Friday, March 19, 2010


Where I work, just like most places, we have to set SMART goals for ourselves. Specific, measurable, achievable, results-based and time-bound goals – you know, the kind that you actually have to put some thought into and require you to challenge yourself. I think a lot of people dislike SMART goals and dislike their particular organization’s goal-setting metrics because they have enough work to do already, but if you hunker down and spend a couple hours on it, it can be a pretty rewarding activity that can help you to focus on what’s important to you and set aside things that aren’t.

What I Say I’ll Do vs. What I’m Responsible For – What’s the Difference?

My organization, like many, differentiates between “action plans” and “accountabilities.” That is to say, “what I’m going to do” and “what I’m ultimately responsible for delivering on” are two different things. At first glance, there is a problem here, because those two sound like the same thing. If I'm going to execute activity X, the result is that I executed activity X. If I'm going to publish document Y, the result is that the document is published. So why bother trying to differentiate between my “to-do’s” and my “responsibilities?”
The answer is the unwritten subtext after the word “accountabilities:” “to other people.” The items you are ultimately responsible for are effects or changes that manifest themselves in others. Publishing document Y is my action plan, and my accountability should be that my intended audience for that document should take up or at least consider the process I discuss, install and try out the tools I recommend, implement the pattern I illustrate in their future work, or start a conversation about how to make things better using my ideas as a foundation.

So My Goals Are All About Everyone Else?

Is it scary that your goals are things that hinge on other people; things that you may feel like you don't have full control over? Yes. The reason you set them that way is to encourage yourself to do everything that you can do to make them happen. Before you give the presentation that you want to affect your team, chat with some of them to make sure it’s on target. After you give it, if it wasn't enough, follow up on it. If your document wasn't clear, revise it. Sell it. If you fail, at least you will have a laundry list of everything you did to try to make it work, and that counts for something (you did do everything you could do, didn’t you?). Find your radius of impact and focus your accountabilities on influencing people within that radius – make their work better, make their job easier, raise their efficiency or satisfaction, and expand their minds. Also, make sure you let the people in your radius know that they are a big (possibly the biggest) part of your goals and that you really appreciate their time and feedback, so when you bother them with a request for a follow-up or tell them that the quality bar for the organization can be raised by giving them more work, they don’t get too fed up with you.

On Measurements

Not every accountability has to be "improve this by 5%" or "have 25% of participants do X". Just because your goals need to be measurable doesn't mean you need to set them with pinpoint accuracy, especially if the context doesn't call for it. One of my accountabilities is centered on evangelizing some development strategies not currently located in the worldview of my team and getting them to consider them for future projects, or at least making sure they understand what they are and what tradeoffs are involved so they can make more informed decisions. Is this goal specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound? Yes, it is all of those things, and with no percentages required. For those asking, “How do you measure it?” It’s pretty simple, really: ask my teammates. We’re all humans and goal-setting is a human process, so there needs to be room in your goals for explanations that go beyond ticking boxes and filling in percentages. If there’s not, there really is something wrong with your organization’s goal-setting processes and metrics.

What If I Really Am Accountable For a “To Do?”

Sometimes, "things I do" will still bleed into my accountabilities, and they can’t all be all about making others great. One place this happened for me is in my personal improvement commitments: I have a lot of accountabilities there about publishing things to my blog. For me, publishing a writeup is proof positive that I have learned and internalized what I have written about (and my boss knows this… or hopefully he does now), and even though I don’t exactly count on a lot of people reading it, I can share it with people in my radius to help them learn, show them what I’m learning, and encourage them to write too. I don't want my accountability to simply be "learn this,” because that’s too vague, and not SMART. So, publishing something here becomes a "proxy accountability:” by doing it, I prove that I have reached my actual goal in a way that meets the SMART criteria, and hopefully affects others in a positive way too.

Thanks to Hard Code for the inspiration. In response to some of the comments there… I don’t really have any comments on the effectiveness of any particular style of goal setting for ranking people in an organization, determining promotions and the like. My intention here was just to discuss how to think about goal-setting in a way that helps me challenge myself, expand my horizons and contribute to my team.

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