Writer at typewriter as metaphor for writing goal statements

How to write goal statements

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    How to write goal statements in 3 simple steps

    Writing goal statements can provoke lots of debate and passion. There are many ways of approaching them and of getting them wrong. Here are some simple steps that will get you to a clear statement, avoiding the common pitfalls and issues.

    Man writing using typewriter to write goal statement

    Typical time to write goal statement: 10 minutes

    Goal selection and statement in 3 steps

    Step 1

    Brainstorm the outcomes and results you are looking for

    Use whatever tool you are most comfortable brainstorming with. Focus on outcomes and results, not activities and tasks.

    Example

    Sign up for the Sawdust and Running Diet Plan

    ...is a task or action.

    Maintain a healthy body weight

    ...is that result that you are likely striving for when you sign up for that diet.

    Step 2

    Sort your goals by breadth, select goal to define

    In Step 2 you rank the brainstormed objectives, with the most strategic at the top, the least at the bottom.

    When you brainstorm goals around a particular topic, some of those goals will be low level.

    Which goal should I choose?

    Generally, we will set the goal based on the most strategic of the goals we have brainstormed, though you may have a specific reason to choose a lower level goal.

    Example

    Let's say we are brainstorming goals around personal health and fitness. We might come up with both...

    'We use comfortable running shoes'

    and

    'We have a long and healthy retirement'

    Clearly the goal 'We have a long and healthy retirement' has a broader scope than 'We use comfortable running shoes'.

    Step 3

    Write your goal as 'future fact'

    Write your goal as though it has already been achieved. You can call this 'tomorrow's truth' or 'future fact' (credit to Stacey Barr for that term).

    • Make sure you focus on outcomes and results, not activities and tasks.
    • Do not include targets and figures (these can be done separately, later on).
    • Use pronouns (I, we, us, our) to make it easier to write about 'future fact.

    Example

    The draft goal statement...

    Build warehouse C17 by March

    ...is a task with a target delivery date. It is not clear why we should care about a new warehouse being built and what benefit it will deliver. Rewording this, focussing on outcomes and removing targets and goals, it becomes...

    Our products are shipped without delay

    3 common mistakes writing goal goal statements, and how to fix them

    Why goal wording matters

    'How to write a goal statement' is one of the most common questions that come up when learning to build KPI Trees and is something many people find difficult. The good new is that a few simple principles can make it much easier. Having run hundreds of goal writing sessions, as the start point for KPI Trees, there are three common mistakes that keep on popping up. Here are those three issues, and the simple fix.

    The problem of writing goal statements using just tasks, action or activity

    Problem 1. Goal statements that are really 'Tasks, activities or actions'

    If I go on a diet, my goal is not 'go on a diet', it is to 'reach and maintain my ideal body weight'.

    'Goals' that are tasks, action or activities, perhaps including a deadline, may look like goals but are not goals.

    Here are three simple examples of goals statements that are really tasks, activities or actions:

      • Build warehouse C17
      • All staff to complete health and safety training 101
      • Sign up for the 'saw-dust and running' diet plan

    These are not goals as they don't describe the impact of those activities. On a practical level, once the task is complete, they cease to be meaningful, and that's not a great foundation for our KPI design.

    Taking our first example, once 'Build warehouse C17' is built, what happens? Why should we care? What is the benificial outcome? All we have described is a task and a deadline for that task.

    Put simply goals are about the results and outcomes we want to achieve, not the actions we take to achieve them

    Actions, tasks and activities have their place, typically as part of the OKRs that we develop alongside our KPIs. The should not be confused though.

    Key points

    • Tasks, actions and activities happen, then are complete, so they do not provide a solid foundation for selecting our KPIs.
    • Tasks, actions and activities do not describe the outcome or result we are looking for, just the things that should take place.
    • We may decide to measure activity lower in our KPI tree, but this kind of KPI is a poor alternative to measuring outcomes and needs to be treated with caution.

    The problem of how to write goal statement - Activity + Target + Timeframe

    Problem 2. Goals that are 'Activity plus Target plus timeframe'

    A target + timeframe goal will typically follow the verb + subject + target + timescale format. Here are three examples of this format...

    • Handover of operational new warehouse C17 by January 2024
    • Deliver H&S training to 100% of the staff by the close of this month
    • Complete 'saw-dust and running diet' and lose 20kg

    The challege with these statements comes in two parts.

    Firstly, targets can be highly emotive and can distract from selecting meaningful measures.

    For example, in a commercial organisation, few people would argue with the concept of 'increasing profit'. However, if you were discussing a KPI Tree with a sales team and you added the goal of 'Increase profit by 10x' there's a good chance many will have a very strong opinion about the legitimacy of that goal. That anger and emotion will distracted from the almost certain agreement that 'increasing profit' is a good and sensible thing for the organisation.

    Secondly, good targets take time, care and effort to create.

    At this stage in the process we probably don't know how we will measure something and or what 'great' performmance looks like. Targets should be a separate, later, discussion from whether we should be measuring something.

    For both of these reasons, we should deal with targets separately and later in the process (Step 5 in the ROKS Enterprise method).

    Key points

    • Targets can be specific and emotive, clouding the discuss on whether the general goal is valid
    • At this stage in the process we don't know how we will measure the goal, or what 'good' performance looks like, so it's not sensible to try and set up targets yet.
    • First we set a measurable goal, later we set the targets or key results.

    The problem of how to write goal statement - Achieve Result X through Task, Action or Activity Y

    Problem 3. 'Achieve result through task' goals

    Another common structure for written goals takes the form verb-subject-action (credit to Stacey Barr for this description), like these:

    • Improve customer delivery times by building new warehouse C17 on time.
    • Create a safe working environment through daily toolbox talks
    • Achieve ideal weight by following the 'saw-dust and running' diet

    The issue with this kind of goal is that is far too easy to focus our measurement on the activity, or task, rather than the outcome. In fact, the wording actively encourages us to do this. So the focus for our first example would be to implement the 'Sauron Data Capture System' rather than focus on improving our Line E2 Efficiency.

    Key points

    • Using the 'achieve result throught task' structure encourages risks focus on measuring activity rather that measuring the outcome.
    • This focus can also act to accidentally exclude other mechanisms that may positively support the outcome, but which we have not yet been identified.

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    Woman and man with crystal ball - metaphor for 'future fact'

    How to write goal statements? Fake it 'till you make it!

    A simple way to avoid these three problems is to word your goal as though it has already been achieved. You can call this 'tomorrow's truth' or 'future fact' (credit to Stacey Barr for that term).

    So here are our original three examples...

    1. Build warehouse C17
    2. All staff to complete health and safety training 101
    3. Sign up for the 'saw-dust and running' diet plan

    Rewriting these goal statements as 'future fact'

    1. We offer timely delivery to our customers
    2. We have a safe working environment
    3. I maintain a good body weight

    These look good, but they still have a problem, woolly words.

    Sheep - metaphor for woolly words in the context of writing goal statements

    Woolly words. Sound great, hard to pin down

    Woolly words are words that sound inspiring but are really hard to measure or describe. Extreme examples include...

    • Fabulous
    • Best in breed
    • Synergetic
    • Bleeding edge
    • Brilliant
    • Inspiring

    These are words that you will often find in advertising copy, mission and vision statements. They can make the reader feel great, but can be very difficult to clearly define and, as a result, measure. If woolly words creep into your goal statements.

    In our example, our woolly words are...

    1. Timely
    2. Safe
    3. Good

    Let's see what those three statement looks like with those woolly words replaced with clear simple language.

    1. Our products are shipped without delay
    2. Our team go home safely each day
    3. We maintain a healthy body weight

    So there we have it when it come to 'how to write a goal statement' describing an ideal future state of the result we care about is one of the most powerful and natural ways of doing this. Write as though it has already been achieve, making sure you avoid 'woolly words'.

    These statements are now in great shape to be turned into KPI Trees.

    Better KPIs using KPI Trees, turn your KPIs into meaningful KPIs visually

    How to write a goal statement FAQs

    The use of pronouns such as I, we, us, our is optional, but from experience that they help the 'future fact' statements flow naturally, so their use is encouraged.

    People tend to reach for SMART approach (based on the work of Locke and Latham) as soon as they hear the word 'goal' mentioned.

    The SMART approach states that all objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Targeted. In truth, SMART is more about setting specific targets than describing outcomes or results.

    Experience has shown that as soon as you start mixing targets with broad objectives, the focus shifts to discuss the size of the target, taking focus off the objective and our reason for wanting to achieve it.

    Once you have read this post (How to write a goal statement) and are ready to set targets, try the ROKET-DS approach for a field-tested approach to setting effective targets and key results.

    If you are writing goal statements for an 'ideal future', you can test it/them by asking the simple question 'could we achieve that goal (or those goals) but still have problems?'. If the answer to that question is 'yes' then your goal statement(s) is/are incomplete.

    This approach is known as 'reverse brainstorming' and you can find out a lot more about it in this in-depth reverse brainstorming page (along with a free downloadable how-to guide).