Set complete goals: avoid the fatal flaws of planning

Did you know that 90% of organizations fail to deliver their strategic plan? That is a startling statistic from The Balanced Scorecard by David Kaplan and Ken Norton. Given the time and effort that often goes into planning, wouldn’t it be great if more than 10% of organizations actually achieved their objectives? Wouldn’t it be great if you achieved more of your critical goals? 

If, like most organizations, your planning process only creates targets and budgets, you have introduced a sinister, invisible force that will undermine your ability to achieve your goals. Setting targets without defining your ‘how’ is like deciding to build a house and then going straight to construction, bypassing the stage where you draw up the plans. There is a big difference between setting goals and creating a plan.

You need ‘Complete Goals’ to truly have a plan. Most organizations define targets and allocate resources as part of their planning process. Sales targets are set. Budgets are created. Perhaps a goal tracking system is populated. People are usually very happy the process is complete. But is it? Planning actually begins once we have set our goals and targets. Planning is the process that identifies how the goals will be achieved. A complete goal has two key components:

  • The goal: what are you trying to accomplish?
  • The plan: how will you accomplish it?

When you involve people in planning, set complete goals and review your goals on a regular basis you will achieve more goals. Since only 20% of teams are getting this right, this is another glaring example of common sense that is not common practice. 

What are you trying to accomplish? In our experience leaders at most organizations are better at the ‘what’ than the ‘how’ when it comes to planning. There are many different ways to define your targets. We like the OKR (Objectives & Key Results) method that was created by Andy Grove, CEO of Intel back in 1971. The process clarifies your strategic Objectives (what we are trying to accomplish) and Key Results (the clear proof that the objectives were achieved).

Planning flaws that undermine ‘what’ we are trying to accomplish. Most planning processes, even those that use a method such as OKRs, have one or more fatal flaws that introduce the sinister, evil forces that undermine achievement. Here are the four most common fatal flaws in planning:

  • Set too many goals given the available resources. If we involve people in planning and are open to their feedback, we will co-create a plan that is reasonable given the available resources. In practice, most teams do not involve people in planning. Even when they do, it is rare that leaders are truly open and receptive to feedback from the team. Due to a lack of psychological safety, many teams end up with a plan that is impossible to achieve. People will feel their performance is assessed unfairly, which further erodes psychological safety. It is critical to involve people in planning … and listen to their feedback! 
  • Set goals that are not aligned with a shared vision. If your goals are not moving toward a vision that is truly shared by people across the organization, it is like a flight that is tracking toward the wrong airport. Let’s say your organization has a shared vision of going to New York City. You then establish goals around a flight to Toronto, a perfectly fine destination – just not the one people intended. 
  • Set targets that are actually KPIs, not Key Results. If your goals focus on progress metrics instead of destination goals, you have introduced significant execution risk. You may be on track to New York City midway through the flight but still have time to veer off course and end up in Toronto. While this may seem like semantics, there is an incredibly important distinction to be made between Key Results and KPIs:
    • Key Results: critical measures that prove we have actually achieved our goals (e.g. we arrived in New York).
    • KPIs (Key Performance Indicators): measures that help us confirm that we are on track toward our goals (e.g. we have enough fuel … to get to either destination). We can attain a KPI without reaching the ultimate goal. Big difference.
  • Set goals without considering the time spent on operations. When we set Complete Goals we are focused on the biggest things we need to do to move the company forward. Closing the books or making sure the facility is clean will not likely make the list. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Some teams spend upward of 80% of their time on their ‘day job’, the operational and transactional activities that keep things running smoothly. If we plan as if these teams have 100% of their time to work on initiatives we have a plan that is impossible to achieve.

How will you accomplish your goals? Now that you have created a set of targets which avoid these fatal flaws, we move to the next stage of planning. Our experience suggests that most organizations skip this stage of planning entirely, which is likely the major culprit behind 90% of organizations not delivering their plan. 

In this stage we create ‘supporting lines’, commitments of cross-functional support that are critical in order to deliver the plan. This is not the same as identifying dependencies, a process you may be familiar with. Dependencies are often defined in isolation, without communicating the expectation of support to the party people rely on. A ‘supporting line’ is a co-created commitment of support in pursuit of a common goal. It’s a completely different orientation. 

Quick exercise: “Who let you down?”  Think about a time when you had trouble delivering on a key target or objective because a colleague failed to support you. Perhaps they made a commitment of support and then failed to follow through. Perhaps a key conversation never happened in the first place.

  • Exercise: If you could go back in time, what conversation would you like to have with this person six months before they failed to deliver? Write down the questions you would ask.

Supporting lines define the ‘how’. I am willing to bet that your list of questions you would ask the person capture the elements of what makes a great supporting line below:

  • Make sure the person knows you need their help
  • Make sure they understand exactly what you expect and by when
  • Agree on milestones to ensure things were on track
  • Make sure they had bandwidth to support you
  • Make sure they firmly committed to deliver 

If these 5 simple elements are co-created and re-assured throughout your pursuit of a goal, you will see a great difference in the results. The key is including all five of these elements, not just one or two. While this approach may sound like common sense, it is definitely not not common practice. While support requirements are often visible, supporting lines are rarely understood and firmly agreed (in writing).

Put this into practice

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