12 minute read

It is good to have a goal, and it is better to have achievable goals. Be it for weight loss or savings, we know that even small successes are much more likely to breed further success than the perceived “failure” of a stretch goal unmet. At least that is what I tell myself when I am dieting. The same holds for work and the goals we set for ourselves as we plan projects or long term initiatives.  I have seen countless projects and initiatives that fail to consider this point.  Over years of working with or within Fortune 500 companies, I have seen gifted professionals and leaders fail to set goals properly for their teams or organizations for a multitude of reasons, and analytics organizations are no different. In fact, I think that analytics organizations tend to be more exposed to the risk of poor goal setting than other types of functions because we tend to get wrapped up in the quest for deeper insight and discount the human element in a given program’s success. Goal setting is a critical skill regardless of who you are or what you do. Whether for a department setting annual goals or for a project team setting goals for a new initiative, establishing your stated goals is crucial because success or failure will literally be dependent on them.

Most of you have heard about SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. All of that certainly applies. However there is a bit more to goal setting in Corporate America, and understanding that bit will make all the difference for managing your career, team, department or organization. To get there, you need to look beyond SMART and factor in heart.

Not all worthwhile goals are easily measurable. 

If you are in a planning process and considering the goals you want to set, you need to be clear on what trade-offs exist to achieve your goal. Most of us are (hopefully) pretty comfortable with numbers, estimates, and variables, so this type of exercise should be relatively straight forward.  With a simple comparison of pros and cons, cost and benefit, or risk and reward, you can begin to quantify the trade-offs you will have to weigh throughout execution.  Most of us spend time on this process trying to define and quantify the tangible costs and benefits flowing from our work. This makes sense as we are often measured by the value of our outcomes and the resources we consume to produce them. But going beyond the “Measurable” elements of your SMART goal, you find more than just time and money.

We tend to overlook the more subtle elements of goal setting. We tend to pay less attention to what I call the ethereal assets, or the things that are really tough to put a dollar value on because they represent the soft or more “human” elements to our work. Overlooking these softer benefits is a bad idea because you are overlooking key variables, some of which could have a significant impact on your ultimate success or failure. For example, I have had projects miss their financial targets miserably, but we were able to learn some critical lessons which would pay dividends in the future. This was recognized early on and was a part of our goal at the outset. In this way, we were able to find some satisfaction despite not delivering on every aspect of our project. Framing our goal with less tangible outcomes as a desired part of the process, helped the team to remain positive and engaged despite disappointment along the way.  This, in turn, led us to recognize our missteps as an opportunity.  As it happens, the lessons we learned from our first attempt made us extremely successful on a later project, when much more was at stake.  It is tough to measure such things, so I don’t recommend spending time in specifically quantifying intangibles. Instead, I just try to factor those kinds of ethereal elements into my goals and planning. This type of diversity of objectives allows for greater overall benefit, even in cases where the outcome is mixed.

Making ethereal goals a part of your effort upfront is important from another angle as well. A typical part of goal setting is making sure your management and/or customers are aware and bought into what it is you are trying to achieve. By explicitly setting ethereal goals, you are letting your stakeholders know that there is a benefit that may be broader than they may have anticipated and you are implying that failure should be re-framed. In fact, it has been my experience that some of the more ethereal goals can be strategic, teaching you and your organization things that have a tremendous amount of upside. For example, one project I led, we set out to build and implement an operational model within a sales data process. We wanted to limit our impact on users, so we infused the outcome measures within the existing process, using a “traffic light” indicator. We didn’t hit the financial targets we wanted.  As it turned out, salespeople confused our indicator with other measures in use elsewhere in the organization. This led us to realize that salespeople were mistakenly managing their activities according to measures they weren’t evaluated on. Therefore their existing measures weren’t influencing their behavior as hoped by their management. This had to do with the organizational change management that hadn’t happened. While this was a problem for my team’s project, the insight we generated was tremendously beneficial to our customers – resulting in success for our overall organization.  I wouldn’t bank on ethereal goals helping you justify all of what you do, but if you don’t consider them at all you will miss out on all of that potential.

The Power of Momentum

As I mentioned, success builds upon itself, and the opposite is also true. When I think about what I want a team to achieve, I think about how I can build momentum with small wins. I am not one for “sandbagging” but I can’t overstate how powerful momentum can be for all of us.  Small, attainable goals help us build that momentum. Yet so many forces threaten the small, attainable goal.  Organizations frequently lean away from this simple strategy. Executives frequently look for big wins they can promote and celebrate. I think this may be engrained in American business culture. Our society tends to make heroes of those who are bold and brash – those who take big bets for big rewards. I think this is a big part of our culture and can be seen in our movies, our media coverage, and even our sports. Our National Pastime celebrates the “home run” enticing us to swing for the fences when we get our chance at-bat. But this isn’t always a great idea, and instead should be set aside in favor of a much more modest, if likely to be a more successful outcome. Ironically you can turn to a bit of pop culture to see what I mean.  The story of Billy Bean and the Oakland A’s as made popular by the movie (and book – I love Michael Lewis…) Moneyball, we see how the traditional measures of success lean away from the “home run” mentality in favor of the more consistent, and achievable “base hit” mentality. This subtle shift led to lots of hits, which in turn led to lots of runs, and while fielding a team that was relatively cheap for its success. I am not a baseball guy, but I can see how those things compound, generate momentum and breed success. I also know that the same holds true for teams of professionals operating in corporate America.

To make small wins acceptable to people who are otherwise fixated on the “home run”, I think your focus should be on highlighting the tradeoffs you have to make achieve to bigger goals. The first of these is time. It simply takes more time to do bigger things. So if time is a factor for you or your organization, then getting something small done quickly, could be appealing. Value is always something you are trying to generate, and even if a win is small, it should be valuable. If it isn’t then you are doing the wrong thing. Value combined with speed can be the foundation of a pretty good business case for small wins. Stringing smaller wins together may not get you a personalized parking space, but it will help you build momentum, for yourself and your team. This can translate to other ethereal benefits like improved motivation and greater ability to influence others (since people tend to look for a “good bet”). This simple rule should be a reminder to all of us. Mostly because there is a lot of pressure to ignore it. But don’t let that sway you from what is obvious. Consistency is huge, it builds momentum which can compound and grow over time – like interest. And it all starts with setting goals that you can attain, again and again.

For those of you who have seen Moneyball, you know it isn’t easy to buck a system, and focusing on the small wins can be difficult. Therefore it is important for you to invest the time and effort into making the case for small wins, and demonstrating how they are all part of a plan to achieve the strategic goal or “big win”.  This is an art and a skill in and of itself, but something you can begin doing now, and it will pay dividends in the future.

As in comedy, so too as in business. Timing is everything.

I recall when mobile technology first hit the mainstream. It was a glorious time of productivity in the workplace. In our hands, we could hold our world, and little pens to control it… It was amazing the power that was now at our fingertips, always in reach wherever we may be. No longer were you tethered to laptops or, god forgive me, paper. Of course, you all know what I am talking about, right?  I am talking about the 1993 release of the Apple Newton! Oh, it was glorious! Except, well it wasn’t. Sure you could write on it, provided you could avoid using vowels which it failed to recognize. Also, it’s cost was equal to about 50 really nice journals. Its ultimate demise was a function of timing. The Newton, while remarkable, wasn’t ready for the market it entered. People weren’t ready to pay for the value it provided either because they didn’t appreciate the problem it solved or the opportunity it created.  Either way the result was the same.   But only a few years later, costs come down while technology advances – and we have Palm Pilot which essentially created the PDA market and became the standard in handheld technology for a relatively long while.

Timing is really important.  Everyone knows that SMART goals are “time bound” but I suggest that the smartest goals consider timing in a much broader way. Yes, make sure you can achieve something in a reasonable and set time after all deadlines are helpful when creating urgency. But don’t forget to consider the timing of what it is you are trying to do. Are you trying to pitch a new modeling approach immediately after a new model has been adopted? Is the value you are trying to create, the value that is needed at that time? Is your effort going to “go-live” just before the new system goes in? If so, will that jeopardize something that is bigger and ahead of you? If it does, who will support you? When you consider what you want to achieve, success or failure may only be a matter of timing.  So consider the timing of your efforts, beyond a simple deadline  – or risk becoming a footnote to another person’s story. There is a lot to consider around timing that influences everything about a project. The question of how timing factors into analytics projects is a topic that exceeds what has been talked about here. In reality the timing of your efforts, and the efforts of others,  influence all aspects of a project and is foundational to your strategy.

Hearts and smarts should be the goal

Thinking beyond the obvious elements of meaningful goal setting is something that I didn’t appreciate until I have been running a department for a while. I set SMART goals and measured my team and myself against them. I saw success, but often it seemed to come with a higher cost than I expected, even if that wasn’t a financial cost. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while. I looked at how we executed and wasn’t really seeing anything to fix. It wasn’t until I realized I wasn’t really considering all of the variables as we set our goals. By looking at some of the more ethereal elements I began to realize how they combined to either create friction or momentum for the team in many small ways. However, once I factored more “heart” into my goals, I found that successes came a little easier, or with greater energy behind them, and more consistently – which was the goal after all.