5 tips for writing objectives that produce results – part 1

Edit: you can find a more up to date version of this article at The Easy Guide to SMART Goals and Objectives.

“Hey, how was your weekend?

Yeah great . . . . . . . . . [as you’re responding you remember that the annual review discussion was scheduled for this morning].

Look it’s that time of year again. I don’t know why the company makes us do this. You know what you have to do and I know what I have to do.

But we have to get on with it otherwise I’ll get harassed by HR for weeks. So here’s your objectives for the next year.”

That start has got you about as motivated as a three toed sloth would get to do a few laps of the forest. You may not have to imagine this scenario, something similar has possibly happened to you in a past job. The vast majority of people have experienced this.

You reluctantly sit down and start to read through the first objective, “Provide good service to all customers”. You agree with this statement, but immediately start to think “but I do that now”. This is the sort of thing that leaves the performance management process stalled at the starting gate.

Perhaps you work in a progressive company and you set your own objectives together with your manager. If you do, that’s great! I’m going to share with you some simple tips for writing goals that motivate. The sort where you and your boss will really know you have achieved something.

You might be running a business and looking to increase profits, innovate with a new product or reduce time to market. You can achieve these things by setting goals for your people, making sure they have the skills needed, providing feedback and rewarding their contribution. This article is all about setting the right sort of goals.

I’m keen to talk about other parts of the performance management process in future articles. Including techniques for getting a large workforce aligned to the organisation’s goals – something not so tricky in smaller companies. But for now I want to start helping you solve some of the biggest problems with traditional appraisal approaches.

So let’s start.

Fans of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy know that the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is 42.

The answer to our problems in this case is equally simple. But unlike the ambiguity of the answer “42”, it‘s all about making sure there is nothing ambiguous about what you want to end result to look like.

The answer to life, the universe and how to write objectives that get results is SMART. One of those great memory aids to use so when writing goals you can think “are these SMART?”.

Let’s take a look behind the acronym.

S – specific.

OK you need to be specific. Why? Because your people are going to do what you ask them to do. So you need to be specific about the end result. Use action words like “to increase”, “to establish”, “to reduce” and “to create”.

You can also use specific to remind yourself that objectives need to relate back to a specific organisational goal.

M – measurable.

Imagine playing a video game that didn’t show you some sort of score or progress as you went along. People wouldn’t play it – there’s no motivation!

You want something that will allow the person to gauge how well they are progressing toward achieving the objective. You don’t want an objective that is vague. This leaves room for misinterpretation and that will end in disgruntled people.So tell the person how you are going to measure the achievement. Then you both know when it hasn’t been achieved, when it’s been met and when it’s been exceeded.

For example, ‘100%’, ‘a $ figure’, by 5, etc. A number allows people to see if they have achieved the goal.

It’s also a good idea to record the source of the measurement. For example, the profit & loss report for retail division, client survey, sales reports.

A – achievable.

Once upon a time there was a team leader and three bears. The Papa bear’s objectives were too hard, there is no way they could be achieved. Papa bear just gave up at the start.

Mamma bear’s objectives were too easy, they just weren’t motivating at all.

But baby bear’s objectives were just right. They were a stretch and it might be difficult, but baby bear thought there was a good chance she could achieve them. She was one motivated baby bear!

R – relevant.

Is the objective within something the person will have control or influence over?

No = disgruntled, not motivated.

Yes = let’s get it on!

It’s also a great idea to think of “R” as relate. Relate the objective back to the team and company goals. Being part of a team effort is much more motivating than just having an objective.

T – time-based.

What is the time frame for achieving the objective. A target date and some milestones help keep things on track.

Stay tuned for part 2…

In part 2 of this article I’ll give you a specific example. We’ll revisit the opening example, “Provide good service to all customers”. And we’ll rewrite it using the SMART way.

How do you manage to do this when you are time poor?

How do you manage to write SMART objectives and get people aligned to your strategic plan when you are time poor?  The answer is technology.  Cognology has designed a performance management system that reduces the time it takes for managers and improves the quality of the objectives they are writing.


About Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. View all posts by Jon Windust

10 responses to “5 tips for writing objectives that produce results – part 1

  • Jill

    I can totally identify with the 'annual review discussion' – my old boss in a previous company I worked for was exactly like this. I feel that a lack of education (motivation?) from his perspective was why performance reviews were always handled incredibly badly. Too bad that 'Blogs' were not in existence back then and access to information like this was not around!

  • Sam

    SMART goals are something I have only become aware of recently, and having them laid out for me here is great. I'll look forward to part 2 of this article, because knowing how to write meaningful objectives would be hugely beneficial. Perhaps you could include objectives from a range of different categories, and show how each have the SMART goals applied?

  • jon

    Hi Jill and Sam – your comments are really appreciated.

    How many people have had that ‘annual review discussion’ Jill. Actually I have something to admit – I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I have definitely experienced poor review practices as an employee and I’ve also done reviews badly as a manager in the past. It’s not comfortable on either side.

    Sam I’ll definitely show how the SMART technique is applied in part 2. And I’m glad the article has been helpful for you.

  • David

    A rather timely article. I’ve just got the email from HR last week telling us to initiate our staff reviews for the year.

    I have been reviewed myself and reviewed my staff every year for the last 20 years across quite a number and types of organisations. One thing has been pretty much standard. As the reviewee, I always grappled with the difficult task of putting together justifications for why my appraisal should be exemplary because it always had some level of impact on my next salary increase. I often received glowing descriptive remarks but a score that didn’t reflect them and almost always walked away from the appraisal feeling like I was under-appreciated.

    As the reviewer, I was always under instructions from higher management that most people should score average (to keep salary increases controlled) and that anything above this in any area had to be adequately justified. I always found it difficult to provide a justification that could stand up to the scrutiny at the subsequent company salary review where I would have to fight for my team against other departments to make sure my team received the salary increases they deserved and rarely walked away satisfied I had achieved this.

    However, this year I intend to be be different, although not as different as I would like and I would like to read your thoughts on how I could make further improvements. Maybe I should share my thoughts and explain my issues.

    My current employer uses 360 techniques as an integral part of the process and I have found this to be orders of magnitudes better than the traditional methods, both as a reviewee and a reviewer; giving me insights into how others see myself and my staff that I would never have got otherwise. However, I feel that the way it has been implemented in this case has limited the true potential of the 360 techniques.

    The overall implementation (and the key limitation every other non-360 system I was a part of) has also limited the ability to solve my ongoing dissatisfaction with performance reviews as a means of improving business which is, ultimately, the primary aim…it is the only business justification for investing in the improvement of your staff. As cold or capitalistic as this statement may appear, it is unfortunately the truth and we all need to accept this and work within it.

    The current system I am part of includes two assessment elements. Part 1 is a 360 assessment based on capability areas that the business values. Part 2 is a review against KPIs that are set each year for each employee and linked to business goals.

    What has occured is that most managers focus almost exclusively on the 360 feedback and virtually ignore the KPIs. Why? Well I believe it is because the 360 feedback allows the manager to avoid providing constructive feedback and don’t have to justify their own assessments…they leave it up to the anonymous “they” .

    The other reason I believe the focus is on the 360 feedback and not on the KPIs is because the KPIs are almost always vague and unmeasurable. Putting the focus on the 360 feedback allows the reviewer to avoid the arguments about how well the reviewee actually performed, where reviewers are trying to keep scores down and the reviewees are trying to keep them up. If you can’t measure it, the reviewer, who is in the position of ultimate authority always sets the final score to a level that meets their business limitations.

    As an employee I finally got tired of this situation a few months ago (why it took me this long I’ll leave to your judgement). So I sat down with my director to initiate a single, simple change. As I was planning this, I also realised that I needed to initiate these same changes with my team and that this one change would reduce my problems as both reviewee and reviewer.

    The simple change was to make sure that the KPIs I set with my boss and with my team are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time based) AND tied to company KPIs.

    Setting SMART goals results in buy-in by both the reviewer and reviewee, provides a clear work focus for the individual that directly relate to business objectives, provides a clear and indisputable basis for assessment and makes salary reviews based on how much value the individual actually contributed to the business and not on who can negotiate best.

    In this way, next review time, there will be no arguments and no emotion; either the KPIs were met or they weren’t and the amount in which they were exceeded or missed can be measured.

    The one issue I haven’t been able to resolve is that this approach could easily end up making the 360 feedback irrelevant and I would loose this important insight into areas of personal improvement that are the ultimate source of our ability to meet the KPIs and improve the business.

    I would be very interested in reading your thoughts on how to tie the 360 technique to personal and company KPIs.

  • jon

    Wow! That is the most amazing feedback David. You have described so well the sort of problems that people have struggled with. Leaving managers and their team members frustrated and disgruntled.

    Your comments are also such a good illustration and a first hand account of how to solve some of the problems. The benefits of using well thought out objectives.

    After the next article which will be part 2 of this one, I’ll respond in detail to your question. I’ll share with you and people having similar dilemmas some really useful information about 360 degree feedback.

    In the mean time … a brief answer. From what you have described it sounds like your 360 process is an integral part of the final review. I would recommend your organisation to:

    1) Separate the 360 from the final review for many reasons that I will go into in detail.

    2) Move the 360 process to the start of the following year’s cycle.

    3) Change the focus from it being a measure of performance to a way of looking at the team’s capabilities to achieve their goals for the year.

    4) Use the 360 results to plan development activities. On-the-job tasks, assignments and coaching are the most effective – you don’t need a huge training budget.

    5) The development plan itself is another form of goals. Some people factor the development outcomes into the final review decision.

    Thanks for reading and sharing your experiences David.

  • Kate

    Your article brought to light many of the frustrations I have had when undergoing performance reviews which both the manager/s and I knew were a complete waste of time. Particularly when the objectives given were vague or were activities I was already performing well. Objectives like “Continue to improve product knowledge”, “Continue to manage recruits”, and “Continue to support customers and cultivate client relationships” were useless and the result of lazy thinking, and “Improve business acumen” without a “how” was just plain stupid.

    I need measurable goals. Do what? – by when? – and how will we (the manager and I) know that I have achieved it? I want to be able to measure it, too, so that come review time, we have a firm basis on which to agree on my true performance.

    I’ll send this weblink to HR…

  • jon

    Kate that really helps shed more light on the need to have well defined goals. It sounds like your performance review process did nothing for performance! I appreciate your input. Thank you for reading..

  • The performance management evolution » Blog Archive » What is 360 degree feedback

    […] Getting back to David’s questions This is the second post in a multi-part article where I’m addressing the questions raised by David in response to my post on 5 tips for writing objectives that produce results. […]

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