TBM 11/52: Healthy Goals

I worked with a manager once who explained his rationale behind goal-setting:

Without goals, no one will do anything! There's no accountability on the team. People don't take their commitments seriously. They give me silly excuses. Whenever I turn around, they are chatting on Slack or on Reddit. I'm not sure what they do all day. It feels like we are going in circles. Without goals, it will be impossible to keep score, and if I need to manage someone out, it will be hard! So yes, goals are important!

You see the issue here, I'm sure.

The team wasn't stupid. They could sense the manager's attitude. The situation wasn't safe, and the situation wasn't motivating. They didn't feel supported—a self-perpetuating unhealthy loop. No amount of RACI, SMART, INVEST, OKRs, "sprint commitments", OGSM, or [fifty other frameworks] could help them.

I manage a team. I recently found myself sensing that more discipline around goals would help us. But I am also fully aware of all the crappy reasons teams set goals. So I put together this little list to make sure they could hold me accountable for using goals in a healthy way.

What our approach to goal setting should do:

  • Encourage sustainability. Less crunch-time

  • Focus our efforts. Seek higher leverage (for equal or less effort)

  • Promote aligned autonomy

  • Inspire conversations about what is important

  • Sense of flow and regular progress

  • Support effective/meaningful retrospectives (and taking action)

  • Work small and think big. A nudge to work frugally

  • Healthy feedback loops. Learning

  • Frequent "integration" of ideas, assumptions, code, etc.

  • An early signal to help rebalance our efforts/approach

  • Help us set and reset expectations with other teams

What our approach to goal setting shouldn't do:

  • Unsustainable work practices

  • Last minute heroics. Success theater

  • Cut corners (in non strategic, harmful ways)

  • Reduce psychological safety

  • Restrict creative problem solving

  • Discourage risk taking and adapting our approach

  • Discourage joint ownership and collaboration

  • Obscure/replace our real goal (value to customers)

  • Encourage big batches of work, Tetris, and scope creep

  • "Hoarding projects" and only working in your comfort zone

The real test is in what happens when team members don't achieve their goals. Can team members get real and say (out loud):

This was too challenging. I need help


I'm cooked. The pandemic is overwhelming my family


We don't have the right tools and process here. I did my best and hit roadblock after roadblock


We need to rethink how we collaborate here

or even...

I respect your work Dan, but you overpowered the conversation leaving a situation where only you could do the work. We wanted to help. You didn't let us

If they can get real, then that’s a good sign you are moving in the right direction. Goals are helping.

This week's question. How can you make sure your goal setting framework is working for you, instead of against you?