Imagine we asked each individual on your leadership team to write down:
- The company’s top three goals for the year
- Their personal goals for the current quarter and month that support the company’s yearly goals
- The goals set by their fellow leaders for the current quarter and month
Would they all write down the same things?
Most leadership teams would align on some overall themes, but utterly fail to articulate concrete, measurable goals at the yearly, quarterly, and monthly level. To some extent, they’re flying by the seat of their pants.
To be fair, some leadership teams without a solid system for setting goals are successful. They may manage to secure funding, build a product that works, and win customers. They may be killing themselves to do it, but they are doing it. At least on paper, these organizations may be succeeding.
But it feels painful. It’s chaotic. It’s unsustainable.
In this article, we’ll explain what it feels like to work in a dysfunctional goal culture and how to avoid it.
What makes a dysfunctional goal culture?
A dysfunctional goal culture occurs when a team has one or more of the following: unproductive goals, no goal plan, or poor execution habits.
Many leadership teams set unproductive goals if they set any at all. Unproductive goals are fuzzy, underdeveloped, insufficient, and even impotent. Leadership teams with unproductive goals may have a sense of the overall result they’d like—things like higher sales, more subscribers, or lower churn—but not a clearly articulated vision of success.
In contrast, productive goals are specific and measurable. They describe what success looks like and how you’ll know when it’s achieved. They direct action and empower you and your team to prioritize some tasks over others.
No goal plan
Many leadership teams lack a clear goal plan—they fail to build out a strategy for the actual work they’ll need to do or the inputs required to accomplish their goals.
Goal plans are strategies that connect desired future states with the present situation. They specify the inputs required to achieve a goal, laying out what needs to be accomplished at the quarterly, monthly, and even the weekly level. These can change and adapt over time, but they provide everyone with a road map of the small wins required to accomplish the larger, longer-term wins.
Caution: Goal plans are different from project plans. We’re not talking Gantt charts here. Done wrong, goal planning becomes overwhelming and useless.
Poor execution habits
Many teams that set goals fail to actually work towards them. They falter on the execution. Their goals fall by the wayside and the teams ultimately underachieve.
Teams with a strong goal culture incorporate high-performance execution habits into their work. These are the regular practices a team must engage in to stay on course. These habits include tracking progress, regular reflection, and keeping each other accountable. They’re habits because they’re rituals and behaviours that high-performance teams learn to carry out automatically.
The symptoms of a dysfunctional goal culture
When leadership teams have unproductive goals, lack a goal plan, or execute poorly, everyone suffers. Here’s what it can feel like. If you can identify some of these feelings in your own organization, it may be time to rethink your system for setting, planning, and executing on goals.
The compass is broken—and there’s no map
There’s a lack of alignment about where the company’s going. And it starts at the top.
While you and your fellow leaders may have long discussions about big picture strategy, you don’t seem to make any firm decisions—at least nothing clearly written down. Or, there may be frequent changes in direction.
The lack of direction affects your team. People feel out of sync and disconnected from what others are doing. They aren’t always clear what they should be doing—or why. They’re confused about what projects there are and what to prioritize.
When a different direction is announced, your teams don’t feel clear on what the changes are or what motivated them. More importantly, there may be a lack of agreement about whether those changes are necessary.
Unproductive goals lead to a lack of direction. They create uncertainty for teams about what they should be doing and why.
Your wheels are spinning but progress feels slow
It’s not that you’re not working—you are. Everyone’s working really hard.
The leadership team is pulling long hours and constantly putting out fires. You’re so busy with urgent work that there’s no time for the work that’s important but non-urgent. The sheer volume of day-to-day work makes it nearly impossible to slow down and reflect on longer-term plans.
Your teams feel the same way. They’re pushing themselves hard, but even still, they feel like climbing up a mountain with no end in sight.
Lacking a well-articulated goal plan creates inefficient work. You put in more effort but get less done.
There are too many destinations
Your company’s priorities proliferate. There are 10 most important things! Work is regularly added but there’s rarely a corresponding subtraction. The to-dos just pile higher.
Your leadership team is overwhelmed by the crushing weight of all the good ideas. Their heads are spinning, and conversations are scattered. It feels impossible to know what to do—and what not to do.
Your teams feel like they’re being pulled in all directions. They find it difficult to finish anything or focus on one task because there are so many projects on the go. They’re working frantically to keep up and deliver. Many days feel like a mad, coffee-fuelled frenzy.
A lack of explicit commitment to certain priorities makes it difficult to focus and say no to competing ones.
You’re tempted to over-control the process
Without explicit goals, it’s hard for your teams to know what you need from them.
Your leadership team doesn’t want to get into the weeds and manage their team’s day-to-day work, but they may feel unsure that strategic projects are going to get done without extensive direction.
Meanwhile, your teams are flying semi-blind. They get discouraged and lose confidence because they rarely produce work their leader loves. This very hands-on leadership style may start to feel like micromanagement.
A lack of specific and explicit goals makes it difficult for your teams to produce what leaders want without constant guidance.
There’s no accountability when you don’t arrive
“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” — Bill Gates
You and the other leaders feel disappointed when you don’t meet a goal, but there’s little reflection on why you missed the target. Sometimes missed targets are even ignored—no one mentions them.
This may create irritation between people. People feel anxious that they can’t rely on others to deliver things on time. There’s resentment at the lack of accountability to hit targets that matter.
People really want to work on a high-performance team, where successes and failures are discussed openly and everyone takes responsibility. But no one wants to be a jerk who calls people out on their missed goals. The team doesn’t know how to deliver constructive accountability.
A lack of accountability and reflection feels frustrating for those who are committed to your goals.
Isn’t that just what it’s like to grow a company?
But isn’t that all, just… normal?
Growing a company is hard. Of course it’s strenuous. Of course people feel overwhelmed. Of course there’s frustration.
It’s like working out. When you do an intense workout, you’re going to sweat. But if you get an injury, you’re doing something wrong.
It’s the same thing in business: yes, growing a company will take some effort. You’ll be busy. But it doesn’t have to—it shouldn’t—feel painful.
If we could, we’d plaster this on a billboard for all leaders to see: if you feel like you’re pulling teeth to succeed, you’re probably doing something wrong.
The simple fix: develop a strong goal culture
If you feel like you’re overwhelmed, your team is frustrated, and you’re just barely keeping your head above water, consider re-evaluating how you set and execute your strategic goals.
Your work doesn’t have to feel like such a mad scramble. There’s a better way. At its core, developing a strong goal culture involves:
Picking the right goals and articulating them clearly so they’re specific and measurable
Creating robust goal plans that connect your desired end states with where you are now
Create systems for disciplined execution, accountability, and reflection
If you do those things, you can shift to a new way of working. And it will feel much better:
You’ll be busy, but you’ll have time for those important but non-urgent tasks
You’ll feel like your teams are aligned and working towards a common vision
You’ll find that your teams are less frustrated and more collaborative
Setting effective strategic goals helps you systematize success. It allows you to achieve big things, but in a sustainable way—so you can keep performing quarter after quarter, year after year.