How To Set Goals


How does your organization set goals? Goals are an important part of every organization. Goals help motivate people to act and they connect that action to vision. The organization as a whole needs goals. Divisions and departments need goals. Teams need goals. Individuals need goals. But the question is how does your organization go about setting goals?

Small Organizations

If your company is small, if you can gather everyone together in the lunch room for a meeting, goal setting can be relatively simple and straightforward:

  1. Senior leaders develop and cast vision.
  2. Those leaders meet with operational leaders and managers (warehouse, accounting, sales, etc.) and collaborate on strategic plans to fulfill that vision.
  3. Operational leaders work with their teams (front line workers) to set goals that accomplish elements of the strategic plan.

That’s a pretty straightforward approach and will generally work in most organizations that have three or fewer levels of personnel (senior leaders, managers, front-line workers).

In many of these cases, the distinction between senior leaders and managers is blurry. The distinction between managers and front-line workers is also blurry. One reason why it’s easier to set goals in these organizations is that the organizational culture is relatively consistent across functions and between layers.

Large Organizations

What should you do, though, when the organization consists of many layers, several functional or strategic divisions, and is geographically dispersed? In these organizations, organizational culture is often fragmented and almost always the head does not know what the hands are doing. (That is, the senior leaders are not in touch with what’s happening on the front lines of the battle.) In large organizations the three-step outline above doesn’t work so well.

Here is what almost always happens instead:

  1. Senior leaders develop and cast vision.
  2. Those leaders meet with senior operational leaders (i.e. vice presidents or the equivalent) and they collaborate on strategic plans to fulfill that vision.
  3. Operational leaders set goals to accomplish elements of the strategic plan.
  4. Those goals are given to managers who make plans to implement them by…
  5. …delivering those goals to mid-level managers who make plans to implement them by…
  6. …delivering those goals to front-line workers who make plans to implement them but stop dead in their tracks because there is little relationship between the goals that have been delivered to them and the actual work that is being done on a daily basis.

Front-line workers do recognize those goals as helpful to the organization. They do see a connection to strategic initiatives that further the mission and vision. However, those goals don’t actually help people on the battle lines modify their daily work to make a meaningful difference in accomplishing the initiatives to fulfill the mission and vision.

Here is what should happen:

  1. Senior leaders should spend time, a lot of time, with the front-line workers; finding out how they work, what their challenges are, and asking “If this is our vision, what’s the best way to get there?”
  2. Senior leaders should collaborate with front-line workers to develop strategies that support the vision.
  3. Senior leaders should collaborate with front-line workers to set goals that put those strategies to work.
  4. Senior leaders should collaborate with operational leaders to figure out how to support front-line workers pursuing those goals and strategies.

Notice the tight connection between the senior leaders (keepers of the vision) and front-line workers (doers of the vision). Also notice that all the folks in the middle are there to support the front-line crew. Yes, it’s a little revolutionary (but it shouldn’t be).

I’ve seen all three of the above scenarios in various organizations. (I’ve also seen organizations that don’t set goals, but let’s not worry about them—they don’t last long anyway.) The small organizations that are intentional with vision, strategy, and goal setting plug along and do a pretty good job. They may or may not be leading their market, but they are healthy enough to survive.

The large organizations that set goals the typical way (top-down), plod along and do okay as long as the competitive edge that they developed when they were small or medium-sized still has some effect. Eventually, though, they must work through some dramatic, organizational remaking that is far more costly (in dollars and people) than the alternative.

Large organizations that set front-line driven goals are forced to be more flexible. (Yes, large organizations can be flexible.) Their flexibility enables them to respond to changing market conditions. They are more innovative and they are more likely to be not just market leaders, but also market creators.

If you want to begin to change the tide of how your organization sets goals, spend more time with your front-line workers. A lot more time. Ask lots of questions. Observe what they do. Find out what their problems are. Ask them for solutions. You might be amazed what they know about the company you are leading that you did not know!

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo “Upside Down Loo” by shankar s.. Available at

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