A goal is not a vision of how things might be. It is not a mission which describes our purpose in life.

A goal is tangible. It is measurable both in terms of quality and quantity. It is time based. It is achievable. It is a stretch from where we are now. Above all, it is singular.

Multiple goals are difficult to achieve. A Chinese proverb illustrates it well; “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape. The meaning being that if you put your efforts and energy into trying to fulfil two goals at the same time, you won’t succeed in either one.

Singular goals create a purpose which does not get distracted. Setting a single goal over a time period takes both discipline and thinking. It is sometimes difficult to sort out what we really want to achieve.

We have to be self aware of what we will compromise and what, ultimately we will not compromise. That which we will not compromise is most likely to be our goal. The other “goals” are important objectives, but not our goal.

Goals are not tactics or strategies. A goal should state the end result and nothing about the how.

A goal written in the form, “We will double productivity by 2008 by reducing error rates by 50%”, overtly indicates that reducing error rates by 50% is a goal in itself rather than the means by which doubling productivity will be achieved.

People presented with this form of goal will be confused between the goal and the tactic. There may be well more than one tactic which aids the doubling of productivity. Putting the tactic in the goal risks the tactic being seen as the goal, limiting people’s imagination in achieving the real goal.

Writing a goal clearly helps people to understand the goal. Understanding a goal significantly increases the chance of it being realised.

A good way to write a goal is as follows:
[Verb (active)][noun] – to – [standard] – by [a time]

The verb must be active rather than passive. The noun is the object of the sentence, the un-stated subject of the sentence is the person, team or department for whom the goal is set. The standard must be something that is known and can be measured.

Examples include:

  • existing measured performance indicators
  • industry standards
  • measured ranking within industry e.g. number one for market share

Examples of a goal written in this form are:

  • [Reduce][errors] to [70% of 2007 level] by [2008]
  • [Increase] [market position] to [number one] by [2008]
  • [Learn] [Spanish] to [first grade level] by [June] 

The standard may be absolute or relative. It is acceptable to use terms such as “best in class” or “number one” if a measurement is being made of these relative positions.

It is unacceptable to use superlatives such as “best” as a standard when the relative positions are not being measured. Goals written using standards such as “best” when there is no measurement are unmeasurable and therefore unachievable.

An alternative form is:
[Verb (active)][noun] – to/by – [number/percentage] – by [a time]

Examples of a goal written in this form are:

Using verbs like “improve”, “reduce” and “increase” without a numeric value or a standard is another unacceptable form of writing a goal.

The structure of the goal may be altered to improve readability. However, it must always contain an active verb, a noun (the object of the action), a standard to which the object will reach and a time in which the object will reach the standard.

Goals can be reduced once they are written well to short snappy phrases which are easily remembered.

For example, “Reduce food imports to 70% of total consumption by 2010”, can be re-arranged to “70:30 by 2010”.

Reducing a goal in this way as a communications device helps in improving its recognition. However, poorly constructed goals reduced in this manner will only add to confusion.

When writing a goal, if we make it singular, make it contain an active verb, a noun, a standard or a number and a date, we give ourselves and those dedicated to the goal the best chance of actually achieving it.