A Simple Way to Set Effective, Motivating Goals

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The new year has begun, and this is always a period of time when I do a lot of thinking about the 12 months to come and what I hope to achieve during that time. The new year is the perfect time to reboot our thinking and focus on a concrete set of goals. Everybody has hopes and dreams, but setting goals forces one to add deadlines, quantities and accountability to those dreams.

In this post, I will share my method for goal setting, refined and simplified after years of experimentation. It isn’t perfect, but it works for me. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Generation

I begin by generally thinking about what I hope to achieve in the year, and let my mind run wild. I don’t want to restrain my thought process into thinking of only “realistic” or “important” things, as this hampers one’s creative ability. Goals should be deeply emotional, as emotion leads to drive and motivation. I write down the first thoughts that come to my head, in no particular order. These aren’t necessarily remarkable or fantastical, but rather just things that I know I want to accomplish in the year ahead. Here are a few typical examples:

  • Grow company revenue to X
  • Close X,Y key deals/partnerships
  • Become a better connector
  • Go on holiday to an island for a week
  • Get leaner and healthier
  • Save/invest X amount of cash
  • …etc

Even seemingly strange, less important goals that come from an emotional place should be captured at this stage, for example:

  • Learn to dance salsa
  • Learn a foreign language
  • Try Yoga
  • Read up on a particular topic of interest
  • Cook a great dinner for my family/friends

Once completed, I usually end up with a list of 15 or so items that get me really jazzed up when I review them. I know that a goal is a good one when I can read it, close my eyes and the thought of achieving it makes me feel genuinely happy and excited. If a goal doesn’t begin from that point of inner hope and belief, it would probably be very hard to stick to and follow over an entire year (and why would you be going after it anyway?)

Step 2: Categorization

In the next step, I try to find any blank spots in my plan, so I take a top down view of my important life areas and write them down as categories. These are:

  • Career
  • Health & Body 
  • Mind/mental stimulation
  • Personal Finance
  • Social/relational
  • Recreation/fun

I then place each item from my original list under the appropriate category. If any category is left blank, I take the time to generate a goal to fall under it, and make sure it passes the emotional relevance test. 

Step 3: Quantification

This is the part where the wording and structure of each goal is analyized. It is imperative that every goal starts with a verb (to inspire action), and is specific and measurable. 

For example, using this approach I would rewrite two of the example goals generated in Step 1 in the following way: 

  • Original statement: Get leaner and healthier
  • New statement: Lose 10kg to weigh X. 
  • Or, even better: Reduce waist to 28” at 7% body fat with defined abs.
  • Original statement: Learn to dance salsa.
  • New statement: Become an intermediate grade level salsa dancer.

Notice how adding specific detail to the goal clarifies the picture and makes it easier to measure success. While some of the goals I generated in Step 1 would be perfectly fine as is, I go through the entire list and rewrite the ones that are too vague. This process also forces me to add a reality check to my emotional dream, i.e. to go after something that I truly believe is attainable within the time frame of one year.

Step 4: Refinement

Now, I have a list of 15 or so goals that are highly specific, get me genuinely excited when I think about achieving them, and are categorized into 5 or 6 areas. 

As this is a list that I would need to read often and memorize, I have learnt from experience that the life categories become a hinderence to that process and need to be dropped. Instead, all goals are sifted into two lists: Professional, and Personal. Stuff that helps my career move forward is Professional. Everything else is personal by default.

Next- and this is the hard part- the list actually needs to be pruned a bit. Trying to store a list of 15 items in your head is difficult at best, and having too many goals can also take away from the sense of importance that the list is designed to generate. To combat this, I force myself to prioritize the goals in each category, and elimate a few until I am left with a very strong set of 10 goals. (OK, this year I cheated and went with 12). Ideally, these should be equally split between Professional and Personal targets, or at most one could have 1-2 more of the one type over the other.

That’s it! From the initial session, along with two subsequent reviews to double check that I am 100% satisfied with the list, my time investment is usually around 2 hours.

Step 5: Creating Commitment

It’s no good to do this exercise, write down your goals, and then forget about them. I believe that constant revision and interim goal setting is absolutely necessary to stay on track.

So, armed with the list of annual goals, it’s time to break them down into 60-90 day “short term” goal setting periods, depending on what makes more sense for me at that time (usually, I go after 90 day periods). So for example, I would create a “3 Month Goals” list, that would re-analyze my annual list, pick what is most important for the next 3 months (not all goals need be on it), and reframe them into achievable milestones. To continue from the example above:

  • Annual goal: Reduce waist to 28” at 7% body fat
  • 3 month goal: Reduce waist to 32” at 12% body fat
  • Annual goal: Become intermediate grade level salsa dancer
  • 3 month goal: Start weekly salsa classes and memorize beginner steps

The “short term” list should always contain less items than the annual list (e.g. 6-9); this breeds greater focus on a few important things. Moreover, having a “short term” list allows me to reward myself at more frequent intervals throughout the year if and when I achieve a target, and ultimately keeps me on track to those big, exciting, annual goals.

Once I have finalized my “Annual” and “Short Term” goal list, I write it down somewhere that’s easy to recall, such as putting a note in my bedside drawer and having an electronic copy on my phone. Upon waking every morning and before going to bed each night, I read through the list and briefly visualize the outcome of each target. This process ensures that my goals are top of mind and that I can’t ignore them. This is a seriously motivating force.

Okay, perhaps this method is not exactly simple (and it will improve with time), but I think it works for me. What are your thoughts on my approach?

Good luck with your goal setting and all the best for 2013!

On Reflection and Self Analysis

A little while ago I celebrated my birthday, and it got me thinking.

We’re getting older all the time, but birthdays just make it more official- they help us to keep score of our lives in a sense. I think that birthdays are a perfect time to take stock of one’s life and ruminate on the year gone by and ponder the year to come. To me, this exercise helps me to refocus, repurpose, and redefine who I’d like to be at this new milestone. After all, life is a process of continual evolution, isn’t it?

Here is an outline the exercise that I planned and went through this weekend. 

Section 1: Key Area Checks

Begin by asking: “On a scale of 1 to 3, how did I do in each of these areas over the last year?”

1.1. Mental stimulation and general mindset?
1.2. Health and body?
1.3. Career progress?
1.4. Social (relationships, friends, family)?
1.5. Personal finances?

(I use a short scale of 1 to 3 meaning poor/decent/great as it’s a lot simpler to get an accurate estimate of how one really feels).

Once each area is rated, go on to review each area and ask:

- Was this an improvement over the previous year?
- What one thing can I do to improve this area moving forward? (Oftentimes, just one thing can make a significant difference).

Next up, it’s time to see where I went wrong.

Section 2: Negative Experiences

Here are the questions I asked:

2.1. What was my biggest mistake this year?
2.2. What was my biggest setback? What caused it?
2.3. What new negative habits did I form, if any?

Once those things are actually identified and written down, it becomes so much easier to learn from mistakes and take steps to avoid (or lower the risk of) those situations in future.

Finally, it’s always best to end things on a positive note.

Section 3: Positive Experiences

And the questions are:

3.1. What achievement made me happiest in the last year?
3.2. What is my fondest memory of the last year?
3.3. What new positive habits did I form?
3.4. What am I most grateful for?

Although very simple, this little exercise provides useful closure on a year past and paves the way for a frank internal conversation on deciding how to spend the next twelve months. 

This post was focused on self-reflection, so I will save my thoughts on planning ahead for another day. 

If you’re into this sort of thing, I strongly recommend that you check out Michael Hyatt’s fantastic blog post, Seven Questions to Ask About Last Year.

Eliminating Bottlenecks to Increase Startup Efficiency

The greatest challenge that every startup must face is the constant pressure of managing limited resources. Regardless of whether that resource is people, money or time, there is usually a known, fixed limit as to what is going to be available to achieve the next set of goals. 

For early stage startups, inability to surmount this challenge can mean the end of the company; in later stage and even successful startups, sub-optimal resource management will waste time, frustrate staff and customers, and hurt profitability.

The founders of the well known startup accelerator TechStars released a book in 2010 titled “Do More Faster”, which essentially sums up the operating mandate of every small startup in existence. So, with this in mind, a question I have often asked myself is: “How?”

The answer is not to work harder- are we not all working incredibly hard already? If I am able to process 50 emails in 15 minutes, then spending 30 minutes processing email will only get me through 100. I might be doing “more”, but I am not actually doing more with less and fulfilling my goal of “do more faster”. This simple logic applies to just about any startup activity, be that working with customers, releasing products, managing admin, etc. 

While some of the answers to this fundamental question might feel intuitive to many entrepreneurs and managers, I have had the best results by applying a logical framework to help me try to solve the problem. In search of answers, I dusted off a book that I read in university and decided to try and apply the principles in my own company. (Side note: I’m constantly reminded by that old saying, the value of a book is not in what the author chose to put into the pages, it’s what you chose to take from the pages and put into your life). The name of the book is “The Goal”, written by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, who is a legend within engineering management and supply chain circles worldwide. It’s a brilliantly written business book structured as a fictional novel, and I highly recommend it to just about everybody.

The premise of the book is very simple, and its method for improving an organization can summarized by the following questions:

1. What is the goal?

2. What is the single greatest bottleneck right now in the process of achieving that goal?

There is a lot more here than meets the eye (which is why you should read the book), but I will try to deconstruct this a little further with a simple startup Q&A example. 

  • Q (mentor): What is the goal?
  • A (manager): I can’t get through all my customer inquiries. Every day, the questions from various customers are just piling up, and the time spent on email is preventing me from doing more work. I need to figure out how to answer these questions faster.
  • Q (mentor): Is the goal really to answer more email? What does that accomplish- what is the end goal?
  • A (manager): The goal is to answer customers’ questions as quickly as possible, and make them happy.
  • Q (mentor): Then that is your goal. What is the main thing holding this process up right now? What is the bottleneck?
  • A (manager): I get too much email to respond to. I suppose I am the bottleneck- I don’t have enough time…
  • Q (mentor): How can you open up this bottleneck? Can anything at all be done?
  • A (manager): I’m not sure. There are so many daily emails and only I know how to answer them. 
  • Q (mentor): But can anything be done to open up the bottleneck, even a little bit?
  • A (manager): I suppose that I could start recording common things that customers ask for, and then write publish a FAQ that new customers can check before emailing me. This would free up some time.
  • Q (mentor): Boom! So what are you waiting for?

This simple, clear style of investigative dialogue can be applied to any challenge where one needs to deal with limited resources. Note that it is essential to address core issue being faced, and not to try to get tied up on the “hamster wheel” of addressing superficial symptoms or byproducts it causes (aka “damage control”). Another crucial aspect of the method is to remember to ask the “right now” part of the question, as bottlenecks in a system are constantly changing, so clearing bottlenecks and “doing more faster” is a really a process of ongoing improvement. With yesterday’s bottleneck eliminated, tomorrow will just present a new one (but hopefully by then things are moving a more smoothly). And, remember, only try to address one bottleneck at a time.

Goldratt coined his method as the “Theory of Constraints" (TOC), defining a constraint as "Anything that limits a system from achieving more of its goal".

This seemingly simple theory has had incredibly successful application to manufacturing and process oriented environments for almost 30 years. It can be pretty powerful when applied to startups too.

The application of TOC in our startup has been simple, structured, and effective.

Here is our method.

1. Define the System

A startup is just a system, comprised of different parts. (In business school they prefer to talk about the company value chain, but I digress). Define the different functional parts that matter most to the organization, i.e. where most of the resources (people, time) are being consumed. 

Some example areas are: Sales & Marketing (getting new customers), Account Management (delighting existing customers), Operations (managing daily work and necessary customer activities), Software Development (building and deploying product), and Financial Management (managing accounts, debtors and creditors).

Every startup is different, so list the areas that matter to your organization. I suggest putting this into a spreadsheet as different column headings. Underneath that, define the singular goal of every one of those functions.

2. Identify the Bottlenecks

For each company function, take the time to analyze and identify where the greatest bottleneck exists right now. If the constraint ends up being a person’s time, try to dig deeper to figure out what tasks are chewing up a disproportionate amount their time.

Some examples of bottlenecks from our past experience are:

  • Sales & Marketing: Repeating the same sales messages to prospects in writing or verbally due to lack of effective collateral.
  • Account Management: Repetitive, high volume email to a variety of business and technical questions.
  • Operations: Poor visibility on what everybody is doing forces management to ask too many questions and interrupt staff often, who become unclear on daily priorities.
  • Software Development: Implementing a new customer installation involves many time consuming steps on our side.
  • Financial Management: One person in charge of all payments and collections but does not have time to stay on top of it.

I suggest adding a dedicated Bottleneck row to the spreadsheet, so that a note can be made under each function column.

3. Identify the Solutions

Once the bottlenecks for each major area are identified, try to figure out practical steps that can be taken to eliminate, or free up the bottleneck. Following on from the example above, here are some of the past solutions listed to those problems:

  • Sales & Marketing: Develop marketing collateral material to leave with prospects after a sales meeting.
  • Account Management: Capture common questions and publish a detailed, easy to use FAQ for customers. Better yet, create a customer service portal with how-to guides, videos, and all manner of help resources.
  • Operations: Implement a system or tool that makes everybody’s work tasks and priorities transparent to the entire team.
  • Software Development: Focus the next wave of software development on automating deployment of the existing platform (as opposed to adding new features).
  • Financial Management: Have a different staff member help the individual keep track of creditors and debtors; and bug them when something needs to be done.

Solutions can be added to the spreadsheet as an additional row below the Bottlenecks row.

4. Review Progress

As with all initiatives, for this to work there needs to be a consistent process of review in order to maintain accountability and momentum.

I recommend that the senior management team of a company do this jointly every two weeks. During review sessions, managers should commit to when they expect the solution to a particular bottleneck to be completed, and this can be noted for subsequent review.

Over time, old bottlenecks will be deleted off the spreadsheet and replaced with new ones that arise. These meetings tend to be very rewarding, because after a while the progress achieved by following this process becomes obvious to all involved.

When dealing with the day to day volume of work to manage it’s all too easy to ignore this method for weeks and months, trying to make that metaphorical hamster wheel spin faster and faster. It took me a long time to fully understand what a waste of time that can be. 

To truly address the goal of achieving more with less, or doing more faster, and creating sustainable, long term performance gains I believe that constantly improving processes and eliminating bottlenecks holds the real key to startup efficiency. And that makes sense to the bottom line.