7 examples of bad goals, and how to fix them

Illustration by Lexi Visco

It’s happened to just about everyone. You put lots of thought into setting a goal: it’s ambitious, detailed, and trackable. But then something goes wrong. Maybe you fall so far behind that the goal becomes impossible to hit. Perhaps your team’s priorities shift, and the goal becomes irrelevant. Pretty soon, the goal has lost all its meaning—you’re no longer motivated, and so you simply forget about it and move on.

Most of the time, the problem is that your thoughtful goal was secretly a bad goal. There was something wrong with the way you set it. Maybe you even made sure the goal was SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound—and it still proved to be a flop. So what can you do? Here are seven sneaky mistakes people make when setting goals—and in each case, how to fix the issue.

Mistake #1: Choosing numbers on a whim
“We want to increase sales by, let’s say, 10% next quarter.”

A goal like this has lots of good intentions. Generally speaking, it’s time-bound (next quarter), and it’s got a specific, measurable number attached to it (10%). But the number—at least in this example—has no basis in past results. It’s a number picked on a whim. When setting a goal, it’s important to look closely at past performance, and to think through what specific adjustments might help you achieve a better result.

Can you begin to picture a tangible series of calls, deals, or strategic changes that will help your team hit the new number? Great. Is it more of a general aspiration to “do better” as a team? Consider trying again.

Mistake #2: Overlooking how other teams will be involved
“Let’s get 10,000 downloads in the first month on our new mobile app—after our dev team builds it.”

Maybe you’re a marketing manager, and you’ve done all your homework for an upcoming campaign—at least from your team’s side. With a month to go until launch, you learn your developers will need more time if you want to include a key feature—something you had planned to make the centerpiece of the campaign. As a result, you end up dismissing the goal entirely—after all, the app’s code is out of your hands.

In contrast to goals like these, good goals are entirely within your team’s control. Even if everyone else in the organization drops the ball, you should be able to tell exactly how well your team performed. Larger goals—which involve multiple teams—can still be okay, but they should build from smaller, more specific goals, and every team involved should agree on the top-level objectives ahead of time.

Mistake #3: Committing to a goal with a missing step
“We’ll brainstorm ideas, then once we have the perfect design, we’ll use it to increase engagement by 15% over the course of two months.”

It’s the wily step-cousin of overlooking other teams: namely, overlooking a key step in the process itself. Your goal could have a clear first step (a brainstorm) and a clear final result (a specific increase in engagement), but a hazy middle phase (agreeing on the right design). Your team sets out with honorable intentions, then gets bogged down in debate. You wind up writing off the goal because there’s no clear path forward.

Once again, the key is to start with smaller goals you know your team can accomplish, then build from there. It’s okay to have goals with contingencies, but the steps to get from one goal to the next should be crystal clear. The right goal will have your team eager to execute, not wondering how to move forward.

Mistake #4: Shooting for the stars…to a fault
“I will personally interview 30 candidates per month.”

Some goals are theoretically attainable, but still a bad idea. Maybe a goal is so aggressive that you will need to forgo other responsibilities just to have a chance at hitting it. Perhaps accomplishing the goal will actually cause other problems—like a higher volume of interviews leading to a blur of candidates and a worse final decision.

Granted, some employees will be motivated by extremely high bars, and some companies might need to really push in advance of a key investment or busy season. However, overly aggressive goals will likely de-motivate other employees and cause some people to take the goals less seriously. At the end of the day, goal-setting should still be more about what you can actually accomplish, rather than who can dream the very biggest.

Mistake #5: Setting a goal disconnected from your organization’s goals
“Let’s take the time we spend talking to customers on the phone and cut it in half by next year.”

Perhaps you run a customer support team, and in an effort to run a tighter ship, you train your employees to resolve questions twice as fast. While this could be a good goal—particularly if you have lots of customers with lots of problems—it may not align with what’s really important to the company at large. For example, what if the company has a small number of customers, each with a handful of unique needs? Do they really want questions resolved quickly? Or do longer, more personalized conversations leave them more satisfied?

With each goal you set, it’s important to look through the lens of your organization at large. If the CEO were to look at your goal, would he or she approve? What about another team in a completely different part of the company? Could you explain the value? Disconnected goals have a habit of gradually developing over time. Every once in awhile, consider completely refreshing all your team’s goals to make sure you haven’t drifted too far from the organization that ultimately supports you.

Mistake #6: Setting too many goals
“I have 14 goals today, then 17 tomorrow.”

Once you get good at setting goals, the process can become addictive. Checking off item after item is a satisfying process. But experts say most successful people tend to focus on just one or two big things per day. In fact, some successful executives choose to focus on just one big initiative for a whole quarter.

Consider trimming your list of short-term goals to just one or two big items for the week. Naturally, you’ll still need to complete a series of tasks, but having only one or two objectives will keep those tasks focused. By limiting your total number of goals, you’ll be able to think a bit bigger, avoid distractions and critically, keep your goals attainable.

Read more: Organize all your to-dos in one place, with Dropbox Paper

Mistake #7: Failing to review results
“Looks like we hit three of our six goals. Now, on to next quarter’s goals.”

It’s a common mistake to put hours of thought into creating goals, only to tick them off in a matter of seconds at the end of the month or quarter. By design, good goals give you an opportunity for a rigorous review. Which goals did you successfully accomplish? Was it a close call? What key decisions, actions, or deals made the difference? How about the goals you missed? Was there a particular problem that got in the way? A series of miscommunications?

When you carefully answer questions like these, coming up with new goals will become much easier—in some cases, even obvious. Then you can focus on simply getting them done.

The easiest way to create and share early ideas, together | Check out Dropbox Paper