This article is based on Jenny’s fabulous appearance on the Goald Standard podcast with Scott Shapiro, available on all your favorite podcast apps. Check out the full range of our audio offerings here!
Here's a seemingly simple yet fundamentally important question: Why do we set goals in marketing teams, and business more broadly? Why can’t we simply trust people to do their best towards the big, overarching goal of being profitable?
To explain this, I like to harken back to the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Alice asks him, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” to which the cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice then says that she doesn't much care where, and the Cheshire Cat responds, “Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.”
The same is true of setting goals in your organization. Doing your best is something that everyone should strive for, of course. But let’s consider our current reality. In recent years, we’ve witnessed The Great Resignation – people quitting their jobs because they want to find purpose and meaning in their work.
We’ve also seen the emergence of remote work and a burgeoning hybrid workforce. In this kind of environment, how is any kind of business supposed to reach its objectives if its employees don't know what they are?
For all these reasons, if we want to achieve our grand ambitions – as individuals, teams, departments, and entire organizations – it’s essential to set specific goals. Without them, how the heck will we know if we've arrived somewhere meaningful? The answer: we won’t.
How to choose the right goal-setting methodology
So, you need to set goals, but with so many goal-setting methodologies out there, how do you know which one to choose? Here’s a peek at some of the frameworks available:
- OKRs (objectives and key results) can be seen as a modern evolution of Management by Objectives, a concept that’s been around for a long time.
- OGSM (objective, goals, strategies, and measures), which is very similar in flavor to OKRs.
- SMT (strategies, metrics, and tactics), as popularized by Netflix.
- 4DX (The Four Disciplines of Execution) from Franklin Covey, where the focus is on what's important, acting on lead measures, keeping a scoreboard, and creating a cadence of accountability.
- SMART goals, which is generally a framework for individual use.
Now, all of these frameworks have pros and cons. However, at the end of the day, if you’re trying to guide an organization from point A to point Z, it's critical to understand the broader context of the business strategy – and this understanding is inherently baked into the OKR framework.
OKRs advocate for a network of commitments from teams that can self-organize, autonomously define what problems they’re aiming to solve, decide how they’ll measure success, and establish a regular cadence for accountability and reporting. All of this makes the OKR framework incredibly powerful.
However, I have to emphasize that OKRs aren't for everyone. If your organization can't stomach failure, OKRs might not be the best fit. If sharing the overall strategy is a challenge, or if you’re seeking visibility without genuine transparency, then OKRs might not be the right choice.
Implementing OKRs is almost a form of next-level thinking. It demands a baseline of trust that everyone is acting as a good agent in service of the business and the customers.
This requires transparency, trust, and accountability. And not just at the team level - leadership must be held accountable under this framework as well. If your organization doesn't have some of these foundational elements in place, you’ll be hard-pressed to adapt to this kind of transformative thinking and approach to goal setting.
In short, choosing the right goal-setting framework – whether it's OKRs or another method – largely depends on your organization's culture and the willingness to commit to the principles that underpin that framework.
Balancing the desire to succeed with the fear of failure
As the host of the Dreams with Deadlines podcast, I’ve had the chance to speak with dozens of business leaders. It might sound cliché, but probably the number one thing I've learned throughout these conversations is the importance of culture.
I was lucky enough to chat with Gibson Biddle, former VP of Netflix, who played a major role in taking Netflix from a DVD home delivery service to the streaming giant and content creator it is today. He explained to me that culture is really the skills and the behaviors that we expect of everyone – whether they’re being watched or not.
Everybody’s motivations differ. Some people might be motivated by money, while others may be driven by a belief in the mission – which has become increasingly important. Some people are jazzed about deepening their understanding of their discipline or gaining industry knowledge.
These motivations may vary, but I believe the desire to succeed exists within all of us.
Now, the complement to that is what happens if we fail – and that’s intrinsically tied to culture. I would love to see more organizations with a high tolerance for people trying – even if it doesn't work out – and learning from each attempt. These, I believe, are the organizations that are going to crush it.
If your organization says missing a target means you're out, you’re losing an opportunity to allow people to learn.
It’s impossible to set a target with absolute certainty that you’ll hit it. Market conditions change, as we all witnessed during the pandemic. Strategies went out the window, and the organizations that were able to adapt and learn were the ones that survived and thrived.
Moving forward, we’re going to see more and more agility in the marketplace, big and small. Everyone's talking about digital transformations from manual processes, which means information is going to flow even faster. As a result, disruptions are becoming the new normal; we have to get used to that.
So, it's not really about avoiding failure; it's about what we can learn when things don’t go as planned. What if our data is wrong? What if the market isn’t ready for what we’re doing? There are countless variables we can’t possibly know, so why hold people to an unrealistic standard of perfection? We’re all just trying to do the best job we can with the information available to us.
You should aim to define that success through goals, but also ensure that the teams understand you have a high tolerance for learning – or ‘failure,’ if you want to call it that.
In fact, maybe it’s time to rebrand ‘failure’ as ‘learning,’ because that’s what’s truly happening.
Understanding and supporting team motivations
If you want to create a culture that encourages learning, the first step is to figure out your team’s motivations. If you don't, you can't influence or support them in any meaningful way. That's why it’s vital to get to know the individuals on the team.
The next step, which sounds simple but is far from it, is continually pointing back to the 'why' – why we're here. Everyone has their own motivations as to why they joined this venture, but hopefully they joined with a shared understanding of the mission and why the organization exists. They came on board because on some level they believed in that mission and felt that this organization needed to exist.
I firmly believe that at the end of the day, everyone just wants to do their best work, get paid, and spend the rest of their time doing whatever they need or want to do.
Work is important, for sure, but if there's anything I'm noticing more these days, in conversations with friends and family as well as in the broader societal dialogue, it's a growing realization that maybe there's more to this life than just work. Let’s not forget that the people working for us have lives outside of the office.
One of the greatest motivators is the assurance that, so long as you're with us and working toward our common goals, we're going to strive to make it not suck. We want you to go home feeling proud of what you've accomplished and ready to share that with your family.
Hopefully, everybody has a full and vibrant life outside of work. Maintaining that balance is something we all desperately crave, even if we aren’t always great at sustaining it.
To be a better people manager, I’ve learned to recognize that the individuals who work for me aren't machines. They're real people, trying to live their lives as best as they can. If they need the space to take a break, they should take it. If they're driven and passionate, my role is to ask: how can I help you and remove obstacles for you, so you can continue to thrive? It really is that simple.
The role of company culture in goal-setting
Companies need to be able to clearly define what is acceptable behavior and what isn't.
Remember when three people got fired from Netflix for talking smack about colleagues behind their backs? At that time, one of Netflix’s core values was 'candor,' which they defined as having open conversations with someone rather than talking about them behind their back, and this incident sent a clear message to the rest of the organization: such behavior is not acceptable.
Maintaining culture is about setting standards – if a behavior isn't okay, it can't be ignored. Leadership needs to show that it’s a big deal.
And that works both ways – leadership should also play an active role in celebrating exceptional behaviors that push the culture and values of the business forward. For instance, they might spotlight a team that supported another department exceptionally well. This recognition also sends a clear message: these are the skills and behaviors we expect from our teams.
This creates a framework within which employees feel a sense of psychological safety – a space where their ideas matter and they’re allowed to define reasonable metrics to which they will be held accountable in service of the business.
At the same time, leadership has a role in identifying broader problems that need solving and then giving teams the autonomy to approach these problems creatively. I hate to use an overused term, but teams need to feel empowered to take initiative. And if a team takes action and later realizes they need to change their approach, that needs to be okay too.
So, there must be a strong support system from leadership and management to hold people accountable, not only for numbers but also for behavior. The result will be a very healthy working environment that employees wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to others.
In today's competitive hiring landscape, having such a culture can give a company a real edge.
How to set goals and hold teams accountable for them
In High Output Management, which many consider the bible for managers, Andy Grove discusses the concept of 'task-relevant maturity.' This means that the level of guidance a team member needs depends on their experience and maturity level. For junior individuals, you might need to lay out more detailed expectations, while senior team members might only need a general direction to get started.
It's vital to consider each individual’s level of experience and comfort. For a junior team member, being told to head in a particular direction without guidance can feel overwhelming, even if what you’re aiming to do is give them a little autonomy.
That said, in my experience, effective goal-setting often begins with providing a clear business context – explaining where the company as a whole is headed and the problem you’re looking to solve. From there, you can narrow down the specific direction you need your team or individual team members to take.
But this shouldn't be a one-way street; you need to open the floor for team members to share their perspectives and identify other issues.
Once that context has been set, with a framework like OKRs, teams can then define their own measures of success. They can decide how ambitious they want to be in their targets, perhaps even aiming for 'moonshot' goals.
However, setting goals is just the beginning. Regular check-ins with the team are crucial. These are opportunities to ask questions like, “How are we doing?”, “Where are we blocked?”, and “What strategies are working that we should do more of?”.
Transparency is also vital; the progress toward goals should be visible not only to the team lead or manager but to other teams within the organization. This collective awareness can be extremely helpful.
Keeping leadership or management in the loop is essential. The worst situation for a manager is to have no knowledge of a team’s progress, as this can lead to assumptions – often negative – about what the team is doing. Regular briefings will help you avoid this scenario and allow you to provide teams with a healthy balance of autonomy and support.
The power of diversity, equity, and inclusion
To create a space where everyone can succeed, you need to integrate inclusivity into the core strategy of the company – it can’t just be a grassroots effort; it has to start from the top. This is one of the key things I’ve learned from my conversations with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders.
Here’s why: if the goal is to generate as many novel thoughts, solutions, and hypotheses as possible, you need varied perspectives. That’s how you get the best of the best. It’s about creating an environment where people feel their ideas aren't just heard, but valued and acted upon.
This is especially important in tech, where we know there’s a lack of representation. The reasoning behind this is pretty clear: if the purpose of our work is to advance the human condition through technology, then the creators and makers of that technology should be representative of the people they serve. It's a logical place to start.
I have a great example of the impact diverse voices can have. This was back when I was working on Wunderlist, a task management app. The product team and the design team came together, and we thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if, after you completed all the tasks on your list, we could celebrate it? Maybe we could build in a cute little confetti animation!”
Thankfully, we worked in open teams in an open environment at the time. Ben, one of our engineers leaned in and said, "What if the task list is to plan a funeral? Is that really a moment for celebration?”
We all stared at each other and realized how narrow our perspective had been. We were a pretty young team, and had Ben not been there – someone with more life experience than me and my other colleagues – we might not have considered this angle.
Having that variation in perspective and life experience brought additional ideas into our product discovery process and ultimately resulted in a better product for our customers. That diversity of thought broke up the group thinking that happens when you have a homogenous cohort of people.
Leadership’s role in championing inclusivity
To stay accountable for building a safe and inclusive space, rather than just paying lip service to it, you also need leadership to step up and say, "This matters." They need to set explicit goals (ideally, OKRs that are specifically dedicated to supporting DEI initiatives), outline the activities that will support these goals, track and share progress, explain why it matters, and invite everyone to get involved.
On top of this, leaders have to ensure that employees engaging in DEI efforts are celebrated, not subtly (or overtly) penalized, and that this work isn’t viewed as distracting from their ‘real’ work.
I’ve seen this happen, where someone is told they’re “spending too much time” on DEI efforts, even though they’re delivering results in their main role. In these cases, the question to ask is, “Are they delivering results?” If the answer’s yes, there shouldn’t be an issue.
So, to sum it up: it needs to start from the top. Inclusive goal-setting isn’t just a side project; it’s a core part of a company’s strategy that requires the engagement and commitment of leadership. Strong leadership sets the tone and paves the way.
Finally, a little about me
Before we wrap up, let me introduce myself. My name is Jenny Herald, and I’m the VP of Product Evangelism at Quantive, where I get to champion our efforts to help customers orchestrate results at scale through our OKRs platform.
With over 20 years of diverse experience, I’ve worked across government sectors, startups, hypergrowth companies, scale-ups, and extensive enterprise organizations. Before I took on my evangelism role, I held the title of VP of Product Marketing at Quantive, and I’ve had the privilege of contributing to the growth of giants like Microsoft and Wunderlist too!
Nowadays, I'm living the dream in Berlin with my partner, where our beloved plant collection outnumbers us by 15 to one.
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