Posted December 20, 2017

Finding the Balance Between Aggressive and Realistic Goals

By Kelly Dickey

Every year around goal-setting season, leaders email or call with a common question: “How do I set aggressive yet realistic goals?” Research indicates that specific and challenging, (but not too challenging), goals produce the best results1. The question is, how do we find the balance between setting ambitious goals that create urgency while keeping them achievable? Below are some commonly-asked questions I get from leaders and my advice for handling them.

When should I pull back on a goal?

My colleague and I worked with a senior team that decided to set their patient experience goal at the 99th percentile. This goal may sound exciting at first; however, the organization’s current results were around the 50th percentile. By setting this lofty target, they expected to increase 49 percentile points in 12 months. While I encourage organizations to set ambitious goals, they must consider historical performance and the industry norm related to the goal. In this case, we determined it was unrealistic to assume the organization could improve that much in 12 months. After research, running data models and discussing the foundations of goal-setting with the team, we settled on the 80th percentile. When setting goals, always use data to support your planning.

My results are already at the top – where do I go from here?

I received an email from a leader who was struggling with setting targets for the next performance period because her department consistently performed above the 90th percentile for patient experience.  When your team is already top-notch, how do you set meaningful goals that drive continuous improvement? If you, like this leader, have sustained high results, ask: “If I take my eye off this measure, will performance slip?” If the answer is “no,” consider removing the goal from your evaluation and adding it to your department’s dashboard to keep an eye on it. If the answer is “yes, we could slip,” keep the goal on your evaluation and give it a lower weight (such as 10 percent) to maintain results. When deciding whether to keep a goal on an evaluation, ask yourself: “Have my team and I hardwired the behaviors that lead to consistent results?”

What if we missed our goal?

By far, this is the most common question I get from leaders who miss their annual goal and want recommendations for setting next year’s target. If this is your dilemma, take a step back and figure out why you missed the mark. Were you expecting to move results too much, too fast? Did you have a solid action plan that included deliverables with milestones and dates? Did you validate the frequency, quality and skill of behaviors used to accomplish the goal? After this analysis, if you identify a problem in execution, correct your mistakes, be more rigorous and disciplined when validating behaviors, and keep pushing for the goal.

However, if your team executed tactics consistently, you may have set the goal too high. Rather than lowering the bar, keep the target the same and try again. Be confident in knowing that you are closer than you were before, and with consistent execution and strong accountability systems in place, the goal is within reach. If you have objectively evaluated your performance and are still not sure what went wrong or how to proceed, you may need outside coaching and technology to assist in the goal-setting process.

Finally, accountability is a journey, and it is common to adjust tactics and re-evaluate strategy. Along the way, take time to acknowledge your staff’s hard work and celebrate incremental wins. My last piece of advice for everyone is always to keep progressing towards your goals and never give up!

As a coach specialist, Kelly Dickey leverages accountability inside Studer Group and with Studer Group's partners in the U.S., Australia and Canada. With her primary focus on national and regional systems, Kelly uses her passion to help organizations deliver their strategies and fulfill their missions by aligning expectations from the executive leadership team to frontline leaders. 

1 Locke, Edwin A. 1968. "Toward A Theory Of Task Motivation And Incentives". Organizational Behavior And Human Performance 3 (2): 157-189. doi:10.1016/0030-5073(68)90004-4.


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