Goals are an elusive subject. Research on how to set them, track them, and of course achieve them has dominated both the personal and business spheres for decades, maybe even centuries.
According to some of the crème de la crème goal-setting researchers, a goal "is the desired outcome of a particular behavior or set of behaviors, and therefore goal setting involves specifying the level or standard of performance to be attained, usually within a predetermined time frame."
Let's think about that last part for a minute. Goals can be incredibly motivating, but only if the time period makes sense. If a goal cycle is too short, we don't get the rush of taking those giant performance leaps. Too long and we risking working on outdated, ho-hum goals that no one takes seriously.
But how do you really know when one goal should end and the next begin?
Simple benchmarks for choosing the right goal cycle
Spoiler alert: As much as we'd love to give you one, there is no magic formula for setting the perfect goal cycle.
In today's rapidly-changing business climate, even the time-honored quarterly goal has come under scrutiny. At the end of the day, establishing a relevant end date for your business goals is about asking yourself the hard questions, things like:
- What matters to us more, profits or innovation?
- Does why we have a goal, or how we reach it, matter as much as when we achieve that goal?
- What do we want the future of the business to look like?
- Are our goals meant to be reached? Or just pursued?
Long-term goals vs. short-term goals
One way to simplify the process is to start by drawing a line between your long and short-term goals. Again, this will look different depending on what business you're in.
A startup may have vastly different long-term goals than a centuries-old business that functions in a slow-moving industry. For example, 10x growth within 5 years might be the kind of high-stakes long-term goal that makes sense for a sparkling new tech company. But without clear criteria for how that goal will break down in the day-to-day, you could be putting your business at risk for the sake of pleasing investors.
For a 3-5 year goal, you might need performance reviews every month, or even week to keep your teams on track. But what if you're a major contractor who's just won a big-ticket infrastructure project that will take a decade or more to complete? In that case a long-term goal might be a 20-year goal broken down into "short-term" annual or biannual goals based on project specs that are already fully fleshed out.
Here are a few examples that can help give a little more context to how you think about the right goal cycle for your organization.
Apple - 3 Annual Objectives
"I want to put a ding in the universe.” – Steve Jobs, Former CEO, Apple
Steve Jobs was known for setting massive goals. Every year, Apple hosted a strategy meeting where the famed CEO would gather dozens of yearly objectives from key staff, then narrow them down until they were left with just three. Τhose 3 goals then became the core goals for the next year.
Jobs also set expectations for how those goals were to be reached. Focus was big. He was known for demanding zero distraction. Every activity his teams undertook either supported the annual goals, or simply weren't a priority. Apple even assigned a DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) to every project to make sure their teams stayed on track to hitting their yearly goals.
Starbucks - Why over when
“These goals represent our aspiration to create impact on the issues that matter.” - John Kelly, SVP of Global Social Impact and Public Policy, Starbucks
For Starbucks, social responsibility is the north star. The coffee giant's 2020 vision for social responsibility has clear guidelines and expectations. Starbucks breaks down their 2-3 year responsibility vision to smaller, more actionable goals under following headings:
- Sustainable Coffee
- Greener Retail
- Creating Opportunities
- Strengthening Communities
By stating that these are the goals for 2020 "and beyond", they're letting stakeholders know that this is an ongoing, long-term goal that they're committed to setting and resetting every couple of years.
Facebook - Non-goals take you farther
"Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they're not as good as the most important thing you could be doing. And you have to make the hard choices." - Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook
At the end of the day, there isn't enough time to do it all.
Sheryl Sandberg has a great trick for choosing which goals really matter. Non-goals are secondary goals employees should focus on only after the main goal has been met. "You have your goals and non-goals. The non-goal is the next thing that you would do, because it's a really good idea," she says.
A rule like this might make more sense for a 20,658-person company like Facebook than a ruthlessly determined startup, but it's a form of prioritizing we could all learn from — both for the big picture long-term goals and the smaller day-to-day actions that get you there.