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Lessons Learned

Why The Most Effective Managers Don't (Just) Set Goals

It takes more than just knowing what your target is in order to hit it.

Why The Most Effective Managers Don't (Just) Set Goals
[Photo: Jesse K. Alwin, U.S. Marine Corps via Wikimedia Commons]

A man sits with his doctor, who’s flipping through his charts. "Your blood pressure is really high," says the doctor. "If you don’t lower it, you’ll be at risk for a bunch of problems." The doctor makes a recommendation: "You should lower your blood pressure to 130 over 90. Check in with me in 30 days."

Before the patient leaves, the doctor explains systolic, diastolic, and other aspects of blood pressure. He explains the mechanics of the heart and the reasons why blood pressure matters. The patient leaves with a solid understanding of how blood pressure works, and knows what his target pressure is.

As he’s smoking his cigarette down at the curb, it dawns upon him: He has no idea what to do next.

Setting Targets Doesn't Get You Closer To Them

Like managers and their teams, doctors set targets for their patients. It’s important to know what constitutes a healthy blood pressure, cholesterol level, and body weight. But doctors don’t just set targets and send you on your way. Instead, they focus on the contributing factors that need to be addressed in order to make those targets achievable. How it all works isn’t really useful information for the patient.

Our smoker sees a second doctor. "Get it down to 130 over 90," says the second doctor. But she continues: "Do you smoke? Tell me about your diet. When do you sleep? What’s your stress level? Do you exercise?"

"Now we’re getting somewhere," thinks the patient.

"You need to quit smoking," she says, "and you need to start jogging, even if it’s just a mile or two every other day. Can you commit to those two changes?"

"Yes," says the patient. "I’ve been trying to quit anyway."

"Great. Make tomorrow your last day of smoking, and your first day of running. Come back and see me in 30 days, and we’ll look at your vitals again. We’ll see if you’re making any progress."

The first doctor set a target but didn’t help his patient understand the contributing factors. He didn’t make a plan for the behavioral changes that would make progress possible. And he spent too much energy explaining the details of the metric itself; understanding systolic pressure won’t help you quit smoking. Knowing your benchmark doesn't usually help you reach it.

The second doctor set a target but spent very little time debating or explaining it. She moved quickly towards a strategy for achieving a result. What's more, she didn’t know outright what would work for this particular patient: diet? exercise? smoking? or was it just genetics? But she had an experienced hunch, so she set some changes in motion and agreed to re-evaluate in a set timeframe.

That’s how good bosses set targets for their teams: clear goals, clear metrics for assessing progress towards them, and—most important of all—action-oriented strategies to get there. Here's what the most effective managers understand about tying goals to actions.

Three Fundamentals For Achieving Goals

1. Metrics that actually matter. Doctors know which metrics are right in the areas of medicine they specialize in, but they also know how to improve those metrics. What constitutes success—the target value—is usually clear enough: it’s established through experience, in consultation with other experts, and by talking with the patient. Setting that target is generally the responsibility of the doctor. They set a clear goal with the patient, and invest their remaining time into identifying strategies for achieving the goal.

Likewise, managers need to identify the metrics that matter for their teams, and they need to set audacious but achievable targets. They need to work with sources inside and outside the company to identify the right targets, share those with the team, and then focus on strategies for hitting them. Don’t debate targets with your team; set them, and debate strategies.

2. A division of responsibility. Doctors know they can't do anything on your behalf. They can't directly intervene to change your behavior. Instead, they inform, guide, and encourage patients to adopt the strategies they’ve identified. They’re never tempted to eat a meal on your behalf, take your drugs for you, or hop on the treadmill when you can’t. The only actions that matter are those the patient takes on their own. When the patient slips up, they adjust the approach and try again.

Managers also need to resist the temptation to directly participate in the work they've tasked their teams with doing. Teams need to be self-directed and work consistently according to the strategy their managers have mapped out with them. Failures, while a cause for concern, aren’t always a cause for intervention. Instead, they’re data for the manager to consider changing up the approach.

3. Consistent habits trump single, successful actions. Doctors know that consistent habits, and not a onetime intervention, are usually the best way to improve overall health. They know that their energy is best spent helping patients stick with a set of simple improvements, rather than designing the perfect solution from the beginning—something that can be completed once, and that's it. Incremental changes made consistently over time lead to real progress you can sustain.

Managers are often tempted to call meetings, discuss solutions, and focus on onetime adjustments to the plan. All too often, they overlook the broken or failing processes at the root of the issue they're trying to fix. Rather than intervening when things veer off plan, managers should establish lightweight processes and cultural expectations within their teams. It's those small changes to the ways people work—not the results of their work—that, when followed consistently, lead to longer-term change.

Ultimately, setting goals and targets isn't something managers can do in a vacuum. It's the concern of peer teams, superiors, and team members together. Why? Because the right goals are actually pretty hard to reach: it takes consulting with all manner of "experts"—not just leaders, but those with relevant knowledge or experience who may sit above, beside, or below any individual decision maker.

Plus, some share of the knowledge you and your team need in order to map out a successful strategy probably also exists outside your own company, and rests with other people, resources, and industry benchmarks—all things you need to seek out and draw on before you can set a course. But once that's done, the best bosses set a target decisively, work with their teams on the strategy, and then get out of the way.

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