So, here’s a familiar scene that happens nearly every day in every city all over the world. Colleagues are at a bar, celebrating. Everyone’s letting their hair down a bit — relieved, laughing, and having a good time. Why? Because they just finished a big project. Maybe it was a new product launch or a new marketing campaign, or maybe the team just delivered a proposal or presentation. You can almost see the stress lifting as they ease into the satisfaction of a task completed. It feels good. There’s a sense of accomplishment and of bonding, having come out the other side of the effort unscathed.
But what result, exactly, are they celebrating? Was “finishing the thing” the result they were after? Was the project a success? Why did the project matter to begin with? What goal did they accomplish beyond it just being done?
To be clear, I like to celebrate showing up and getting things done as much as the next person. I’ve been at that table many times before, savoring a drink and a sense of completion, while also wondering if and why our work mattered. But, when we celebrate a launch, we rarely (if ever) actually know if it is successful or not. Generally, it takes days, weeks, or even months to gather the actual data, and by then, we’ve normally moved on to the next thing. And this is not to mention all the other times when evidence was either not collected or not employed as a means for measuring success.
Why is this? Well, for starters, most businesses don’t sufficiently define goals. And so, as a result, project delivery or completion becomes the milestone rather than the project benefits or outcomes. And for those few companies that do set goals, fewer still correlate them to the core desires (mission, vision and values) of their business. Sure, at some level, high up in the tower, there are targets for revenue, profit margin, and stock prices. Closer to the ground, your department might have a budget to adhere to or a sales target to hit or a conversion rate to exceed. But what about that campaign I worked on? That redesign? My team? My job?
Between 2012 and 2019, while at Clearhead, I worked with over one hundred Fortune 1000 businesses. I probably spoke to another two or three hundred in earnest about their needs. Amazingly, I can count on two hands the number of senior executives who were able to articulate a set of comprehensive, clearly defined goals. And I can count on one hand the number that made the effort to then translate those goals down to the levels of teams, projects, and employees. For what it’s worth, all of those in that tiny subset were native digital, direct to consumer businesses or venture backed software companies. The rest of them, including some of the most famous and best-loved brands in the world, were either vague, resistant, or silent when it came to the matter.
Twenty or thirty years ago, before the analytics revolution, this would not have surprised me. So much then was driven by gut, measured by effort or charisma, and tracked simply to determine completion. The results and their relative significance presumably came out in the wash of the top and bottom lines. People measured their rewards through validation and compensation. But very few actually knew if their work was good, “great,” worse, or meaningless.
But that was then. By 2012, I presumed that we’d refined the way we set and measured goals. We had not. I was shocked how many great companies and executives skipped over goal setting. Sometimes, they cut corners. Sometimes, they just “yadda yadda-ed” it, suggesting that the goals were obvious or insisting that they were somebody else’s responsibility. But mostly, they’d revert to a single, blunt metric or two and stop there. Sales and conversion rate. Revenue and margin. Clicks and likes.
But are those really the only goals? Do those goals effectively measure the overall health of a business? Do they measure the entire value of a project? Of a team? An employee? What happens when our work is not measured and tracked back to goals? What happens when we are unsure what the goals even are or why they are what they are?
Whatever industry you work in, you’re probably know the answers to those questions. Without well-defined, understood, and properly tracked goals, alignment breaks down. Teams fracture. Silos get established. Malaise sets in. Employees persist not out of a sense of value or purpose but out of necessity or social pressure. Increasingly, they don’t persist at all. They just leave. The single largest motivator of employee happiness and retention is a correlation between their work and why their work matters.
Along with a safe work environment and equitable treatment and compensation, I believe that goal definition is an inalienable right of every employee. It’s what allows us to understand if and why our work matters. To understand why it was or was not achieved. That is something that every employee should have access to. It assumes a lot of us. It assumes that our goals are motivated by and linked to our desires. And it assumes that we have the capacity and commitment to goal setting. But, is that really so much?
Apparently, sometimes it is. Early on at Clearhead, we were hired by a renowned luxury brand to optimize the user experience on their website. This particular website was the source of nearly a billion dollars of annual revenue. So it wasn’t just a website — it was functionally their flagship store. Over time, we began to focus on the product detail page, where, through design testing and optimization, we were able to alleviate a number of obstacles and drive more conversion. The percentage itself was modest, but not immaterial — something like 3 or 4 percent. For a massive brand doing so much volume and wherein each transaction could be thousands of dollars, the prospective gains added up to a substantial figure.
Our client, the director of user experience design, was so pleased with the outcome that she set up a meeting with the creative director, who held a lot of sway at the brand. Shortly thereafter, we proudly marched in with our data and our story, expecting high fives or thumbs-ups. However, we got nothing of the sort. The creative director balked from the outset, saying that our work was not “good design.” After the initial shock and defensiveness, we discovered the CD did not care about the conversion rate. That was not her goal. It did not matter that their customers preferred our new design or that it would make the brand more money. Her goals were not conversion rate or sales or average order value. It was something else — something that she could not quite explain and that our stakeholder therefore could not measure.
This experience, wherein we nearly lost a valuable contract, confirmed for me the need for both goal alignment and a holistic view of goals — a perspective which, in this aforementioned case, understood brand and experience and product and revenue. What I thought was obvious, what had been so consistent and singular for most of our other clients — that “good design” was the design that we could prove worked for the customer and for the bottom line — clearly needed better definition for our clients. Without a more balanced definition, I was certain we — and any other companies they worked with — would continue to fail. And so I became very interested in getting very specific about goals.
We have a lot of names for goals — targets, objectives, aims, intentions, etc. Increasingly in the SaaS world, the common term is OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). Whatever you call them, naming goals assumes describing a qualitative objective, or desired outcome, and pairing it with a quantifiable metric. It’s taking the notion of success — however you and your business’s desires have come to define it — and clarifying the point at which you can tell if you’ve achieved it or not. Without goals, we float aimlessly in a sea of work, activity, and projects without ever recognizing the value beyond something being “completed” or “launched.” If desires are the generative force and purpose for doing something, goals provide the shape, size, and location of that force and purpose.
Whatever we call them, a goal (as I have come to define it) includes a qualitative statement of objective alongside a SMART goal which, necessarily, includes a KPI (Key Performance Indicator).
There’s an overused, but certainly true, saying that goes something like, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth measuring.” Goals are what help us distinguish between work worth doing and everything else. They give us something to aim toward. They allow us to reflect on previous baselines and performance. And they help us determine when we have strayed from our targets and need to double down, pivot, reconsider, or panic.
To be clear, my understanding of goals has been hard earned. Early in my career, I was guilty of many of the same behaviors I described above. When we formed Clearhead, I still viewed goals as mostly blunt and binary concepts. I could only see sales and retention, revenue and margin, or conversion rates and average order values. And so I was not totally surprised when our clients at Clearhead indicated that all they cared about was either sales or order conversion rate, or that they struggled to even quantify their targets. But very quickly, we saw the limitations of such a narrow view. At Clearhead, I recognized that sales and revenue were not especially valuable if they could not be retained or if they were not profitable. Similarly, and closer to home, I understood that at Clearhead, regardless of our sales or margin at, we could not operate effectively if we did not develop and retain our employees.
You get the point: there was no single goal. Success wasn’t just about hitting home runs. We needed to pitch well, play good defense, and attract, retain, and develop the best players. To define winning, we needed more than a single metric. We needed a balanced scorecard.
The same was true for our clients. Whether we were talking about their entire business or a specific product or experience we were designing with them, success could only be evaluated holistically. After all, you can improve conversion rates simply by putting products on extreme sale (which most retailers do, all the time, at their own peril). To improve margin, you can just make things more cheaply. To acquire users, you can overspend on advertising. Individually, each goal only tells part of the story. Together, however, you can get a picture of overall health.
We articulate goals — whether for a company, a design, a project, or an individual — for a couple of very good reasons: to define a desired outcome and to determine a way to measure our progress toward it. No single goal, however, can provide a complete picture of the desired outcome or the relative performance in pursuit of it. A company cannot be evaluated exclusively on the basis of sales, which are blind to costs, efficiency, innovation, loyalty, and satisfaction. Similarly, a design cannot be evaluated strictly by clicks or conversions, which are blind to the motivations behind them and the implications that follow.
We often think that defining goals requires us to do the hard work of developing alignment among disparate groups and disparate goals within matrixed organizations. There is some truth to that. And — yes — hard things are hard. But here’s the thing. Goals don’t get voted on. They are not democratic. If desires are personal, or monarchic (and problems are meritocratic while hypotheses are democratic) then goals are autocratic. They are inscribed by leadership in service of desires. They are imperatives.
Nevertheless, many leaders still don’t understand the extent to which goals truly matter — how a well-defined goal can help orient a team around their efforts and provide a measuring stick to assess progress. I have a friend who once met Red Auerbach, the former general manager and coach of the Boston Celtics who helped guide the franchise to unprecedented dominance. Upon meeting the sports legend, she asked, very earnestly, to what he attributed the team’s success. According to her telling, Auerbach drew a series of arrows on a piece of paper, all pointing toward the center. The implication was clear — everyone in the organization was on the same page about what success meant and how to achieve it.
The story offers a great description of what separates the best institutions from everyone else. Goals tell the players on the court where to go, what to do next, and most importantly, why they’re doing what they’re doing. Without quantifiable goals, every game would be chaos. And without clear goals, a business — and its employees — will struggle for evidence that they’re achieving good work.
With clear goals, you can also define constraints. When they’re specific and bound by time, goals keep you on a path that avoids risk and desire drift. Across a business, clear goals create a clarity of vision and a team alignment that engenders efficiency and ingenuity.
And so if goals are essential for growth, if they are “leader led,” and if they are easier to track than ever before, then what’s the problem? Well, maybe most institutions simply don’t know where to start. Or rather, where to listen. But, if you’re interested in the answer to that question — the question of where to listen — that’s a whole other story.
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