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Are you tired of setting goals only to not meet them? Read on to learn more about how you can help your team build the muscle for effective goal-setting. 

Many organizations we work with are stuck in the same cycle. They set Big Goals enthusiastically at the beginning of the year. Managers and their teams spend hours in meetings to agree on the best possible direction. A few months in, when they realize that their day-to-day execution isn’t producing the desired results, they spend more time and energy re-prioritizing and re-setting goals – sometimes changing them altogether. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

In our work with early and growth-stage startups, we often find it helpful to borrow inspiration from the world of sports and high performance. So, let’s say, you are a running coach. A new trainee signs up with the goal to train for a marathon. She is enthusiastic to hit the ground running and eager to start chasing her big goal right away. This is precisely where the wisdom and experience of the coach comes in. Instead of jumping right in, she might suggest that the trainee spend 6 months simply building the habit of running (this is called building a consistent base mileage). One of the primary reasons for injury in running is trying to build a base mileage too quickly. Hence, this person must spend the entire first half of the year habituating themselves to the activity of running 20-30 miles a week before they take any concrete actions towards meeting their ultimate goal of running a marathon. 

Most team members in startups are similar to this new trainee who wants to run a marathon. Some of them are recent recruits who are getting familiar with the work and context of the organization. Others might bring a lot of enthusiasm and ideas, but have little to no experience executing projects. Moreover, when it comes to startups, there is often an element of ‘newness’ in the very nature of the work itself – your team is starting a project to solve a new problem or expanding to a new geography. People and teams who are new to the work need to start setting small goals until their muscle to visualize the long-term is built. However, organizations and leaders, in their urgency to drive results, do exactly the opposite. They get new members to work on long-term goals from day 1. 

To understand this better, let’s take a moment to think about goal setting from a teaching-learning perspective. You’re quite a talented person, so let’s say in addition to being a running coach you are also a piano teacher. How would you set goals for a new student? Would you dare to mention Chopin’s Etude in their early days? Would you ask them to visualize a C13 chord and “break down” the chord into simple notes to create their own weekly, monthly, and quarterly learning goals? Of course not! You wouldn’t do that even if they were trained in a different instrument. Instead, you’d start with teaching them to read sheet music and play the individual notes. You’d emphasize a lot of practice – repeating these small, individual components again and again – until your student has completely internalized them. Only once your student is familiar with the basics, would you introduce a slightly more challenging concept and repeat the same cycle of deliberate practice.

We suggest organizations take a similar small-to-big approach to goal-setting. When it comes to setting goals around organizational work, any new person or team is a learner. The default mistake organizations make is treating them as experienced creators from day one. This does a disservice to the person/team – putting undue pressure to set goals and then achieve them when the goals may not have been realistic or well designed in the first place. Only once your people and teams develop the ability to visualize and perform their specific work in shorter cycles of time, can they set big goals effectively over longer time periods. 

Have your team set daily and weekly goals first and meet them consistently. While you hold the ‘big picture’ and ensure they stay aligned to it. Once they successfully set and deliver against weekly goals, only then have them go on to set and deliver against monthly goals and so on. This should be applicable to team members across the hierarchy. Whether they are an entry-level associate or a C-level executive, they are just like that new trainee preparing to run a marathon or the new student learning to play the piano.

(Note: An employee who has years of experience in a different organizational context is equivalent to a new piano student who has previously played different instruments. While some learning blocks will be the same, they still need to go through the process from start to finish in the new organizational context).

As your team develops mastery over time, you can build parallel processes of backwards and forwards goal-setting. Those who are coming in fresh could practice setting and achieving goals that go from small-to-big, while those who have lived experience of the work and demonstrated success can visualize the long-term and go from big-to-small. The key challenge for an organization here is understanding the needs of different learners and creating harmony between the short-run and the long-run.


Take a stab at this approach with your own team and share your experience below!