We Can't Hit Our Company Goals: A Lesson in Strategic Planning Pitfalls

Author: Spencer Harris

If you’re a manager, a leader, or a business owner, you’ve no doubt been haunted by the ghosts of company goals past. Missed company goals creep into those pesky late-night worries, leaving you wondering if you could have possibly done anything different to achieve those numbers or make that kind of progress. Other times, namely during strategic planning meetings, missed company goals linger in the back of your mind, reminding you of the times the company has fallen short previously when you’re trying to regroup and formulate a better, braver plan for the future. Company goals are the stock-in-trade of management and leadership, yet most businesses struggle to find the strategic planning tools and techniques required to make meaningful progress on their most important objectives.

At Habitat, we’re deeply familiar with this struggle. As strategic planning consultants, we’ve worked with a variety of organizations that were failing to achieve their company goals. And, as business owners, we’ve struggled to meet our own company goals at times. In some respects, missing company goals can be a byproduct of setting ambitious targets—you know, the kind that increase profits and grow companies. Accepting that explanation as the reason for missing the mark repeatedly, however, is a common mistake. While there are a number of reasons that people, teams, and companies fall short of their goals, we often encounter a select few behaviors and practices that will diminish your chances for success.

Too Many Company Goals, Too Little Focus

I worked with an executive team that had been meeting for strategic planning to set short-term business goals every quarter for nearly three years. At each quarterly meeting, they'd discuss and debate the company's biggest issues, fret over a few select employees who seemed the least happy, and set 10 - 12 company goals for the next 90 days. Then, like clockwork, they'd get together the next quarter, bemoan the fact that they'd accomplished little toward any of their company goals, and then start the same failed strategic planning techniques over again.

Like many company leaders, their dedication and drive to succeed led them astray; they had been taking a brave but misguided scattershot approach that consistently produced an overly broad, more-the-merrier list of quarterly goals.

When they asked for help with their process, I requested they commit two full days to our strategic planning tools and techniques, reminding them that those two days would require intense and exclusive focus. I told them the lone rule was that they could have no more than 3 quarterly goals by the time we left that meeting. So how excited were they to spend two days of highly focused strategic planning to come up with a “mere” three goals? I’d describe their response as, well, hostile comes to mind; however, after some negotiation and convincing, they relented. We booked a delightfully bright conference room in a charming boutique hotel, and we got to work using the comprehensive strategic planning tools and techniques I had assured them would bring results.

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Within minutes, they were listing every internal issue and every unhappy employee as potential topics for their company goals this quarter. In fact, by the end of the first day, we’d compiled a list of more than 25 things they could focus on over the next 90 days. We spent nearly all of our second day together truly evaluating the significance of those 25+ issues and prioritizing their potential organizational impact.

We discussed their capacity for taking on new initiatives, the team members they could tag in to help with certain items, and which issues they could reasonably address within a 90-day window of time. We examined any potential risks of de-escalating some issues and acknowledged the opportunity cost other initiatives represented. We laughed; they cried; we disagreed; we came to a consensus. Okay, okay. Nobody cried, but everything else is accurate. And I’ll be damned if we didn’t make it out of that room alive and with 3 crucial, clearly defined company goals to show for it.

Ninety days later, I returned to that well-lit conference room at that fetching little boutique hotel so we could review our progress. That executive team was energized, forward-thinking, and bursting at the seams to show me that they'd achieved those focused company goals. We reviewed, we celebrated, and then we started our proof-positive strategic planning tools and techniques all over again—minus their apprehension and concerns this time around.

Vague Company Goals: Ready, Guess, Fire!

Look, we all inherently understand it’s hard to hit a hazy target. Still, employees are often expected to help meet company goals that aren’t clearly defined. Typically, the confusion stems from the fact that so many managers, leaders, and business owners confuse a goal’s essence (e.g. improve, increase, grow, enhance) with its metric. For example, in the past few years we’ve worked with organizations that had a history of using broad goals that look something like this list:

While the essence of these goals is spot on, they’re not meaningfully measurable as their currently written. What does it mean to improve internal communication processes, and what will success look like? Are we enhancing the number of services we offer? Or are we enhancing the quality of our services? How much are we growing our client base? It’s possible that a list of company goals like this would help you achieve something, but how would you know? More to the point, how can we motivate and mobilize our team to hit these phantom targets?

Rather than setting vague company goals, we again turn to our comprehensive strategic planning tools and techniques (featuring the OKR model) to identify measurable, trackable, and meaningful key results that company executives can use to influence their decision-making and evaluate their success. For example, if we put just a little more focus on those vague items from above, you’ll notice the result is set of clear, achievable goals:

After a simple yet critical reframing of the company’s objectives, individuals can plainly see what they’re accountable for, can identify specific actions needed to achieve each goal, and can objectively evaluate their success at the conclusion of the goal period.

Whose Company Goals? Our Company Goals!

Ready for another truth? Too many businesses fail to seek buy-in across the board. And if your first thought was, the exec board, this is a great learning opportunity—much like it once was for nearly every company we’ve helped iron out issues with missed goals, including our own.

I worked with a 50-person organization who had reserved their strategic planning conversations for only the four members of the executive team. Each year, that team would get together, assess the business, and build a set of company goals that made perfect sense based on their various perspectives of the business. They'd put the plan in a nice document, bring the other 46 people into the room, and tell them what their goals were for the year. As I feared from their execs-only approach to strategic planning, the company was also experiencing high turnover and stifled revenue growth, and its leaders were growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of production from their teams. One executive team member even complained to me, “It just feels like there’s no buy-in around here.” She was right.

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As their annual planning cycle began, they agreed to expand the scope of their strategic planning and introduce some of our more-inclusive tools and techniques. The four executives met to set high-level goals for the company. Once they’d established the company goals, each executive met with their respective team to develop team-specific goals, some of which layered up to the company initiatives while others prioritized improvement of that unit. And, rather than wait their customary year to review our progress on those goals, we introduced quarterly reviews at both the team and company level. Within 90 days, we'd made significant progress on the company-wide goals and, more importantly, many of the teams had made significant strides in their performance.

Countless companies still rely on this traditional (that’s our professionally polite way of saying archaic), handed-down-from-on-high model of strategic planning, despite an overwhelming mountain of data suggesting that individual and team performance is directly related to their participation in the planning and goal-setting process. In other words, if you want to make real progress on your company goals, get your team involved in the conversation—at the appropriate point in the strategic planning process.

If any of the stories above sound reminiscent of issues your company is struggling with, it may be time to talk with a consultant. And, as luck would have it, we’re consultants! Reach out here, and let’s talk about achieving your company goals.

Up Next in this series of Strategic Planning & Company Goal Setting articles, we’re covering some of the more-concrete signs that it’s time to hire a professional business consultant.