How To Set Wildly Important Goals, And What They'll Do For You

Focusing on one wildly important goal is like punching one finger through a sheet of paper—all your strength goes into making that hole.

By avoiding focus traps like refusing to say no and trying to make everything a goal, you can narrow your focus to one or two wildly important goals and consistently invest the team’s time and energy into them. In other words, if you want high-focus, high-performance team members, they must have something wildly important to focus on.

Rule #1: No team focuses on more than two WIGs at the same time.

This rule acts like a governor on an engine. There may be dozens or even hundreds of WIGs across the entire organization, but the key is not to overload any single leader, team, or individual performer. Remember, they are all dealing with the incessant demands of the whirlwind, or the day job. Keep this rule in mind as you consider the remaining three rules. If you violate this one, you will have lost your focus as an organization.

Rule #2: The battles you choose must win the war.

Whether it’s a military conflict, or the war on hunger, cancer, or poverty, there’s a relationship between battles and wars. The only reason you fight a battle is to win the war. The sole purpose of WIGs at lower levels in the organization is to help achieve the WIGs at higher levels. It isn’t enough that the lower-level WIGs support or align with the higher WIGs. The lower-level WIGs must ensure the success of the higher WIGs.

Rule #3: Senior leaders can veto, but not dictate.

The highest levels of execution are never reached when the strategy is devised solely by the top leaders of the organization and simply handed down to the leaders and teams below. Without involvement, you cannot create the high levels of commitment that execution requires. While the senior leaders will undoubtedly determine the top-level WIG, they must allow the leaders at each level below to define the WIGs for their teams. This not only leverages the knowledge of these leaders, but also creates a greater sense of ownership and involvement. Simply put, they become more engaged in a goal that they choose themselves and that supports a worthy organizational goal. Senior leaders then exercise their right to veto if the battles chosen are not going to win the war.

Rule #4: All WIGs must have a finish line in the form of from X to Y by when.

Every WIG at every level must contain a clearly measurable result, as well as the date by which that result must be achieved. For example, a revenue-focused WIG might be: "Increase percent of annual revenue from new products from 15 percent to 21 percent by December 31st." This "from X to Y by when" format recognizes where you are today, where you want to go, and the deadline for reaching that goal. As deceptively simple as this formula may seem, many leaders often struggle to translate their strategic concepts into a single from X to Y by when finish line. But once they’ve done it, both they and the teams they lead have gained tremendous clarity.

Think of it this way: Above your head is a thought bubble, and inside that bubble are all the various aspects of your strategy, including opportunities you wish you were pursuing, new ideas and concepts, problems you know you need to fix, and a lot of "whats" and "hows" to get it all done. Your bubble is complicated and chaotic. It’s also completely different from the bubbles above every other leader. This is why focusing on WIGs requires you to translate your strategy from concepts to targets, from a vague strategic intent to a set of specific finish lines.

Remember that the four rules of focus are unforgiving. At some point, you will want to cheat on them, even just a little. We know. We often want to do the same inside our organization. However, what we’ve learned is that the rules governing focus are like the rules governing gravity: They aren’t concerned with what you think or with the details of your particular situation. They simply yield predictable consequences.

When you think about it, the principle of focusing on the vital few goals is common sense; it’s just not common practice. In one of Aesop’s fables, a young boy put his hand into a pot full of hazelnuts. He grasped as many as he could possibly hold, but when he tried to pull out his hand, he found the neck of the pot was too narrow. Unwilling to lose his catch, and yet unable to withdraw his hand, he burst into tears and bitterly lamented his disappointment.

Like the boy, you might find it hard to let go of a lot of good goals until you start serving a greater goal. As Steve Jobs often said, "I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do." Focusing on the wildly important is about defining that greater goal, and it is a discipline. 

From The 4 Disciplines of Execution: by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling.  Copyright  © 2012 by FranklinCovey Co. Excerpted with permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

[Image: Flickr user Michael]

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  • Margaret

    I'm looking for the definition of a PIG xxxxxxxx Important Goals (Probable,possible?)

  • Rodney Long

    Pretty important goals. They are the ones that generally get in the way of the WIG's being accomplished.

  • David

    My question here is....At what point does the WIG become the Whirlwind?  My company implemented this several years ago, and between department meetings and all company WIG Sessions, and trying to determine WIG's, so much time is being spent on what a WIG is, that its becoming part of the Whirlwind.

  • Dick

    we have a painting company with a structure of 3 partners (directors), 3 project managers and 20 2 man teams of painters doing the work. Alongside this we have 4 Ladies doing admin work in the office. My question is can the painters on the ground be included in the WIG's or is it just the project managers up?

  • easton.johnston

    I hope your question got answered, but if not, I'll give it a shot. If you start at what is most important for your top leaders, then the process can go down as far in the organization as you want. Its important to adhere to the process, and involve the teams you want to work with.

    TL:DR - I think you can include the painters, the WIGs just have to translated to their level of work.

  • Robert Merrill

    #2. Do the lower-level WIGs ("battles") emerge as pursuit of the overall WIG ("the war") unfolds? There seem to be two types of error. One is to try to pre-plan all of the battles (set low level WIGs too soon) and end up with a bunch of lower-level WIGS that would logically have "won the war," but turned out to be unachievable. The other error seems to be losing sight of the overall WIG in favor of picking battles that you can win, but which don't add up to overall success.

    #4. What's the appropriate rate of failure to achieve WIGs? Binary yet quantitative goals like "increase revenue from 15 to 21 percent by December 31" seem arbitrary and demoralizing. I've heard it said that unless you're failing about a third of the time, your goals are either too low or too high. And how do you respond to success or failure at low-level WIGs in an appropriate way?