It's that time of year--leaders everywhere are charging employees with the task of establishing goals for 2018. If you've never been through a structured process, this exercise can be daunting, and frankly, feel like a big waste of time. I can assure you, it's not. 

Setting goals is critical. Goals provide direction, help you focus, prioritize your time and energy, and ensure that you can objectively prove you've advanced the company's agenda.

But just any goal won't do. Research shows that goals are not only important but also that the level of specificity and difficulty matters. Goals that are both clear and challenging drive higher levels of performance.

To set their teams up for success, many organizations use SMART goals. Google leaders use something a little different--"Objectives and Key Results" (OKRs). On Google's re:Work site, a resource that shares the company's perspective on people operations, Google explains the concept.

Objectives ("O")

Objectives are the "big picture." They answer the questions "Where do we want to go?" and "What do we want to do?" Also, objectives are where Google encourages its employees to stretch themselves, be ambitious, and embrace uncertainty. If you don't get nervous or feel a little uncomfortable after setting a goal, then you haven't reached high enough.

I love this quote that P&G CEO David Taylor shared on LinkedIn: "We all have to be willing to deal with a certain amount of discomfort in order to see what we're truly capable of."

Because they are designed to stretch employees, Google recommends only three to five objectives total. Anything more, and Google knows that it runs the risk of spreading employees too thin.

As a part of my organization's talent management team, an example of one of my objectives could be, "Design a positive candidate experience that creates a sustainable competitive advantage for Welltower."

A few things you'll notice. The statement is action-oriented, it connects to my organization's "bigger picture" of attracting, hiring, and retaining top talent, and it conveys a lofty end-point (what Google refers to as a "moonshot").

What Google warns against are goals that don't "push for new achievements." The examples they share are: "keep hiring," "maintain market position," or "continue doing X."

Key Results ("KRs")

Key results should answer the question, "How will we gauge ourselves to see If we're getting there?" They should focus on making the objective achievable and quantifiable, and lead to unbiased grading.

Google suggests three key results per objective. Key results, per Google, "express measurable milestones which, if achieved, will directly advance the objective." Measurable milestones are defined as evidence of completion. They should be credible and easily obtainable.

Building off of the example above, some personal examples of key results for my objective could be: 

  • Implement employer branding strategies, including an aligned social-media campaign, to increase offer acceptance rates by 20 percent. 
  • Grow LinkedIn follower base above the organic growth rate by 50 percent. 
  • Increase employee and manager onboarding satisfaction ratings by 15 percent. Put a plan in place to address areas of concern within a month of receiving feedback. 

When writing key results, make sure that you're describing desired outcomes not just listing a bunch of action steps.

A couple additional considerations: 

  1. Consider making objectives visible to the entire organization. Google includes everyone's goals on their internal directory. I love this idea. I'm sure that by being transparent, teams uncover synergistic objectives that lead to increased collaboration. Also, if I'm being honest, I would be much more motivated to write great goals if I knew that the whole company would see them. 
  2. Don't stop at the individual level. In a YouTube video that explains how Google uses OKRs, Rick Klau (partner at Google Ventures) provided some additional clarity on the process: "Personal OKRs define what the person is working on. Team OKRs define priorities for the team, not just a collection of individual OKRs. Company OKRs are big picture, a top-level focus for the entire company."

I know what you're thinking, this is intense. Although it may take more time upfront to develop your goals, you'll thank yourself in the long run. This goal study revealed that developing challenging and specific goals consistently lead to increased performance. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more detailed and challenging your goals are, the more likely you'll be driven to achieve them.