up with a lame strategy, lax execution of it, and limp pursuit of performance improvement. It goes like this:

  • The people given the job of measuring the strategic goals brainstorm some KPIs but they can’t get agreement on which ones are best.
  • They then realise that they don’t share the same understanding of what the goals really mean.
  • But they won’t ask the leaders to clarify the meaning of the goals because they don’t want to appear dumb or ignorant.
  • So they do the best they can and come up with some measures based on their best guesstimate of what the goals mean.
  • Then the leaders tell them the measures aren’t the right ones…

The same goes for managers who leave their staff out of goal setting discussions and decisions. They just dictate the goals that their teams should focus on. Then everyone wonders why no progress has been made on the goals, or why no one can agree on what kind of progress has been made at all.

So the best way to start when you want to measure some important goals is to involve the people that own those goals. That’s one of the most important rules for getting buy-in for those goals and buy-in for the KPIs of those goals.

Step 2: Make sure the goal is results-oriented, and not an action or milestone.

Have you noticed how often people write actions or milestones when they are trying to write goals? It’s one of the distinctions I’ve found the hardest to help people make: the difference between and action and a result. But it matters, because goals should be about making a difference, not just doing stuff.

We need to stop writing goals that are action-oriented, such as tasks, projects, milestones or activities. And practice and master how to write goals that are results-oriented, or statements about improvement compared with now or a change for the better. It’s not about forgetting action altogether. It’s about finding the right marriage between actions and results. We need action to achieve a result. But to find and test the right actions, we need to start by defining the result we want, and evidence of how well our action is affecting it.

Here’s an example of how this thinking applies in a hospital, to help a team of nurses to become more results-oriented.

Step 3: Replace vague or ambiguous words in the goal with specific and observable language.

‘Weasel words’ is a phrase I learned from Don Watson, author of Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language. Weasel words are vague, ambiguous, broad and very non-specific. They are words like:

…accelerate, accessibility, accountability, active, adaptive, advocating, affective, alignment, balanced, barriers, basic, benchmarked, benefits, best practice, brand (image), capacity, centrality, challenges, change, client-driven, collaborative, compelling, competence, competitive, connectedness, considered, consultative, continuing, core, delivery, demonstrated, deployable, dis-established, diversity, drive, dynamic, effective, efficient, embedded, empowered, enablers, and many more

And we commonly find weasel words in our goals – strategic goals, operational goals, team goals, project goals, and so on!

Our goals will never pass through the first gate of the SMART goals framework, ‘Specific’, while ever we use weasel words. It takes practice to master the use of simple and observable language, and this is what we must do if we ever want our goals to be measurable. Meaningfully measurable, that is.

The key is to practice using sensory language, the language of our senses. What we would see, or hear, or touch, or detect in some way in the physical world that our goal is happening. A great tip here is to use language that a 10-year-old could understand.

And don’t for a second think we’re ‘dumbing down’ the goal! Clarity is everything. Simplifying the language until the goal says the same thing to everyone who matters is an essential step before looking for a measure for it.

Step 4: Simplify the goal to focus on just one single performance result.

Often when we ‘de-weasel’ a goal, we find it means more than one thing. We might de-weasel a goal about the quality of an app we developed, to discover it means three important things to us:

  1. The app works, first time.
  2. The app is easy for customers to use intuitively (without training).
  3. The app does exactly what customers expect.

In this case, we have three goals, not just one. This is important, because we’ll never find a single measure of ‘quality’. It’s a weasel word, and like many other weasel words, unpacking its meaning often produces several results that matter. Not every possible result will matter, so we need to ruthless about prioritising the results that matter most for us, right now. Like this example, of prioritising results that comprise customer satisfaction.

Step 5: Be ruthless about whether the goal is worth measuring.

Being ruthless about which goals really matter enough to measure can be hard. In a video (which I can no longer find on the internet to give you a link) by Chris McChesney, co-author of The 4 Disciplines of Execution, I learned a powerful lesson about having too many goals. McChesney advises something like this:

If we have two or three goals, over and above the whirlwind, we can achieve those two or three goals. But if we have four to ten goals, in addition to our whirlwind, we’ll achieve only one or two of them. You know how many goals can be achieved when we have 11 or more goals to achieve, as well as our whirlwind? Yep. None.

We need more than a popularity contest or voting exercise to ruthlessly prioritise our goals. I like to use three questions to help filter out the goals that really matter enough to measure:

  • Question 1: Should we improve this, now?
  • Question 2: Can we improve this?
  • Question 3: Will we improve this?

You must answer ‘yes’ to every one of these three questions before a goal is worth measuring!

Bonus: Learn more about how to measure intangible goals on the Measure Up blog.

There is a continually growing collection of tips about making your goals measurable, and finding meaningful KPIs and metrics for them on the Measure Up blog.

back to The Most Common KPI Questions…

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