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5 Essential Ingredients in Organizational Goal Setting

Marina Martinez

Posted by Marina Martinez
January 8, 2016

Chefs have long recognized that for a dish to be truly delicious, it must have the right balance of the five elements of taste: salty, sweet, sour, savory (sometimes called umami), and bitter. If you taste a dish and think, "It’s missing something,” it’s usually because it is lacking one of these flavors. A successful dish is one that has just the right balance.

A balance between five elements is also important in organizational goal setting. We’ve outlined these elements below. Every organization sets goals for itself, whether they're explicit or not, but precious few consistently master this fine blend. All too often, goal setting amounts to little more than the loose tracking of several random metrics—leading to a lot of noise and very little achievement.

As you set goals in your organization, don’t leave out any of these key ingredients—or your results may be disappointing.

1. Alignment

The first ingredient is alignment: ensuring that the company’s goals are reflected in the objectives of its teams and employees. Sounds basic, right? Well, many of us have a way to go: CEB recently found that only 20 percent of the workforce actively prioritizes its work based on company goals, and several years before that, a FranklinCovey survey of 26,500 US workers found that only one in seven could name their organization’s top three goals.

Bring alignment to your organization by setting clear top-level priorities each quarter, and asking all managers and employees to use them as the starting point for setting their own goals in the same period. Whether you use a defined system like OKR or rely on a looser method, it’s vital that every employee regularly checks his or her alignment with the true priorities of the business, so everyone is working toward the same end.

2. Autonomy

It’s difficult to motivate people to work toward goals if they don’t have the opportunity to participate in the process of setting them. Individuals must feel that objectives are reasonable and that they have the resources necessary to be successful. Although top-level company goals should be the starting point, most employees can capably draft a set of their own goals, defining the part they will play in the plan.

As Peter Drucker wrote long ago in The Effective Executive:

Executives who take responsibility for contribution in their own work will as a rule demand that their subordinates take responsibility too. They will tend to ask their men: “What are the contributions for which this organization and I, your superior, should hold you accountable? What should we expect of you? What is the best utilization of your knowledge and your ability?” And then communication becomes possible, becomes indeed easy.

Goal setting starts with the CEO, but it doesn’t have to be dictatorial. In fact, it will be more effective with greater input.

3. Oversight

Organizational goal setting is not a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. Defining goals and then putting them in a drawer until the end of the quarter is perhaps the number-one mistake made by managers and executives in the goal-setting process. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a real phenomenon. In order to keep goals and objectives top of mind, it’s important that employees review them frequently, and that each manager has frequent check-ins with their direct reports.

During these check-ins, it’s best to maintain a future orientation; talk about (1) whether the employee predicts that the goal will be completed on time and (2) what he or she needs from you going forward, if anything. This is much more effective than a basic “percent complete” progress report, which can be misleading.

4. Transparency

Zig Ziglar once said, “Research indicates that workers have three prime needs: Interesting work, recognition for doing a good job, and being let in on things that are going on in the company.” Transparent goal setting—in which organizational goals and performance against them are visible to all, in an easy-to-use interface—is a great way of letting employees in on what’s going on in the company.

Understanding what others are working on and who is facing obstacles allows employees to actively help each other, and seeing the entire set of goals throughout the organization helps create a connection between the individual’s work and overall company success.

5. Recognition

Recognition for achievement should be a built-in part of your organizational goal-setting process, not an afterthought. Whether it comes in the form of a public pat on the back, access to a development opportunity, or simply an authentic performance review, the recognition in itself is key to keeping employees committed, engaged, and ultimately retained. Think carefully about how individual results can be acknowledged both during and at the end of the goal period. Expressing gratitude for discretionary effort should be baked in to the goal-management process. (Make sure you mean it, though: handing out praise just for the heck of it will come across as ungenuine, and you lose the benefit of real recognition.)

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Leaving out any one of these goal-setting ingredients is like leaving the salt out of your risotto—it’s a recipe for a bad meal. Bring them together thoughtfully and consistently, on the other hand, and the results can be incredible.


We built Khorus to help you set organizational priorities and bring the team together around them. We'd love to give you a quick demo of how it can help you and your employees achieve more together!

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Marina Martinez

Marina Martinez

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