ABSENT Goals: 6 Ways To Set Goals

gombadmin Blog

by Kristen Cox, Executive Director

High performing organizations consistently get one thing right—the ability to set clear, measurable, and ambitious goals. Everything else, from investing new money to introducing new strategies, hinges on the ability to get this one critical action right. It may seem obvious—but too often the need to establish goals is overlooked. In the majority of systems we’ve worked in, clarity around the goal and how to measure success have been absent.

As a result, strategies, new technology, reorganizations, and an endless list of new initiatives are rolled out without clearly understanding the “why” and the desired impact each should have. If structured correctly, goals provide focus, help prioritize resources, identify areas for improvement, and help to tell the success story. They help to filter what to focus on and what to say no to. I was reminded of the importance of setting goals when I recently attended a Colorado Rockies baseball game.

I don’t know a lot about baseball, but I had the opportunity to sit near a friend who was once a sports announcer. He is as passionate about baseball as I am about chocolate. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the game from him. I was amazed to learn about all the decisions being made continually throughout the game—both large and small. What pitch should the pitcher throw? Should the team put on a defensive shift? Should the batter swing or not? How should the in field adjust based on the batter’s history? Every decision made was based on a singular objective—to win. The goal was clear and there was an easy way to determine progress toward the goal—the score.

Government sometimes gets lost in the blur of activities and loses site of the ultimate goal. Scarce time and resources are spread across every good and interesting idea rather than being focused on the activities that align with the ultimate objective. Without clear focus and a way to measure success, we can squander scarce resources on activities and interventions that are substandard and don’t move the needle—especially when we may not even have a way to determine if the needle has moved.

ABSENT the following six disciplines around goal setting, organizations will never deliver the kind of services and programs that taxpayers and customers deserve.


Baselined Performance

Strategic Measures

Easy to Articulate

Never Lose Focus

Tie to Operations

A: Ambitious

Psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham found that specific and ambitious goals lead to a higher level of performance than easy or general goals. Setting ambitious goals forces us to think beyond what we already know and search out knowledge and information that will help our organizations perform in ways to-date unknown.

B: Baselined Performance

Organizations should clearly know where they are today so they can measure and determine if interventions and changes make a difference in the work. Whether an agency builds roads, provides business licenses, or serves vulnerable populations, the taxpayer has the right to know if all of the activities, gadgets, and interventions are resulting in better, faster, and cheaper outcomes. No entity in the private sector could survive long-term without being able to determine if the organization was improving or not.

S: Strategic Measures

Organizations should be able to define and capture three fundamental aspects of performance. Specifically, agencies should measure how much work can currently be handled, how well the work is performed, and the cost for performing the work. These measures should serve as the score board—helping the organization to know if, overtime, they are winning or losing the game. If new interventions, strategies, or changes are truly beneficial, they will positively impact the quantity, quality, or costs of delivering a service. (add link to white paper on QT/OE)

E: Easy to Articulate

Goals should be clear, simple to understand, and easy to remember. Long and wordy statements that don’t clearly state what is expected are confusing and don’t resonate with employees or the public. They should establish a clear direction tells people what is important.

N: Never Lose Focus

Progress toward the goal should be reviewed regularly by leadership. Frequent review allows for course correction changes, identifies obstacles that need to be removed, and focuses the resources of the entire organization in order to create intensive focus and momentum. If leadership is not willing to stay focused on the goal—the organization as a whole certainly won’t.

T: Tie to Operations

Two primary problems often exist when establishing goals—they either don’t exist or don’t connect to operations. Translating the goal into the daily work and processes of the organization is the only way to bring an idea to reality. Jon Doerr, General Partner at KPCB, said “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” The practice of operational excellence is simply the practice of bringing goals to life.

Use these guidelines and you won’t be ABSENT in your goal setting.