Communicating goals: another lesson learned


Autumn brings hurricanes or falling leaves in different parts of the world, and for many of us it also brings annual goal-setting sessions. Here is a brief post summarizing a recent “aha moment” about the way leaders communicate these goals and how this communication style impacts results and team morale.

I’ll assume you are already a fan of the “Start with Why” principle popularized by Simon Sinek (if not, brush up here). When communicating goals: the Why must be clear, the What must be firm, and the How must be flexible.

Be Clear about Why

The underlying principle or strategy behind a goal is “the Why.” Each goal must be linked back to a core principle of the organization or a pillar of the business strategy. In organizations where the strategy is already well defined and understood throughout the team, articulating this link might seem redundant – if this is your team, congratulations. Larger, more complex organizations in the midst of a strategic transformation or “pivot” will benefit from a direct explanation linking the goal to the Why. Without linking the goal to the why, team members tasked with executing the goal can question its value and apply less effort, focus, and rigor.

Be Firm about What

Define the desired outcomes of the goal in unwavering terms. If the strategy, business model, and cash flow forecast require 15% margin expansion next year, state this explicitly in the goal. If there are hard deadlines about when the team must put pencils down and complete a project, lock in the dates. Directional and ambiguous goals (“improve,” “accelerate,” “expand,” “transform”) expose everyone to misalignment before, during, and after the work.

Be Flexible about How

Leaders who are inclusive and empowering (see Multipliers) expect the team accountable for achieving the goal not only to understand the problem best, but also to select the best approach to resolve it. In an agile approach, we expect to learn and adapt as the project evolves. Rigidly defining the methods and tools that a team must employ to achieve a goal risks disenfranchising them, or even missing the goal. If we knew all the answers already, how could the problem exist?

As you define and communicate your goals for next year, keep these principles in mind. If the goals aren’t clearly linked to the underlying strategy, ask for clarity. If the goals themselves don’t have firm definitions of how far and how fast, help to define them. And if the goal itself constrains the method of achieving it, push back for flexibility. Setting goals isn’t easy – and achieving them is even harder without clear, firm, and flexible communication.

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