We’ve previously discussed the importance of setting clear strategies and defining specific outcomes to achieve success in the goal-setting process, and while we encourage focusing on details and structure in the early stages of goal-setting, one common challenge is determining just how rigid to be when things change along the way. There are two components to this: determining if and when goals should be allowed to flex over time, and setting expected outcomes when you’re not really sure what they should be.
Should goals be allowed to flex over time?
The answer depends on context, both of the people involved and the business itself. Most often, we would argue that goals should be allowed to flex with the changing conditions of the business. Change is inevitable, and it’s vital that goals have the flexibility to adapt. However, you must be careful not to resort to moving the bar higher or lower depending on the capability of the employee. It’s an easy situation to find yourself in, and it might even seem logical that a goal should change in response to the employee tasked with meeting it. But there’s risk involved when you move the target to meet what the employee manages to achieve, rather than have the employee strive to hit or exceed the target. Usually, you end up falling short of the intended goal and missing out on opportunities for personal development.
Any time you are faced with the decision to alter a goal, ask yourself which of the following is your primary motivation for making the change.
Are you changing this goal because:
a) You incorrectly specified the goal or its expected outcomes from the beginning?
b) Changing business conditions have affected this goal? or
c) The employee involved is having trouble meeting it?
If the answer is (a) or (c), allow the goal to flex. Make the needed adjustments, but discuss and document why you made the change. Reevaluate the original goal — perhaps you should have specified the goal differently from the get-go. Identify any conditions that changed and made the goal no longer relevant as written. All this information will come in handy for future goal-setting.
If the answer is (b), resist changing the goal and instead focus on helping your direct report achieve the result. You shouldn’t settle for less than your intended goal just because they are having trouble hitting the target. Use the opportunity to help them understand what they need to learn or what skills they need to develop to close the gap. Then set a new goal to get there. Alternatively, you can shift their role in a different direction if it's not the right fit.
What if the expected outcomes are still unknown?
Often we are writing goals to achieve things that are in some way unknown. Either the business has little experience pursuing this goal — for example, launching a new marketing channel — or the employee is new to the practice and unable to estimate what can be achieved. In both cases, there is a significant learning component for the individual.
Research shows that when an individual is faced with a goal that requires a significant learning component, they are more effective with a flexible target of "do your best" than when they are given a specific outcome. With these types of goals, there are bound to be discoveries along the way that could not have been accounted for at the beginning. If the outcome is set too rigidly, any new information will throw a curveball into the process instead of providing forward momentum. So if you’ve identified a goal with a high learning component, frame the result around "do your best," but remember to balance the process with structured steps and check-ins.
Another reason you might have difficulty specifying the expected outcome is that the work hasn't been done yet to quantify it. In this case, task your direct report with specifying the expected outcomes. If the goal can't be articulated clearly within a week's time, then consider breaking it up or redefining it to be more clear. There are many ways to approach uncertainty, and it’s important to remember that flexibility can be an ally. Giving yourself and your team latitude when entering uncharted territory can help set everyone up for success.
By and large, goals should have clear, specific outcomes that last the expected lifecycle of the goal. For example, if you set quarterly goals, your outcomes should stay consistent with each quarter. But goal-setting should be an agile process that adapts with the business. Just be sure you're adapting to changes in business conditions and not altering targets to chase the expected outcome.