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STRATEGY: No-Nonsense Goals: Developing a Lean and Mean Strategy

dmackinwebSomeone once said, “A goal is a dream with a deadline.”  For many organizations, the time is approaching to set goals for 2010.  There’s always lots of debate about how to set goals and whether they should be stretch goals.  So, let’s look at the goal setting process to make sure we’re doing it correctly. 

Fundamentally, goals occur at three different levels.  Some are strategic in nature, usually representing 3-5 years out.  A strategic goal might sound like what President Kennedy said, “Land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.”  Most organizations have five or six high level strategic goals that they are working on each year related to productivity, new market development, process efficiencies, quality, staff development and customer service.  Most strategic goals are cross-functional and therefore require the creation of focus teams or multiple initiatives to move the goals forward. 

Once the strategic goals are determined, the organization defines the corresponding operational goals for the upcoming year; operational goals are typically limited to a one year horizon and define what the organization is expected to achieve in that year.  Each department or function then writes tactical goals (ground floor goals) that define exactly what needs to be accomplished in each department.  Looking at it from the bottom up, the accumulation of the tactical goals should achieve the operational goals which over a multiple-year process would then achieve the strategic goals.


“Too many times goals are written as activities, rather than the end result target.”


It all sounds very logical, so what’s the problem?  First of all, too many times goals are written as activities, rather than the end result target.  For example, one organization identified an operational goal as “defining a plan that will create a balanced budget.”  Whenever a goal begins with an “action verb,” it’s not a goal, but rather a task.  What this organization actually wants to accomplish within the year is a balanced budget, and the plan is simply the way to get there.  The correct goal statement should have read “achieve a balanced budget by 2010.”  To help groups craft effective goals, we use the SMART acronym with a slight twist.  The S stands for specific, so we’d need to go back and make the previous goal a bit more specific, such as noting it as an operating budget.   The M stands for measurable, a clear determination of what must be accomplished.   The A stands for achievable.  Here the argument is always whether to build a stretch goal or one that is seen as achievable.  I think it’s important to set realistic, achievable goals that people believe can be accomplished, rather than a stretch goal that is laughed at by staff.  For example, one organization had a stretch goal – “achieve a team-based, high performance culture in one year.”  The chances of the goal being achieved in one year are exceedingly unrealistic.  The R (which some people define as standing for realistic) is where we put the twist in and instead say the R is for results-oriented, rather than activity-based.  The T stands for time-bound, with a clear deadline identified.  So, rewriting our original goal as a SMART goal, we would have, “achieve a balanced operating expense budget of $X by the end of Q4, 2010.”


SMART Goal Setting 


 This year as you begin to write your goals, check to see that they are truly SMART.  If they begin with action verbs, they are simply activities to be accomplished and when they are done, there is no guarantee that the goal (target) will be hit. Instead, if you ask yourself the question, “Why am I doing this activity?” the answer will get you closer to the goal.  For example, if I’ve written a personal health goal of “implement an exercise program into my daily routine,” that’s really an activity.  So, I need to ask “why.”  Why do I want to implement an exercise program into my daily routine?  When I can answer that question, then I’m getting closer to the target (goal).    In my case, the “why” might be “to achieve an improved score of X on my cholesterol blood work report by the end of 2010.”  Notice how many times the goal is written using words like achieve, increase, decrease, improve, and reduce.

Once the goals are written correctly, the next step is to craft a work breakdown plan that identifies each of the key milestones (objectives) that must be completed to satisfy the primary goal.  Now, is the spot where “implementing the exercise program” comes in as an objective to help me reach the larger goal.  I also will need to “establish a new dietary plan” and “track results.”  Under each of these objectives, I then need to list the activities to be done to achieve the objective.  Take a look at the mini-work breakdown plan below as a quick example:

 Work Breakdown Plan Example

So, as you begin your own goal-setting for 2010, get off to a good start with clear, strong goals and a work breakdown plan that spells out exactly how the goals will be accomplished.  Good luck!

P.S.  If you need a work breakdown template for your goal setting, visit work breakdown plan.





  • Great job. I have found that these tools work great not only for setting and accomplishing professional goals but for personal ones as well. I thoroughly enjoy the concept that there are 3 levels of goals and that we have to be aware of what we are really saying when setting the goals (I have a tendacy to focus too much on one style of goals setting – strategic, and not enough on other levels – tactical). I am a big cheerleader for workbreak down plans!

  • Hi Deb, I love the planning tools you have shared. The work break down plan works at each level, strategic, operational and tactical. The WBP helps to cascade the work for the entire organization and keep each level in alignment. As Matt commented, they work well for your personal goals as well. I do love to check off tasks accomplished and this method helps identify what and when those are. I look forward to each of your blogs, and thank you for sharing.

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