team goal setting
December 12, 2018

Team Goal Setting: How to Reach the Extraordinary

By Heather Hurst | Senior Director of Corporate Communications


“Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big successes,” wrote David J. Schwartz, author of The Magic of Thinking Big, published in 1959.

This is a nice thought that’s as true today as it was 60 years ago. And we’ve all seen countless motivational posters and online memes that express some version of this same sentiment:

  • “Reach for the moon. Even if you fall short, you’ll land among the stars.”
  • “The difference between ‘try’ and ‘triumph’ is a little UMPH.”
  • “Great results require great ambition.”

But how do we keep these thoughts, as nice as they are, from remaining just that — lovely, motivational aphorisms that are printed on cat posters on our office walls? How do we turn these sentiments into actionable plans that will make a difference in the way we work, day to day?

In his book Done Right: How Tomorrow’s Top Leaders Get Work Done Today, Workfront CEO Alex Shootman demystifies the process of setting extraordinary goals in concrete, accessible language. I had the privilege of watching this book take shape and helping to shepherd it along the laborious writing, editing, and publication process. Let me tell you — the book itself represents the achievement of a truly extraordinary goal. It is the literal embodiment of the truths shared within its covers.

We had an audacious goal — to enable and support our incredibly busy CEO in the writing of a book that captures his unique leadership approach and documents the tools and methods he draws upon in order to successfully lead a thriving Silicon Slopes tech company through today’s digital work crisis. We had an audacious timeline — less than a year from first draft to printed book. And because we were willing to rally our resources and change the way we work to achieve it, that extraordinary goal is now a reality.

Why Aim for the Extraordinary?

What if we hadn’t achieved that extraordinary goal? What if it had taken us more than a year to complete the book? Or what if it didn’t become a book after all and instead ended up as a keynote address, a few webinars, a series of ebooks, and some stellar blog content?

In the first case, a book is better than no book, even it if had arrived later than planned. In the second case, we still would have benefitted from the richness of all of that content, which never would have been created if not for the original extraordinary goal.

This scenario illustrates the purpose of setting ambitious goals: even if you don’t hit the original objective, you’re still likely to reach a higher plane than you would have without it.

The Four Types of Goals

I think you’ve got the gist of what an extraordinary goal is, based on the preceding scenario, but I’d like to share a concrete definition in the context of three other types of goals, as outlined in Alex’s book. These are arranged in order of least to most ambitious:

Clear Goals. The team is confident they can achieve these initiatives by working the way they work today. They’re likely to be reruns of previous tasks or projects — more of the same.

Stretch Goals. These goals are likely to be variations of familiar tasks or working patterns that will challenge and push the team — a more intense version of the same.

Extraordinary Goals. These are the audacious objectives you and others deeply desire. They’re at the edge of your headlights, and they will require you to change the way you are working today. Everyone on the project will learn something from the project — and they will all experience time outside their comfort zone.

Pipe Dreams. These ideas are so far away from reality that no one believes they’re possible. Pipe dreams tend to take two forms: the unattainable growth fantasy or the unachievable savings scenario.

“When your team is striving toward an extraordinary goal,” Alex writes, “chances are they will hit clear and stretch goals along the way. Even if they fall short of the original extraordinary objective, your organization will have made significant progress — progress that goes beyond what most businesses would expect.”

Clearly, however, an extraordinary goal can go too far. When it pushes past the bounds of reason and the constraints of reality, it can quickly become a pipe dream. The team might continue to pursue the goal because the boss wants it, but they won’t have a personal stake or driving belief that the desired result is even possible. And there’s nothing more demotivating and damaging to morale than the continuous pursuit of unachievable objectives.

done right

Done Right outlines a useful stress test to help you determine whether your extraordinary goal is really a pipe dream, and I’d encourage you to read it in its entirety. (See Chapter 3.) But I’ll share one quick clue from Kathy Haven, VP and director of strategic operations at the global advertising and marketing agency FCB, who is quoted in the book as saying: “I typically will start off any project — whether it’s a deployment or a process improvement — by asking users, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and ‘What’s in this for you?’”

If Haven gets vague or incoherent answers to these questions, that’s a red flag that the team is chasing a pipe dream rather than a project with tangible and clearly defined goals where the benefits are understood. “The key to any successful project is engagement — not at the end of the project, but at the outset,” Alex adds.

Calling on the Wisdom in the Room

Setting extraordinary goals in the business setting must be a collective process. Goals that will push the team into new ways of thinking and working can not come from the top down and still inspire the level of engagement required within the workforce to achieve them. Alex quotes Alison Angilletta, PMO director at RWJBarnabas Health, the largest healthcare system in the state of New Jersey, as saying:

“A manager has a different perspective than somebody who’s doing the daily work. And what the manager thinks will work might be done or approached a different way by someone on her team. So, you must act collaboratively — it’s the most comprehensive and achievable way to create goals.”

In his book, Alex offers a sample script that will help you see exactly how to transfer ownership of a goal from the leader to the team at large. Here are the types of questions to ask:

“What do you think we can achieve next quarter?” (clear goal)

“So, if we work the same way, but just push harder with what we’ve got, what does that outcome look like next quarter?” (stretch goal)

“What do we really want to happen? What would be an amazing outcome, one in which everything went as well as it possibly could? Where do you think we would end up?” (extraordinary goal)

Practice Setting Extraordinary Goals

Before you get your whole team involved in a collective goal-setting activity, however, it can be helpful to practice setting extraordinary goals personally, in an area that you’re already trying to improve, such as health, physical fitness, or finances. Here’s a table to get you started, or check out the complete worksheet here. Make sure you write each goal in terms of a measurable outcome, as the examples below demonstrate:

Clear Goal
A measurable outcome I know I can accomplish because I’ve done something similar before.

I will run for fifteen minutes a day, three days a week.

Stretch Goal
A measurable outcome that will push me to a new level of intensity.
I will alternate five minutes of running with one minute of sprinting for thirty minutes a day, three days a week.
Extraordinary Goal
A measurable outcome that will push me out of my comfort zone and require me to change the way I do things today.

I will run/sprint for thirty minutes a day, three days a week, adding five minutes every week until I reach sixty-minute sessions.

Reach for the Moon

Of course I have to leave you with one more motivational quote that you probably haven’t seen on a cat poster: “The height of my goals will not hold me in awe, though I may stumble often before they are reached,” said Og Mandino, author of The Greatest Salesman in the World.

With the right tools and methods at your disposal to demystify collective goal setting, it is possible to set your hopes high and outline extraordinary goals with your team — and then do more than stand and look at them in awe. It is possible to do more than think “nice thought” or “lovely aphorism,” but instead translate those motivating sentiments into something concrete, achievable, and yes, even extraordinary. I know just the book that will help you do it.

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