Less is More in Goals

Aerial view of running track finish line

This post will be short because the theme of this post is “less is more,” especially when it comes to goals.

Since the start of the year, I’ve been having conversations about goal setting for 2017. I’ve met with a variety of executives, management teams, and groups of individual contributors. There is a universal theme associated with this conversation:


People are weary of setting goals. It’s the same experience year after year. There are a number of reasons for this, but the “big three” in my experience are:

  1. The goals are not aligned to a personally relevant purpose. “So how does this help me?”
  2. There is a lack of accountability and follow through. “Just make it through the meeting. Management will forget about these goals in one week.”
  3. The list of goals is overwhelmingly long. “How can I possibly devote attention to 14 goals cascaded down from all these stakeholders?”

There are many other reasons that the thought of goal setting generates cynicism and frustration. It’s that last item, though, that I want to briefly address here: too many goals.

Many organizations have the practice of cascading goals from top to bottom. What happens is that many stakeholders want their voice heard so that list of goals tends to be very long. (For more on top-down goal setting, see “How to Set Goals.”)

But here is the problem: Long lists of goals are actually counterproductive. Take a look at the table below (which is based on research from Franklin Covey). Do you see the pattern?

More goals results in less success. Fewer goals drives more success.

Number of Goals Set Goals Achieved with Excellence
0 0
1-3 1-3
4-10 1-2
11-20 0

To learn more about this topic, see The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling (Free Press, 2012).

Leaders! Trim those lists of goals down. What are the top two or three strategic priorities? Where do you want your team members to really focus their attention?

If you’re a follower who has been handed a long list of goals for 2017, there’s probably not a lot you can do about it now. If your organization is still in the process of finalizing goals, share this article with people of influence and start a conversation.

In some cases, you might be able to “salvage” the situation. If your organization does not have a robust goal tracking system, then you might ask your supervisor to look at this article, then ask, “Of the 12 goals we have, which are the two or three that are most strategically important for our success this year? I’d like to focus my efforts on those.”

Let me know how it goes. I’d like to collect some stories and post a follow up.

(See also several other articles on goal setting in this blog.)

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

Photo by Marvin Ronsdorf. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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