Every business needs goals. Without goals, there's no direction. No destination. No sense of shared purpose. Setting goals is everything.
But if that's the case, why do so few organizations -- and people -- manage to actually achieve their goals?
Hold that thought.
In 2001, Matt Tucker co-founded Jive Software, the social networking and business collaboration platform. Riding the early wave of consumer social, Jive quickly became a leader in applying social trends to business and enterprise use cases. Within 10 years, the bootstrapped startup had gone public (and was later taken private when Aurea purchased the company for $462 million).
"Later in Jive history," Tucker says, "we faced basically every strategic challenge possible at the same time. We were a small public company that began to face decelerating growth. Microsoft bought our largest competitor, which meant we were competing against the largest enterprise software company on the planet. And we were in the middle of a giant architecture rewrite to become a true multi-tenant cloud company."
Those issues were challenging, but arguably more frustrating to Tucker was how the company addressed those problems: Holding quarterly offsites, hammering out goals, returning to share those goals with the entire company ... and then never talking about goals until the next offsite.
"Later, I realized we should have built better muscle strength around data and metric and tools," Tucker says. "And that many organizations have similar needs."
The experience led Tucker to launch Koan, an OKR (objectives and key results) and status tracking software platform that helps teams collaboratively manage goals and project status.
Or, as Tucker puts it, "helping organizations succeed by using 'the goal reflection loop.'"
Which, compared with simply setting and displaying goals, can often make a much bigger impact on actually achieving those goals.
Tucker spent six months researching the idea: Tapping into investor networks, talking to founders of successful hyper-growth companies, HR professionals, researchers, etc.
In time, two basic patterns emerged. Teams struggling to achieve their goals often focused on the challenge of setting great goals. Or they would focus on making goals an HR process, like evaluating employee performance or deciding whom to promote.
On the flip side were teams that spent no time talking about how to set goals, but instead focused on behaviors that could foster goal achievement. Weekly check-ins. Personal reflection. Goal achievement confidence ratings.
In short, how teams and individuals interacted with their goals.
"That became the inspiration for the software we built," Tucker says. "Not fancier spreadsheets or dashboards, but tools to help people create great habits around actually living with their goals."
The core of the process is the goal reflection loop, a weekly check-in where each team member answers a set of questions about progress, priorities, roadblocks, challenges. What needs to be done to get back on, or stay on, track.
"It's a lot easier to share good news," Tucker says, "than to raise your hand and say, 'We have a problem.' Add to that the fact that very often the person leading a team or project, the person that reports to the executive team, is often not the person doing the actual work. They're in charge, but not involved directly."
Software makes it easy to collect confidence scores from everyone involved, especially cross-functionally: Software people, product people, marketing people ... the more inclusive the feedback, the more likely the answers are to be honest. And helpful.
"Give people who actually do the work a voice," Tucker says, "and they'll raise red flags more quickly. Just hold monthly meetings and you might get only a couple of shots to course-correct before a goal is due. Plus, there's more peer pressure to share the best possible news. Do it weekly, though, and people get the chance to practice giving honest input, to begin to embrace the process ... to create self-reinforcing behaviors that can make it much more likely that the goal will be achieved."
Late last year, Koan started offering a free version of its software that led to an explosion in user growth. But you can also create your own goal reflection loop for your team.
The key is to create a regular and consistent habit of reflecting on team progress (or your own progress toward an individual goal).
"Focus on progress, priorities, and problems," Tucker says. "While different people use different words, that's a fairly universal way to create a simple and positive feedback and accountability loop."
Then turn the practice into a habit by scheduling time to reflect and discuss. Make a goal reflection loop a normal part of team meetings: What's going well, what is not, what are the priorities--do it often enough, and be candid about your own shortcomings, and in time your team will develop a sense of psychological safety. Whenever possible, have the people doing the work lead the discussion, not just the person in charge.
Finally, keep in mind goal reflection loops promote continuous learning: The more you think about how you work toward your goals -- the more you consider what is working and what is not -- the better you'll get at achieving your next goals.
And at setting your next goals.
Because while setting a goal isn't a meaningful outcome, it is the first step on the path to achieving something great.